There was a cavernous room where shadows flickered in the glow and not glow of a hundred candles. Deep in a forest where the trees had names and whispered among themselves and shed their leaves sometimes in boredom, sometimes in spite: in the center of an island surrounded by a frigid ocean that looked like clouds, which gave it the appearance of floating in outer space.
The room belonged to a magician named Heichus whose hands were arthritic with disappointment, false starts and spells whose power never left the tips of his fingers.
Year after year Heichus bent over a heavy wooden table, wiping dust and spider eggs away from the steaming liquids and vials that had become his companions. The dust he wiped from his work collected on the edges of the wood and fell to the floor on all sides creating a pile so deep that if it were snow it could be shaped into an army of snowmen. Instead, the dust sat dormant but lively with the guts of dust mites, burrowing mice and spiders born of the eggs Heichus swept aside. His wooden table rose from the piles of dust like an iceberg from under the ocean, the tip of which held his gaze both day and night.
Among the vials and beakers that poured with bubbles and fizz sat two crystals that glowed with a light almost imperceptible. Against the glow of the candles, the weak illumination tiptoeing from the crystals looked like the final pulsations of a firefly’s dying light.
While both of the crystals were clear in their main element, one of them weakly shone a blue light and the other was red. These incandescent hues painted their colors on Heichus’ cheeks, faintly as though with paint that had already begun to dry. The candles and crystals, and the occasional explosion of an ill-conceived mixture, were the difference between utter, deep forest darkness and sight for Heichus. He kept the elements on this tabletop like pets that needed his attention and care to survive.
One night, while Heichus was reading from a brittle book filled with potions, schemes and chemical riddles, he noticed a spark out of the corner of his eye. As he turned to find the source of the spark, Heichus saw that the red crystal had begun to shine more brightly. Heichus widened his dark eyes and leaned in toward the crystal. “Could it be?” he asked the stale air around him.
It had been years since Heichus had seen the warm glow of the red crystal. He carefully removed the powders and liquids with which he had been working the moment before, he picked up the red crystal and then gently laid it down on top of a cracked mirror that sat on his table. Heichus gently placed his hands on either side of the mirror, lowered his head toward the crystal, squinted his eyelids and observed the glowing red crystal from all of its marvelous angles. He was like David squinting at Bathsheba, unable to look away.
While Heichus never knew the origins of the red crystal, it was its abilities he could never forget. As he scrutinized the red crystal, transfixed by the way its glow struck and crept into the lines on his face, Heichus remembered himself as a younger man. He peered into the mirror on which the crystal pulsated its beauty and saw in his face the beauty of his own youth. The red crystal had the ability to erase the ravages of time, pain and weakness to reveal the youth, vibrancy and strength of any man who saw himself in the light of its glow. Tears fainted out of Heichus’ squinted eyes and he told the stale air around him, “It is.”
From aloneness to companionship, Heichus traveled into his own visage. His mind went from remembering to feeling to believing the young man in the mirror. He walked about his room holding the red crystal up to his face in one hand and gazing at himself in the mirror that became like a fixture in his other hand. The longer Heichus held the crystal, the brighter the light within it grew. The brighter the crystal shone, the more clear and happy and vibrant the eyes looking back at him. Heichus danced with his face, he laughed and coughed with delight, he asked the mirror, “Do you love me?” and the mirror answered with a joyous, “Yes!” as Heichus heard music in his heart. The mice at his feet rolled their beady black eyes and the spiders crossed their two front legs as they all watched the human spectacle.
Heichus moved with the speed of a young man and when he felt a creaking in his bones or a spasm in his back he looked at his face in the mirror, splashed with red, and he forgot the pains of his present.
Sleepy from a night and day and night and day of sleeplessness and frenzy, Heichus set about his nightly rituals. He blew out of the flames of his 100 candles, he covered the powders and liquids, as well as the vials and beakers, and he cleaned his teeth, drank his milk and sunk into the lumps on his old mattress. Heichus carefully placed the red crystal on the nightstand near his bed and propped the mirror up behind the crystal. Heichus laid in the dark seeing and then not seeing the young man staring back at him as he fought the drawn shades of sleep. Soon, exhaustion mixed with inevitability and Heichus was unconscious to the world.
Snores lifted into the air like crows looking for a darkened tree branch on which to alight. The stale air in the cavernous room was disturbed by the wings of the crows and a bit of winter draft that blurted its presence atop the dust. The red crystal glowed and pulsated and the blue crystal wheezed and sighed its meager attempts.
As the earth rotated into midnight, the talking trees outside Heichus’ room began to whisper in worried tones:
“Years ago, when the red crystal shone with power, Heichus cut many of us down.”
The old trees regaled the young:
“Heichus grew large in his mind and prideful in his hands. He wanted to build a grand temple for the red crystal. His hands did the work of a thousand men as his eyes stayed focused on his face in the mirror. The mirror even cracked under the weight of his attentive gaze. Even so, Heichus found his eyes—one slightly higher than the crack, one slightly lower—and he continued to hit, chop and whack a thousand trees.”
One of the younger trees asked:
“Did Heichus succeed in building the temple for the red crystal?”
One of the older female trees whose branches were bent and pointing toward the earth answered:
“No. As he began to build the foundation of the temple, a great storm swirled in the sky above the forest and then fell with terrifying fury. The heavens electrified and bolts of light came crashing through the foundation, striking not only our fallen brothers and sisters but also stripping the red and blue crystals of their light.”
The younger tree asked one more question, as younger trees often do right before bedtime:
“Why did Heichus want to build a temple for the red crystal but not the blue crystal?”
“The blue crystal shows Heichus who he truly is. The red crystal shows him what he wants to see.”
With this, the old female tree with the bent limbs took in a deep breath, slowly released it and then she fell asleep.
The forest, Heichus, the mice and the spiders hummed with peace the way wind hums as it blows across the face of the ocean. The world was still and the memories of all were trapped inside their dreams.
Just before the sun lifted its fingers to begin the morning, something rattled atop Heichus’ table. Heichus lifted one eyelid and then the other. He looked into the mirror at his bedside and sent a smile into his own eyes. The red crystal lazily rolled its light around his face like a cat rolling around in a shaft of sunlight. Heichus beamed and groaned and laughed and sung poetry into his visage. And his song was interrupted.
The blue crystal trembled again, this time adding to its movement another kind of life: the light from within the crystal began to glow. At first slowly—almost imperceptibly—but then the fervency of its hue began to lift itself into the air and disturb the stale particles of the cavernous room with pokes and touches of its own color.
Heichus bellowed a low, furious shriek with no words. The blue crystal pulled his gaze away from his visage in the mirror, which filled the magician with rage.
Heichus lept from his bed, carrying the red crystal in one clenched fist and the mirror in the other and he ran to the table. Heichus began to wildly mix and stir, and his powders and liquids began to bubble, hiss and burst. For years Heichus stood at this table for one purpose: he wanted to concoct a potion that would break, smash, incinerate or otherwise make the blue crystal shatter into a trillion, useless pieces that he would then bury far beneath the earth.
Feverishly, angrily Heichus’ hands moved from one vial to the next, his alchemy turning into careless mixtures, his objective becoming as strong as the temple walls he sought to build so many years ago. He worked and panted and saliva dripped from the sides of his mouth.
Heichus stared only at his hands and the elements on his table for if he gazed into the mirror to see his face in the light of the blue crystal as it emanated into the air, he would be stripped, robbed, flayed of the beauty he saw when he looked through the light of the red crystal.
Heichus could feel the arthritis in his hands begin to inflame. Then, he could feel his lungs fill with the fluid of tears and phlegm and regret, all of which were congregating inside his throat. The stale air began to shine with purple as the red and blue crystals stretched out like wisps and the billows of smoke filling the room. Heichus closed his eyes and banged his vials together causing interactions and bursts of flame, both hot and cold, and breathless and painful and soothing and up and down. And tears. And Heichus went tumbling to the floor.
Through years of summers and winters Heichus sat and stood and slept in this cavernous room trying to concoct a potion that would allow the light of the red crystal to swallow him into its reflection. As he now faced his failure he wept into the stale air, “I am no magician at all.”
The red and the blue crystals began to vibrate and shake and roll about the tabletop while Heichus sat crying on the floor.
“Come what may,” he acquiesced.
Beams turned into shafts that turned into streams of colored fire that filled the room, red and blue and then purple. Completely defeated, now sobbing and disconnected from his heart, Heichus reached his hand through the chaos and grabbed for the mirror. As his hands shook with fear and confusion and stubbornness and hatred, Heichus fought against his pride to pull the mirror to his face.
As the storm of purple raged and rattled the cavernous room, spilling into the forest and across the cloudy ocean, Heichus forced himself to look. To see.
His visage was marred with both young and old, wishes and realities, dreams and waking. His breath was labored and his joints stung with pain, his veins pumped with passion and obsession and addiction and desire and his eyes began to fill with this blood. As the blood began to first drip and then pour through his eyes, Heichus caught his breath for one moment—one silent moment in which fantasy and reality kissed among the chaos—and his voice, steadied and strong, spoke into the air, “I see.”
With these words, the hurricane of purple and wind and sound and fury crashed to the ground, shook the earth and stopped. Suddenly: like a tornado that passes, leaving destruction and newness in its wake. The red and blue crystals puffed their final illuminations and fell dark.
“I see,” Heichus whispered into the air.
—Jill Szoo Wilson