A mirror sits in tall grass, reflecting the sky above it
Inga Gezalian/Unsplash

The Broken Mirror

Changing the context of an everyday object

GONE WERE THE CAMPERS and the counselors. Gone were the Civilian Conservation Corps cabins. Gone were the horses and the corral, the mess hall and the bathhouse. Tall grass and brambles grew in the field between the mountain and the river. Only the meeting house remained. I stepped inside.

Someone had spray-painted a lopsided pentagram on the wall. Above the stage, the green velvet curtain still hung, rung up to the rafters after a last jamboree. On the floor, the remains of a campfire, and the reminder, inked in Sharpie, GOD IS GOOD. In an abandoned place, I always feel watched.

I walked out the door and up an old graveled logging road through stands of oak and pine. The road led uphill and narrowed beside the lake into a footpath. I passed a warped bench on the bank, a half-swamped dock. I kept thinking I’d see someone else, but I didn’t. Okay to fish there and some did: blue bait tubs, flattened beer cans. The trail followed the lake’s edge into thicker woods before it piffled out into a rhododendron thicket. I threaded my way into and over a tangle of limbs covered with long, oval leaves. It occurred to me that if something were to happen, it would be a long time before anyone found me.

Just then, down by the water’s edge, I spotted something tied low on a pine tree. Dull gray, roughly rectangular. It seemed to be some kind of trail marker. But from the front I saw that it was a broken mirror. I jumped back. Maybe because of its position—low on the trunk—or because of the knotted twine lashing it in place, the mirror felt sinister. Like a mirror angled on a narrow stair so you could see what’s around the corner.

In an abandoned place, I always feel watched.

For the rest of the hike, I kept thinking about it. Why?

The lake reflected my face too. Even the granola bar’s foil wrapper or the stamped aluminum tag nailed to each Leyland cypress planted along the ridge showed a shadow of presence when I leaned close. The mirror was different; the reflection was sharper and portrayed something more. Just like the meetinghouse reflected a home with its doors and windows, its spaces public (stage, living room) and private (dressing room, bedroom). I saw the resemblance between the rooms I live in now and a place where people once laughed, sang, danced. Dwelled.

But whereas a mirror in an inhabited house is just doing its job, a mirror outside is feral. Painted with silver, the mirror throws a spell. It shows another world behind this one, its surface a membrane you can slip under. Smoke and mirrors, fog a mirror, bury the broken pieces to cheat bad luck. A mirror is a silent accomplice. It won’t say what it saw.

The cord tying the mirror to the tree was bumpy with extra knots; this felt like secret magic, made for a purpose more than practical. Some beliefs: Knot a groom’s handkerchief, and he won’t be able to please his bride. Knot a pregnant woman’s laces, and she will have hard labor. To make a series of knots and blow on them is old, dark craft. To tie a knot aright is to catch and hold a wind or a plague: “Three knots in a thread, or an odd grandams blessing in the corner of a napkin, will carrie you all over the world,” wrote Thomas Nash in The Terrors of the Night, or a Discourse of Apparitions, in 1594.

Here’s the thing: when transferring boil or ache to tied thread or knotted twig, speak the right words, leave the knot behind, and don’t look back.

The mirror will keep doing its job for as long as it can. Is this how it will be once we’ve gone? Pink surveyor’s tape tied to a tree branch. Twist of paper in the gravel. Warped footbridges, nails popped. Crepe myrtles in a ring, muscular limbs raised to the sky.

But whereas a mirror in an inhabited house is just doing its job, a mirror outside is feral.

I think that feral mirror reminded me that secrets abound. Look and you’ll see what’s not there. I remember: Broken glass and the smell of mice in the abandoned textile mill. Homesteads marked by clumps of iris or yucca in the corners of what used to be gardens. An apartment I once thought to rent; the previous tenant had left behind a pair of slippers, a dictionary, and a cow skull. Another abandoned camp farther down the river, a little cabin on the bank. I looked through its screened window and saw a narrow iron bed neatly covered with a plaid blanket.

The broken mirror couldn’t reflect my face because it was tied so low on the tree. To see my face in it, I’d have to kneel or lie on my belly.

I think someone did. Someone stretched out on the dirt and looked up to see two eyes staring back. I think of you, watcher. Relaying a message to me that I pass along even as I disobey. Don’t look back.

Maybe we haunt that place now, maybe the hour we spent walking the old camp left its trace, our footprints tracked through the soot on the meetinghouse floor, a bunch of dried grasses the child left as a tribute to the campers who had been happy there. I meant to say, you were there too.

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Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette E. Geer Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music and destruction.