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The Reflection of Andrew Douglas
In a home secluded by three quarter miles of forest from Gaithersburg, sat two men in a cramped parlor. The friends met often like this, talking, drinking, and laughing over articles from the paper. The mood of the room shifted this day, however, when the taller of the two men wandered into the obituaries and spotted the familiar name, Elizabeth Turner, who “departed mysteriously in the night at her brother’s Second Street residence at the age of 23.”
With morbid shock, the tall man fell silent and, trembling, pushed the paper into the embers of the fireplace. The other man, seeing this and becoming concerned, demanded to know his friend’s relation to Miss Turner.
“Mirrors are destructive things,” began the tall man, Andrew Douglas, in a somber tone unusual for him, “and I have avoided them for the fatter part of my adult life. It seems as though the man on one side of the glass is always discontent and malicious towards his counterpart, sometimes until one or both of them are destroyed.
“I will first tell you where it happened and then to whom.
“At that time the city of Baltimore’s ports were so dense with vessels, Philadelphians would visit in the summer with naïve, surprised comments; ‘You can hardly step from one ship without finding yourself on the deck of another’. The harbors were alive with the activities of dockhands, hauling crates and tying down skiffs. The town’s portside residents would sometimes gather on the rooftops of the cast-iron tenements for the game of spotting exotic objects being brought out from the hulls.
“Here the Jew-merchants and Spaniards sold broken toys and painted glass ‘gems’ from their dirty stalls to the miserable population of the harbor. The people here were of two varieties. There were those who were so defeated that they bothered to talk or act very little and instead spoke through the emptiness and exhaustion of their faces. These were the safer kind. Then there were those that refused to accept the hopelessness that permeated throughout the docks, until becoming violent and filled with bitterness. This was the sort that formed dens at corners and in alleyways who preyed on the out-of-town dandies who came with the warm weather. Even the children of the docks seemed more world-weary and beaten than others; I never saw games, pranks, or other types of merrymaking by the harbor. The children sat and piped quietly on stoops and looked out at passer-bys without a word or thought.
“It was in this damp and down-bringing setting where master Aden Gales spent much of his time, though he stressed to me the importance of keeping his outings there a secret between us. He was of high society like his father before him and frequently entertained similar collared types at the family address. He lived in the west part of the city where the buildings had gates and were made of stone. Perhaps it was his early life of shelter and boredom at home that instilled in him his envy for the poor. From the Gales’ nursery window, the harbor life may have seemed like an exotic game, an adventure of poverty and spontaneity. Deprived of this adventure as a youth, master Gales strolled through the winding paths of the port as an adult, every Monday evening, inhaling slowly and relishing the foreign atmosphere. I accompanied him on these strolls -- you see, I accompanied him everywhere as his head assistant.
“It was in October of last year that he discovered a mirror. We’d just exited a beautiful covered carriage given to Aden by his father on the occasion of master Gales’ marriage to his late bride Hannah. The coachman, not half as spellbound by this tin-roofed limb of the city as Aden, hurried the horses along not a moment after the compartment door shut behind us. Master Gales was immediately drawn to the market stalls fringing the grimy buildings. He floated from one to the other, picking up their trinkets, smiling, and then moving to the next. The two of us, dressed warmly in coats and suede tops, appeared as out of place as bright coins in a field of weathered pebbles.
“There was a sheet of canvas that stretched over an alleyway and served as a roof for the vendor below. He was a dark-colored man with tables arranged on either side of the narrow alley where bizarre, foreign-looking tools and silverware were laid out in display. Aden examined each table with awe and humor. He picked up a small, stone figurine of a heavy-set man in a sitting position.
“He laughed quietly and spoke to me. ‘Have a look at this, Douglas. What a strange toy… A terribly round, barely clothed man, smiling. I find it haunting. What do you make of it?’
“’I believe I’ve seen an image like this before,’ I replied, taking the stone man from his hand and scrutinizing it myself. ‘There’s some religious profoundness to it in the east.’ Master Gales was already walking away, captivated by something else. I placed the figurine back on the table and followed.
“Aden stopped beside a table on which a red cloth was draped over a tall, flat, irregular object. When thinking of master Gales’ innate curiosity, I believe it may have been the simple fact that the mirror was covered that drew his interest. Master Gales reached out and ran his hand down the surface of the cloth. Seeing Aden’s interest, I signaled the vendor over.
“’What is this under the cloth?’ I asked when the dark man had come to my side.
“The man looked excited when I asked this, seeming unusually eager for its sale. ‘Mirror,’ he said. ‘Yours for three dollars twenty cents.’ The price surprised me.
“’May we remove the cloth?’ Aden asked without moving his eyes from the mirror.
“The excitement dropped from the man’s face. ‘Mirror stays covered for now.’ He spoke in a firm tone though it seemed to me like a charade and that he was gravely afraid of allowing the cloth to be removed. His insistence that the mirror remain shrouded heightened master Gale’s desire to see it unveiled.
“’We’ll pay the price threefold to see the mirror uncovered on the spot,’ offered master Gales. I’ve wondered if it had been Aden or the mirror that had spoken.
“The vendor looked tempted and uncertain. ‘Quickly only,’ he said and appeared to immediately regret it. Swiftly, he swept away the red drape and waited only a moment before casting the cloth back over the mirror. The narrow moment that the mirror sat exposed enthralled master Gales. It was as though the curtain was hiding a fireworks show. I admit that there was more to the mirror than I imagined and felt myself wanting a second glimpse. It may have been its strange pear-shape or the way that it seemed to distort images in a way I could not describe.
“That evening a strange new mirror hung in the Gales home and a foreign vendor was ten dollars richer.” Andrew Douglas inhaled slowly and removed his spectacles as his memory now conjured a history it had long suppressed.
“The piano room was vast and dim. Shelves, tea tables, rugs, armchairs, ottomans, a statue of Freyja, and a harpsichord did nothing to make the space seem less barren. At the furthest wall from the door was a black granite mantle, beneath it a fireplace, above it the mirror. Before the mirror, a portrait of Hannah was mounted on the wall, watching the doorway and tormenting master Gales to the point where he tried to forget the room altogether. I thought it was best not to ask Aden what he did with the painting, although I later found what I thought was charred canvas in the fireplace.
“Master Gales, since the addition of the mirror, rediscovered the piano room and spent entire evenings by the mantle. I was disturbed by the lengths of time he would spend in the room, often with the door closed. When walking down the corridor, I would slacken my pace near the room and hope to overhear something of what he was doing. But nothing. Not the sound of a harpsichord, or even footsteps.
“It became rare to see him about the house. His outings from the room were brief and he kept his head down in his chest as though he did not want to be recognized. Days sometimes passed wherein I did not see him at all. When I could glimpse him, he seemed to be wearing make-up, gravely conscious of some imperfection. Concerned friends stopped at the home and asked if Aden was well, having not heard from him in over a week. I could only say I was as confused as them.
“I remember one evening however, when in passing the piano room, I could detect a faint conversation, made indistinct by the closed door. I believed that only Aden was in the room, yet I was certain I heard the tone of a female voice. As I drew nearer, pressing my ear to the door, I decided that Aden was in fact talking to himself with a feminine pitch. I was struck with heavy, sinking terror. The conversation in the room ended abruptly and I suspect that Aden realized I was listening. I backed away from the door slowly, trying to remain silent. Later, I assured myself that a friend of the gentler sex had paid him a nighttime visit that I was not aware of and I had in fact eavesdropped on the two of them talking. But I failed to convince myself.
“In early weeks after we purchased the mirror, Aden confided in me a strange dilemma of his. He expressed a wanting to welcome in the visiting friends and host the extravagant parties he once did, ‘but I am not able to,’ he said, ‘I feel afraid to let them in. Something is missing in me and is leaving me very cold. I know they will not recognize me because I am not whole in this respect.’ Confused, I did not offer any solace.
“By December, the visits had stopped. He had eroded into a shell of the man he once was. Baltimore’s prominent socialite was gone from him and I wondered, with doubt, if he was able to remember whom he had been. The guests that filled the parlor months ago had become memories and more saddening was that I could see this did not trouble master Gales. Strangely, I found myself bearing the self-pity that he seemed not to feel.
“I decided I would discover what he was doing in the solitude of the piano room. After supper one night, I followed him at a distance and watched him enter the room. I quickly brought myself to the threshold of the door and placing my hand on the knob, felt as though I was about to intrude on a forbidden space, like a whore in the holy of holies. I found myself standing there for minutes, hesitating. I could hear a muffled conversation. I slowly turned the knob just enough for a mouse to contort itself into the room. The chatter in the room became clear.
“’Look at yourself, Aden. Look in the glass and describe what you see,’ said master gales in a cruel way, using a falsetto.
“Then there was sobbing and in his natural voice he said, ‘I see a man in want for you. And he hurts, oh God! Is that why you left? Could you see my hurting?’
“’I could not bear the sight of you, Aden, and the melancholy you carry with you.’ The feminine voice reminded me of Hannah’s. There was an icy sort of dread in me. ‘Examine yourself, see what time has done to you. You are old and pitiful. How could I love you? Look at yourself.’
“A man cried, escalating to a wail. ‘How could you love me?’
“I forgot my intention to enter the room. The profound discomfort of overhearing the words made it difficult to move.
“Quietly, I closed the door and shrunk away from the room. The home was becoming dark and I convinced myself that I could go to sleep. Moonlight was drifting into the parlor and I noticed how derelict it seemed to me then. A year prior, master Gales was telling stories of his summer in Richmond there, Hannah at his side, a large group of us all laughing.
“I lay in bed awake, cursing the cold. The home was the same as it always had been, but it felt like dust was gathering on every surface, tiles were falling from the roof, and ivy was twisting around the gate. The isolation of the home was tangible and the texture was sickening.
“Morning came with a grotesque stillness to it. The home was silent, as it always was, and the city outside seemed unusually motionless. In passing Aden’s bedroom I saw that the door was ajar and the bed had not been slept in. I entered the dining room and saw that a plate had been made for master Gales, but, mysteriously, the food was untouched. The morbid conclusion washed over me with surprising grace. It did not stir mourning or horror, only a quiet affirmation.
“The piano room door was still closed. It felt odd to walk in the room after feeling barred from it for so long. I struck a high key on the harpsichord and the note melted the winter of the room, reminding me how long it had been since I last heard it sing. I walked to the mantle and felt strangely undisturbed at the scene. Aden was laid out on the floor. The statue of Freyja was standing at his feet, rouge caked to her face, and wearing one of Hannah’s dinner gowns. I looked up at the mirror and was struck with the same awe as when I had first seen it four months ago in a harbor stall.
“Looking at myself, I was keenly aware of my imperfections, more so than I had ever been. It was not just my unsightly nose and receding hairline that seemed exaggerated, but my cynicism, insecurity, weakness for money, and disgusting lusts. So revolted by my image, I dismounted the mirror and wrapped it in a woolen quilt that hung over an armchair. I considered smashing the mirror and disposing of it right then. Someone gasped behind me and startled me. I turned and saw the cook, a round young woman in a tidy frock. She clasped her face in shock and scurried back into the corridor to send for authorities.
“In the weeks following the burial, amidst the auctioning and arbitrary distribution of master Gales’ possessions to the home staff, I spent time in the piano room flipping through the notes and songbooks Aden kept there. I was reading a copy of the Child Ballads when the cook again entered the room, the furniture then shrouded in white cloth, awaiting new ownership.
“’Excuse me,’ she said as she walked across the room. ‘But I never did see what was under this quilt.’ I grew cold with vague premonition.
“’Mirror,’ I said quietly.
“’My brother has just come into a large residence in Gaithersburg, you see, and I promised I would salvage what furnishings I could for him. As a matter of fact, we’re considering my moving in with him there.’ She went on talking like this as she undid my intricate wrapping. ‘I wondered what was under this blanket for the longest time, but never pursued it. If I told you how much I puzzled over it, you would imagine me a lunatic.’
“It was as though I was again watching Aden run his fingers over the red veil when it sat in the harbor market those long months ago. The words of the dark vendor came to me suddenly and before I could stop myself I whispered, ‘Mirror stays covered for now.’
“’Pardon?’ She paused and looked at me.
“’I apologize, ignore me.’
She cast off the shroud and held up the naked mirror. Energetically, she said, ‘My word, this is beautiful. How fortunate that I found it!’
I was compelled by some inner guilt to say something for her sake. ‘I’m sorry, but I had plans for that mirror myself.’
“’Oh,’ she said, lowering the mirror, the happiness gone from her voice. Then she proposed, ‘Maybe I could purchase it then? Do you happen to know what it cost?’
“’Yes, actually.’ I had suddenly abandoned my plan to prevent her from acquiring the mirror. ‘Three dollars and twenty cents.’
“’Is that all?’ she asked, astonished. She pulled from her frock a ten-dollar note. ‘Take this, then.’
“As I took the bill from her hand, I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror as it hung under her arm. I saw a man succumbing to greed at the cost of a stranger’s life. I turned away and did not watch Elizabeth Turner as she walked out with the mirror and a new fate.”