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Mirror Image

by Juliet T. Saunders

She had left her cane behind her. "Unwise," she thought as she stepped from the car into the dark street. She hung onto her friend's arm, feeling the power of the cane transferred to her friend. So what was she trying to prove? She was not doddering, but she appeared to be, with the cane. At least with the cane she did not appear drunk.

The walk to the apartment was not long, but she moved uncertainly. With each step, the challenge to keep a firm stance repeated itself. I am the conqueror, she joked to herself, stand up, you can make it.

"I should have brought a flashlight," her friend said. "Can you see the ground?"

"My head is high," she quavered as she wobbled along. Her friend laughed.

"That's the way! But you'll fall..." Here she comes, a one-eyed voyager into new territory. Just a small gathering, nothing to be nervous about. But her first, after a long time of operations and convalescing. The cancer was beaten now, but its aftermath was a continual punishment.

"Get away from me," she whispered to the goblins. "Smile," she said to herself. She prepared to smile a lot. At least there would be walls to lean against.

As she braved the doorway, a cry of welcome rang out as the door opened.

The sounds of chatting and laughter swam toward her. A generic clamor swelled as she entered the hallway. Coats were taken, and on to the living room. The noise increased as if the gatherers were clapping.

Mirrors everywhere. The walls were lined with mirror sheets: space upon space, sparkling, a ballroom distortion. Long draperies, paintings, all repeated in the mirrors. In awe, she wanted to shrink away. But there was no way; she was pushed forward. Sight and sound grabbed and shook her. She clenched her fist but the cane was not there. She had to get to a wall and lean......

She felt like a wraith, moving among the others, the fragility of her mind and body dangerous and furtive. She must hide, or else her very bones would fall away. She reached a wall, and at the same time, a tray appeared at her elbow. Something smooth and green was spread upon a cracker and handed to her. Holding onto the crackers and leaning against the wall, she let a phony nonchalance settle her nerves. She waited a while before she took a nibble.

Someone was talking to her. It was a presence rather than actual words that alerted her. Within the sound level of the room, her damaged hearing was dominated by background noise. She was a wrecked-self. One eye, near deaf ears, erratic balance - all legacies of the rampant cells doing their worst.

She began to sweat. She looked up to the ceiling as if fresh air would come from above. Perhaps she could escape through the ceiling!

Mirrored up there, too, she could see her face, ashen now, skin moist. She looked away from the patched eye, the green cracker, the anxious brow. It was as if her remaining eye became a camera, snapping as her head turned. She snapped each photograph, hoping one would be the right scene, the one she could save for herself. There were small children playing, sails at sea, things familiar to her but their mirror images seemed to make them unreal, inaccessible. There was a small painting: a young man in army uniform standing in a field of white crosses. He had bandages on his face, his arm. "Like the Spirit of '76," she thought in grim humor, and was annoyed at herself. He had been through the wars. "There's a composition I can relate to."

It seemed as if he was trying to talk to her. But it was a hand on her arm. Someone was next to her, making conversation that she could not fathom. A friendly face. Thank goodness...someone she knew who knew about her.

"I can't hear in this place," she said apologetically. The woman smiled, too sweetly, too sympathetically - was there nothing she could appreciate or be grateful for? She begged forgiveness with a shrug.

The snack tray moved by, and she grabbed another cracker, topped it with spread and stuffed it into her mouth. The woman next to her joined in and they stood companionably with awkwardly stuffed mouths, in silence, isolated from the crowd.

She finished her cracker. Her mouth felt dry; in miraculous compliance, a tray came by with drinks. The two of them drank thirstily. The woman next to her left for a moment, mouthing that she would be back. And back she came with green colored crackers for them both. They stood together with stuffed moving mouths and it made an endearing composition in the mirrored wall. She lifted a pinky, as if she was at an elegant tea, even though there was a little bit of green stuff on her mouth. But there was some also on her companion's mouth, who also looked at the mirror.

They looked up into the mirror together and began to smile at themselves. Their mouths held primly closed. She could hear herself giggling. The effort of clearing her mouth made her eyes tear, but the giggle stayed.

They made an odd couple. She wondered if they could be seen as one with the other mirrored scenes, along with the soldier in the field with the crosses. She dabbed her eyes and a memory came with more tears.

She had been in the hospital some time after her first operation in which she lost her eye, and "other things." A therapist came and sat by her bed. She had a mirror with a long handle on her lap. "Have you looked at yourself yet?" asked the therapist.

Her lower back began to ache. "No, I thought I'd wait until my nose was altogether fixed."

"That won't be for months."

"That's okay."

"It's really not okay. Better if you look now."

"Get it over with?"

"I'll wait outside." The therapist laid the mirror down and left the room.

She waited in her bed, disgruntled, annoyed at being put upon. Who cares, she thought, and picked up the mirror. She jerked away in shock, and then forced herself to look again. The mirror image was very clear, defined. There was something missing. She could not recognize herself. The mirror showed SHE was missing.

The therapist returned.

"Here's your mirror," she said without a tremor.

"Did you look?"

"Oh, yes, I looked."

"Do you want me to stay?"

"No, absolutely not."

"You're sure?"

After the door closed, she leaned back on her pillow, then restlessly got out of bed and stood near the window. She stared out, her mouth compressed, as she tried to repress the hysteria. There were little bursts of laughter inside her, and outside, tears coming along her cheeks, the nose that was not fixed yet, the rest patched as best as possible. Her face had been taken apart and put together again. Like Humpty Dumpty - doctors instead of all the King's Men.

Resolutely, she switched her mind back to the party scenes at hand. She drained her glass and felt herself drained. She had unloaded again, sorry for herself again, and there was consequently less of herself again. But lightness was a relief. The burden of the evening's discomfiture had been lifted out of her. She was shaky, but the ache she felt in her back was gone, as it had gone in the hospital after she finally looked at herself. It would all be better if she could smash the mirror. Just one, perhaps. If she had the cane, she could have done it. But would she? YES! She yelled silently and vowed never to leave the cane behind again.

She turned to the new friend who had somehow stood by, stabilizing, supportive. How miraculous to discover a new friend. Was it possible that all the others here had that potential?

The friend who had brought her to the party appeared. "Want to go home?"

She nodded eagerly. It would be so good to leave. She would miss the pain though, the chance to examine it more closely. The face and the stance would be as the painter had seen it. An expression of what the soldier was all about, with the field, the crosses giving him meaning. Looking at a painting was not looking into a mirror. It was the essential, the very thing that she missed that day in the hospital, staring into the hand mirror. She knew it was there, but could not find it.

Walking back to the car, the darkness shrouded them, but the moon was out.

"Sorry you came?" her friend asked.

"Well..." she said uncertainly. Then stronger, "I did come, though, didn't I?"

"Is another time possible?" her friend said perceptively.

She threw her arms up in a cartoon of indecision and almost fell. She began to laugh, laughter reinforced by hysteria. They came to the car and inside she grabbed onto her cane and brandished it, imagining a smashing of mirrors.

Juliet Saunders worked as a librarian for much of her life. As a young woman in the 1950's and 1960's, she published many adult fiction stories, and also children's stories in "Highlights For Kids" magazine. Much later in life, after recovering from cancer treatments, she used her writing skills to express her feelings about the devastating affect of cancer. Today at the age of 89, Juliet continues to express new ideas with her writing.