Mirrors by Donna Hemans
Owen had first seen her through glass, and from that angle she was distorted, belly distended as if in pregnancy, face and hips widened. He liked her hair, a round and perfect Afro pulled away from her forehead by a multi-colored scarf, and stepped inside of the store called T’ings simply because of that. She wasn’t a traditional beauty; she had what he thought of as a model’s face with prominent cheekbones, a combination of pronounced angles and curves. He thought of the remainder of her body like that—angles and curves—a combination he wasn’t accustomed to in the women of his past. They’d all been one or the other—slim women with bones protruding, medium-sized with curves all right.
The woman, no longer distorted through glass, reminded him of someone. He stood for a moment reconstructing faces, seeing oval-shaped eyes, broad smiles, dimples, fading acne scars. She stood near rolls of delicate hand-made paper with flecks of petals and seeds embedded in them. Her face, he saw, was elongated like his grandmother’s and her chin jutted just a little.
“May I help you?”
Owen recognized immediately that she, like he, was Jamaican. He thought again of the name of the store, T’ings, spelled in Jamaican patois.
“No, just looking.” He wanted not to dismiss her attention but wanted also not to call her attention closer. He wanted her at a distance while he worked out exactly whom she so strongly resembled. Owen was superstitious—only mildly so—but superstitious enough to take great care when he believe caution was warranted.
“My name’s Julia. Let me know if you need any help.”
The store had an eclectic mix of things—the sheets of hand-made paper; notebooks; rice paper lampshades; natural soaps and lotions wrapped in recycled paper; delicate hand-made jewelry that he longed to touch; scarves of soft, fine wool; beaded and sequined scarves; children’s books and toys, their bright colors reminding him of a town decorated for Christmas; mirrors on the walls and on tables.
“Looking for something special?” She stepped again within reach, hopeful it seemed for a sale.
Owen looked up from the beaded scarves, and saw behind Julia a sign indicating a Mother’s Day sale.
“Mother’s Day,” he said, though he’d only occasionally formalized the day with a gift for his wife. Cards, yes, and dinner occasionally, but he’d never presented her with a wrapped gift or flowers.
“The scarves are beautiful,” Julia said. “Here.” She draped one over his arm and it slipped, slithered like silk. “Feel it.”
Though it wasn’t a scarf he would have worn, he turned to the mirror, looking at the scarf draped over his arm, Julia’s face beside his. She moved the scarf, draping it so the cloth covered his Adam’s apple, and the ends hung loosely down his back.
“Yes?” she asked. “I’m sure she would love it. Imagine her in an evening gown, the scarf thrown over her shoulders.” Julia gazed back at him through the mirror, but Owen looked away, sensing something—not quite desire—but something unfamiliar and disturbing.
The hand mirrors fascinated him and he looked intently on the pictures painted on the backs of each. Turned face down, they were like flattened spoons reflecting a scene, except the scene was painted on the plastic and metal backs of the single-sided mirrors. He fingered some, looking at the intricate painting of a woman stepping from a bath, another of a woman brushing her hair, her face reflected in the glass she held. He held another with dresses on a clothesline, the wind lifting the folds of a skirt. He held, too, another of children at play in a dirt yard in front of a zinc-roofed house, five girls holding hands for a ring game. Each face was so different he concluded they were not siblings but he thought that they were related still. And behind the children at the door of the zinc-roofed house stood an older woman, a grandmother perhaps, wiping her hands in her apron.
The picture came alive. The children moved. He was sure the children moved. Their mouths opened in song, a tinny sound, inconsistent in its rhythm. It was an old song that his daughters sang, one that his mother-in-law had taught them, and one that he had sung in his childhood with his own grandmother. He looked again closely and saw his daughter’s face, one among the five bodies holding hands. He saw, too, his mother-in-law’s face on the body by the door, an apron stained with dark spots. She moved too, raising her hand above her eyes. He was sure the woman moved. Owen blinked his eyes, thinking the moving image was simply his imagination getting the better of him. He counted to ten, long enough to steady his heart, then looked at the picture again. The girl with his daughter’s face stepped away from the circle of girls, turned and seemed to look directly at him. She didn’t linger though, but walked back to the old woman at the door, dropped her head on the woman’s shoulder.
The mirror slipped from his fingers, clattering. Julia looked up, eyebrows slightly raised.
“Do you like that too?”
“No. No.” He hadn’t meant to be brusque, to dismiss her question so quickly but he wanted to be away from the store, the mirrors, the still pictures that came alive. He paid for the scarf, straightening crumpled bills from his pocket.
Julia wrapped the scarf in tissue paper and tied the package with ribbon before sliding it into a brown paper bag. The wrapping paper crinkled within, but he held the gift like a basket of something breakable, looking back through the glass at Julia’s distorted body, preferring to hold on to the image of her imperfect frame.
Twice, Owen thought he saw Julia’s face among a throng of shoppers. He didn’t move toward her, but remained where he sat sipping tea in a Silver Spring coffee shop surrounded by large sacks of coffee that dotted the shop floor like leather footstools or ottomans. The shop’s floor also looked like it had coffee beans ingrained in the concrete. Even the tea that he sipped tasted like it had been steeped with a drop of coffee. Live jazz played in the background but he paid little attention to the horns, the tinkling of spoons in cups, the bits of conversation that rose and fell around him.
He held his hand tightly against the mug, holding the warmth as if it were a tangible thing. Mother’s Day had come and gone, but he hadn’t given his wife the scarf, which remained hidden in the trunk of his car wrapped in red and white tissue as Julia had wrapped it. He was afraid that in lifting the bag, in touching it, other inanimate objects might again begin to move of their own accord, the way the images on the mirror danced before his eyes. He searched but could find no way to explain why the pictures on the mirror seemed to move, why the children sang and danced, throwing back their heads in utter joy, why the woman at the door wiped her hands, taking in the children’s joy, before ending it by calling them to the table for dinner.
Since then he saw Julia’s face on the bodies of women everywhere. She always had the same pose, neck twisted and eyes looking back over her left shoulder, her lips opened in a smile. The women seemed to be looking directly at him, smiling, calling, but always walking quickly away. He was never absolutely certain whether he was indeed seeing Julia, her model’s face distorted through glass, or that of the other person who she resembled, or whether he was imagining a person into being. It had to be the latter, he thought.
He ran more now, moving swiftly over graveled tracks as if every breath depended entirely on his arms and legs pumping in rhythm. He didn’t think at all that he was running from something, but once he started moving Julia’s face fell away. The haunting ceased, if only temporarily. He ran in the mornings, taking advantage of the early sunrise, and again in the evenings to delay his return home. Again, he told himself he wasn’t running away—not from his family, not from his life—but simply conditioning his body as it slipped into middle age. Still, he found no way to stop the haunting nor could he decide whether the woman glancing back at him over her shoulder looked with longing or pity, love or indifference. A quick glance, a disappearance and then she reappeared, glancing back again without stopping her forward movement.
Three separate times Owen circled the street, wanting again to enter the store, to see if the pictures on the mirror came alive again. Once he even parked and fed coins into the meter but he remained inside the car, imagining the meter ticking away, the value in minutes depleting. Behind the glass, in the same position where he’d first seen her, Julia stood, her image again distorted.
The fourth time, he had a reason for visiting: Father’s Day. Though it wasn’t a day Owen acknowledged, he stepped out of the car that time, and stood at the window staring at Julia, shifting so that he saw her body through doubled glass, and the light reflecting through the glass distorted the profile of her body. He saw her unnaturally shaped, but he remembered her small earlobes decorated with simple gold hoops, her skin that seemed unblemished, her oval-shaped eyes, her thin fingers gently draping the scarf around his neck.
“Welcome to T’ings.” Again, she seemed to glide to the front of the store.
“Thanks. How you do?” He spoke in broken English, hoping she heard the accent and commented then on his origin.
“Did she like the scarf?” she asked instead.
“No.” He hesitated but quickly corrected his answer. “I didn’t give it to her, I mean. Saving it for Christmas and the cold.”
“No. Just stopped in. Walking by and stopped in.”
Owen knew though that she wouldn’t miss his deliberate footsteps in the direction of the table on which the mirrors lay. He looked at the mirrors from a distance, momentarily afraid of what his actions would trigger. He turned to Julia instead and asked of their origin.
“Oh, the paintings. I paint. That’s what I do when I’m not here. I have a studio in the back too so that on those lazy days when the customers aren’t trickling in, I can pop back and open a tube of paint.”
Owen ran his finger over an image, lightly, quickly.
“You like them I see.”
“I have girls and cousins and nieces. They all seem to like this sort of thing.”
He fingered the painting that had moved. “There is a story, isn’t there?”
“In the paintings. If you look at them in the order here, there seems to be a story.”
“Oh.” She stood next to him, looking down. “Hmmn. That’s not the way I painted them.” She switched the order of the mirrors on the table, moving the one with the children at play, the picture that he believed had come alive, at the head of the line. The family at supper followed. Next, she placed the picture with the grandmother braiding a little girl’s hair, then another with a girl, sitting on newspaper, shoes circling her small body, her hands polishing a boot too big to be her own. The last two were those of the woman stepping from the bath and brushing and braiding her short gray hair. “That’s the way I would have ordered them. A day winding down.”
He would have ordered them differently—a day beginning—because that’s how the days with his grandmother had begun and ended. Most evenings she stood at the door, her hand in her apron, calling the children and their grandfather for the meal she had managed to pull together with ground provisions from the field, corned beef or chicken foot soup. She never sighed or held her back, but moved from the beginning of the day to the end as if meeting the family’s needs was her sole purpose. Selfless, he thought. The way Julia ordered the pictures, the grandmother wasn’t selfless, not selfish either, but preserving that moment at the end of the day, a private bath, for herself. His grandmother didn’t have any such private moments. She raised her children and her children’s children and found time in the day to take in a little sewing work.
It wasn’t his life though. There were no boys in the pictures. Still, there was something familiar about the images. He closed his eyes thinking back to his own childhood, his visits back home, but he couldn’t recall any specific memory that matched the images on the mirrors. There was another table of mirrors, but he looked away quickly panicked at what he thought they might show, how real and revealing the images would turn out to be. Somebody was sending him a message, he was sure. He didn’t know who because he hadn’t yet worked out who Julia, the messenger, represented. Nor did he understand what the messenger wanted him to know.
Owen stepped away from the mirrors toward a pile of books. He picked up one with ribbons embedded in the board and a small box about double the size of a matchbox that held cards for a tabletop word game. His girls, he thought, would love them both. Owen didn’t go directly home. Instead, he walked without intent and finally broke into a run, letting the wind blow across his bald head. He pushed himself faster and faster, bending his head like a sprinter propelling his body toward the finish line, not minding at all that he ran on a sidewalk. He didn’t stop until his chest burned and his leg muscles began to quiver. Then he bent forward, sucking in oxygen, slowing his breathing. Once he calmed, he turned and sprinted back up the slight incline toward the parked car. He ran like that on occasion to clear his mind. When he did, he thought of nothing but his legs lifting and the air easing in and out of his lungs. And after each such run, he expected his cleared mind to see any problem with a new set of potential solutions. When his breathing had slowed to its normal rhythm, he sat on a bench a block from his car and the store and contemplated the uneasiness that plagued him from the first day he stepped into the store called T’ings.
Julia, he had concluded, was not a woman from his past. Yet the familiarity of her face and the stories that evolved from the images she painted were not things he could ignore. There was a story there that he needed know. He looked back on the store. Julia stood outside wiping the window with a light blue cloth. He watched her as she worked and when she was done, he wandered back toward the store, formulating the excuses he would give.
“Forgot something else,” he said once inside. “My sister’s birthday.” He walked back toward the mirrors, aware that Julia wouldn’t help but notice his deliberate walk, how he seemed to know exactly what he wanted.
Julia moved across the room, sliding it seemed, the butterfly sleeves of her sheer shirt floating, bracelets jangling. She turned the sign on the door, and from his angle he saw “Open.” She tacked another on the door, which he assumed said “Out to lunch.” He could make out the hands of a clock and still more writing.
“I have more,” she said, pointing to the mirrors. “Painted some this morning.”
“I feel like this is my life,” he said, holding a mirror beneath a hot bulb.
But Julia said nothing. She smiled as if she expected him to say exactly that.
In the back of the store, Owen fingered a light yellow mirror. He saw a little girl, a toddler, her face scrunched, her mouth open. Julia had painted a crying child. In the background a woman hovered, her back to the child. As he looked, the image expanded, the child’s face becoming larger, rounded beads of tears visible on her smooth skin. The baby’s face, scrunched as she howled, was also familiar to him. He looked for distinctive features, running his hand over the child’s cheeks, brushing the plastic as if wiping the tears away and pressing her eyes closed. He moved to put the mirror down, but the woman in the back seemed to move. She didn’t turn completely around but shifted her body slightly and he saw then that a man was standing there as well, his eyes on the crying child. The woman, back still turned, moved around the kitchen. But the man didn’t move at all, not toward the crying child and not toward the woman. In the second that Owen blinked, the man disappeared and the woman turned toward the child, lifting her from the high chair and soothing the troubled child.
The familiarity of the scene was so pronounced that he put the mirror on its bed of old newspapers where Julia had left the batch of mirrors to dry. Julia had left him there alone with her work. The afternoon sun brightened the room, glinting from shards of glass that dotted a corner desk. He took his time looking around the room, searching for a recognizable item that explained Julia and the stories her mirrors told. But no recognition radiated from the pungent smell of paint that seeped into his pores or from the flecks of colors that were on every surface in the room. The room, surprisingly, had no other personal effects, no photos of family or friends, no lunch half-eaten and tucked away.
In a corner, above a desk, hung the closed-circuit television screen that showed Julia when a patron entered the store. She stood now in the line of the camera and he watched her, trying in vain to separate and break down her features through the grainy image reflected on the screen. She moved away from the camera’s sight line toward a stack of soaps. Even from the grainy image, he could see how deliberately she moved, purpose in every step and every flick of her fingers.
Owen returned to the mirrors, determined that the same purpose Julia showed in her movements was reflected in the images she painted.
The second mirror he held up, made to look like an antique silver piece with scrolled designs, again had the image of the man. In that scene, the man sat apart from the woman and the girls, a large headphone balanced on his head and his eyes glued to a small computer screen. Around the man, the girls and the woman moved, their movements coordinated and rhythmic, the three seemingly in tune with each other. Unlike the first instance when he held the mirrors, he heard no sound.
In the third mirror of the set, the man stood near the woman, her back to him. The older child, in the forefront of the picture, extended her fingers one by one as if counting. When the man turned away, she relaxed her fingers and wrote, “16 words,” below a date on a calendar.
Owen dropped the mirror. His fingers had weakened and his grip loosened. The soft sound echoed in the room. Of all the images, the calendar with its small notations in the rounded handwriting of a girl was sharply familiar. He closed his eyes, concentrated on breathing in through his nose and letting the warm air whistle out through his mouth the way he did when he swam. He pictured his body also in water, relaxed, his arms arcing through the air and breaking water, his breath slow and in rhythm with his body. When he regained the control that slipped along with the mirror sliding from his grip, he looked at the painting again. In his own kitchen, a similar calendar hung with a girl’s rounded handwriting and notations. It was his older daughter’s handwriting, he knew, but he hadn’t bothered to inquire what words she tracked each day.
Owen glanced at the next mirror in the sequence. Julia had painted the family—the woman and the two girls—among a throng of people, the throng blurred but the bodies of the three were distinct. Again, their backs were turned, the three faceless, and they were stationary. It was the crowd that moved around them. He distinctly heard the younger girl ask, “Where’s Daddy?” He looked again at the blurred crowd seeking a familiar object, trying to determine where the family stood. It was then he saw another distinct body, another woman, with a phone to her ear. She stood in profile, and he thought he recognized the outline of the face, the high forehead, straightened hair in a ponytail. Another woman stood in the shadows and he thought of his wife and her two sisters, the family vacation to Orlando in late spring.
On the day that he remembered, he had separated from the family in the early afternoon. The wife, as he was prone to calling her when talking to his friends, and her sisters were not interested in the roller coaster that twisted upside down. Though the wait was up to an hour, he had separated from the family, free, a man on his own terms, and, on the roller coaster, like a boy with no inhibitions or fears. An hour and fifteen minutes later he emerged from the roller coaster, shaken, lost in a throng. He dialed a sister-in-law’s number and when she didn’t answer, reveled in the freedom of being lost. He went from ride to ride, skirting the slow teacup carousels that his daughters would have preferred, rushing without inhibition toward the thrill of adult roller coasters. He had given no thought to his family, and much later in the evening when he finally called his wife’s phone, she had given no indication of how long they waited for him to emerge from that first roller coaster, or how they spent the remainder of the afternoon. His family climbed into the rented minivan as if they had signed a pact to remain quiet. What bothered him then, and nagged at him still, was her apathy. Since that afternoon, she had stopped responding to anything he did, whether to anger and provoke her. Instead, she looked at him with detached bemusement. More often, though, she didn’t look at him at all but walked past as if he were a boulder left in the midst of a busy roadway for aesthetic appeal. Being “lost” was no longer a temporary, spur of the moment thing, but beginning to ooze into a permanent stain.
From the storefront, a bell tinkled. He turned to go, leaving the mirrors behind. But as he turned, he saw yet another set of mirrors beneath the words, “How the end begins.”
Owen walked quickly and deliberately toward the front of the store. He waved at Julia, who was bent over a display with a customer. “See you soon,” she called.
“Soon,” he said, knowing he may never return.
Outside, the sun’s heat wrapped around his body and he began loosening and tugging at his polo shirt. He wanted to keep moving, to break into another run and imagine the momentum of his body breaking through any barrier he encountered. He wanted the fleeting breeze upon his face, the sweat trickling over his spine and from his hairline as a small reminder that he was human, alive, not living in an alternate universe where static painted pictures embodied life.
Instead, he sat in his car, looking out at Julia’s distorted image. Three things haunted him: Julia’s familiarity, the calendar entries, and the words “How the end begins.”
Owen drove through Silver Spring neighborhoods, waiting until dusk had fallen before returning home. Down the long hall at the back patio door, she appeared, once again glancing over her shoulder, as always looking back at him. He chased her, the mirage, striding down the hall, opening the door and stepping out onto the stone patio beneath the flickering light bulb. Moths danced above his head. He said good evening, a general greeting directed at no one in particular. His older daughter held up two fingers. She fiddled in her pocket, withdrew a pencil and wrote “two words.” Owen moved closer, “What’re you cooking?” he asked. She didn’t erase the number on the calendar.
On the other side of the swing set, his wife removed hotdogs from the grill. “David said he’s coming over to drop off a cake from my Mom.” He hadn’t called his wife’s name but she looked back at him and asked her usual, “You talking to me?”
His daughter erased two and replaced it with the number fourteen. She dropped the pencil and walked toward her mother. He recognized in her Julia’s stride, the determination in her movement, the curve of her shoulder as she looked back at him, the hunger in her eyes as she made a feeble attempt to draw him into their circle by asking, “Do you want one, Daddy?”
Owen shook his head and looked down on the calendar entry, the blurred spaces where she had erased and rewritten the numbers. He thought of what he’d said, counted each word. His daughter had been counting and recording the words he said to his wife. He leafed through the previous months. Not one entry listed more than fifty words. The surprise was not that he had slowly withdrawn, but that his young daughter had found a way to track his presence and absence. He thought back on the scenes that Julia had painted—one showing a man with large head phones plugged to his ears, headphones that were similar to the noise-blocking ones he often wore; and another of a man looking at a crying child strapped in a high chair and retreating rather than rescuing the child and helping the mother who was busy in the kitchen. With each painted scene he recalled, he could bring up a distinct memory of his own family activities that matched the painted scene. In each one he was absent, not always physically but mostly emotionally. He could think of no specific reason for his withdrawal, no single specific incident that marked his loss of interest in the day-to-day activities of his family. But his headphones and movies and distant watching became a habit. The Orlando vacation, the freedom he felt from being “lost” and accountable to no one settled within like a permanent stain he couldn’t and wouldn’t erase.
Owen took three steps back. He reached for the knob, stepped up inside the house, and stood for a moment looking out through the glass at his family, his older daughter who had just turned twelve and his younger who would be six in a few months time.
He turned, ran back to the car, and sped through the neighborhood toward T’ings and the mirrors whose painted scenes reflected his family’s life. He wanted to see the remainder of the mirrors, to see how his life and his children’s turned out. He had a feeling, but he wanted to see. From the painted scenes, Owen had seen how the end began, and he realized then in the car that the first set of scenes—the older woman calling the children to the table for dinner—depicted the period immediately after he withdrew permanently from his family, his two daughters living temporarily in Jamaica with their grandmother. If Julia were indeed his adult daughter, a projection of her, then he knew that this little girl who now counted the mundane words that passed between him and her mother, who had already noticed his absence, would turn out all right. But he wanted desperately, perhaps selfishly, to see his future depicted in the scenes Julia painted.
Takoma Park’s older houses, now lit from within and without, were coming to life. Owen didn’t look as he always did with longing at the aged houses that were kept up with care. He kept his sight on the road ahead and the green numbers on the clock that flickered as the minutes advanced. He hoped Julia was still there at T’ings, and he imagined her waiting for him, inviting him to the studio at the back as she had done before.
He jerked to a stop outside the store. Inside, Julia sat in front of an easel, her back to the window. Three lamps lit the canvas on which she had again painted the woman and two girls. This time, all three stood looking back over their left shoulder. The girls were teenagers, their faces for the first time visible, but from that distance distorted by the light and glass. Owen balled his right fist and rapped at the glass. He wanted to see more clearly. He wanted to see a painting of a man. He wanted to know that his life, too, turned out all right.
Julia stood up, stretching her body as his daughter did most every time she rose from a seated position. She turned out two of the lamps and left a single one lighting the picture she had painted. He watched her walk to the back of the store, her shadow lingering on a far bare wall. She flicked a switch, leaving the painting illuminated by the light of the single bulb. Not once did she look back. The light inside faded slowly, so slowly that he thought of kerosene in a lamp rising up the wick until it dried and the flame sputtered. Then he noticed the other bare walls. The tables, once covered with jewelry and books and strips of multi-colored cloth, were now a stark brown wood with a film of dust.
In the dim light inside, Owen thought he saw Julia again, her pose the same as the mirage, her shoulder and head slightly turned, her eyes glancing back. He heard his own voice screaming “Julia,” his voice coming back to him like an echo, glass shattering and pooling at his feet like petals.
Donna Hemans is the author of River Woman. In 2015, she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature for her unpublished manuscript Tea by the Sea.
Donna’s short fiction has appeared in Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, MaComere: The Journal of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, THEMA, Witness, and the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad.
She was the 2007-2008 Black Mountain Institute (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) International Women’s Forum Fellow and twice served as the Lannan Visiting Creative Writer in Residence at Georgetown University. In 2015, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of the District of Columbia. In addition, Donna has received grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Prince George’s County Arts Council, as well as residential fellowships from Hedgebrook, Millay Colony for the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
She received her undergraduate degree in English and Media Studies from Fordham University and an MFA from American University.