The Man in the Mirror
by Tamara Sheehan
The man who sat down beside me was short with brown hair and brown eyes. He carried a small bag made of canvas as brown as he, and this he settled at his feet. His shoes, which were once fancy oxblood affairs, were in tatters.
He was Greek, I later learned, and dressed in a pair of blue slacks and a striped shirt with the top two buttons undone. I’d been bumped up to first class, so I had my backpack, my jeans and my grubby t-shirt on, but he didn’t seem to be troubled by my appearance. He nodded at me.
“Hello. Flying to Toronto too?”
He fumbled about in his pockets as he spoke and drew out a little object, about the size of a two dollar coin. It was a mirror, made of some highly buffed metal, not glass. When he saw the stewardess coming down the aisle he hid it under his coat.
“Hello, Caroline,” he said to the stewardess.
“Hello, Mister Philipedes. Nice to see you again.” She had brought a blanket in the airline red and a little pillow with one of those papery covers.
“Oh, thank you,” the man said as she offered them.
“No trouble at all. Where to this time?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps Amsterdam.”
“It’s nice there this time of year.” She smiled at me. “Mister Philipedes is one of our frequent fliers, Tricia. If you like to travel, you should talk to him; he’s been everywhere.”
Mister Philipedes looked mildly embarrassed by the stewardess’s introduction, but he smiled at me as she moved on. “Call me Philip,” he said and offered his hand.
“You’ve been everywhere?” I asked.
“Most places, perhaps, but not everywhere.”
He shrugged. “Yesterday I was in Tokyo and the day before that Seoul and before that I was in Koh Pha-ngan. Home is the Peloponese, but it’s been a while.” He shrugged. “I travel a great deal.”
“For business?” My own father traveled for business plenty. I knew all about flying to LA one day and winding up in Detroit for a dinner meeting the next.
“Not for business.”
He chuckled quietly, his shoulders shook. “No, my girl. Because of something I said.”
Now I was curious. “What did you say?”
He raised the little mirror to his eyes. “Once I ran twenty-six miles to deliver one word. When I told the people they cheered me, and though I was dying I felt like a god. I boasted, there at the feet of Hermes, that if I chose to run, no one on earth could catch me.”
“Well, he said he had never failed to win a race. We decided to see who was the best. And I’ve been running ever since.”
It was then I realized he wasn’t looking at himself in the mirror, he was looking at someone behind him. I craned my neck.
He seized my shoulder in a sudden, startling grip. “Some things should not be seen with mortal eyes. Gnothi seauton. Here, my girl,” he added more gently, “use the mirror.”
He held it for me and I squirmed quite close to him. His clothes smelled of dust and spices and his hands were smooth and brown as old leather. I looked into the mirror.
It was focused on the last seat in first class, where a lean man with cane and a dignified peppering of grey in his hair was reading a copy of Forbes. I frowned and looked back up at my companion.
“Psychopompos,” he said in a whisper.
“That’s his name?”
Philip nodded. “One of many.” He was looking agitated, he frowned into the mirror and squirmed, slouching deep into the seat. I looked at the man in the mirror again.
Mister Psychopompos looked a lot like my dad: an average, boring human. He did not seem to know or care that we were spying on him.
“So, that guy, he chases you?” I thought of all the places Philip had been in the last week and frowned. “That must be awfully expensive.”
“It was cheaper, in the old days,” Philip agreed. “But then it was harder and dirtier too. We walked a lot. Rode horses and donkeys a lot. I was glad of the motorcar.”
I stared up at him. He was leathery to be sure, but that old? I wanted to ask, but he kept talking.
“And then the aeroplane. Now that’s the way to travel. No more dust, no more broken wheels, no more worn-out boots. He almost caught me once in Italy, you know, when I had run right through my boot leather and had to pop into a cobbler’s shop. Too close a call.” He chuckled at the memory.
“And then the time my horse threw a shoe in Britain. It was a busy place and that big Italian, Oespasianou was there, but try to find a blacksmith...”
I was silent. Philip’s eyes were fixed on the mirror, on the man four rows behind him. He seemed not to realize he was still speaking.
“Air travel has saved me. Our bet made reference only to the earth; the sky is neutral. We each of us have a sit-down, have a rest. Though I believe he enjoys the chase, I think we’ve come to some sort of understanding. We never start up again until both of us have cleared customs.”
I leaned over and looked into the mirror again. The man Philip was spying on had put down his magazine. He was looking at his watch.
“And this mirror?”
“A gift from the god himself. You see, he has a great sense of fairness. When I boasted I was young, but he, a god, is ageless. I think he felt I ought to have a little magic if I was going to survive.”
Above us the PA crackled to life. The aircraft was spiraling slowly downward. I could see Toronto, a big place, and cloaked by an obscuring yellow fog. There was so much smog that I couldn’t see any of the landmarks, just a few grey spires and some coiling asphalt, so I rested my head on Philip’s dusty shoulder and looked into the mirror again.
“The gods grow old, my girl, but they do not die,” Philip murmured the words to me, “and they do not forget hubris. If you want a long life, you have only to make a godly boast.”
As if he had been listening to us, the man in the mirror looked up. His eyes met mine. At that moment I could see he was not human.
His eyes were not brown but red and glowed as if a fire lay behind them. When he opened his mouth, I saw teeth like fangs and a tongue red and molten. His mouth was a window into a red-black world of nameless shades sloping toward the grey banks of a sluggish river. I must have whimpered, or cried out, because Philip set down his mirror.
“Do not be afraid, my girl,” he said as we bumped onto the tarmac. “He’s not here for you. Not yet.”
I was unable to speak. Philip, with a weary sounding sigh, gathered up his things and got to his feet. He nodded once at me, pressed a secretive finger to his lips and then he was gone.
As soon as he left I realized the little mirror was lying on the seat. I grasped it. The metal was warm and smooth in my hand.
A parade of grey-faced business men in suits passed me. I waited for the tall man with the silvery hair. Ladies in their high heels and pencil skirts went by, chattering. A pair of young men in designer jeans. I turned in my seat and saw the grey-haired man at the back of the cabin.
He wrestled with a his briefcase, jammed into the overhead storage, and struggled to keep his umbrella from popping open. He dropped first his magazine, then his glasses, then his magazine again. I frowned as I watched and wondered about what Philip had said. That man a god? Ridiculous.
I laughed a little, more because I was embarrassed than because I thought it funny. “I’m too old to believe in fairy stories.” I told myself aloud and sat back in my seat.
I was collecting my things when the grey-haired man came to my seat. He tucked his magazine under his arm and held out his hand. I looked up, went to say something and stopped with my heart beating fast in my chest. His eyes, I thought, were red, not brown. His open mouth revealed a dark vista. I heard a voice crackling and dry as a fire in my mind.
Philip, you’re getting old and forgetful! He held out one weathered hand. You’d better give me that mirror, my girl, my opponent doesn’t stand a chance without it.
I didn’t wish to give the mirror up, but my hand moved like an automaton. His fingers, cold and dry, brushed my palm and a chill passed through me. The instant the mirror passed from my fingers, I was alone. The man had vanished.
I looked around the aircraft, startled. The plane was almost empty, a line of passengers serpentined toward the baggage claim. Through the milky window I could see two old men, one grey, the other brown. They were standing close together on the tarmac, heads bent toward one another like old friends deep in conversation. One was speaking, the other nodded and something passed between them.
Copyright © 2007 by Tamara Sheehan