by James C. Clar
“In those days, the world of mirrors and the world of men were not … separate and unconnected … one could pass back and forth …”Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings
I own an antique shop on Nuuanu Avenue in the heart of Honolulu’s Chinatown. The area has seen numerous ups and downs. The latest “up” was a gentrification and transformation into a trendy, artsy neighborhood with boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Then came COVID which, frankly, hit the area hard. Numerous places went out of business, crime increased and the homeless populated the streets and alleys in record numbers. Even now, with the virus seemingly on the wane, things have not returned to pre-pandemic ‘normal’.
Through it all, I’ve managed to do well thanks to Internet sales and wealthy, mostly Asian customers who are more than willing to pay handsomely for that certain piece that completes their collection, or which adds a certain undefinable aesthetic or, in some cases, wabi, to their homes or offices. Things are even better now that customers – both local and those visiting from elsewhere – are shopping in person. I pride myself on the quality and authenticity of my merchandise. Nothing in the store is cheap and everything I sell has an established history or provenance.
The incident I am about to relate is remarkable, singular even, on any number of levels. It involves a recent acquisition; a very old bronze Chinese mirror acquired from a College Hill estate sale in Manoa adjacent to the University of Hawaii campus. The College Hill area is rich in local history and boasts numerous homes on the Historic Hawaii Foundation Register.
The mirror has been in the shop now for a little over a year. It belonged to a local Chinese family and, according to their records, it was with them when they came to the islands in the 1890s. At that time, they started what would become a very lucrative jewelry and jade business. The piece is spectacular. It stands just under six feet tall in a simple metal frame that has long since acquired a green patina. The front of the mirror itself is highly polished and reflective. There is an emblem of the Zodiac cast on the back. When light hits the front, the obverse design is reflected on the rear wall and the mirror becomes virtually transparent. The effect is nothing short of magical.
The manufacture of such mirrors can be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty and is mentioned in at least two texts from the later Tang, the Record of Ancient Mirrors and the Dream Pool Essays of Shen Kuo. While not nearly that old, the mirror in my possession is most probably a reproduction from the early 19th century Qing Dynasty, utilizing the traditional techniques.
Myths and legends about such mirrors abound. Ancient Chinese sages suggest that animals, whole worlds even, exist inside or, rather, on the reflective surface. One ascetic school of thought shunned mirrors entirely based on the belief that whatever images were reflected by them became somehow stored or ‘trapped’ within. I lend no credence to such fantasy but, still, I must admit that I have become loath to sell the mirror that now sits in the front hall of my shop, to the left of the front door. Truth is, I am fascinated by the object, transfixed. I spend many late afternoons sitting in a chair watching the light from the setting sun play across the surface of the bronze. More than once I’d swear that I’ve seen figures moving in its smoky, translucent depths.
Strange as it may seem, I am not alone in my obsession. About a month ago, a well-dressed man in his early 60’s came into the shop to inquire about the mirror. Based on his astute questions, I assumed him to be a collector or, at least, an aficionado. He was remarkably reticent to divulge any details about himself or his background. I was surprised that, to best of my recollection, I had never encountered him before. Honolulu is in many ways, a small-town masquerading as a big, cosmopolitan city. Everyone knows everyone and the antiquities community is even ‘smaller’ in that regard. I told the gentleman that the mirror was not for sale. He pestered me to an unseemly degree and simply would not take ‘no’ for an answer. At one point I thought I would have to have him forcibly removed from the store! He’s been back at least twice since that first visit, each time with the same result.
Things came to a head just two days ago. I heard the small bell attached to the front door tinkle signaling that someone had entered the shop. I looked up from my desk to see the older man back, staring fixedly at the mirror. We went through our, by now, usual routine. It was obvious, however, that this time he was not going to leave. I reached over and touched him on the shoulder so as to usher him out the door. With that, he pushed me. I slipped and hit my head as I fell backward onto the floor.
What happened next is, admittedly, a bit fuzzy. I was stunned by the impact. It seemed to me that as the mysterious stranger turned quickly away from me, his momentum caused him to lose his footing as well. He reached out his hand to steady himself against the mirror. I heard, or thought I heard, the sound of a drain emptying. After that, he was gone. I may be mistaken, but I simply don’t recall hearing the bell on the door indicating his departure.
Since then, I’ve been tempted to inform the police about what had happened. I’m doubtful that I will bother. Something tells me that I will no longer be troubled by that strange gentleman. You see, when I picked myself up from the floor after my fall that day, I went immediately to the mirror to inspect it for damage. It was unharmed but, this time, and even given the fact that I had just hit my head, I am quite certain of what I saw. Gazing into its sooty depths I spotted a tiger. The animal was burnt orange with fuliginous stripes tracing their way around its powerful body. The big cat seemed to be feeding, its muzzle stained red as it ripped and tore its way through its prey. Whatever it had caught, it was clearly a fresh kill.
James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between the mean streets of Honolulu and the wilds of Upstate New York.
The inspiration for this story rests on my obsessive re-reading of Borges and my lifelong fascination with mirrors. Mirrors are remarkable on any number of levels. Consider… Two mirrors facing one another reflect an infinite number of images. An ancient analogy for the multiverse perhaps? It is also worth noting that the functioning of many modern telescopes, not to mention the DSLR digital camera relies, in part, on the properties of mirrors. What if mirrors somehow retained or ‘captured’ the images they reflected? That idea, the premise of my story, is not too far from the notion of a computer hard drive… From the standpoint of psychology, mirrors are, to a certain degree, instruments of vanity. Consider a world devoid of reflective surfaces or, at least, those surfaces designed expressly to show one images of oneself. What would happen to marketing, advertising, and the beauty industry? To what degree would such a lack impact the acquisition and content of self-esteem, for example? I could continue but I’d rather have you enjoy my story.