Mirror Image

I had an important job interview to go to. I went in the bathroom to get ready, and as I flipped on the light, I was shocked and appalled by the face that confronted me in the mirror. I saw myself, looking frayed and frazzled and malnourished. There was a large purple bruise across my right eye, and the bones of my jaw stood out sharply, and the corners of my mouth kept twitching, seeming to form various cackles of mania and pale expressions of distress and extreme anxiety of their own accord. Strangest of all, there were several large, festering black sores protruding from my face and forehead.

As I leaned forward, I saw that the sores were actually the blossoms of some unknown variety of black flower that had somehow taken root in my skin. The petals looked like something burnt, like they would turn to ashes at the touch. But I tugged at one of the petals and it held firm. I started to panic a little, thinking about the job interview, trying to figure out how to clean myself up. But my panic only drove the face in the mirror to cackle and twist and twitch even more, making it all that much more grotesque. I grabbed at the black flower on my forehead, and as I tried to tear it off, I saw my left eye pull shut as I winced from the pain.


The Broom

On a cold winter morning the guards led me out to a snow-covered field where a massive stone chopping block and an executioner with a heavy wooden axe were waiting for me. I was part of a large family that had ruled the kingdom for ages. But now the family had been overthrown and all the other family members had been eliminated. I was the last one that they had left to deal with. The young prince of the new ruling family stood beside the executioner as a witness, his pale face hard and petulant, his arms folded across his chest, his right fist flexing and cracking the leather of his black glove.

As the guards were lowering me to my knees before the chopping block, the prince put up his hand to stop them. He gave them a short nod, indicating that he wanted a second to speak to me, to indulge his curiosity. Then he asked me the simplest question of all. He asked me if I was angry. I laughed at the question. I told him that the magnitude of what was happening was far beyond the possibility of anger. I looked out to where the sky and snow faded into grey on the horizon, and I told him that I felt like a bird that was about to fly away and vanish forever. How could I be angry? What good would it do me?

The prince still had his hand held up as he took a moment to consider my answer. Then he flipped his palm over and gestured for the guards to help me to my feet, and I knew then that I had been spared. “From now on, you will be just another commoner,” he told me. “Your family name will be stripped of any significance that it once had. Any thought that you might have of regaining power will be like trying to grasp at the air. There will be nothing there for you. You will be no one.” He said that I would become the caretaker of the castle, serving the new ruling family. And in a briefly improvised ceremony, a broom was brought out from a stable nearby and placed into my hands as a coronation of my new position. I nodded eagerly. I accepted everything gladly. I clutched the cold wooden handle. There were chunks of snow and ice in the bristles.

And so I stayed on, sweeping the halls of the castle clean in the winters, and tending to the gardens outside in the summers. And that feeling of being a vanishing bird carried me through the rest of my life. I felt it whenever I passed by a window and saw the clouds in the blue sky, whenever I paused in my sweeping to look at the portraits hung in the main gallery, whenever the midday shadows fell deep along the stone walls, whenever I heard the bells toll the birth of a new royal child, or the marriage of the princess, or the crowning of the prince. I swept down through all these moments, days scattered by the handful, only ever touching down slightly, grazing them barely, like things dreamt of or already remembered, beautiful, beautiful things of no consequence whatsoever.

Stars on the Water

A young woman in a white dress was leading me through the woods to a spot that she wanted to show me. It was very early in the morning and still dark out and it was hard to see the path in front of me, but she seemed to know every step of the way. So I followed close behind her, and it was easy to see her white dress even in the dark. She knew the common as well as the Latin names of every tree and flower that we passed, and she called them back to me in a hushed voice and waved her hand at them as we went by. Whenever there was a break in the trees and we could see the stars, she would tell me the names of the costellations that she could make out: Cassiopeia, Pegasus, the big dipper and the little. She had a very prim and proper way of speaking, like reciting a lesson, or giving one.

I trudged along behind her, listening and nodding, grabbing at branches to hoist myself up at steep spots in the path. It occurred to me that a more cynical person might find her irritating, might think that she was spilling forth all this knowledge to show off, to make herself look smarter than everyone else. But I could tell that her enthusiasm came from a genuine place. She was simply excited about everything, about life, about the world, and so she had learned the given names of the things that interested her. I thought about the people that probably gave her a hard time for this, that made her feel like she was doing something wrong out of their own sense of inadaquacy, that made her feel apart from everyone else. So we moved along the twists and turns in the path, her reciting the names of the flowers and the trees, and me contemplating the loneliness of her life.

I heard the sound of flowing water somewhere nearby, growing stronger as we went, and as it began to get lighter out, I was able to discern through a break in the trees that there was a small stream running alongside the path, the ground sloping down towards it on our right. The path had led us down to the stream and it turned to follow along the course that the water had cut through the mud and the rocks and the smoothed stones. The path dipped down to the bank in spots, and then it would shy away and climb back up the hill away from the bank, and in these meadering places the young woman would dig in her heels and hike up the hem of her dress, spotted here and there with brown speckles of dirt and mud. At the top she would wave me on as the day broke through and the leaves and grass showed a brighter green around her.

Finally, we came to a spot where the stream emptied into a small pond. There was an opening in the trees along the east bank of this pond and the sun rose in this opening, showing the trees and the sky again in the surface of the water, clearer and calmer still than their orginals. We sat down in some tall grass beside the pond, and the young woman produced a small silver teapot that she had brought with her. She lifted the lid just a little ways and she held it up for me to see inside. I peered down into the teapot and I saw five little jewels of light, like stars, floating on the dark water within. The light from these stars shimmered against the metal insides of the teapot.

The young woman explained that she had come to the pond in the middle of the night and she had gathered up some of the stars that had been reflected in the water. She had taken these relected stars home and then, with a great deal of deliberation and patience, she had used a spoon to arrange the stars into a constellation of her own devising. Now she had brought the stars back to release them into the wild. She crawled down to the edge of the water and she carefully poured the teapot back into the pond. She came back and sat beside me in the grass. She said that now we just had to wait the day through, for the sun to climb overhead and finally set somewhere behind the trees on the far side of the pond, for the birds and the bugs to sing through the long heat of the afternoon, until finally it would be dark again and the stars would be out again, those five newly configured points of light rejoining them on the water and in the sky above.

The Red Convertible

I was flipping through the channels when some news footage from the local traffic helicopter caught my attention. I saw myself, driving down the highway in my white car in the middle of rush hour traffic. The camera panned back to focus on a red convertible sports car that was speeding along, weaving from lane to lane, whipping around all the other cars like they were standing still. The camera tracked this red convertible until it came flying up behind my car, nearly hitting me. The car swooped around me into an opening in the lane to the left of me, and then it shot back into the lane in front of me in the narrowing gap between the front of my car and the rear end of a car in the lane ahead of it. It was only by grace of the fact that I slammed on my brakes that the car was able to get in front of me without taking out a huge chunk of my fender.

The news footage highlighted this encounter. It showed it again in slow motion, this time freezing on the moment that the car slipped in front of me and drawing a big circle on the monitor at the point where our cars nearly collided. A pair of commentators discussed this event as though it were the game winning touchdown. One of them drew an arrow on the monitor pointing to my brake lights, rightly giving me credit for preventing the accident. I remembered this incident. At the time it had just been a passing annoyance, forgotten five minutes after it happened. But now, having seen a broader view of the incident, having seen what a general menace the red convertible had been to everyone on the road, and not just me, and also just feeling generally impressed that the news had considered the incident important enough to commit an entire prime time segment to it, I felt much more righteously outraged about the whole thing.

I felt the need to vent this outrage somehow. Whenever anyone came over, I tried to show them the footage. But they would get fidgety and say that they had to leave. I took the TV with me when I went to visit friends. But as soon as I went to plug it in, they would start making excuses. They had to get up in the morning. They weren’t feeling well. Someone had to walk the dog. And so on. No one cared about seeing the footage. They didn’t care that this reckless maniac was still out there. They didn’t care that I had almost gotten into an accident. They didn’t even care that the event had been convered by the news! I was just left holding the plug, watching as a series of increasingly indifferent people left the room.

The frustration of not being able to show anyone this footage started to wear me down. I let myself go. I stopped showering. I stopped trimming my hair and my beard. I lost my job. I got kicked out of my home. I started to spend all my time riding the city bus with the TV in my lap. Whenever someone sat across from me, I would tap on the blank screen of the unplugged TV, grumbling and mumbling, “See there? He didn’t even care that he almost hit me! He didn’t even slow down.” Eventually, the person across from me would nod, look this way and that, and then get up and find another seat. I would just hug the TV close and go on mumbling to it.

One day at dusk, I was down at the dump, picking through the trash heaps there, looking for scraps of food or for something I could sell or salvage. I had my TV with me, tucked under one arm, and I sorted through the garbage with my free hand. I saw some birds circling in the darkening sky a few heaps away. I figured that they must have found something good. I started to make my way over there, climbing to the top of the heap that I had been picking through. I was just about to scramble over the top when the loose cord of the TV caught on a wooden pallet that was lying on the heap. The stuck cord jerked me back and it yanked the TV out from under my arm. I tried to grab it, but it tumbled down the heap and hit the ground with a hard punch, shattering into pieces.

My heart gripped painfully. My mouth and jaw worked soundlessly for a moment as I looked down at the wreckage. And then a terrible sick moan issued from the pit of my stomach and filled the dumping grounds. I clambered down, scooping up the broken pieces of glass and metal in my gnarled hands. I just kept crying, “No! No!” as I tried to cram the TV back into being by grinding the pieces between my fists. But then I looked up at the birds, still circling. A tear cooled on my cheek. I began to laugh and laugh. It was over! I was free.

Losing Blood

My wife and I were invited to a high society party at a penthouse in the city. The guests were all elegantly dressed and the air was ignited with an evening glow as the setting sun broke between the buildings along the city skyline. The host tapped his glass and got up to make a speech. Everyone turned to listen and I strained on the tips of my toes to look out over everyone’s heads so that I could see the man. He wore a tuxedo and his thick, salt and pepper hair was swept back in a wave. He held up a martini glass as he spoke. He had such a free and easy way of speaking, like a musical harmony of words. It was impressive. It sounded like something from a movie. I’d never heard anything so polished in real life. And I thought that this was why the man was rich; this was why he had all this; this was why there were all these people at his party. He had made his fortune on that voice, on his suave and easy demeanor. He could convince anyone of anything.

Later, when all the guests were mingling, we ran into him in the hallway. He was still holding his martini glass. He thanked us for coming, and as I shook his hand, I had a moment where I realized that I had met him before. I had a sudden flash of his face, that same face, in another place and time. He had been sitting in an arm chair beside a window wearing an overcoat. The colors were faded in memory, and his face had looked somehow older in that quieter setting and in the cold light that had shone on him through the window. But it was him. He’d had that same smile. My wife and I had had bags packed, and we were about to go somewhere. We were moving away, starting new lives. I remembered that we had been joking with him about something, and then he had unexpectedly reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a check that he had already made out to us. I remembered that he had insisted that we take it. I remembered his warm smile. I remembered thanking him.

My wife and I were a bit starstruck, impressed that we knew someone so charming and important. We nodded to each other. In what seemed to be one fluid motion with life choreographing itself smoothly under his every move, the man discarded his empty martini glass onto a passing tray and waved for to follow him with a casual sweep of two ringed fingers. He said that he wanted to show us something. He led us to a room down the hall, where a woman was lying in a hospital bed. The man explained that this was his wife. He told us that she desperately needed a blood transfusion. He didn’t ask me outright, but I understood and I nodded. I felt that I owed him something for the money he had given us.

I was taken an empty room next door. It was like an examination room in a doctor’s office. The same equipment and white cabinets and jars of cotton swabs and tongue depressors. I took off my dinner jacket and sat down on a stool and rolled up my sleeve. A doctor came in and everything was set up for the procedure. They found a vein to tap and the blood began to flow out of me. The doctor left the room and left me alone. I had a moment where I thought that this was taking too long, that I was losing too much blood. I thought about calling out, but I couldn’t seem to muster up the strength. Everything in the room started to seem like it was very far away. And then all the weight seemed suddenly lifted from my head, and I passed out.

It was cold when I woke up. The needle was still in my arm, but the line was dry. There were papers and scattered refuse on the floor. The light was different. The air felt different. I wondered how long I had been out. I was a little dizzy as I first got up, but my strength came back to me in fits and surges. I went back out to the hallway. There were holes in the ceiling there, and the daylight shone through. There were half-dried puddles on the floor where the rain had come through the holes. I passed down the hall through patches of light and darkness. All the party guests were long gone, and the house looked like it had been deserted for a long time.

I came to a room where a small group of people were fighting over a ripped up couch. They were dirty and wild and clearly just squatting in the penthouse. Two of them, a man and woman, were tugging one of the cushions back and forth between them until it ripped along a seam and the moldy stuffing flew out everywhere. They both tumbled backwards, cursing and laughing. I passed the doorway without entering the room or engaging in their dispute.

The elevator wasn’t working, and I had to take the stairs all the way to the ground floor. The rest of the building was quiet and deserted as well, and there were more holes and places where the daylight shone through. There was no traffic out in the streets, and the few cars I saw were broken down on the side of the road, stripped, some with campfires burning in them. I saw people pass by dressed in rags, pushing their belongings in rusty shopping carts. They just glanced glumly at me as they passed and trudged on.

I couldn’t understand what had happened. Where had everyone gone? Where was I? I looked up the face of the building to the penthouse far above. The party, the people, they had all faded off like a mist. I looked down at my arm. I could still see the pin prick from the needle. Had they taken that place, that world out of me somehow, extracted it with my blood? I had no idea how to get back. I turned and stared down the street. I passed some people huddled around a garbage can, fighting over some scraps of rotten meat that they had found at the bottom.