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Vanitas

https://www.jamescolton.com/short-stories/vanitas/

One hot July, several years ago, I called an old friend of mine—named Danielle—to say that I would be in town on business, and to ask if she would like to meet up. Danielle and I had known each other since college, and although we’d gone our separate ways afterward, we still kept in touch and saw each other from time to time. Our friendship was entirely platonic, but sometimes I wondered if it might have been something more, if only life hadn’t kept us apart.

But I digress. At first, Danielle said, with much regret in her voice, that she would be busy. She explained that she was moving from her house to an apartment, and that she needed the time to clean out her place in preparation for the move. Not to be deterred, I offered my assistance.

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” was her reply, but I could tell by the instantaneous joy and—did I mistake it?—relief in her voice that she would accept my offer. She did, and two weeks later, an early Saturday morning found me knocking at her front door.

I was surprised when the door opened. Surely the woman who stood before me was a cousin, or—more likely—an aunt, who had also come to lend their aid. But then she welcomed me with an enthusiastic hug, and I knew that this was indeed Danielle. But how she had changed! Her hair was graying, her finely creased skin clung tightly to her cheekbones, and the fingers that dug into my back felt like twigs.

I tried to hide my shock as she released me. “It’s good to see you,” I said.

Danielle grinned. “Thank you so much for coming. It was shaping up to be quite a chore without your help. Have you had breakfast?”

I assured her of the filling meal I’d enjoyed at my hotel as we went inside, and said I was ready to get straight to work.

“I’m tackling the basement today,” she said. “It will be a nice break from this heat.”

The coolness of the basement, rising to embrace us as we descended, was indeed welcome. “So,” I asked, “why are you moving?”

“Oh, you know. The mortgage is too expensive, the maintenance is more than I can keep up with these days, and…I just don’t like the place anymore.”

I remembered Danielle’s delight when she first bought the house. That she should grow sick of it after just a few years seemed odd, but I said nothing.

“My new apartment is great,” she continued, switching on the basement light. “Much better suited to someone like me.”

The basement was a dreary place. Cobweb-veiled windows added their meager sunlight to the naked bulb overhead to illuminate dingy, gray walls, with here and there a spot of sickly green where mold had taken root. Every corner was crowded with cardboard boxes sagging beneath the weight of the damp air. I could see why Danielle was so glad to have company.

The first step was to sort through everything to determine what had value and what could be thrown out. This we began, and made strong progress for several hours. By eleven o’clock, we had reduced the considerable amount of rubbish to just a handful of boxes and a shelf laden with loose and varied junk.

“I’m going to start taking these out to the street,” Danielle said; we had accumulated several garbage bags’ worth of refuse. As she hoisted a couple of the bags up the stairs, I turned my attention to the shelf in the back corner. By now, I had developed a pretty good idea of what Danielle wanted to keep or get rid of. Not that it required much training. I had ascertained that her new apartment was significantly smaller, so almost everything that didn’t see at least annual use had to be either thrown out or donated. I started with the easy things: the bottom shelf was filled with empty paint cans. A few scattered rags, made stiff by unknown substances, joined them in the garbage. The next shelf up contained some tools—potentially useful—and a stack of picture frames. Most of these were broken, but one at the bottom of the stack was still intact, and held a photograph of a man I did not recognize. At first, I felt a pang of alarm—then I caught myself. Why should a picture of a strange man worry me? Danielle and I had never been more than friends. And how significant could he really be, if his photo lay discarded at the bottom of a dusty pile? Besides, now that I looked at him, I thought there might be some family resemblance. At that moment, I heard Danielle’s soft footsteps behind me, so I turned and asked, “Who’s this?”

Silence answered me. Danielle was not there.

I scanned the basement, my eyes resting on each box and bag, searching for anything that could have created such a sound, perhaps under the influence of a rogue breeze. Or maybe my unfamiliarity with the house caused my ears to deceive me; it certainly had sounded exactly like footsteps, but they could have come from upstairs, I supposed.

Shrugging to myself, I set the photograph aside and moved on. Next there was a collection of moldy books. They seemed too far gone to be worth donating, but it would be better to check with Danielle once she returned; they may have held some sentimental value. I left them where they were and was about to move on, when I caught a hint of movement behind them. My heart stuttered—was it a rat? I gingerly nudged the books aside, and…

It wasn’t a rat. No. The movement I saw had been my own, reflected back at me in the grimy surface of a handheld mirror. I picked it up. The frame and handle seemed to be made of black wood, polished to a luster that managed to shine through the patina of dust, and entwined with ornate carvings. Fixed between the handle and the frame was a large, smoky gemstone.

“No!” Danielle’s voice sounded shrilly in my ear. I spun in time to see her face—stretched thin and pale with terror—before she seized one of the old books and slammed it down against the mirror, knocking it from my hand and pinning it against the shelf. There was a high-pitched, musical crack that echoed like a scream in my ears.

“What is it?” I asked, alarmed.

Danielle leaned over the book, her hand planted firmly on top of it, pressing down as if trying to crush the mirror beneath her weight. Her eyes shone in the dimness, wide and unblinking. “Go,” she rasped. “Fetch the shovel from the garage.”

“What for?”

“Just go!”

Bewildered, I left Danielle in the basement and went up to the garage where I quickly found the shovel. Danielle met me on the basement stairs as I returned. In her hands she clutched a bundle of dusty fabric wrapped around what I could only assume was the mirror. “Come,” she grunted. “Let’s bury it.”

“Bury it?” I asked, but she had already pushed past me and was headed out to the backyard. I could only follow, shovel in hand, until she stopped and pointed at a patch of grass near the edge of the lawn.

“There. Dig it nice and deep.”

“But why?” I asked, although I obediently thrust the blade of the shovel into the dirt. She would not answer my repeated questions, so eventually I stopped asking. After several minutes, she grew impatient. She set her bundle down in the grass and, between the scoops of my shovel, used her bare hands to scrape out soil and rocks.

It was sweaty work under the July sun. We had delved maybe a couple of feet when I asked, “Don’t you think that’s deep enough?”

Danielle removed one last handful of dirt before nodding. “Yes, I suppose that will do.” She retrieved her bundle and deposited it gently into the hole, then we began filling it in. When we were done, we stepped back and examined the result of our work: a sunken patch of bare earth. “The grass will hide it well enough, in time,” Danielle said. Then, turning to me, “I’m sorry. That must have been startling for you.”

“A little,” I admitted.

“I wish I could offer an explanation. Perhaps I can, although I don’t know if you’d find it at all enlightening.” She took the shovel from me. “I’ll meet you back inside after I put this away.”

I returned to the house and cleaned myself up a bit, then found Danielle waiting for me in the kitchen. She had collapsed in a chair at the table, looking more tired than our brief exertion warranted.

“I’ve had nightmares about the basement for so long,” she said. “I’d quite forgotten why.”

“Because of that mirror?” I asked.

“Yes. I forgot I’d put it down there. Nearly forgot it even existed. Then I saw you looking at it, and everything came rushing back.” She looked sharply at me. “Did you see the reflection?”

“Only briefly,” I said. “Is that cause for concern?”

“Did you see yourself in it? Or anything…?”

“No…I mean, not really. I suppose I must have, if only for a moment. Why?”

Danielle looked down at her lap, scowling in thought. “No. No, I think…I think that’s all right.”

“And why shouldn’t it be? I don’t understand.”

“No harm in telling, I suppose,” she said with a sigh. “Although you may find it all silly.”

“I don’t think anything capable of eliciting such a reaction from you could possibly be silly. Please, it may ease your mind to get it off your chest.”

“You’re right. Very well. But first, let’s have some lunch. I can tell you while we eat.”


Once we were settled with cold sandwiches and glasses of lemonade, Danielle began. “That mirror belonged to my grandmother. I’m not entirely sure how she came to have it, although I believe it was a souvenir from one of their vacations abroad—they travelled a lot, after my grandfather retired. Somewhere in Europe, most likely. I do recall that it was shortly before Grandmother passed away—a year or two, perhaps.

“I’d see it, occasionally. When we were out somewhere together, she’d take it from her purse to check her hair or makeup. I’m not sure I ever saw the front of it, though. Perhaps I did; glimpses, now and again. I don’t know. But I remember her, vividly. She’d gaze into the mirror, and I would watch, thinking to myself how old she looked. Old and—I don’t know whether to say alarmed or desperate. Heartbreaking to watch, especially in hindsight. There was a time when I thought it was existential dread, horror at the onslaught of time written over her aging face. Now, I’m not so sure.

“Grandfather found her, the night she died, sitting at her dressing table. He would not speak of it, not until shortly before his own death. It was such a shock to him. He thought that everything was fine, that he’d heard her moving around the bedroom before he entered. Of course, he saw her sitting there, but just as she always did, checking herself in the mirror one last time before bed. Even as he undressed himself, he swore he heard her little rustling movements, saw the shadows she cast as she moved in front of the lamp. Yet when he finally settled into bed, she had not moved. Grandfather called for her, but she did not stir. He went to her and touched her, and it was then that he realized what had happened, for she was cold and stiff. Her mirror lay on the table in front of her, and in its reflection, Grandfather could see her face, gray and sunken and wrinkled beyond recognition.

“That Grandfather would recall her final night, when his own had drawn so near, should come as no surprise. Neither, I suppose, should his claim that he could sometimes still hear her moving around the room, or see her shadow as if she still sat in front of her mirror. The emotions and nerves of a man sinking beneath death’s shadow. But there is a second chapter to this story that makes it difficult for me to accept such a simple explanation.

“After Grandfather died, my family sold the house and most of its contents. We all kept some mementos; I, as you now know, inherited Grandmother’s mirror. I had just bought my own house—this house—and lived, as I do now, alone.”

“Wait a moment,” I said. “Then your grandfather died after we met?”

“That’s right. And just to give you a more complete view of the timeline, Grandmother passed when I was in high school.”

“It just seems funny that you’ve never mentioned it before. I don’t believe I knew that either of your grandparents were…that is, I thought they were still alive.”

Danielle tilted her head. “I suppose it just never struck me as an appropriate topic, if I even thought of it at all.”

For some reason, my chest stung at her response, and I regretted voicing my thoughts. “No matter,” I said, waving it off. “Please, go on.”

“Well, I was getting ready for bed one night, brushing my teeth in the bathroom across the hall from my bedroom. As I bent over the sink, a strand of my hair swung free, appearing as a narrow column of shadow in the corner of my eye. I instinctively raised my hand to sweep it aside, but could not find it. I straightened up, and as I did the errant strand drifted back out of view.

“Having finished in the bathroom, I faced the door and turned off the light, and stood there in the darkness. In the brief moment between my turning toward the door and my switching off the bathroom light, I thought I had seen a figure in my bedroom across the hall. But there was no sight of it now, and nowhere it could have gone. The image had been so brief, so faint and indistinct, it must have been my own shadow, cast by the bathroom light onto my bedroom wall. I crossed the hallway and peered into my room, feeling as foolish as I did frightened. There was nothing, and foolishness won out. By the time I fell asleep, I had all but forgotten the incident.

“I’m not sure what woke me the next morning. My alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but I opened my eyes with an alertness that I associate with being awoken, rather than rising naturally out of sleep. It was a bright morning—and no, sunlight alone is not usually enough to wake me—and I was lying on my side, facing out toward the hallway. The wall outside my door was illuminated by an elliptical patch of sunlight. A reflection, I knew immediately, although I could not at the moment guess its source.

“As I lay there pondering it, it changed. One of the edges caved in, then the whole thing dissolved from left to right, as if something had passed between the wall and the light source. I had not moved, so it could not have been my shadow. This oddity finally roused my curiosity enough to make me sit up and look around the room properly. Daylight streamed through the window. I followed it to my dresser, and there I found the blinding source of the reflection: Grandmother’s mirror.

“To confirm, I got out of bed and picked up the mirror; the light in the hall disappeared. I turned the mirror about the room, casting its reflected light over walls and furniture. During one such turn I thought I saw a flash of shadow, as of a frail figure, tall and thin. When I brought the light to bear once more upon that spot, however, I realized it was only the shadow cast by my bedpost. The head, shoulders, and arms I fancied I’d seen were but imagination, extrapolated from the silhouette of the post’s ornate carving.

“With my curiosity thus satiated, I examined the mirror itself more closely—I hadn’t paid it much attention since bringing it home. Now, in the fresh morning sunlight, I was struck by its beauty. The gemstone—you noticed it, yes?—was especially captivating, the way it distorted the light. I couldn’t say what kind of stone it was; could you?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve never seen one like it.”

“Well,” Danielle continued, “I decided to start using it that morning. I don’t know why—why then and not earlier, or not at all. It was a nice mirror. Reminded me of my family. And it was so fancy, it made me feel…like royalty or someone out of a novel. I used it for…” She paused, calculating in her head. “I don’t know. A few months at most.” She glanced at her knees, at her hands resting there, then whispered so softly I wasn’t sure I was meant to hear, “Long enough.”

She looked back up and went on. “I noticed nothing during the first few weeks, except that it wasn’t so fine a mirror as I had at first assumed. The glass wasn’t perfectly clear. Had I let you look longer, you might have noticed there’s…well, I’m not sure how to describe it, because I never quite figured out what it was myself. Whether it was a film under the surface, or impurities in the glass, or a microscopic texture; something about the reflection was blurry and faded. Not so much that it was obvious, but the longer you looked the worse it seemed. Sometimes, after gazing for too long, the surface seemed to swim, to become almost like the gemstone; and yet if ever I tried to focus on any part of the reflection, that point would appear as clear as ever, like an object emerging from a mist.

“It was around this time, I think, that the nightmare started. It went like this: I would be in my room, sitting, it seemed, on my dresser, watching myself sleep. That was all. Nothing you would find inherently frightening, but you know how nightmares are; it’s the intangible quality that really sets them apart. In this case, it was a sense of being trapped, like there was some transparent barrier keeping me from leaving my out-of-body perch. And all around me, although I can’t really say I heard it, was the impression of screams. I might say that it felt like the air itself wanted to scream, was about to scream, or something to that effect. This nightmare repeated itself, only occasionally at first, but with growing frequency as time progressed.

“One morning, as I was preparing to go out, I had the unsettling feeling that I was not alone in my room. Nothing concrete, unless it was some noise too small to be consciously observed. Rather, a sense that, as I shifted to get a better light, I always just missed catching the reflection of something moving out of frame. I don’t know how to describe it. Perhaps as a swirling vapor, or a fleeting shadow barely glimpsed. I told myself if was my hair, or a bird flying past the window, or some other mundane thing.

“I might have gone on like that forever, explaining away the shadows and the creeping sensations and the dreams, never connecting them with anything. In fact, I found I cared more about my appearance than ever before in my life, and kept thinking of reasons to check the mirror, to carry it around in my purse. I’ve always prided myself in my lack of vanity, but that seemed to be changing. Not that I noticed at the time, of course, but in hindsight, it had become something like an addiction. Sometimes, I would hold the mirror before my face simply because I had nothing better to occupy my attention.

“One evening, as I studied my reflection, there was a moment that brought to mind those memories of Grandmother looking so haggard. I noted a thinness to my face and a tiredness in my eyes. I even thought I heard Grandmother’s voice, high, plaintive, and distant. It frightened me, but I chalked it up to poor lighting and grim memories. It was, I believe, shortly after my twenty-seventh birthday. That age, solidly closer to thirty than twenty, perhaps had put in my mind a fear of growing old. Rather than scare me away from the mirror, it drew me in further; it was more important than ever to make sure everything always looked just right, to maintain my mask.

“But then, a few months later, something happened that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not explain away. I was in my room, ready for bed, but not ready to put down the mirror. I just stared and stared, perhaps approaching…not sleep, but a trance-like state induced by the strangeness of the glass. Staring and staring until…” Here Danielle paused with a faraway look in her eyes, as if struggling to recall a distant memory. “What I saw in the reflection,” she eventually continued, “was so brief, I still wonder if I should attribute it to my mental state at the time. But what I thought I saw was a face not my own, drawn tight over its bones, gray and dusty, white-haired, with eyes sunken so deep in their sockets that they vanished into darkness, and a host of shadows huddled closely about. It was but a moment. Even now I struggle to picture it quite clearly, as if it were a dream slipping away before wakefulness. A moment more and there was only myself—and a queer ringing in my ear, as if someone had just screamed in it, although I don’t recall even imagining such a sound.

“But imagined or not, that experience awoke me to some hitherto-unidentified fear. I could not explain it rationally, but something about that mirror frightened me, and I finally began to connect it with the odd things I had noticed—was still noticing. Those unobtrusive noises, those shy movements; now that I was paying attention, they all waxed with my proximity to the mirror.

“I examined it only once more, in the morning when sleep and sunrise had cleansed my nerves. I saw with new eyes, and for the first time became aware of that of which, until then, I had been ignorant.” Danielle paused, and I noticed her hands were shaking. “Look at me,” she whispered. “You haven’t mentioned it because you’re being polite, but I can tell you’ve noticed.” A cynical smile tugged at her mouth. “How could you not? I’m thirty years old, but I look sixty. I feel sixty, too. I’m tired all the time.” Her smile quivered, threatened to become tears. But then she rallied herself and went on. “The doctors said my grandmother had died of a wasting disease. It wouldn’t be too far a leap to say that I had inherited her illness. But combined with everything else—and what I discovered next—it was too much for me to accept such a mundane explanation.

“My mind was made up in that moment. I would not look into the glass again. Yet I could not, at the time, quite resolve to get rid of it entirely. It felt disrespectful to throw out a memento of my grandmother, and it was such a pretty thing. As I sat there pondering what I should do with it, I watched my finger trace its way along the carvings. It was then that I noticed, for the first time, some writing debossed above the gemstone, just between it and the frame. It was so tiny that I had to lean close to read it: vanitas.

“I also noticed, up close, that the material was not naturally black; it was painted. Overuse had worn the paint thin, and in places, the raw material showed through palely. The color and texture were not quite right for wood. I cannot prove it definitely, but it is my belief that the mirror—its handle, at least—was carved from bone.”

“Bone?” I echoed incredulously.

Danielle shrugged. “My best guess—but a guess was enough for me. I snatched up the mirror, careful not to look at the reflection, and took it down to the basement, where I left it—where it remained until today.”

In the silence that followed, I wondered. Danielle’s story seemed too fantastical for reality, but I couldn’t deny the evidence of my eyes: her skeletal hands, gray hair, and tired eyes. But was it not far more likely that she had indeed inherited her grandmother’s disease?

“I just realized,” Danielle suddenly said, “that the nightmares never stopped.”

“Where you’re watching yourself sleep?” I clarified.

“Not quite. Remember when I said at the beginning that I’d had nightmares about the basement? When I stop and think about it, it’s really the same nightmare, just a different setting. I’m trapped down there, able only to watch and listen for a scream that’s about to happen, or has already happened. Strange. I wonder—”

But Danielle never completed the thought. When next she spoke, it was to change the subject. She declared that we had accomplished enough for the day, and that she was too tired to do more anyway. After some more lighthearted conversation, she thanked me for my help, and I left her in tolerably good spirits.


I did not see Danielle again until we met for coffee the following year. Her appearance shocked me, although I don’t think she looked any worse than the last time; I just hadn’t gotten used to her inexplicably aged face. My memory still pictured the pretty young girl I’d met in college. This Danielle, with her dark eyes and thin, sunken cheeks, seemed a stranger. But the girl I knew was still there when she spoke, and apart from an ever-present sense of exhaustion, she seemed happy enough. We talked of mundane subjects, then I asked how she was getting along in her new apartment.

“Not as well as I had hoped, I’m afraid,” was her answer. “It’s easier to manage, at least, but…” She rubbed her eyes and shook her head.

“Not getting enough sleep?” I prompted gently. The words sounded inadequate even as they left my mouth, but I felt I had to say something.

“I get plenty of sleep,” Danielle replied with a sniff. “In fact, at times it seems all I’m capable of doing anymore. Sleep and…and dream.” Her eyes lost focus, and she fell silent again. For a moment I feared she would pass out. Finally, she said, “I wonder if that’s what it feels like to be dead.”

My heart went cold, and a memory clicked into place. “That nightmare about the old basement?”

“No,” she replied. Then she thought for a moment, and added, “But perhaps yes, after a fashion. The setting has changed again. I don’t know where I am, but it’s completely dark. All I can tell is that it’s someplace cramped and cool, with a damp, earthy smell. Somehow, being blind has made it worse. I wake feeling like I haven’t slept at all.”

I could think of nothing to say on the matter that could possibly improve her mood, so I said nothing. Instead, I merely reached across the table and squeezed her hand. She smiled in response, and squeezed back.


I saw Danielle just once more after that. Her health had declined rapidly, and the doctors were at a loss, except to speculate that she suffered from some unknown wasting disease. She seemed to age at an accelerated rate, and by the time I saw her on what would become her deathbed, her hair was thin and white. Her face, which I barely recognized as hers, was but a faded parchment clinging to sharpened bones, and her eyes glinted dimly at me from deep within cavernous sockets. Her last words to me were these:

“They mustn’t bury me. Don’t let them bury me! I can’t stand the thought of being trapped down there forever.”

And that’s all there is to say of the matter. It has been nearly two years since Danielle’s death and cremation. A depressing end for one whom I regarded as a dear friend and, the more I think honestly on the subject, perhaps more. I reflect often on the event that seemed to trigger it all: my discovery of that mirror in the basement. But I must not shoulder the blame; there is no concrete connection between the two things—and if there were, it really started long before I met Danielle, when she inherited the mirror from her grandmother. When she gazed too long into its surface.

It’s all imagination, I tell myself. What took Danielle from this world was not some cursed relic, but a wasting disease passed down from her grandmother. That the doctors couldn’t identify it makes it no less natural.

I tell myself this because, every once in a while, I have a strange dream. I might go so far as to call it a nightmare; yes, it certainly bears the texture of such. Very infrequent, but repeated often enough that I’ve taken note. Its retelling is simple: I am in some cramped, dark space. That is all, but the atmosphere is dreadful. I feel trapped, held tight by something, and in my ears, faint but continuous, something like a distant scream.

As I said, very infrequent, but exactly the same every time.

No. Now that I think of it…yes, the last dream was different, but it had the same quality. It was Sunday, and I had allowed the afternoon heat to lull me to sleep. Then came the dream with its familiar, horrid sensations—that distant screaming, that sense of imprisonment—but this time the darkness was replaced with light. I saw a young woman, looking at me with an expression of surprise or curiosity. She wore a sun hat and a summer dress, had some dirt on her face, and her arm was outstretched as if…it seems ridiculous to say, but that is the way of dreams: as if she were holding me in her hand.

Why this change should unsettle me so, I cannot say. But it is only a dream.