My aunt kept every mirror she ever broke.
She kept many things: used toothbrushes, twist-ties with the wires sticking out, and those little white squares of plastic that close bags of bread. They lay jumbled at the bottom of old yogurt containers until she pulled them out to clean with or fasten things with. The mirrors, she had no immediate use for. They sat in small, jagged piles in the basement, glass shards heaped on top of silver backings, waiting for a purpose.
If a mirror wasn’t broken enough to be consigned to the basement, my aunt would fit it back together with sealing caulk. She ground the caulk flat with an emery board that she wrapped and re-wrapped in sandpaper.
My aunt and uncle’s friends thought the fixed mirrors could be art installations and my aunt an artist. Her methods had given them an appearance that was just odd enough to seem intentional. The friends collected damaged mirrors from garage sales and estate sales, second-hand stores and roadsides, which they brought over for her. The mirrors waited in ever-growing stacks in the basement for when my aunt had enough time to get to them.
There was never enough time before my uncle got sick. It was a form of cancer – something quick, something that sprang from his middle full-formed and with claws. My memories are vague. I was still young enough at the time for my parents to hide the details, but old enough that friends and sports took precedence anyway.
My aunt was very strong through it all, said the rest of the family, by which they meant that my aunt didn’t burden them more than she had to. She didn’t even cry during the funeral.
I do remember my mother complaining about the mess. She had visited my aunt on a Tuesday near the end, with a pan of hotdish and a bundle of hydrangeas. The place had become a dump, she said – a shame for my uncle, who had to spend his last days surrounded by takeout containers. My mother had thrown out what she could, but my aunt had banned her from going through any of the cupboards. She wasn’t even allowed to touch the broken mirrors in the basement, which had become blanketed in dust.
Eight years after my uncle’s death, I received a phone call: it had become apparent that strong might not be enough. No one had really seen my aunt lately, except for very short visits. She was reluctant to let anyone into her house. She rarely went outside.
Someone needed to stay with my aunt for a while, to see how she was doing. Visiting could only give so much information, especially when my aunt refused to talk to her guests.
Every other member of the family had brought up health concerns, marital concerns, childcare obligations. I had no such excuses. I was relatively young and relatively healthy, had been single for longer than I cared to admit, and had spent more than I had on a degree that never became a diploma. Staying with my aunt would help me get back on my feet, they said, as if life were a sidewalk that I had tripped on and skinned my knee.
They wanted to know if my aunt was “alright”. They never specified what that meant, so I assumed they meant however she had been before her behavior began to draw attention. I had been too young to really know what my aunt had been like when my uncle was well, but I said I would do my best.
I was expecting something terrible when I entered my aunt’s house. The images in my head were drawn from family gossip and shored up with reality television: piles of debris, unclassifiable refuse.
My aunt didn’t open the front door when I knocked, but she nodded at me from the sofa when I walked in. She appeared healthy, if tired.
Her house was nicer than I had imagined. In fact, it was much nicer than any place I had lived since I was in school. There were spiderwebs in the corners and the furniture was worn, that was all. I took the guest bedroom.
Over her years alone, my aunt had begun to fix the mirrors in her basement, the ones that had previously been too broken to bother with or that her well-intentioned friends had brought so long ago. She had set up a gluing table down there, around which were scattered silvery frames and baskets of shards of glass. She spent most of the day working, and often slept on an old couch kitty-corner from the table. I brought food when I thought she might be hungry. My aunt acknowledged the meals with the same nod she had greeted me with when I arrived.
I tried to speak with my aunt at the beginning, but my attempts soon began to seem like intrusions. I told the rest of the family that she was “alright.” She seemed to be content. She often hummed while she worked.
I planted a small garden in the backyard for lack of anything better to do. I dusted the furniture. At night, I paged through old books and class notes, thinking I might give college another try when I moved out.
Living in my aunt’s house was like living in a bubble outside time. My friends changed into different people each time I talked to them, gaining jobs and families and interests; it wasn’t long before they changed into acquaintances, and it wasn’t long after that we stopped talking entirely.
What my aunt was doing with the mirrors had long since ceased to be repair-work. The shards were now arranged in patterns, whorls and spirals as intricate as a Van Gogh. They were truly impressive. I suggested once that she consider selling them, but she only stared in response, looking at and through me at the same time.
Every so often, my aunt would stop and gaze into one of the fixed mirrors intently, like she was searching for something in her own face. I would find her like this in the basement, or the living room, or in her abandoned bedroom upstairs.
One afternoon in late July, about three months after I had moved in, I thought I saw my aunt watching through the kitchen window as I weeded. When I came back inside, she was again enthralled by the reflection in one of her creations. Even when I showed off the first vegetables of the garden, a bright bundle of tiny radishes, she spared them no more than a glance.
There was a fine layer of glass everywhere in the house, like frost. I took to wearing shoes inside the house. The food I bought for my aunt was all packaged: microwavable meals, vegetables in cans. I turned all the chinaware upside-down and stocked the pantry with cases of water bottles. I often thought I could feel it, waking up in the guest bedroom, scratching in the corners of my eyes.
I first saw my uncle on a day when I was trapped inside by autumn sleet. He was reflected in one of the mirrors in the upstairs guest room; in one of the glued fragments, that is. He was rifling through one of the drawers in the cabinet behind me. Then he turned both of his pants pockets inside-out. He threw up his hands, exasperated, and walked out of the room – and out of the mirror – with his pockets hanging off his hips like dogs’ ears.
The second time I saw him, he was playing the piano in one of the living room mirror shards. I could almost hear the music as his fingers bounced out a swing tune with the seeming effortlessness of a true virtuoso. He grimaced cartoonishly whenever the arrangement got tricky, but never missed a beat. When I finally turned away, the house seemed that much quieter and more empty.
I began to search for my uncle like my aunt did, checking all the rooms when I came in from the garden, looking up every few minutes from evening studies that had grown increasingly half-hearted. There was no knowing when you might see him, or what he might be doing. He would sometimes cross the room in a hurry, sometimes sit and read for hours.
My memories of my uncle had been a child’s memories: a large figure who was often kind, often frightening; a hand reaching down with an Easter egg; a shoulder lifting me to the height of apples in an orchard. Now I began to feel that I knew him better than almost anyone. He was often clumsy, but never self-consciously so. When a fried tomato once again escaped down his shirt, he laughed – and I laughed out loud along with him.
The noise brought my aunt, who sat beside me on the floor, hugging her knees. We three joined in laughter until my uncle walked out of the mirror. Then we were two, and we were silent.
The reflected rooms looked slightly different. The upholstery was fuller, the pictures on the walls more vibrant. Things that had become cracked were whole.
I saw myself on a night when snow battered the windows like moths. I was a child in the mirror; I crept along the wall, conspicuously sneaky, inspecting several cabinets before choosing one to climb into. I remembered that afternoon. We had been playing a hide-and-seek game my cousins had invented, with rules that seemed to change whenever my eldest cousin started to lose.
Once child-me was discovered, she climbed out of the cabinet scowling, but with a light in her eyes that had long since dimmed. Seeing that light, I almost felt that I could reach through the glass and grab it for myself: the certainty of a girl that she could grow up, that she could get a degree, that she could be anything she wanted.
My days and nights were increasingly spent prowling from room to room in search of movement. Anything else that caught my eye – birds, snowflakes – was a source of bitter disappointment. I stuffed my school books and notes under the doors to keep out the wind. I drew the curtains. Later, I found that my aunt had fastened them together more tightly with metal binder clips.
I watched for my aunt nearly as much as I watched the mirrors. I think she watched me too. We were beacons, drawing each other to where my uncle had appeared. We never talked; there was nothing we might say that was as important as what we might see.
During the middle of a dinner party held by my newly-married aunt and uncle, I heard a far-off knock at the front door. I waited until all the guests had left before answering. When I opened the door, I found several plastic bags of food laying on the steps. I didn’t question them. I set them on the kitchen table, where they lay even after their contents were gone.
I watched my uncle at the piano a second time, a third time, too many times to count.
I watched my cousins and I bicker over Christmas presents around a wobbly, overstuffed tree.
I watched my uncle perform a clumsy Fred Astaire dance with a yardstick as a cane.
I watched my aunt chase my uncle up the stairs, playfully threatening violence with a frying pan.
I watched joy. I watched anger. I watched love. I watched life.
One day, I came upon my aunt sitting in the living room, staring into her latest creation. It was easily four feet tall, with a pattern like a galactic spiral that burst out from somewhere left of center. It was her latest, but not made recently. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her downstairs working. It was around the last time that I had visited the garden, whenever that was. A while ago.
I came up behind her to see what she saw. She sat as still as a piece of furniture.
It took me some time to find the fragment she was looking into. It was one of the smallest ones, hardly thicker than a matchstick.
In it, she and my uncle were dancing. He spun her around and around, laughing. They were both laughing. Her pleated skirt flared outward like the petals of a flower.
My aunt in the mirror was young, with long hair. Her cheeks were full and rosy. My aunt beside me was shrunken, hunched in front of the shard. The lines of her face could have been carved from wood. The only thing alive about her was her eyes; when she turned to look at me they swam with emotion, reflecting me back at myself.
I saw for the first time how young my uncle in the mirrors was. Compared to my aunt beside me, he could have been her child. She was older than I remembered.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” my aunt asked. Her mouth had been still for so long that her lips cracked when she spoke. A small drop of blood formed in the center of her lower lip.
“Yes,” I said.
I went out the back door, into the garden, which had become overgrown with vetch. It had just rained and the air smelled like wet earth.
I saw my reflection in a puddle at my feet, surprised not to see the face of the mirror-child staring up at me. Like my aunt, I was older than I remembered.
But I wasn’t old yet.
On the other side of the fence, the neighbors had installed a large trampoline. Three children were bouncing on it. All around, lilies were pushing their way up through dead leaves, ready to bloom. It was spring.
Eleanor Pearson is a writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She draws inspiration from her many past and present jobs, which have included working as a nanny, a truck-unloader, a research tech, and a barista.