The Mirror and the Birds
…The shared manifold...This matching mechanism, constituted by mirror neurons originally discovered and described in the domain of action, could well be a basic organizational feature of our brain, enabling our rich and diversified intersubjective experiences…
Prof. Vittorio Gallese
I A Couple
No words because we were in a hurry. So it was supposed to happen in a pocket of time, one night; only one night, and no words.
One night. No words: such was the contract unspoken, but understood. For we were impatient, because they bind and remind of the other’s humanity.
We took to our separate streets, separate lives, unconnectable dreams. From the first, she hated me for raising the question, and I have no gift for the tragic.
It ended in a sanatorium by a lake with mountains mirrored in its surface, and two people placed carefully beside each other on the sunlit terrace.
Tea was brought in, and the tension broke: we all relaxed into quiet chatter, dropping biscuit crumbs for watchful chaffinches the teaspoons catching the sunlight. It was late, but we were still not ready for the truth.
What had they parted with?
They searched their memories. The man idly turned a coin in his fingers, catching the sunlight.
The woman fingered a key on a chain round her neck.
The nurses in bright uniforms with watches at the breast, catching the sunlight, brought tea on a rattling trolley, filling the cups from a steel pot catching the sunlight.
Fingers touching lightly the spines of the books in the library, lips barely moving, whispering the titles. These words touch something: it is what inspiration is like, what spiritual health is like; rising to the unknown like a snail’s horn stretching in ignorance towards the light.
“Tell me again about these mountains?”
There was no disguising veil there of orange light; no traffic noise. Heaven was closer, the stars nearer, taking their places as the night deepened, like a silent audience, their attention undivided, watching how we act out and improvise on their compositions.
Or perhaps they were, rather, doctors, looking into us to perform their gentle surgery while sleep anaesthetised us?
Certainly something was happening there that you could call “theatre”.
“Yes. And in the daytime?”
The sky shone through holes in the turf: there is no name for its colour. It was like peach blossom, like the colour of life itself. The mountains bore on their shoulders heavy clouds; gravity their business.
But we were on a springy raft of peat and heather, stretching across the sky, drawing from it into our limbs the equal and opposite force of levity.
The bark of a fox in the night, and a stag's hooves beating into the distance of the forest.
I remember a wood-ants' nest, moving, rich with activity. There was the summer sun
and the sound of the cold stream.
“Yes. And afterwards?”
Our pulses regulated to the mutual mistake. We kept finding ways back to each other.
Later, while trying to salvage our hearts, the shape emerged from beneath the middens of contempt, the shape of what we separately longed for.
Somewhere else, with someone else, the form, the outline of love.
The yellow oblongs of light of the windows in the evening and the thought of warmth
And that is the true object of desire ; a universe of meaning that cannot be explored in one night, even though such an exploration might require no words.
I remember a candle flickering on your dressing table. Was that the brightest you could stand, or do you light up all around you? Let us consider how your light is spent. Sooty rings round your eyes, and the fire of your personality burning low, still smouldering.
I do not count my own ashes, or how I was seared in your flame.
Moths, after all, deserve what they get. I, too, have chewed holes in some clothes; but we were talking about you. I’ll leave the rest of the conversation to you.
Another time. If there is time.
There were times when her step behind me or the sight of her coming towards me held my heart like a new toy in a child’s hands. Now I allow bitterness to corrode the edges of memory’s pictures.
The horns of the mountains are touched with gold. Pigeons flutter fatly from branch to branch. Other creatures start forth, their own time beginning.
II The Clinic
The shared manifold, the meaning space is not yet established in the healing place. The beat of wings fills the mountain air and conversation tails off. Silence reaches deep into the ear, finding echoes of itself. The sun sets, gilding the roofs and the trees gather shadow under their canopies.
With each sunset, something, a little, seems to be gained, something has been overcome, a spell removed.
Night falls and passes, the shadows shrink; even the boldest stars fade, and the world begins again. What has been watching us, what pursues us, ransacking our darkness? A nerve thrills, as if to answer. A word slips away from us like an eel; the sense remains of not much time left.
What is overcome? To know that, we must interrogate the powers arising from that part of ourselves that is not quite human. Those powers, too, await their sunrise, and the maturing of the merely magical into the miraculous.
An aeroplane winks its lights among the stars, following its rational course, and is gone, and the stars follow their rational courses.
III Dreams And Time Passing
The day, like a farm horse, plods, harnessed to some obscure duty, through the furrows and when the work is over, a still view of quiet pastures and a mouthful of clover is all, and enough, that the labour yields.
In the High and
, the horses’ coats turn to scales like pine-needles. Their tails and manes are thin. The lions’ bass roar echoes among the fountains frozen among the rocks. Their ribs are clear beneath their fur, and old blood mats their locks. Horned Mountains
At night, the only birdsong is the owl on the lower slopes, and by day the knotty branches are home to none but crows. The roots of the High and
reach far into the earth, and the ploughshares of far distant farmers bring their rocks to birth again. Horned Mountains
Convinced of his beauty, that unquestioning imperialist, the cock, the King of the Birds struts among the dried wheel-ruts, pecking up young scorpions; a grateful materialist.
IV Therapy Begins
I was condemned to be myself, sentenced to ignore the commonplace version of who I am. The mask for negotiating with the world had to lie unused, a caricature. I needed no mask in the shadows of my hiding place; all was pure. I only wondered how I would behave if men in other masks broke past the guards. Who would I be in the face of death? Would my face be a blank, or would the mask that I had discarded prove to have shaped my features? The horror comes when a man takes off his mask, and there is nothing underneath; a blank. Another horror is the mask melding perfectly with the face underneath, or the face in the mirror becoming an unfamiliar mask.
But the wearer of the mask doesn’t know what it looks like.
It matters. How they would characterise me matters, for that would be what they describe to the world, and I am forced to be a stickler for the truth.
Whose was the face at the window when the tree fell on the barn and the dogs ran wild in the wood and the chickens were found torn and scattered among drifting feathers and the chimney caught fire and the spring ran dry and the shadow of a great beast in the moonlight fell across the yard?
It was a pale face, afraid.
No, it was dark and leering.
No, it was handsome, and looked alarmed.
No, it was a woman sorrowing.
No, it was a smiling child.
No, it was a hag, fierce and cunning.
No, it was my own face, astonished.
V Conversation In The Day-Room
I remember car journeys, the unfolding of well-known roads through strange landscapes, veiled in familiarity. A couple walked through a field, two horses galloped over the tussocks. Sheep were herded across a bridge, a girl walked down a village street. A man had made unexpected choices about his facial hair. Carloads of unexplored universes urged themselves forward, trying to push back the limits that are always so elastic.
Is it hard? To let the mysteries of others reveal themselves? Is it difficult?
But will there be time enough for it? The fibres of other lives brush the fibres of ours.
And once again, the fabric is refolded; a craft beyond all reproach. What is the time for if not for that?
What did we witness, after all? The trees moved in the wind, a dog barked, a horse galloped away in a field, a light came on in a distant house. What shall we tell?
We are surrounded all the time by miracles. We shall speak of miracles or remain silent.
What do they call the flowers that grow on the distant hillsides, out of reach? And those birds with unexpected flashes of colour in the woods. What are their names? And there's the animal that comes in the middle of the night, rooting in the garden. Give me their names and I shall know them.
You will not.
A magpie chatters and labours on short wings to another tree; seagulls wheel and swoop and glide.
Listen, and I shall tell you about an old Chinese prophecy. In the last days, the end shall be signalled by the sound of the clash of arms and preparations for war, heard from the mirrors.
The Emperor stood at his window and as far as his eyes could see he created his world, his mind the inside of all outside it. The royal self he had created looked at him from the mirror and was satisfied. His peacocks and panthers strutted and prowled among his jasmine and aromatic trees; a fountain plashed in his pool of carp which rose to the surface, mouthing Om.
But what was that bird? No-one had ever seen such a creature. The Emperor saw it rise, and consulted his memory. No, it was new. He turned from the bright window to ponder in the shadows. There was a distant noise of the clash of arms that seemed to come from within the mirrors.
VI New Patient
Nuns in grey habits raced down to the river’s edge like a flock of furious birds. They drew from the water a woman with white, moonlike skin, wailing and whimpering as they wrapped her in towels. Their feet moved like a pack of sleek rats, quick and purposeful, bulging the black polished leather of their shoes, and her naked and cut feet captive among them, hobbled up the gravel path.
“Sister Concepta,” explained a boy, placidly watching:” She’s mad.”
VII Therapy Continues
“Let us examine the facts: facts are things that can be examined. They render themselves susceptible of analysis. They speak for themselves. Good. The statue, you say, had once been painted, and two shadowy discs remained for the irises of the eyes. Then, you claim, as you looked, the eyes turned to look at you, and then moved back to their original positions. I put it to you that such could not possibly happen. It must have been a delusion, a trick of the light, wishful thinking. Yet you insist.”
Yes. I insist because I must. The impossible thing happened, but you will not reflect it within yourself. We shall speak of miracles or remain silent.
VIII She Explains Herself
“In my pockets are charms and talismans. I blink my eyes for a shower of sparks. The heels of my boots beat smoke out of the ground and my toes point the way to the hidden kingdom. My rings shine and sparkle with ancient magic and my teeth hold the key to secrets. I dance enchantments and skip unbreakable spells; my voice is thunder, or a whisper in the trees. The birds tell me their discoveries, the beasts seek my advice. My back is alive with sense. Tell me your dreams and I’ll tell you your story. I smell out wickedness and clap my hands to expel it; I leap seven leagues and cheat the wind. I am human in spirit and nature and I strive beyond both.”
She might be a mad, ragged hag if she were not beautiful. Her curses, jargon of the dispossessed, are potent.
“May dogs growl and bite when you pass and cats hiss and scratch. May crows dash at your head in the streets; may your hair fall and clog your sink and your teeth shatter and crumble on a nut; may your fingers fail to grip and your tongue to find words; may your toes turn backwards and your head twist on your neck; may the holes of your body be stopped until you burst with bad air and foul matter; may a toad squat on your coffin to keep your soul from flying; and all for a slight you gave me, child of love. Or was it you, at all? Children of love are we all, and all cursed the same.”
She fled the cloister, and fed herself from bird feeders, and dogs’ bowls, shooing the creatures away, such was her madness. They watched her, waiting. They had plenty of time. The nurses have given her new clothes. Her hair is growing back.
IX Overheard Conversations
A male nurse with bare, freckled forearms, unfolds another mystery, tucking blankets round an old blind woman in a gleaming wheelchair.
“At first we didn’t believe it. Then Tom came back and said it was all true. That convinced some, those who thought Tom was a good bloke, but it wasn’t good enough for me. Then two or three others burst in with the news. That changed a lot of people’s minds, but I don’t reckon you can be too careful. So I held my peace and didn’t say a yea or a nay. Well, when the dog died, it convinced a lot of the others who were still swithering. A voice at the back of my mind said the dog was old, after all. It could have been natural. But I was one voice amongst many, and so I went along with it, against my better judgement. But you can’t argue with the majority.”
Below in the city, the streets are full of magic. Statues wink. Pigeons curl their coral toes on sentient stone heads.
Rain out of a blue sky; it can happen sometimes; or dew blown from trees. It is not impossible. I felt it today, rain out of a blue sky. The trees were blown dry long since. So it must have been rain. Just rain out of a blue sky.
Wise birds sit in the branches of municipal trees. The roofs and garden walls are patrolled by familiar cats. A dog barks, and the bushes are alive with intelligence learned by the birds from the barking. The moon delivers wisdom in the form of moonlight on the rain wet slates. Some call it the Green Language, but it is silver.
“Looking back, I see a city; I turn and walk through dark stinking alleys, and dingy side streets, loud with cursing, past the shebeens and brothels, past fights and grudging looks from dirty windows, or turn into broad avenues, full of noisy men. There are houses where women weep and children are hurt, or afraid. There are occasional bursts of laughter. I keep walking, looking for broad boulevards of handsome buildings in the sunlight, summer parks and fountains, and happy, innocent people.
Where do we look; to the skies, into the world, into ourselves, waiting for a response from the silence within? Or into each other, into the eyes, the gestures of each other, listening to each other's voices, reaching to comfort or congratulate?”
The skies, the clouds, lakes and oceans forests and desert places, the dunes, the ice floes; none are meaningful unless we see them reflected in another's eyes.
The nun comes, rattling softly her pills in her fist before throwing them far over the balcony, to be inspected and rejected by small animals.
Somewhere in sands of the desert, the lone and level sands; nothing beside remains.
“In the Green Language, the world is described in the gaps between things, between breaths, between light and shadow, in words that don't always quite seem to fit. Like flashing neon reflected in a puddle, my notions come.”
I know. I know.
X Shadows Lengthen
Tell me again: In the high and horned mountains? What was it, your tale?
An old blind woman in the corner sends her hearing searching. Her hand twitches at the fringes of her shawl, like a bat, tentative flutterings of a creature that lives by sound. She adds her fluting voice, snatching at the words of others from her darkness, piecing together their conversations from shards of what she has heard; what she can remember: phrases from an index of first lines.
All kings, and all their favourites, amidst their very tears, they'll smile to see an idle poet here and there.
Yes yes, I remember. Long work of love; going, going. Somewhere in sands of the desert: Look on my works. I remember.
XI The Doctor’s Office
The gleaming stethoscope, the sphygmomanometer reflecting the bright day; all my instruments are alight: the fountain pen and the telephone. The photograph on my desk shows a melancholy boy.
“The lake pours from the sun. I love the water; learned to swim held in my father's arms.”
He is smiling proudly; he holds up a snorkel and mask.
“I feel pondweed tangle in my toes, and currents moving underwater. Sometimes, out of water, I hear buzzing and smell burning. They come to me then when I sleep. I wake up weary.
I hear my mother calling from the bank. The buzzing starts again. But now it grows and grows – and it is voices singing; the lake is burning and the world is on fire. They have kept the promise that they made when I fell down and slept. I hear my mother calling from the bank, and other voices calling, but I am going, going to my older home.”
Put the photograph down. Its place on the desk is clear, beside the blotter, the telephone, the address book, a small vase of flowers. This order reflects me. It is my defence. I guard this place from the creatures that leap in silently and range between me and the fire, flicking their dry tongues over rough lips or those that come down on vigorous wings, coiling their claws round the branch above me; a bullet line between their fury and purpose.
Was it a lion or just an impression of strength, passing on a scent of something beastlike? Was it a snake, pouring itself into a narrow crack in the rock, or just a lash and flicker of subtlety? I am sure those were monkeys chattering and showing their teeth, throwing filth at what they could not reach. Something beautiful and lively galloped by on light hooves.
XII Song In The Dawn
Old hag in the corner, old man in the sky,
whither, oh whither oh whither so high?
- I put the pearls in the oyster shells.
- And I am besought for cantrips and spells.
- Riding a donkey or riding an ass;
this is the road the royalty pass.
- Give them an acre, give them a yard;
the life of a healer is terrible hard.
What is the bird that will see you right?
- Hark to the hoolet, hooting at night.
But I am a raven steadfast and strong.
- The time of your power will not be long.
The cock stretched forth his neck and shook out his feathers and sang in the morning, ordering the sun to rise. The dog turned three times in his basket, licked his lips and slept again. The cat alert for twitches in the shadows, watched with blank intensity. The sweet smell of the byre and the swish of tails and the warm breath of the beasts and movements of sparrows among the rafters brought in the daylight.
XIII Case History
A smell of knives in the air and the sky like tarnished silver; a good night for a hero. Life is an epic to him who wills.
In the last days, sounds of battle preparation shall be heard from within mirrors and looking-glasses, say the Chinese: but life is an epic to him who wills.
His Odyssey, his mission, was to transform the world transpeculate, before our shadows could rebel against us, flooding bathrooms, wrecking bedrooms, making free with barbers' cutlery, smashing bottles in pub gantries; misbehaving on the ceilings of brothels. Alone, he would impose his will on his reflection, bending it to do his bidding – his alone. He practised at the dressing table, not without success. He lined the attic room with mirrors, door and all, and took a lamp, and sat, the centre of a replicating universe, and clenched his will. So did his doubles. Meanwhile, his brother and his wife were sharing chocolates on the sofa. His brother loved the freckles in her breast; brown sugar sinking into cream: hazelnut, rum truffle, cherry fondant, coffee, nougat, montelimar. There was a cry; the windows rattled, the mirror clattered on the wall; she started, hand to freckled breast; he missed the caramel and bit his tongue. They calmed themselves. She soothed his tongue with hers. He slid her hem a little higher.
Upstairs, the hero lay exhausted on the floor, his enemies stretched out around him. The lamp went out; they all imploded in the dark to one slumped shape.
Downstairs the lovers fell apart, mimicked by the couple in the mirror. At last she reached down for the box and fed him from the lower tray. She dropped them all and screamed to see the couple in the mirror spring apart, and dress, in different clothes from their own, to distant sounds of steel.
XIV They Move Towards Each Other
Between the lines shapes of meaning trick themselves out in borrowed metaphors and similes; second-hand tropes; until some meaning emerges.
In some otherworld, in the grey wastes of dread. Fragments pasted together, like a blackmailer’s letter.
What shall we do with the hidden knowledge;, what shall we do with the magic spells?
Send winds across the seas and storms down dry valleys; startle the flocks up the braes; make the salmon leap the wrong way; blow down trees and bothies? Or shall we send unexpected cheques to old women on low pensions; leave briefcases full of money to be discovered at bus stops; cause treasure to rise to the plough? Or shall we keep our magic all a secret, and watch the world?
Time is running out. Enemies are embracing their moment. The oars are beating the water moving like slow thighs; the gulls follow close above the deck. The distant land is grey on the horizon and soon will appear green and its scents carry across the waves. Smoke and woodland and good earth, the horns of mountains in the distance. The blades are sharp in their sheaths and the eyes of the warriors are hot.
Surely the Sun will turn its face away and the deeds be done in the darkness? Surely the sight of buildings, all the civilized institutions, will remind them of their humanity? A priest is praying in a tower and the bell rope near at hand. One in the garden straightens his back to look out at the sails on the incoming tide.
Once, we might have said: The sword is loose in its sheath, the arrow is on the string. Now, the ammunition is packed tight in metal boxes. Our equipment is all gunmetal and other hard edges.
We are the soldiers coming to ransack your house. We’ll take our fifes and drums and play the tune the old cow died of to sicken your heifers. We’ll smash your holy statues and start fires with your votive lights. We’ll dump your mattresses in the mud and linen in the river; trample all your delft with our hobnails and fire the shards at your familiar stars. We’ll rename your hills and valleys, rivers and woods to make them sound like ours. This will all be done in a spirit of play. It’s well for you that we let you off lightly. Because we love you, it’s well for you.
The tall towers and the winding stairs: what do we see from the top?
The darkness drops again; boundless and bare, vexed to nightmare. Look on my works.
The shards are being swept from the shattered streets; the sirens are keening in the distance. Nurses are hanging fresh blood packs beside the beds of the injured innocent; switchboard operators are channelling the anxieties of the many to the ears of the patient few.
What return shall I make, responsible for what I reflect to the wise stars? The round world and all its inhabitants; who else has built it out from the sea, poised it on the hidden streams?
Round the decay of that colossal wreck reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Love is a long work never finished. Let us at last remember what courage and honour mean.
A universe of meaning that cannot be explored in one night, even though such an exploration might require no words.
We each have our patch of ground and the task is to ensoul it with our work. And that task is at least honourable, and indeed requires courage, in spite of those who would sow salt and napalm the woodlands and fields, plant the device in the crowded shopping centre.
His fit has passed now. He has returned tired and sick. The nurses have drawn the curtains round his bed like a tent. Hector is laid in the earth at last, under the twinkling silent path of the satellites in their rational courses spread over the whole world, persevering steadfast, bearing witness.
XVII The Healing Space
If I tell you, you will never believe me, though you must believe me; we are created so that we shall believe each other, feeling into the common space of experience.
I remember the call of an oystercatcher and the smell of seaweed, the rhythm of the waves and the feel of sand yielding underfoot, or shingle and the tide running through the stones, a crab under a rock and seagulls calling hilariously and the bell tolling.
All this I piece together, sitting on a dry dune next to the old concrete pillbox, and another piece of the world reflects itself to the knowing universe. Things are as they are and will end as they must; with our help one way; without it, another.
Who else loaded the ships with weapons, packed the bullets into the aircraft’s wings,
loaded the bombs into the metal bellies?
The sun sets, gilding the roofs and the trees gather shadow under their canopies. The horns of the mountains are touched with gold. Other creatures start forth. The world is theirs in the dark.
What looks like love can remind us of what love is. Therefore, it is a gift; a gift of a different kind, but none the less a gift for all that. Love is a long work, either building or reparation, it is never finished.
There are two or three of us gathered on the terrace, looking at the reflection of high mountains in the lake water, and the sunrise.
A silence falls; ‘angels passing’. We allow them plenty of space. Something beautiful and lively galloped by on light hooves catching the sunlight. A scent like incense is borne on the wind; the smell of the burning nest: above our heads the beat of wings.