Extracts from the Life of a Mirror

Joanna Szczepkowska
Extracts from the Life of a Mirror
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie
    Kraków 2004
    123 x 197
    235 pages
    ISBN 83-08-03536-1

Extracts from the Life of a Mirroris the author’s first book, although her short stories have been appearing for several years in Polish magazines. The book consists of four longer stories and one short impression entitled Writing at night in the presence of a mirror set in the middle of the collection. Although these are classic short stories, both in terms of content and form, they have a fresh and engaging tone, maybe because their main heroine is a mystery, to be found without fail amid the prosaic facts of reality. The overriding idea is this: the characters appearing in the individual stories must be forced to drop their rationalistic philosophy of life, or at least to relax it, because there are things all around us that not even professional psychiatrists (Attempted Take-off) and clairvoyants (The Head) have ever dreamed of, not to mention professors of genetics (Plaster). But Szczepkowska approaches this issue with gentle irony, detachment, and often subtle humour: the stories in this book are good old spine-chillers rather than metaphysical prose. The correctly interpreted classic nature of these stories is reflected at least in the fact that the author makes use of some tried and tested story-telling models. Thus a young doctor visits a lunatic asylum in the middle of nowhere, where there’s a whole host of surprises waiting for him. In the next story, after her husband’s death a woman opens a box containing his secret correspondence and discovers some things that make her hair stand on end. In the third of the four longer stories an ordinary car crash turns a banal woman into a brilliant painter. In the final story a world-famous scholar arrives in his old country after many long years away and is caught up in a whirl of strange events. On top of that there are false leads and fictional surprises, and of course the requisite perverse final twist.

- Dariusz Nowacki

Joanna Szczepkowska is one of Poland’s leading actresses, and one of Gazeta Wyborcza’s most notable columnists.


As I entered the room and found myself in the middle, uncertain what to do, my eyes fell on that box. Tiny, made out of cardboard with some Turkish design, it was sitting on a book shelf. To be honest, it had always intrigued me. First, it had no label, which was strangely out of character; second, it always failed to respond to my attempts at gauging its energy. As if it lacked aura or as if it locked it inside, completely shutting itself off from the outside. Somehow I never dared ask Mark what was inside.
Now I felt its extraordinary power of attraction. It became saturated with light so that the rest of the room faded. Yet I was unable to budge. I felt like an idiot to have yielded to a petty weakness at such a dramatic moment. I was approaching it, stopping at each step as if I were climbing over invisible hoops. The most difficult thing was to touch the box. If Mark were around he would let me know whether I could do it. Nothing is happening. Slowly, I lift the cardboard lid.
The box contains four letters, one postcard, and a girl’s photograph. I am unsure whether I will read them, but I want to take a closer look. I sit down on the floor. One of the letters is much older than the rest. The handwriting on the envelope captivates me with its clumsy letters and I clearly sense a female energy. Of course, I might be merely influenced by the photograph. But, after all, people send Mark pictures of their relatives all the time, and it isn’t necessarily the author of the letters.
The picture is in small format, as ID or passport photos. The girl’s head is leaning abnormally to the right and her face isn’t pretty. She can be nineteen years old, there are still traces of childhood in her features, a certain chubbiness, lack of character; her eyes are the only sign of maturity. As if they belonged to someone else, they are marked with sadness and experience. I place my hand over the photograph. Mark was long teaching me how to learn from objects imbued with someone’s energy. I attain basic levels of consciousness and unite with my spiritual guide. To this day I am not certain whether my conversations with the guide are not projections of my own thoughts, whether he is not make-believe. But I have witnessed so many times Mark’s exceptional talents. So many times was I at his side when he could see things and events at distance; so many times did he repeat that each person can develop this ability that I finally started believing that the voices I hear in my thoughts do not emanate from me, and even if they do, thought is precisely the force I seek. Mark would always say: “Thought is energy. We must not destroy it. With the help of thought you can achieve anything you wish. Mind contains everything.”
But now I am unable to think. Or not to think. No “peace” comes over me and I cannot alter my “state of consciousness,” so the spiritual guide won’t appear.
The only way to find out, then, is by opening the letter.
Actually, it’s already open. A piece of paper torn out of a notebook sticks out of a discolored envelope. The date on the stamp is barely visible and I have to get up (I should have taken off my coat, but that’s a waste of time) to go over to Mark’s desk and take a magnifying glass. As soon as touch it, I am seized by vertigo. It was only momentary, and I managed to steady myself on my feet and hold to a corner of the desk. A mistake. I shouldn’t have thoughtlessly invade the space of the table top. This is Mark’s territory, filled with his thoughts, work, concentration, emotions; wheras I extracted the magnifying from it as if I were uprooting it. I should have done it gently, tame it with my thought and memory. What’s done is done. I sit back on the floor and, applying the magnifying glass to the envelope, I can clearly read the date: 5-5-1986.
I did not know Mark then, yet. I had no idea I would come to live next door with my aunt Stasia. At times, when I dropped by to have some of her apple pie, I saw people hanging around by the neighbor’s door. My aunt had informed me that they were waiting in line to see the “thaumaturge” whose apartment was too small to contain everyone: “It’s no wonder they’re coming, my dear; he’s a genius, you must meet him. He lives like some hermit, doesn’t even have a TV; cured my glaucoma in three sessions, and healed the nerves of that woman who feeds the cats in the neighborhood, you know, the one whose husband left her for a stewardess; and when the grocery store was robbed, he only had to touch the sales lady’s neck, after they had put a gun to her head, to know that the criminals are in a cellar by the intersection.”
I was always annoyed by these stories and the mystifying tone in which they were told and which was supposed to indicate that I am admitted into a magic circle known only to lonely women. I was 25 years old at that time, happily married, living in a spacious house inherited from the family; I loved music, horse-riding and poetry; I was writing my dissertation and life held no mystery: everything depended on the creativity of my day filled with movement, plans, and goals.

Translated by Ela Kotkowska