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James C Clar


by James C. Clar

Credo ut intelligam.

Anselm, Proslogion

Zoticus sat at the desk in his study. He was surrounded by armillary spheres, intricately wrought alembics and retorts as well as by a seemingly disorderly profusion of scrolls and codices in a variety of languages both ancient and arcane. One particular tract, which he had managed to translate with some difficulty from the Arabic, had proved especially fruitful. The breakthrough which he had managed to achieve as a result was the culmination of a lifetime of research and experimentation.

But how to disseminate the information and knowledge he had so laboriously acquired? His was a skeptical age and his work was looked upon with everything from condescension and amusement on the one hand, to outright disdain and even hostility on the other. What was more, Zoticus was old. In spite of what he had learned, his own days were numbered. He was desperate to find someone to whom he could bequeath his wisdom and who would be both willing and able to carry on his work. Apprentices like that were few and far between at any time and in any place, but here and now they were particularly, acutely scarce. The old man sighed and rubbed his temples.

There had been that young man last year. Zoticus had so hoped that he would persevere. Within weeks, however, the novice – despite his aptitude and keen mind – had succumbed to the poison of doubt. He had demanded “proof.” Proof of what, Zoticus had wanted to ask? But he knew that such an approach would have been futile. The youth insisted that he needed to “know” so that he might believe. The secret, as Zoticus himself had ascertained, was that one must first believe and only then might one truly come to “know.” Zoticus was convinced that one either understood that esoteric truism intuitively or one did not. And if one did not, there was no means that had yet been invented to alter such an individual’s outlook or hermeneutic.

Zoticus’ epistemological musings were interrupted by a forceful knocking at his door. He rose stiffly and shuffled slowly into the hallway. A draught of cold air intruded and the oil lamps began to flutter as he opened the outer door. Before him stood what he could only assume was another candidate. This young man, however, was carrying a dead owl. Zoticus had seen far too much in his long life to be shocked or even surprised. Owls, of course, were mystical animals associated with inner wisdom, transformation and intuition. If nothing else, he was intrigued.

“I will forsake all … my family, my friends, and my career to become your apprentice,” Zoticus’ visitor stated without preamble. “First, however, you must prove that what is rumored about you is true,”

The determined young man issued an ultimatum. “Raise this bird to life and I will stay.”

Zoticus couldn’t help himself. He stroked his long white beard and, despite the supplicants’ obvious gravity, the old man began to laugh. “Another one,” he muttered as he shook his head in frustration and dismay.

As Zoticus was shutting the door the startled and bemused would-be apprentice hurled the dead raptor at the old master’s feet in frustration. Unfazed, the elderly scholar closed the door completely and threw the latch. He bent and picked up the owl’s lifeless body and carried it gently, reverently back to his desk. Setting it down, he softly intoned an ancient formula with great conviction and authority.  Almost at once, the animal’s hooded eyes began to flutter.



James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between Upstate New York and Honolulu, Hawaii. His short fiction, book reviews, author interviews and articles have appeared in print as well as online. Most recently his work may be found on Antipodean SciFi, The Collidescope and Half-Hour-To-Kill.

Philosophy Note:

My story plays in a fanciful way with some of the following ideas.
A. Especially of late, my students struggle with the idea that “faith” and “belief” may be considered modes of knowing. When asked how we come to know, they answer: direct experience, indirect experience and logic/reason. Such knowledge, they argue, can be proven. By that they mean proven by empirical or logical means. I then ask them, how do you know your parents or significant others, let’s say, love you? Can you ‘prove’ it? We can cite evidence to support our belief that we are loved, but we simply cannot prove it in a strictly empirical fashion. Yet we base many of the most important decisions of our lives on such ‘knowledge’.
B. To what degree do we shape the world in which we live with our belief? Does our belief in some way come before our knowledge of the world and therefore is it a prerequisite to such knowledge? If so, how objective is the knowledge that we acquire, really?
C. Finally, the story touches on the power of words, of language, to create and influence the world in which we live. Many ancient cultures believed resoundingly in the generative, creative power of words. Fiat Lux!

Fresh Kill

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.

Philosophy Note:

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.