The Slow Mirror

21 October 2010

Pedro was from Buenos Aires. Yet it was only after his death that I stopped to consider what that might mean. I was in Argentina for the first time, attending an ornithology conference, and I was walking down the Avenida Santa Fe when it suddenly occurred to me: so this is what he saw and heard while growing up. Did he think of this place often after making love with me?

There was an accompanying vision of oncoming black taxis and wide, endless boulevards, a sense of strolling through perfumed breezes toward obelisks and military monuments. But the important thing was not the actual character of Buenos Aires. It was only vital that the city was real, that it was always present whether or not I was aware of it, and that Pedro had come from there.

I was on my way to the address of his childhood (torn down to make way for a utilitarian concrete monster) when all this condensed inside me as if from the cloud of a forgotten dream. I stopped as if confronted by a riddle. And when I looked around again, I found myself in front of an overcrowded antique store. I entered to think my confusion out, nodded to the owner and walked to the back to get out of the light. There, past a shelf of books and numerous hat racks, I discovered the mirror. It was sitting on top of a dusty 17th-century Portuguese dresser in the twisted-and-turned style made popular following Vasco da Gama's first trip to India, and it caught my attention because it was shaped like a lyre. I am a professor of ornithology by trade--with a specialty in North American seedeaters (Passeriformes Fringillidae)--but an amateur lutanist at heart. And I am fascinated by antique instruments. Naturally, then, I approached this lyre-mirror and brushed my hand along its frame. And when I stared into its reflection, I discovered a Chinese camphor-wood trunk whose front was carved with a serpent brandishing a lantern in its mouth. The trunk sat directly opposite the mirror, atop a curious English desk with handles made from lapis lazuli. It was the magical alliteration of lapis lazuli, lantern, lyre and lute that finally impelled me to obey my original instincts and make an offer for the mirror, and I was able to bargain the dealer, an ancient Uruguayan from Paysandú smelling of pistachio nuts and brandy, down to a reasonable price.

That evening, back in my tiny room at the Hotel Estrella, I noticed, for the first time, the mirror's singular powers of retention. Following a shower, I had taken out my brush with the intention of combing my hair into a semblance of reason. I lifted the mirror out of its wrappings and discovered that the camphor-wood trunk and the surroundings of the antique store--and not I--composed the entirety of its reflection. From all angles, no matter whether I moved to the side, knelt or stood on the hotel's monstrous desk chair, the silver surface of the mirror still gave to me the various surroundings of the Uruguayan's store.

After a momentary fright during which I made an aborted call to the desk clerk, I watched the reflection for quite some time, coming to two possible conclusions: the first (and more obvious), that this was not a normal mirror; the second (and, naturally enough, more disturbing), that I might very well be going mad.

I dreamed of the mirror that night, imagined that it reflected the image of a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak--the bird on which I did my dissertation at Cornell University and after which my daughter, Rosalie, was named--flying through green clouds evaporating from giant oak trees. This bird was a messenger, had been sent by Pedro to pick Rosalie up and carry her to heaven.

In the morning, I fully expected to see a reflection of the bird or even my face, but found once again the antique store. In consequence, I cut short an appearance at a symposium on tone displacement among wood warblers and went back to the Uruguayan dealer. I informed him of my two possible conclusions.

"Let me assure you, Señora, you are not going insane," he said with a smile of solidarity. "There is indeed a time lag. The mirror seems to retain images. They seep in and take a long while coming out. I call it the 'slow mirror'" (In Spanish, he referred to it as the "espejo atrasado.")

"How long does it take for the mirror to give its images back?" I asked.

The dealer shrugged. "I took over the store four years ago from another Uruguayan, a man from Punta del Este, and the mirror has yet to reflect anything but the Chinese trunk," he said. "Of course, it has also given back the images of some people who have lifted it up and passersby who have headed toward other antiques." He laughed and twirled his mustache. "But the selfish thing has not yet given my image back. So it must be slow by at least four years."

"And do you know where it came from?"

"Brazil, I believe. Of Portuguese craftsmanship, perhaps. Although maybe it's Japanese. Might have come over with the immigrants. I was told by a Korean agronomist that the wood forming the lyre frame is Japanese maple."

The antique dealer generously offered to buy the mirror back if I were disappointed with its slow reflections. But I assured him that I still wanted it, thanked him for his help and returned to the hotel.

The mirror, although perched on a simple writing desk by my bed, still insisted, of course, on reflecting the Chinese trunk and the antique store. And by standing far to the right, I could now see the first Uruguayan dealer from Punta del Este, a small, withered man with eyeglasses held together by tape. He sat behind a table centered by a baroque candelabrum with the sinuous arms of a Hindu goddess. A strong sunlight that seemed to be distilled through billowy clouds shone in through a window on which a gilded Byzantine crucifix was hung. I watched, mesmerized, and after some time a tall woman in black entered the store, toured and left without making a purchase. The dealer ate lunch from a white bag as if the contents were to be kept secret. He read a large book bound in leather. Later, hard-edged shadows from unseen furniture crept across the floor as if seeking the night. A man in a brown fur coat entered, admired an azure-glazed Persian vase and wrapped it in white handkerchiefs from his pocket before letting the Uruguayan package it. Just prior the store's closure, two large women holding bursting packages came in to ask directions.

And it was then, alone with the antiques, that I felt a sudden tremor of joy. It was as if, while watching the store, I'd left my body behind for a time. And now I had returned to discover the wonder of fingers, hands, lips, of a woman who could touch the world, feel her place at the center of life, breathe, kiss, talk. I picked up my phone to share this discovery with Rosalie. Yet upon hearing her quivering voice, I decided it best to simply inquire about her health.

"But where are you?" she asked.

"Buenos Aires."

"Still there...then why are you calling?"

"To see about you. I'm sorry if I woke you."

Rosalie was silent. I imagined her tears reflecting a sepia world leached of color, pictured a lone child facing a German fairy-tale forest. Without an answer, she let the phone down. Our line disappeared. I sat with my head in my hands. Regretting so much. Watching the antique store submerged in night. Finding the mirror now quite normal--an impossible artifact to be sure, and certainly a gift, but just one of many impossible objects all around me. I imagined it had been pulled through a magician's hat from the same invisible land that had given rise to Rosalie's leukemia and my own helplessness.

Time crept very slowly to me that night. I slept in and out of cold, endless dreams bordered by water. And when I woke in the morning, it was with the great energy of escape. I was gripping the silver Star of David, which Pedro had hung, around my neck when we were engaged. Dressing madly, I ran out of my room to catch a lecture on male incubation.

Two days later, when the meeting's concluding cocktail party had finished, I packed up the mirror, boarded my nighttime plane and headed back to San Francisco.

There, inside our Richmond District home on 12th Avenue, I placed the slow mirror atop my rosewood dresser. When Rosalie had awoken from a nap, I showed it to her. "From your father's city," I said. She returned my smile absently, stared into the reflection for a few moments following my explanation and said: "It's too slow." She patted my arm, refused to elucidate on her comment and returned to bed.

Only later did I understand what she meant: I haven't enough time left to wait for the mirror to return my reflection.

Despite the dark canal of dread this realization cut through me (or perhaps because of it), I began to follow the life of the antique store avidly, compulsively I must say, becoming an expert on the habits of the Uruguayan from Punta del Este and the lascivious tastes of his Saturday store manager, a weedy looking man with a penchant for atavistic blonds in elastic clothing. I also came to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of several regular visitors, particularly those of an elfin Native American woman living in La Boca who came in once a day to sniff the camphor-wood trunk because of her sinus problems (I read her lips once while she discussed her misery with the Uruguayan).

Often, I would watch the tale of the mirror upon waking and just before going to bed, and for some time it took the place of reading, lute playing and films for me. And yet, as one can well imagine, after a year of the store and customers--and the Chinese trunk in particular--I grew decidedly bored with the life of a Buenos Aires antique store and moved the mirror to the floor by my linen closet where I could check on it from time to time but rarely be encumbered by its constant story.

Rosalie was growing weaker at the time. And she was in more pain. Chemotherapy was helping very little, if at all. Often, she spoke to me in the voice of the tiny, winged being I imagined trapped inside her limp body. I realized at such moments that it would not be long before this entity would fly free from her and disappear from both our lives like a Thomas Campion sprite. Although I am frightened even now to admit it, I surely hoped for this to come to pass quickly.

Soon after I had put the mirror away, Rosalie asked me in a trembling voice if I would hang the mirror on the wall directly opposite her bed. "Something impossible I saw in it," she said. She refused to say more, showed me by way of explanation a book from her childhood that she must have hidden away. It was Italian, with illustrations of birds by Bruno Munari in reds and blues and yellows that seemed distilled from actual feathers. It was the only book Pedro had brought with him from Argentina when his family had fled the persecution of an anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic dictatorship. All the others had been left behind and had perhaps gone up in smoke. When Rosalie was a child, Pedro used to sit with her for hours and show her the pretty pictures. "What did you see?" I asked again.

Rosalie put her finger to her lips in a gesture of silence, smiled as if to comfort me and squeezed my hand.

Two days later, she was dead.

I found her holding the lyre-mirror to her chest, face down, as if she were seeking to incorporate the silver reflection in her body. Underneath was her children's book. How she found the strength to take the mirror down from the wall I had no idea.

The past recedes from me after that, as if my personal history were pulled out to sea for a period of years. I know I must have worked and ate and talked with people--done all the things one is expected to do in order to survive. But my thoughts from that time are bounded by the impenetrable black ocean of an ancient epic. When my history finally does emerge up through this dark landscape again, it is with Rosalie's face as its masthead; a week ago, almost four years to the day after her death, I saw her reflected in the slow mirror. From her surroundings, I could tell that she was standing in the doorway of my linen closet. She was staring straight ahead with what I can only call the face of a woman adoring a child. After some time, she kneeled down and kissed the surface of the looking glass.

I watched all this in her room. From inside a warm ether that seemed to be composed of tears. From under her blankets. For I had re-hung the mirror on her wall after her death and begun to sleep in her bed.

The next day, I watched myself in the reflection carrying the mirror to her room and hanging it on the wall, exactly as I had done nearly four years earlier.

After that, I lived Rosalie's final hours without pausing for sleep. I believe it was peace I saw in her face more than anything else. Was it simply the antique store that was helping her so? I hadn't a clue until I saw her rise from the bed with the childhood book she was keeping on her night table and glide with the ease of specter across the floor. She stopped to the right of the mirror and stared for quite some time, then climbed onto the dresser and took it down. She brought it into bed with her and gripped it as one might hold a sick child.

A few moments later, there was only the darkness of her unwavering chest. On the evening I witnessed all this in the mirror, I flew down to Buenos Aires. Upon my arrival, I took a taxi directly to the antique store. The ancient Uruguayan dealer from Paysandú was still there. "El espejo atrasado, no?" he asked when I entered.

"Si, may I look around?"


The Portuguese dresser in the twisted-and-turned style was still at the back of the store. Another mirror was resting on it now, a normal one, which reflected my hand when I held it up as an experiment. I stood where Rosalie had and stared. From my angle, I could see a bookshelf. It seemed clear that whatever she had seen, she had spotted there.

I passed over the books as quickly as I could till I was stopped by the name Munari. It was another of his children's books. On the cover, a scarlet finch perched on a sunflower. I pressed it to my chest and closed my eyes, was suddenly dizzy with a mixture of amazement and fear. My booming heartbeat was swaying me from side to side. My feet felt rooted at the very center of the world. I gripped the Portuguese dresser in case I sensed myself going faint.

When I gathered to courage to caress the book open, I found an inscription in Ladino to Pedro from his mother dated: Purim, the 14th of Adar, 5707 (1947). I sounded out the message in a whisper: "Para mi pequeño pájaro con amor. El imposible es la prueba." (For my little bird with love. The impossible is the proof.)

The strange sensation that these words were meant for me seemed to suspend my breathing. From deep inside an armor of body, I felt as if I had happened upon an understanding of the world grounded in belief. Was it this belief that had given Rosalie the serenity she possessed before death? Pedro must surely have passed on his mother's words to her years ago. Did they assure her that she'd be joining him in God?

When the movements of another customer tugged me back into consciousness of the store, I paid for the book. The dealer said, "Isn't that the mystery of life. We had this lovely thing displayed prominently for many years and no one bought it. Now that it's hidden away, you come in and find it. You figure it out."

"Maybe this has something to do with it," I said, showing him the book's inscription. To his wide-eyed look of bewilderment, I said: "It's Ladino. A Jewish Spanish written with Hebrew letters dating from before the Inquisition." I read him the message from Pedro's mother.

"What do you think it means?" he asked.

I unfurled my arm to indicate the store, the street, the antiques. I pointed at him, then at myself. "Has the unlikeliness of the world itself...or something absolutely impossible that's occurred never made you feel that there's more to this than meets the eye?"

"Ah, I understand," he said. He puffed out his lips and held up his hands in a gesture of passive skepticism. As he started to speak, I raised my index finger to my lips and offered him Rosalie's soft smile of silence.

On my return to San Francisco, I took the mirror down and sold it to a Chilean antique dealer in the Mission District with brilliant blue eyes. And flew to Cornell. I walked in the woods during several days, holding the children's books, not knowing what I was after, until an arrow of pastel pink streaked by in front of me. It was a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, a female, and she had alighted on the branch of a gnarled oak tree directly above me. She was staring at the ground. When I looked down, I discovered a puddle of water atop a bed of moss. It was reflecting the face of a tearful old woman, a sudden winged shimmer of pink passing through green clouds into a sunlit sky. And I thought: Dreams, too, are impossible. And: Whether I know it or not, this woods, this place, is here all the time.

Michael Fieni