Mirrors and Marvels
Chantal Schaul, 2001
I woke up lying in the midst of one of the thickest forests I have ever seen. The trees had grown so densely that hardly any sunshine could squeeze through the engulfing foliage. The humid and cold mossy ground was colonized by the oddest bugs of all shapes and hues. A sunbeam managed to burn its way through the thicket of tree-crowns and stroke me right in my middle, from which it bounced off and disappeared back into unfathomable growths.
I heard footsteps approaching, eagerly at first, then hesitantly. As soon as the owner of the feet discovered me to be the source of the reflected light, he came to a halt. It was a young man, tall, light-skinned but dark-haired, clad in a dirty craftsman’s overall. When he identified me as a mirror he became anxious. He stared at me, upheaval and dilemma struggling in his eyes. Then he slowly moved closer and bent over me, looking at my mirroring middle.
I might as well tell you straightaway who this lad was and what his circumstances were, for I am not an ordinary mirror. To outsiders I call myself a ‘mirror of consequence.’ I can look into the future and reveal the consequences of their actions before they are even performed. But I am able to look not only into the future, but also the present and past. I am omniscient. But that, I keep to myself. To get back to the young man now, I shall inform you right away about his background.
In a little village in the middle of nowhere once lived a mirror maker, Michael Bipetus, and his wife Linda. Michael manufactured mirrors of all kinds, including more unusual products like rear-view mirrors for oxen, horses and sheep (so they wouldn’t be startled by the swift approach of an all too eager, workaholic farmer), systems of alarm mirror chains that led into the house owner’s bedroom and warned him of any approaching thieves or arsonists, and mirror dials for watches to remind their owner that time was not important. These are but a few of Michael’s special mirror products.
Michael and Linda had seven children, six of whom died young in a terrible accident. They were polishing mirrors in their father’s warehouse, singing happy songs to pass the time, when a mild earthquake shook the walls of the flimsily constructed building and demolished the hundreds of mirrors into millions of splinters, tumbling down like lethal icicles and reproducing on their surfaces gory scenes of agony and death. The massacre of the mirrors spared not one living soul inside the warehouse.
The seventh child, called Will, was thirteen years old at the time. He had not partaken in the mirror polishing because he had to be kept away from all reflective surfaces. As a toddler he had shown the first signs of a disorder that was later diagnosed as mirror mania. It made him look into mirrors or reflective surfaces and act in a self-reflexive way. Sometimes he tried to behave like his mirror-double, doing everything in reverse. His schoolteacher despaired because of his inverted handwriting. A child psychologist finally advised Will to avoid all contact with mirrors because they affected his mind.
Michael was doubly disappointed. The only child he had left was a pathological case. In addition to this, his family business, which he had intended to last over endless generations, was in serious jeopardy. He could not hide his open aversion for the leftover boy. Linda, however, took good care of her only child, replacing everything reflective in the house, like windows, cutlery, cookie tins, kitchen foil, cheese graters, and so forth, by wooden or rough-surfaced plastic items. She never allowed him to take a bath without a copious amount of foam covering the entire water surface.
In his younger years, Will’s instinctual urge to see himself reflected was stronger than his rational understanding of the mirror disability. Often, he could not stop himself from being magnetically drawn to each source of visual echo that lay in his path. Once, he was found in a state of utter daze in front of an old pair of sunglasses that lay in a patch of wild grass. Winter was an especially dangerous season for the boy, because every frozen pool of water was a potential source of insanity.
Linda decided to take the boy to a reflectionism specialist. The solution that the medical man came up with were reflection-filtering spectacles, attached behind the ears with miniature padlocks for extra safety. These glasses immediately improved Will’s quality of life and his precarious relation towards himself. What the glasses couldn’t cure, however, was his deeply rooted indecisiveness. He had been isolated for such a long time that the endless decision-making, which the contact with the outside world always involves, came tumbling down on him all at once. Unprepared as he was for this difficult task, his parents took all the decisions for him, so that he never had to worry about which course his life was taking. Even his career in anti-reflective glass frame constructing was chosen by his father.
Will was twenty-three years old when another catastrophe sought out his family. It happened on an unusually hot and sunny summer afternoon, while Will was delivering anti-reflective glass windows in the vicinity. The sunbeams that entered Michael’s warehouse were so exceedingly strong and hot that, through the never-ending mirroring process, which took place in-between the hundreds of mirrors, the beams were intensified so severely and scorched the mirrors to such a degree that their frames caught fire.
Michael attempted to extinguish the abysmal blaze but he was swallowed up by the flames, witnessing his own agony a hundred-fold. Linda, meanwhile, tried to extinguish the fire from outside the warehouse by pouring buckets of water over its walls. She tried to peep inside the building to catch sight of her husband, but instead, her eyes were hit by an intensified sunbeam, which had passed through various states of reflection and mercilessly blinded her.
Having thus lost her sight, Linda, escaping the heat of the fire, stumbled forward towards a sheep, which stood gazing into the wide open space of a blooming meadow. She would have been saved by the soft collision, had it not been for the sheep’s rear view mirrors, which prompted it to move out of her way. Instead, Linda fell over a protruding stone, face forward into the meadow. Had not the farmer’s young child of five left a rake lying in the grass, spikes turned upwards, Linda’s life could have been saved.
Luckily, Will’s stoicism had been developed at an early age. After his parents’ burial he intended to get on with his life without further disruption. He had, however, forgotten how much he had always relied on his parents to make decisions for him. Now that they had gone, he could not make up his mind about what to wear, what to eat, when to eat, where to shop, what to shop for, what facial expression to opt for when shopping, what intonation to choose when talking to someone, who to talk to, what to say, how to align his legs and arms, and whether to incline his head or not. His old mirror-induced self-consciousness had come back with a vengeance.
One day, when Will found himself in a terrible dilemma about whether to clean his glasses or not, he got into such a state of confusion that he ended up using the wrong, too acid, cleanser and damaged the glasses to such an extent that they went milky white. Will panicked and ran into the forest. This was when he discovered me, lying in my mossy bed.
He picked me up, his old mirror mania lurking to take over again. But how surprised he was when he realized that he could not see himself reflected in my surface! He angled me differently, but to no avail. I finally decided to speak out: ‘I am a magic mirror.’ He instantly dropped me, but then knelt down next to me and scrutinized my surface. ‘Did you just speak?’ I continued: ‘I am a mirror of consequence. I speak and I can foretell the consequences of specific actions. But I don’t reflect.’ Will’s face brightened up. He was out of danger. ‘Can I take you with me?’ He mused. ‘Go ahead,’ I said in a determined voice, so that he would run no danger of indecision.
He took me to his house and told me his whole life-story, which, of course, I already knew. The next day he bought new reflection-filtering glasses. From then on, every situation in life that presented him with more than one possibility of action was resolved by him watching the potential consequences unfold on my surface. His framed anti-reflexive glass business flourished as a consequence of the insights I provided. His outer appearance and wardrobe improved merely by familiarizing himself with the consequent reactions of his fellow people.
One day, however, a most important situation presented itself to Will. Perhaps he blew it out of all proportion, but that is not for me to decide. The event threw Will into utter despair. He was selling anti-reflexive shot glasses on the market in a small town nearby. These glasses were especially designed to save lovers of strong liquors from confusion when double vision set in. The stall on Will’s right, usually occupied by an old woman who sold square Brussel sprouts, was, on that eventful day, manned by a young, ravishingly beautiful fairy-like creature. She had the most voluptuous hair of the strangest hue imaginable and appeared to float above the ground. She was selling paintings.
Will carefully listened to every word she said to her customers and to a companion called Felix, who seemed to be her uncle. He found out that her name was Fiorella, that she was passing through town and only staying for three days. To earn some money for the travel expenses she sold paintings of foreign lands. Uncontrollably, Will fell head over heels and irreversibly in love with the strange beauty. At home, he was plagued by the most severe agonies caused by clusters of dilemmas. What could he possibly say or do to win her over? There were various possibilities. The first one was for Will to look over at her paintings in an interested way and to say: ‘Those paintings are marvellous!’ He watched the consequences of these words unravel themselves on my surface.
‘Well, thank you,’ she replied. Will proceeded: ‘Are those real places?’ ? ‘They are,’ she said and fell silent again. He continued: ‘They look like they depict different places in the world. Have you been travelling a lot?’ – ‘This one I painted in Japan, that one in Argentina, that one in Alaska, that one in Majorca and this one in Wales.’ – ‘Where are you going next?’ – ‘Italy.’ – ‘Ah. Have you painted something in this area as well?’ She nodded and unveiled a fresh picture of the very forest that I had spent so much time in. Will was looking at the details of the depiction, when Fiorella suddenly vanished. He searched for her in every nook and cranny, but to no avail. Even her uncle was nowhere to be found.
The next day the stall was occupied by the old woman selling square Brussel sprouts again. There was no trace of Fiorella. Will asked the old woman if she knew about her, but she seemed demented and mumbled some unintelligible sounds. The irrational urge to follow the mysterious maiden into the dark recesses of Italy was mirroring in Will’s eyes. That same day he acquired a learning aid manual called Italian in Less than Three Days, packed in an hour and set out for Italy. He walked, he hitchhiked, he took trains, buses, rented cars and bikes, and even rode an ass once. His fractured journey took him three days exactly, by which time, thanks to the marvellous manual, he was able to speak Italian fluently and write it flawlessly.
Unfortunately, Will had no idea whereabouts in Italy he would be able to find Fiorella. First, he intended to let himself be guided by ravishingly beautiful landscapes, but there were so many of them, that he got confused. He travelled further South and, after three years of roaming Italy and having spent almost his entire budget, he finally spotted Fiorella sitting on an old oak bench in front of a little white-brushed farmer’s house, staring in front of her.
As he approached her, he saw that her face had gathered a lot of wrinkles in the past three years. Her multicoloured hair had lost some of its thickness. As she became conscious of his presence, he asked carefully: ‘Do you remember me? I approached you on a market in the middle of nowhere and complimented you on your paintings three years ago.’ She was puzzled and after some reflection said in a low-key voice: ‘No, sorry, I don’t remember any of that.’ Will was not yet defeated. ‘I have been trying to find you for three years now. Seeing you so dejected breaks my heart. Could you tell me what happened?’
Fiorella seemed doubtful towards the stranger for a moment but then talked openly: ‘I lost my uncle two years ago. He died in a derailment. He had theorized about the idea of duplicated farming for years. It involves not only doubling the numbers of the seeds but also genetically doubling the size of plants and fruits. After his death, my parents tried to increase our income by practising this new kind of farming. But my father was smothered by the opaqueness of his wheat plants when he inspected the field, and my mother was struck dead by an overripe apple. My brother Toto and I let everything go to waste. Three months ago he went out to find a treasure island in order to improve our finances. But he has not returned yet, and I wonder if he ever will.’
Fiorella fell silent. Her eyes overflowed with despair. Will determined to save her: ‘Let’s get a boat and find your brother.’ She looked at him with newly gained enthusiasm: ‘Really? Would you do that for me?’ – ‘Of course. Let’s go immediately.’ She smiled. Will had never been on the sea, as his home country did not possess any shores. But he was so eager to help the maiden in distress that he overlooked his little shortcoming.
They set off that same day, having purchased some provisions. But, alas, they got lost on the sea, ran out of provisions after three days, got caught in a storm and cruelly tossed out of their little boat. At that moment, a whale was roaming around, scanning the sea for food. It did not even notice swallowing Fiorella and Will up whole. Inside the whale’s trunk, Fiorelly began to cry bitterly. Will tried to console her as best as he could, but then got distracted by something shiny stuck between two of the whale’s ribs.
He went over and pulled out a full-sized mirror, fully intact and sparkling clean. As he had lost his anti-reflective glasses in the storm, he was instantly mesmerized by the reflection. He could not help staring into the mirror and behaving in reverse. After a while, even his speech pattern became inverted. Fiorella wiped her tearful eyes, approached the mirror and stared at it silently. She stopped talking, listening and moving. By then, Will had reached a state of mind beyond sanity and no longer paid attention to her.
Here the concatenation of consequences stopped. Will was startled. ‘What next? What happened?’ – ‘It did not happen.’ – ‘Yes, yes, of course. But what would happen next?’ – ‘Nothing. You both die inside the whale.’ – ‘Oh. Well I won’t go for this option then.’ He reflected for a while. ‘Ok, what would happen if I went up to her and said: “Hello. I am Will. I am glad you replaced that old hag who used to sell square Brussel sprouts!”’
Fiorella did not seem very flattered, but tried to look polite. ‘I am only staying for two more days here. The old hag is a rather friendly old lady, by the way.’ Will retreated from his initial position: ‘Oh, well, yes, I didn’t mean to be insulting. Sorry.’ After a pause he went on: ‘So where are you from?’ – ‘I have been travelling since I was a child. My uncle Felix here has always accompanied me.’ She motioned her uncle towards them, who smiled at Will and said eagerly: ‘Oh, may I try on your glasses? I need to get some myself and I wonder what style would suit me.’
Will was torn between his insecurity regarding his mirror disability and the embarrassment of revealing it. He gave in and handed his spectacles over to Felix. The latter tried them on with child-like enthusiasm, and – Will should have foreseen it happening – suddenly flashed a mirror in front of him to contemplate his face in combination with the glasses on his nose. He uttered a small sound of triumph and turned towards his niece to let her see the composition, too. This small movement, however, involved turning his back towards Will and thus pointing the mirror directly into his direction.
Will, deprived of his reflection-filtering glasses, went into his usual pathological state of mirror mania. He rudely grabbed the mirror from Felix’s hand and ran off with it. The crowd of people around him, who were also reflected in the mirror, confused him. He became unsure about his identity. Who was he? He could no longer put his finger on his own self. He felt like part of a carnival, playing all the different roles at once, wearing different masks and impersonating different characters simultaneously.
In his disordered state of mind, Will walked through the market place, in a complete daze, adapting his behaviour to fit the various reflections he saw. Thinking of himself as a multi-reflection, he could not re-enter his old life routine any more. Every day he roamed around on the market, over-exposing himself. The market customers assumed that he was an actor belonging to a new movement and gave him money for his performance. Thus he grew grey and old.
‘No! Stop!’ Will screamed. ‘I am not happy at all with this conclusion! Let me try another.’ – ‘Fine by me,’ I replied. But it had gone past midnight and Will had to get up early to go to the market. The next potential chain of consequences would have to wait until tomorrow.
The following morning, Will was the first seller on the market. Fiorella and her uncle arrived three hours later, together with all the other traders. She had a new collection of drawings with her, all depicting scenes from the forest that surrounded Will’s village. One of them displayed the roof of his warehouse in the distance. ‘Oh no!’ He thought. ‘She was so close to my house while I was watching potential consequences!’ Ruthless regrets rippled through his body. He could not concentrate on his business. He ignored some customers, while eavesdropping on Fiorella. He could not add up the correct change. To simplify matters he gave away the glasses for free. But by lunchtime all his wares had gone. He gathered some artistic looking pebbles from the roadside and exhibited them on his stand.
Meanwhile, Fiorella seemed to have noticed the strange behaviour of her stall neighbour. At the end of the market day she offered him a portrait, which she had drawn of him, in order to console him about his financial losses. Will was so surprised and dumbfounded by the sudden real confrontation with the object of his desire that he could not utter one single syllable. All he managed was a grateful nod.
That evening Will blamed himself relentlessly for letting this wonderful opportunity slip away between his fingers. When he finally calmed down, he wanted to know what would happen if he said to her: ‘I will say it straight out: “I am undescribably and uncontrollably and irreversibly in love with you.”’
Fiorella looked at him for a moment, then smiled kindly and answered: ‘Thank you for so much honesty. To be truthful, I already guessed as much from your strange behaviour yesterday. I will pay you a visit tonight, because there is something I must tell you.’ Will was extremely astonished at her words. ‘But do you know where I live?’ – ‘Oh yes, but ask no more questions now. Wait until tonight and I will give you a full account of what you need to know.’ Will nodded and went back to his shot glass stand. When he looked back over his shoulder, she had disappeared with her uncle and her paintings. Doubting his sanity, he accidentally demolished a few shot glasses.
That evening he cleaned the whole house before she was due to arrive. He waited and waited. Just before midnight the doorbell rang. It was her, but some strange change had taken place. Whereas earlier, she only gave the impression that she was floating, now there was no more doubt about it. She emanated a visible aura and spread an atmosphere of super-humanity. She drifted into the house and said: ‘I am a fairy and my real name is Etherelle. Because you have been so honest today, I will cure you of your mirror disorder.’
Will was flabbergasted: ‘You know about my disorder?’ – ‘Don’t be ashamed. I know everything. I have known you for a long time. I am the old woman who sells square Brussel sprouts on the market.’ Will had to sit down. He could not believe that this ravishingly beautiful maiden and the old ugly warty woman were one and the same person. He understood why he would have insulted her, had he actually called the old woman a hag, and exhaled a breath of relief, although it had never even happened.
Etherelle went on: ‘The real Fiorella does exist however, and she lives in southern Italy. I took on her appearance to see whether you would fall in love with her. Now that this essential step has been taken, it is worth the trouble of taking you to Italy so you can meet her.’ Will was puzzled. She resumed: ‘Fiorella is suffering from a similar mirror disorder to yours. My mission is to bring together people with similar problems, so they can relate to each other. I sometimes cure them, if they prove themselves worthy. It is up to you whether you want to proceed or not. Of course I know that you also suffer from severe indecision, so I will take this decision for you and take you to Italy tomorrow. Here, take this manual Italian in One Night. Read it, so that you will be able to speak Italian fluently by tomorrow.’
Will obeyed. He packed and spent the rest of the night learning Italian. Etherelle came back in the morning, took Will’s hand and clicked her fingers. Fiorella’s white-brushed little house was visible in the distance. ‘I will leave you to it now,’ Etherelle said. But her voice had turned into the croaky voice of an ancient woman. She had transformed back into the Brussel sprouts saleswoman. A ginger cat sat on her shoulder.
Will approached the house and knocked on the door. A male voice answered: ‘Come in!’ It turned out to belong to Fiorella’s uncle Maurizio. As soon as he had company, he started to enthuse about his new duplicated farming theory, describing in minute detail all the incredible fruit and vegetables that he would be able to grow. Will listened patiently, occasionally trying to dissuade Maurizio from his wild plans, but to no avail. Alarm bells rang in Will’s head when Maurizio mentioned his going to Padua on the train in a few days’ time, to see a major agricultural exhibition. He carefully suggested the potential danger of trains, when someone else entered the house.
It was Fiorella’s father Ugo. He immediately enquired about the reason of Will’s presence, who quickly explained: ‘I would like to meet your daughter because we are suffering from similar mirror disorders, and compare our experiences and empathise with her worries.’ This seemed a good enough reason to Ugo and he offered a glass of Amaretto to his guest, explaining that the glasses were anti-reflexive. At that moment, Fiorella entered the house.
She was carrying a basket full of olives that she had just plucked from a tree. Her father introduced Will: ‘This young man has got a similar mirror disorder to yours. Why don’t you two have a nice talk about it?’ Fiorella nodded and led her fellow sufferer into the herb garden. They sat down on a wooden bench, facing the setting sun. Will told her all about his reflection problems, including painful childhood experiences and moments of adolescent despair.
Fiorella listened attentively and unfolded her own past miseries: ‘My parents first found out about my disability when they discovered me paralyzed in front of my mother’s full-size bedroom mirror. Whenever I gazed at a reflected image of mine, I lost my hearing, my voice and could no longer move any of my limbs. My reflectionism specialist says that I get lost under the surface of the reflection and fall into the abyss behind it. It takes me three months to recover from a reflecting incident, to find my self again.’
Will looked at her with pity and caring: ‘Oh my God! You are more severely afflicted than I! I admire your strength to survive! And you don’t even have reflection-filtering glasses!’ – ‘I have learnt to control myself. But I could never have made it without the help of my family. They have always protected me from every reflection imaginable. They have always provided entertainment and fun, so I did not miss going out into the world. They have taught me twenty-seven languages, so that I would be prepared if one day I could be cured.”
Will had completely forgotten that Etherelle was going to cure them of their terrible affliction and, remembering it now, he burst out with the good news. Fiorella was sceptical at first, but Will’s sheer enthusiasm convinced her. They had to find the magic woman. What better place was there to look than the market town near Will’s native village? First of all, Will ordered a second pair of reflection-filtering glasses via post, so that Fiorella would be able to travel.
The whole family, including mother Paola and brother Toto, came along to seek the fairy. Uncle Maurizio had abandoned his plans to go to Padua because the welfare of his niece seemed more important than an agricultural exhibition. They rented a van and, after three days’ drive, they safely arrived in the little market town. Will ran ahead to Etherelle’s painting stall and announced eagerly: ‘I’ve brought Fiorella and her family with me. Will you still cure us from our mirror disorders?’ His companions caught up with Will at this point, and all came to a halt behind his back.
Etherelle could not forbear a good-natured smile at the eagerness of the two youngsters and replied: ‘Yes, I will cure you. You both deserve it.’ She clicked her fingers and said: ‘You will never be inflicted again by the sight of your own reflection.’ She took a mirror from her bag and held it in front of them. They gazed at themselves in the mirror and, for the first time in their lives, saw what they actually looked like. Perceiving themselves together inside the frame of the mirror, they realized how much they belonged to each other. That same day they agreed to wed.
Fiorella’s family decided to settle in Will’s native village and set up their farm next to Will’s house and workshop. Now that he was cured of his mirror disability he could finally continue his father’s mirror manufacturing business and no longer felt like a failure. Fiorella decorated the frames with Italian floral patterns. The loving couple had an abundant offspring and none of their lovely children suffered from any reflection shortcomings.
This was the end of the chain of consequences. Will burst out: ‘This is exactly what I want to happen! I will go to her tomorrow and say exactly that!’ After this exclamation he fell asleep. Unfortunately he overslept by a few hours and only regained consciousness during the late morning. In a panic he got dressed, ran to the market town, directly towards Etherelle’s stand, tore his mouth open and took a final deep breath in order to speak out. But in his fluster, he could not recall what he had to say in order to set off the right chain of events. He felt like a fool, nervously mused for a few seconds, while Etherelle looked at him expectantly, got completely confused and finally blurted out: ‘Can you please cure me of my mirror disorder, I mean, I don’t mean to, erm, I love you, and, erm I know that you are Etherelle, so please…’
The fair maiden just shook her head, whether in disbelief, in amazement, in contempt or in pity, who will ever be able to tell? She finally dismissed him with a shrug, turning towards her customer. Will suffered mental and physical breakdowns and collapsed on the ground in front of her stall. A couple of good-natured people carried him to the nearest bench. The last thing I saw of him was that he was taken away by an ambulance.
I am still lying next to the anti-reflective shot glasses on Will’s market stall. I wonder who will pick me up next.