The Switching Mirror
by Dario Cannizzaro
I was a little kid, probably eight or ten. My mom would bring us to visit this very old aunt, Maria. I was already as tall as she was, which I liked. She lived alone since her husband, my uncle Ciro, died a while back. I still can picture the image of my uncle – a bald man in his seventies – looking outside the window, with a checked blanket on his lap, the light from the sun shining through. That’s the only image of him I have in my memory.
The house they were living in, the one my aunt lived alone in, was in a very old building near Via Foria, in the heart of Naples, in the south of Italy. Those buildings were built for rich people in the 1800s, and were then reconverted to normal apartments. They had a big internal patio, so that every apartment would have windows on every side – the one overlooking the street, and the other overlooking the patio. People would hang their clothes to dry up, on long ropes from one side of their patio balcony to the other side of the building, creating this mesmerising dance of coloured flags, removing the ever-lasting sunshine, and creating a huge secret fort if you were on the ground floor, looking up.
But the energy of those places was an energy of decay; the maintenance of those buildings was practically non-existent, and the remnants of old times still stood – like a big black heavy lamp, which served its purpose with candles and was now re-used with electricity, in the middle of the patio – the same lamp where I could swear I’ve seen something, a dark shadow, circling around it, like a moth circling the fire – a ghostly one.
We would go there to visit aunt Maria, as I’ve said, with my cousins, who were just a few years older than me. Our aunt would give us expired candies and stale chips, but all you can drink soda, so we were happy kids. Plus, we had this lingering feeling of danger, a tingling sensation on the back of our neck, which was exciting and scary at the same time, but begged us to go back into that house.
As I’ve said, the building was built for nobility; some apartments had very high ceiling, some others had lower ceiling – the servant’s quarters. In some of the servant’s apartments, there was still the remaining structure of a dumbwaiter. My aunt made her part of it a walk-in pantry. Every time she asked us to go and get snacks, we would go in pairs – we would always move in pairs when we were kids in my aunt’s house, because of that fear that something preternatural was about to come at us. We would open the pantry and a chilly draft would come out of it, with a dreadful sound – probably just some air moving through old wood – but since we knew that, in the beginning of the century, a small kid fell into the dumbwaiter and died, we were sure that his spirit was still there, so we kept away from it – unless we needed more soda.
The visits to that house were always part adventure, part scary times; but the whole family from my mother’s side would gather there, and while the adults chitchatted, we would speculate on old ghosts haunting the place, and would avoid being alone in the unused rooms of the big house. We would bring our tape recorder, turn it on, and leave it in a closed room, only to retrieve it at the end of the visit and scan for spooky sounds. Once, we caught on tape a little kid crying, and his mom shushing it – followed by a loud thump. Possibly, it was the upstairs neighbours, but we were sure the voices were coming from that room; only, from a time long past.
Once, me and my cousin were tasked with going into a room the opposite side of the house, to retrieve some object I don’t remember; we were walking in line in the nook-like hallway, and looked to our right in the mirror. I was following behind. When we looked at the mirror for a split second, our image there was reversed; I was the one in front of the line, and my cousin was behind me. We didn’t look further, but started running and screaming and laughing at the same time, cause fear can be exhilarating; and when we came back in the room – going through the main hallway, bigger and with no switching mirrors – our parents would not believe our stories, and dismiss them as kid’s play.
Now I am much older, and Aunt Maria is long time dead. When I was a teenager, we helped the family with emptying the abandoned apartment, and it took us a few days to remove all the objects that made a lifetime of memories for someone. I remember this big desk with a secret drawer, which my uncle Ciro showed me once; when he showed it to me, the secret treasure inside looked like something out of one of the adventure movies I loved; it contained a bowie knife, two small gold bars, and a purse with small gems. He showed the content to me, winked at our secret, and dared me to open it. I couldn’t.
The secret drawer was deprived of that treasure when we moved the desk, and no one remembered – or wanted to remember – the contents of it.
When the house was finally empty, it was scarier than when all of my aunt’s objects were in there. I was still too young to grasp that feeling, which is clearer now, but I could already imagine a new life coming through that house; new kids, new people.
And I wondered if the ghosts we’d imagined or seen, things that I can now explain with simple suggestion – apart from the switching mirror -, would go away with us or stay for the next life.
Dario has sent me a copy of his novel, Dead Men Naked, to review, so look out for it in the coming weeks 🙂