The Mirror

You ring the bell once again. This time the door opens a crack. In the glare of a lightbulb hanging in front of the door, wide eyes stare out from behind a pair of lenses set in brown frames. The large pupils, like marbles that children play with, twirl behind the lenses and glare at you. Their gaze passes over your head. You turn and look behind you. The corridor is dark and empty. When you turn back, you see she has unhooked the door chain and is standing in the doorway.

She is wearing a sleeveless red dress. She has coifed her dyed thinning hair like old English women, and her red lipstick has caked on her lips. She nervously runs her hand over her hair and makes sure that the large red earring on her right ear is firmly in place. Her nails are not long but they are painted red. Wrinkled skin slinks on her thin arms and pointed elbows.

“I’ve come to look at the mirror on the console. We spoke on the telephone yesterday.”   

A frightened smile reveals her crooked teeth. She steps aside and lets you in. The apartment is small and clean, empty and quiet, and it smells strange—a slightly sour smell, the faint tang of vinegar mingled with the scent of acetone and loneliness. Facing the front door, there is a small room with a narrow bed and a large dressing table. A small television is on the dressing table; it’s turned on but the volume is low. Colorful bottles of nail polish, sticks of lipstick, and gold-colored powder boxes are all neatly arranged in front of the mirror.

In a trembling, slightly raspy, voice she invites you to sit. You know she is Russian, so her accent doesn’t sound strange to you. You sit in an armchair upholstered in a gold-colored fabric with a floral pattern. It’s one of those armchairs you have often seen in furniture stores but were not expecting to see here. You sit facing the antique mirror and console, which has a beautifully carved frame and well-sculpted legs, so delicate. Another mirror, its pair, is symmetrically placed near the window.

The woman anxiously follows your gaze and opens a box of chocolates decorated with images of French soldiers and noblewomen holding fans. She insists that you take a stale piece of chocolate. She points to the mirrors.

“This one is my mother, the other one my father. Last night I dreamed of my father. He cautioned me to never wipe wood with a wet cloth. He thinks I want to sell the mirrors.”

“Don’t you want to?”

“These mirrors are all that’s left. We brought all our belongings from Russia. When the Bolsheviks took over, Tsar Nicholas summoned my father. He was wearing a sapphire cross around his neck. A real sapphire, not like the ones you see in jewelry stores. He took the cross off, kissed it, and put it around my father’s neck. My father kissed his hand . . . Last night he told me not to wipe wood with a wet cloth.”

“You had this dream because you were thinking of selling the mirrors.”

She gets up and takes a plate of pastries from the dining table, which is covered with a large plastic tablecloth all the way to the floor. “I have an old silver goblet. I don’t know who to bequeath it to. To my neighbors who are all waiting for me to die?”

Her voice cracks and she nervously looks at the front door. Tears have given her large eyes a strange look. She leaves and soon returns holding a silver goblet adorned with handgrips, and a small spoon with engraved Latin script and a tiny ring hanging at the tip of one delicate handle.

“It’s genuine silver. Whom should I leave it to? My mother passed away last year and my father died many years ago . . .”

You know they came to Iran after the Russian Revolution and changed their name—she is now called Rana. She used to work, but retired a few years ago. She never married. She lived with her mother who died last year and has no one in this city . . .

“Do you want the goblet? It is genuine Russian silver.”

“I’m here to buy the mirror. You said you want to sell one of them . . .”

Without uttering a word, she gets up and disappears behind a door. You, too, get up so that you can examine the mirror up close. Its surface is clear and incandescent. The console’s curved legs are so delicate that it is difficult to imagine how they support the weight of the mirror. The metal grip on the drawer is shaped like a flower and is as thin as a ring you would wear on your finger.

You hear the door open. She is standing in the kitchen doorway holding a tray with a glass of sweet drink on it. Her large pupils, shifting with fear and indignation behind the frame of her eyeglasses, watch you and the mirror.

“It is clean. My father never allowed me to wipe it with a wet cloth . . .”

She puts the glass on the table and sits.

“You don’t want the silver goblet?”

“I’ve come to buy the mirror.”

She stands up abruptly, takes the silver goblet, and mutters something disconnected and incomprehensible about its delicate design and how much it is worth.

“You are absolutely right. But I want the mirror.”

She doesn’t hear you. She rambles on about silver goblets and cutlery, china dishes that they brought with them from Russia.

In a loud and somewhat angry voice you say, “Please tell me whether you want to sell the mirror or not?”

She suddenly grows silent. She looks at you with a blank gaze . . . and leaves. Baffled, you wait a few minutes and hear a drawer being pulled open in the bedroom. She returns, no longer holding the silver goblet. She takes the plate of pastries and while chatting about her neighbors, their mean-spiritedness, and how they are waiting for her to die, she holds it in front of you. Perforce, you take another pastry and try to encourage her to talk about the mirror. She puts the plate on the table and sits down. She runs her thin fingers over her skirt, secures her earrings, talks about her mother’s death, and wipes away her tears.

You feel helpless. You take a pen and a piece of paper from your bag and write your telephone number.

“All right. So you don’t want to sell the mirror. I’ll leave. But if you change your mind, call this number.”

She gets nervous, stands up, takes the box of chocolates, and again offers you some. You decline, getting up.

“It’s the New Year holidays now. I can’t let you take the mirror.”

“Why?”

“Its place will remain empty. I have nothing to replace it with.”

Again, she starts mumbling meaningless words and incoherent sentences about her problems, her loneliness, and the bothersome neighbors whom she fears and because of whom she does not dare go out too often.

You cut her short. “Very well, you can keep it until the end of Noorouz holiday. Then, my friend will send it to me in Tehran. Would you like me to pay for it now?”

Dazed and confused she stares at you. “Money? No, I can’t keep money at home. All the banks are closed. May I offer you some fruit?”

Involuntarily, you snap at her that you have no time and need to leave, that you are leaving for Tehran tomorrow and you need to arrange the payment for mirror and shipment of it to Tehran.

After a moment of silence she asks, “By the way, where is your house in Tehran?”

“Near Saa’i Park. Why?”

“You know, I don’t want my acquaintances that live in Tehran to happen to pass by there and see the mirror.”

You look at her. Scrawny, weary, nervous, wounded, she looks like an abandoned little girl who has made up herself to look like her mother. With sorrowful eyes, she looks at you standing there. She insists that you stay. You hastily say good-bye without taking another look at the mirror. You forget to turn on the light in the corridor. The image of her in a red sleeveless dress, scared and sad, in a small apartment that smells of vinegar and acetone, follows you into the dark corridor.

© Soheila Beski. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.