Short fiction by John Flynn-York
At first, Sennet thought it was a painting.
He found it at Ditley’s Junk Shop, deep in a maze of old cabinets and angular lamps and fat recliners with orange foam spilling from their wounded cushions. He was looking for material for a new sculpture. He’d only recently come out of a long downward spiral—one of those old nightmares of his. They had different causes and different progressions: one time, terror at the incomprehensible size of the universe and the smallness of an individual life, his life, within it; that one came on suddenly and brought with it a tremendous vertigo. Another time, a miserable spell of days when everything flattened out; that nightmare appeared slowly and left him feeling like his face was smeared against a window, through which he saw a scene he recognized but could not understand. Most recently, a simple hollow despair had crept into his mind and would not leave. Then a message arrived. He had received a small grant to make a few sculptures. It was enough, barely, to drag him back into the daylight.
He needed to create one more piece to round out the collection he would be showing, and he’d come to Ditley’s thinking he would let chance guide him: he’d cobble an idea together out of whatever he stumbled across. Later, he would add the pieces necessary to suture the odds and ends into a finished work. He’d already gathered a few materials from the dust-ridden corners of the junk shop: a length of thick black rope, a bicycle chain, a rusted saw blade, several pieces of crown molding, and a taxidermy finch with a burst of yellow on its chest. The work was beginning to take form in his mind: it moved, it wheezed, it rose and clanked and turned. He would need hinges, levers, a crank, a pulley or two.
Near a pile of steamer trunks, perched on top of a flat file and partially obscured by the reinforced corner of a well-traveled trunk, he saw what he thought was a small painting. The frame, gilded and carved into flowing drapery, caught his eye first. It could be the center of the last piece: an empty eye, a hole, a revelation. He picked it up. A layer of thick, gritty dust came up under his fingers. It was a small rectangle, maybe three by four inches, and framed a triangular painting showing a cloudy blue sky. The painting had been inset into a plywood jig to hold it steady, and the effect this created was unsettling—like someone had ripped away strips of the painting, leaving only this single shard.
Then he noticed a slight movement, a cumulus cloud sliding almost imperceptibly out of frame.
He reached out, drew a fingertip across the surface, cleaning away more dust. Glass underneath. Not a painting. A mirror, or a shard of a mirror, sharp and clean.
But it was not reflecting the shop.
It must be a trick, he thought, there must be some mechanism hidden in the mirror that makes it reflect on a different angle. He looked around. There were no windows that it could be reflecting. The only one within sight was gray with dirt and had a view of the brick exterior of a neighboring building. There were no paintings that it could be throwing back at him, no gauzy impressions of countryside days that could be sharpened into gray-white clouds, no angular abstracts of color that could be distorted into realist skies, no blues anywhere to be seen, and yet in the shard, there were white clouds, a blue sky, though it was fading into purple, gray, lavender, white, a shade at the intersection of all of these.
It could not be reflecting the interior of the shop. It could not be reflecting somewhere else. But it was. Where, then?
He looked into the mirror, and sounds in the background of the shop—the grunts of people heaving aside one object to uncover another, the back-and-forth of a couple disagreeing about the suitability of an old piano for their living room, the patter of a baseball announcer from the radio by the cash register, the wheezing of the owner, the rustle of newspaper pages turning—these sounds withdrew, until Sennet was alone in a quiet world, looking into the sky of another place. Where, precisely, was beside the point. He felt alone. He felt at peace.
In the shard, the bellies of the clouds began to light up with a radical orange. Sunset.
The shard had been carefully set into the plywood jig. A tight, clean fit, but not glued or otherwise irrevocably bonded. In his workshop, Sennet removed the shard from the plywood. He was careful; the edges were sharp. It was a long triangle with an obtuse angle, but closer inspection revealed one sharp end was broken and blunted. The back was a dull gray, speckled with dark pockmarks. He turned it over and over in his hands. Nothing about it gave any sign of its origin.
The sky in the shard was a hard gray rain.
Sennet made a small harness out of 12-gauge wire and ran fishing line up to an old hook crusted over with endless layers of paint. He suspended the mirror in front of one of the workshop’s casement windows and backed away. The shard swayed with a residue of motion. He pinched it between two fingers until it was perfectly still.
In the shard: more rain.
The downpour arrived a few minutes later, pelting the workshop in a rapping staccato. Sennet tuned his radio to a classical station and began to work on his sculpture. He arranged his materials on the floor in front of him, hoping a thread of organization would suggest itself, spontaneously arise from the objects’ proximity to each other. But they remained inert, and the idea that had come to him in the junk shop—the rising form, the movement, the emptiness at the center—no longer made sense. It had no core, no coherence. He looked at his collection of debris and refuse, his rusted metal, his painted wood, his stuffed bird, all spread out at his feet, and felt the tangled black edges of despair.
At the periphery of his vision, the shard danced and twirled and spun.
Sennet approached it slowly, reached out a hand, steadied it, and returned to staring at the objects.
The moving shard caught his eye again; he steadied it again.
He returned to his work.
He returned to the shard.
Each time, with a hand holding it still, he spent a few more minutes looking into its mirrored somewhere-else sky.
Eventually, he discovered he had been staring into it for a long time. How long, precisely, he was unsure. His attention existed for only two things: the mirror shard, in which the inclement weather had passed and a post-rain sky now floated, full of rumbling clouds against electric blue; and the casement windows behind it, spattered with drops, through which he could see an undifferentiated gray. A solo piano piece on the radio had melted into the background of the rain’s hard patter and the combined sound, the piano trilling and fluttering and the rain rapping and drumming, had drifted out to the edge of his awareness and become an envelope around him. At the center: Sennet, shard, silence.
He snapped his head away. If he looked at the shard again, he might never emerge from its spell. He grabbed his coat and turned off the radio and fled into an unforgiving squall. It would end soon.
Sennet sat in the small office of an art gallery with a plastic cup half-full of whiskey, not drinking. The office had a casual, slightly disorganized look to it that he found pleasing, papers in loose stacks, magazines here and there open to zippy art-world profiles, coffee-stained mugs abandoned in unlikely places. He could hear, coming from the gallery’s main room, a low hubbub of conversation, people mingling and looking at his work. Five sculptures, assembled from reclaimed pieces of the city, plus the suitcase at the center containing the final piece.
An artist’s statement on the wall explained his vision, to some degree. He found it difficult to put his thoughts in words, and he’d rewritten it five times, never found a version he liked. He eventually handed over a shadow of what he had hoped to convey. Let the sculptures speak for themselves, he wanted to say, but there were conditions attached to the grant. He had to explain himself, and he did, using words like layer and spiral and emptiness.
Any minute now, he would walk out to the suitcase, attach a crank, and begin to raise the final sculpture.
He sipped the whiskey. Without ice, it was harsh and alcoholic.
The final sculpture had taken a month to finish. He’d driven himself hard, not eating enough, drinking too much, sleeping fitfully if he slept at all. Through force of will, he recovered the vision that first took form in the junk store. He saw an outline. He saw connecting lines, discordant spaces. He knitted the materials together into a skeletal frame: the rebar bound to the crown molding with wire, the bicycle chain stitched to the rope with fishing line. He turned the sawblades into a platform for the finch—the finch at the very edge of the piece, escaping, not escaping. Other materials found their way in, things he discovered on his way from his apartment to his workshop, an unknown animal’s broken femur, a brass-colored switch plate. He had an old bee smoker that became a bellows. He incorporated hinges and pulleys and gears. In the center of it all, he put the empty frame, and he planted the sculpture in an old yellow suitcase.
But the sculpture was a mechanism, nothing more. No life to it. He could see the empty space in its center. He understood what it needed there: the shard.
Yet when he thought about this—taking the shard down and placing it in the sculpture—he shuddered. The shard had come into his life through chance, but now it felt like an essential part of him. It had given him peace. Silence. Hope. A respite from the nightmares. He could not let it go.
The door to the office opened. Caroline, the gallery’s director, walked in, a vision of grace, angular and flowing at the same time. “You should be out there,” she said. “Talking to people.”
Sennet nodded. He looked around the office. “It’s quiet in here.”
“You look pretty rough. Everything okay?”
“Right. Well, they’re expecting you now, so come on.”
He drank the last of his whiskey and stood up.
“Wait,” she said. She went to a closest and came back with a gray sports coat. “It’s Ian’s, but you can borrow it. I think it will fit you.”
He took the coat from her and tried it on. It was a little tight in the arms, but worked well enough.
“That’s a little better. All right. Let’s go,” she said.
He picked up the crank and followed her out into the gallery.
A small crowd had formed around the white pedestal on which the suitcase had been placed. Sennet walked up to it and inserted the crank in one side. He glanced around the room, trying to think of something to say. But he had no words appropriate for the moment.
He turned the crank.
The latches snapped open. The lid rose. Hinges swung, pulleys squeaked, the bee smoker puffed and wheezed. A chain, aligned to a sprocket wheel, ticked flailing limbs of rebar and paint-streaked molding into the air. An impossible beast took shape, grunting, creaking, wheezing, squealing, rising to fill the space around it, stretching and clanking and clawing its way into an impossible form, a skeleton of metal and wood and rope and bone and feather. The finch, a burst of beak and feathers, seemed to flee.
In the center, the shard gleamed blue and cold: a clear day, wherever it was that it reflected.
From the crowd, there came gasps and sighs, chattered excitement. Then a clap, followed by another, and another, until the space was filled with applause. Sennet bowed his head in silent acceptance. It was hollow; it was not for him.
Later, he caught a glimpse of his sculpture out of the corner of his eye. He saw the edge of his face. He abandoned the conversation he was in and turned to look at it.
The shard was simply another mirror, there at the core, reflecting him in silence.
John Flynn-York is a writer and editor. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and Fiction Advocate, among other places, and he is the the co-editor of Automata Review. He lives in Los Angeles and holds a Master of Fine Arts from UC Riverside–Palm Desert.
Notes from the author
Think through the above story with us, and, if moved, share your thoughts with us and other readers in the comments below.
My son is less than a year old, and he has a mirror in his room that he plays in front of sometimes. When I started thinking about this story, he had begun to notice himself in this mirror, but it was not clear if he understood that the baby looking back at him and mimicking his movements and expressions was a reflection. Watching him, I marveled at the everyday magic that happens in mirrors, and I thought about what mirrors are, what they do, and how we use them. I wanted to explore that in a story; my way of doing that was to make what a mirror does strange again in order to capture a little of that initial confusion and delight and terror and, maybe, illumination.