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Monday, 18 August 2014 18:54

A Problem With Mirrors


On Tuesday, August 14th, the mirrors failed us. There had been some forewarning, to be sure: faces dimmed; haircut not reflected for several days, by then growing back; confusion as to whose reflection was whose. A trick of light? Or perhaps the voltage, on that unusually warm day, but –

            At first I blamed myself. It was true that I had been borrowing Helen’s blue-handled mirror when she was otherwise concerned, sidling into the master bathroom, ducking low in front of the wall mirror behind my side of the double sink, holding up her mirror and then jerking it down, teasing the wall mirror with Helen’s captured face, wanting her image and mine to fleetingly show each other’s lives. Too often, perhaps, I held them up to face each other, pondered what they – might have seen.

            After so much teasing, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when my mirror cast me out. But that Tuesday I was gazing into the wall mirror with a faint purpose of shaving. I held the razor poised with intent. But instead of my face, I saw a stormy harbour, sailboat moored to a dock, white boat in grey water. At the helm, a vaguely drawn, eyeless figure.

            I turned slowly. There on the opposite bathroom wall was the picture I had painted of the harbour, an artless thing (my painting skills are crude at best) framed in memory of vacation. To the left, the island docks. In the cloudy distance behind the sailboat, the mainland ferry was just reaching open water.

            I turned back to the mirror. I saw the boat’s reflection, but not my face. Why? I shifted my stance right, then left; moved up on toes; crouched to angle my vision. Still no face. I resisted the temptation to wave my arms and yell. Why was I not in the mirror? The day before, I’d been able to cajole my visage into being after a little effort, but not this time. Why? Maybe the mirror knew.

            That’s an old saying where I come from, a different place: “The mirror knows.” It used to mean “You know, don’t you, since you’re the one in the mirror.” But that day I took it literally. Maybe the mirror knew why my face was no longer essential to its existence.

            I shaved by feel, slowly, clumsily making bloody nicks and scrapes, stupidly peering at the mirror out of habit even though it showed only harbour, boat. I mentally checked off all the mirrors I encountered in the day’s routine, so I could avoid embarrassment when anyone might be watching. I’m sure no one would consider me a vampire (no slicked-back hair, pointy teeth, passion for necks). If they did, my lack of image might be easier to explain. But since the last human blood I tasted was from my own pulled wisdom teeth quite a few years ago, I didn’t think I would qualify.

            Back to the checklist of mirrors to be avoided: No problems at home. No problems driving to work. No problems at the office – except for the men’s room. Four sinks and a wall-to-wall three-foot-high mirror behind them. Some of my co-workers used these mirrors for eye-contact, say, if a man were passing behind another at one of the sinks, being careful to moderate the duration and intensity of eye-contact even in a mirror, of course, careful not to look where one shouldn’t. So I would have to be extra careful there to keep my lack of reflection unnoticed. I could slip out and use the toilet of the cafe next door, I suppose. Yes; that’s what I’d do.

            By Thursday the 16th, I no longer needed to keep my problem secret. As breathtakingly reported (somebody said), and confirmed (somebody said, twice), all the mirrors, all of them all over the world so far reported,

Come in, Chet in Chong-qing -- come in, Chet?

refused to reflect the human face, showed nothing but background,

I guess we’ll have to get back to you later, Chet. Now on to sports.

showed none of the despairing faces posed before it, arms despondently waving.

# # #

            In the following days, the extent of our desperation became clear. Grief counsellors were uncrated, powered up, sent to console us on our loss of face. They oozed Understanding like machine oil.

            Some people fled as lemmings to the sea, found it too rough to hold their image, fragments only, sea-foam like shaving cream. But the rock-pools told a simple different thing: sky, cloud.

            Helen seemed unconcerned. When I mentioned our global plight she said “Poo-poo.” And then she said “Pshaw.” Never in my life had I heard anyone say “Pshaw” before, but Helen did: “Pshaw,” just like that. And then she said “Poo-poo” again. I think she had found her blue-handled mirror somewhat out of place, perhaps stained, and thought I had used it for some purpose. But I had my own mirror, so why would I need hers (although mine had no handle and was fixed firmly to the wall)?

            I didn’t understand, then, what was happening or why. Neither did anyone else. But the easiest course was denial. Helen, for one, refused to believe that her image was gone. “See there!” she said, holding up her blue-handled mirror, “That’s me! Look!” But of course when I took it from her to look, her reflection wasn’t there at all (why was she pretending with me?). The hand-mirror showed the harbor and its painterly boat, white above, grey below, but not my face. The boat-painting was in our bathroom, though, not here in our bedroom. Paintings couldn’t just move from room to room by themselves, could they? The mirror must have -- remembered the boat.

            August 31st: It occurred to me that the mirrors might simply be tired of reflecting. What scope for their imagination? Or, our government delved too deeply into the mysteries, invented something it should not have. Or remember childhood? The first time I looked into a clear pond and there was someone there? Drowned, I thought, looking up out of the water, waiting for me to join him. I put my hand in the water but when I touched the cheek it disappeared, eye blurred. Quickly I had pulled my hand back, waited for the face to re-compose. I apologized for what I’d done and it did, too. I accused it of mocking me and it did the same. I picked up a large stone and hurled it at the face, and this time the face didn’t hurl the stone back.

            On September 5th, the grandees of the town council held their regular public meeting. The main topic was supposed to be bids for street repaving, but owing to the mirror-situation we shelved the agenda and instead discussed what could be done to get our faces back. One asked “How many bids did we get?” and another answered “The deep well was the last to show my face, and those of others fallen in through the years.” A third voice asked “Don’t you think FlexiCorp’s bid’s a little high?” and a fourth answered “I touched my face with my hands; there is a new smoothing-out, a lack of detail that perhaps becomes me.” We adjourned without having made any real effort to address the problem. For this I blame Helen, who shushed me and wouldn’t let me stand and address the council with my view of the true peril we were facing, not merely a nuisance that could be deferred in favour of blacktop.

            I sensed a real menace here: It was not merely having to shave and comb by guess or feel; these inconveniences hardly amounted to threat. But: Where had our images gone? Why? Were they up to something? Seven billion faces could be a mighty force -- and what would disappear next? The mirror-image was just a test, I began to think, a trial of some secret new technology. That’s why our government hadn’t made efforts to investigate, hadn’t sent out even second- or third-responders in their space-suity uniforms, meters and gauges and beeping-things in hand.

            In this time of crisis, I felt I must do something decisive. So on September 17th I stared into my mirror, cleared my throat, and addressed the nation, careful to show my care.

            “Good evening. Like millions of my fellow citizens, I was shocked and saddened when I heard the news that our mirrors had stopped reflecting us. I have verified this with my own eyes.

            “Helen and I join all of you in mourning those who mourn their lost images, and in sending our heart-felt feelings to their families.

            “As a stop-gap measure, today I am pleased to announce that we will make five billions in government funding available for an immediate program of reflection research and, hopefully, restoration, beginning with those most in need. And this is just the beginning of our reflection-recovery efforts. I recognize how important our faces are to us, and my Administration is committed to working closely with state and local governments to develop a new generation of mirrors not subject to these problems, and to replace all missing faces as quickly as possible with suitable prostheses.

            “In times of tragedy, our hearts ache for those who suffer, yet our hearts are also lifted by acts of courage and compassion. We saw those qualities in citizens who made their own eyes available as substitute mirrors – not the ultimate solution, as we know: Seeing our image in another’s eyes is only a faint and dark reflection of our own selves. But these kindly acts will substitute on an interim basis while we turn our full attention to bringing the situation back to normal.

            “This is a difficult time for our country, but our people are decent and sympathetic, and we will get through these painful hours. May God bless our wonderful country, and above all, do not apologise to your mirror. Thank you for listening.”

            September 18th: Taking my words at their word, I began to look for my self in others’ eyes, especially to help me shave and comb my hair. I thought to begin with Helen, who expressed an initial unwillingness that I also felt, since I had never been an eye-gazer. But we tried it, and I was able to shave more or less adequately although with a few abrasions, and though in order to see I had to place my own eyes no more than a few inches from hers. The whole experience was unsettling for both of us. I considered letting my beard grow for the duration of the emergency, and shaving my head instead.

            But then a setback. On October 5th, I ascertained that the aggressive and proactive government programme I outlined in my address to the nation had not yet even begun. Viewing the evening news, I heard no mention of my initiative, nor even of the problem.

            I resolved on direct action.

            I selected a hammer from my tool box and marched into the bathroom with determination in my eyes. I looked into the mirror: boat, white-capped harbour. I raised the hammer in a threatening gesture, pointed to my face, at the mirror, and then at the hammer in dumb-show as if addressing a simpleton. No response.

            Raised edges of glass spread outward from the centre of the mirror. The boat formed many boats, at many angles. Waves rippled up, down. Many small sharp triangular mirrors formed and dropped into the sink, showing fractured edges, pieces of boat. A few shards must have flown through the air, because I found myself bleeding from cuts and gouges on hands and arms. I found the first-aid kit and bandaged my arms. When I looked back at the mirror I found it, astonishingly, unbroken. How could that be? I distinctly remembered raising the hammer, bringing it down with all the force I could summon, shattering, gouging, smashing.

            Staring at the mirror, I saw to my surprise that the boat seemed to be growing larger. But that wasn’t it: Instead, my face was approaching the mirror. My nose touched it -- passed through. I was drawn into the mirror, flattened to two dimensions. Totally unnerved, I reached out and clawed for the edges of the mirror like a desperate boater grasping a sail. The deck was slick. It shifted and rolled in the wet wind. I held tightly to the helm, slipped down, regained my footing, slipped again, fell hard to the deck. Desperately, I turned and looked out through the mirror’s glass into the bathroom -- and now the harbour was once more mere painting, figure again vague, footing solid. Relief overtook me; consciousness lapsed.

            I awoke to brilliance, bathroom light suddenly on. I was still inside the mirror, looking out. There in front of me was I, my other self, moving, and I was moving too, twitch for twitch. My double smile, grim and knowing. He raised the blue-handled mirror showing Helen’s face now torn and red by the work of my hand. He gave me a knowing look, lowered the mirror and raised, one last time, the hammer.

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