It all began with my obsession for antiques, personal items held close by people I’d never met or even heard of, now random objects purchased at garage sales and antique stores. The treasured possessions of past generations, once a precious part of unknown lives, each curio had been eventually tossed into the garbage. I reveled in these leftover pieces. My apartment was filled with the cast-offs of forgotten people who had moved on, for better or worse. I made a point of touching each artifact every day, imagining their previous owners. My obsession was why my girlfriend, Shahadi hadn’t moved in with me; she found it all kind of creepy, my biggest weakness, an opinion she pointed out repeatedly. She didn’t mind my collection of antiques; rather, she objected to my obsession with them. She’s a very practical woman, who tests the water before diving in head first, the opposite of me.
Thus, it’s somewhat ironic that it was Shahadi, my practical, long-term girlfriend, who spotted the hand mirror at a garage sale. She had accompanied me on my relic-shopping trips for the two years we’d been together. I was examining some framed photographs of a beach scene when a gilded frame, containing a pastel image of a young woman wearing a feathered hat, was thrust in front of my eyes. I was captivated, both by the lackluster expression on the model’s face and the sense of pride reflected on Shahadi’s dark complexion. I instinctively kissed her expectant lips.
She flipped it and showed me the mirror, not a crack or even fraying of the silver coating marring its surface. It looked as if it had just been purchased from an importer in Boston, before the Civil War from its design. The seller knew the mirror’s value so it cost me a lot. The irony of the moment was lost on me; Shahadi held the mirror up and studied its perfect surface while I drove.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall.”
* * *
Shahadi played with the mirror a minute before breaking the awkward silence filling my one-bedroom walk-up in Greenwich Village. “I’m not that excited about giving up my freedom, that’s all, and your creepy fascination with these antiques is all the excuse I need to not live with you. You’re going to have to do better than being a collector of eclectic stuff and being in love with me to get a commitment.” She smiled alluringly and added, “Do I make myself clear?”
She did that every time she came over, and every time I begged her to either move in with me or let me move into her two-bedroom apartment in Midtown East. It wasn’t my habit of talking to my artifacts that disturbed her, which is the same as talking to myself aloud, at least from my perspective. That was an excuse. Shahadi was afraid of making a commitment. I took the mirror and turned it towards her.
“Do you see this woman? This is the woman who makes me feel as if we had just met and fallen in love, every time I see her. Even if we don’t have a family, I want to fall asleep in your arms every single night and wake up next to you in the morning and I know you feel the same.”
She smiled uncertainly, swallowed nervously, turned the mirror to face me and said, “See that man? He is the love of my life and every day I anticipate his touch, even his smile. I love him so much that I don’t want to ruin what we have by making it a common, everyday experience. I don’t want to lose this feeling of passionate love, Mr. Nelson Whitmer, not even for the ecstasy of a few months or years of daily pleasure with you. I love you too much.”
I took her hand and led her to the bedroom as I replied, “So, your reluctance to living together isn’t really about my fascination with antiques, is it?”
She looked in the bedroom, poked her head in the bathroom, glanced towards the kitchen, nodded approvingly, and began unbuttoning my shirt. “That’s my excuse because, if it weren’t for your eccentric behavior, I wouldn’t be able to resist my desire to be with you. But let’s stop talking and make love in your immaculately clean apartment.” She pulled me towards the bed, pulling my shirt off.
In our haste, I was still holding the hand mirror, so I dropped it on the nightstand.
“Be careful with that,” she chastised. “You never know when you’ll want to look at yourself closely.”
* * *
Shahadi was naked in the kitchen making breakfast when I joined her, also undressed. We spent as much time as possible in the nude when in private because, as she put it, “That’s how God made us.” She wasn’t religious, at least not from what I’d seen or heard after a couple of years together, but she was spiritual. I don’t know what that means exactly but I think it’s equivalent to being superstitious. Her spirituality is probably why she accepted my attachment to relics of the past, but she was uncomfortable seeing her own metaphysical beliefs acted out by me; it gave her an excuse to keep up her pretense of being independent, an island of calm surrounded by a tumultuous emotional sea.
I approached her from behind while she was busy with food prep, wrapped my arms around her waist, and kissed her waiting lips. “What are we having for breakfast?”
Rather than answering my question, she pushed me to a chair in my tiny kitchen and placed bowls of fruit and yogurt on the table. A typical weekend breakfast; but I was a bit surprised when she set the antique mirror on the table.
“What’s that about?” I asked innocently. “I’m supposed to be the one with a creepy fascination for old stuff.”
Her eyes avoided mine, searching for a response, finally settling on a confession. “I felt something, that’s why I found the mirror to begin with, I don’t know what it is, maybe your obsession has rubbed off on me…”
I smiled confidently, took the mirror in my free hand, and gazed into it, prepared to gloat about how alike we really were. This could be my opportunity to finally convince Shahadi to let me move in. Our mutual spiritualities were aligned.
Instead of my smug countenance smiling back, I was looking at a young girl blowing out candles on a birthday cake—ten in all. She was wearing a high-waisted green dress with ruffled sleeves, her wavy, light-brown hair capped by a silver tiara set with gems. The camera’s view panned around the room as if following the young girl’s gaze. Being familiar with eighteenth and nineteenth century customs, I recognized the luxurious furnishings of the room to be those of an upper-class English manor from the Victorian Period. I even had a wall-mounted gaslight similar to those illuminating the scene. I watched in awe as a servant removed the cake to be sliced to the pantry as the birthday girl began opening presents wrapped in colorful paper, tied with elaborate bows. I was lost in the images of a gay birthday party from a previous century.
“What’s wrong, Nelson?”
Shahadi’s voice brought me back to the present. I couldn’t peel my eyes from the scene of the little girl unwrapping presents and shrieking with joy. I held the mirror so that we could both see.
“What’s going on? I thought this was a real mirror, not a gimmicky video player…”
“It is,” I replied. “It’s some kind of magic—a sixth sense sort of phenomena, a birthday party from the early nineteenth century.”
Shahadi jumped up and got her smartphone and started videotaping the scenes displayed in the mirror. “Get your tripod,” she commanded.
I fumbled around and finally found the small tripod I used sometimes to make experimental films, like for Tic Toc, and propped the mirror up with some pans and a roll of paper towels. We continued eating as the party unfolded, ending with the opening of the last present, from the little girl’s mother. The flat, rectangular package was wrapped in gold paper and tied with a silver bow. The birthday girl tore it open and removed an exact replica of the mirror that was replaying her birthday party, turning it to reveal the same woman dressed in lavender, the same knurling on the handle and engraving on the rim.
The children were shepherded out to play some games while the cake and ice cream were prepared. Then the film ended. The mirror was just a mirror again.
“Talia Porter,” Shahadi whispered.
“I’m going to do some investigating,” I responded.
“What do you mean by that? I found the mirror, I was the one who started whatever it just did, and I thought of recording it, so we’re going to look into this together.”
I stood to take the dishes to the sink, bent over to kiss her full lips, before teasing, “Are you an expert on the Victorian Period?”
She got to her feet and, taking my hand, started towards the bedroom. “That’s your assignment, Mr. Whitmer, after you’ve sated the passion that has suddenly come over me.”
* * *
The Porter family wasn’t famous but they were wealthy during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. They featured in a lot of articles in English newspapers and magazines from the Victorian Period, evenly divided between the gossip columns, financial and business news, even the police blotter. Talia’s grandfather, John Porter, had invested in the East India Company and made a huge profit before expanding his portfolio to include significant shares in the Royal African Company, the slave trade. Her father, Randolph Porter, had invested in foreign corporations like the Dutch West Indies Company and several French and German colonies in West Africa. By the time Talia Porter was born in 1825, her family was fabulously wealthy and her father had a seat in the House of Lords.
But there was a darker side to the Porter dynasty’s history. The gossip columns frequently contained references to police reports of both spousal and child abuse by Randolph Porter, but no charges were ever filed. Talia lived her life traveling between her family’s estates in England and Scotland. She died unmarried and childless in 1890. The Porter dynasty wasn’t threatened, however, thanks to a plethora of male heirs; Randolph was succeeded by Randolph II, Talia’s brother; who begat Randolph III.
It was Randolph Porter IV, born in 1874, who immigrated to America and invested in its burgeoning steel, petroleum, and manufacturing industries. However, the American gossip columns and business papers suggested that it was his sister, Dalia Porter, who was the financial genius behind their empire. There was no lack of reports of her outlandish behavior during the Roaring Twenties, consorting with titans of Hollywood and Wall Street, even a scandalous affair with a U.S. Senator, before leaping to her death under questionable circumstances after the Wall Street crash on 1929. No charges were ever filed against her brother, Randolph Porter IV, but speculation was rife in the tabloids.
* * *
“Did you verify any of this with the mirror?”
“It was silent on the subject. In fact, it’s nothing more than a mirror when I try to use it.”
She retrieved the gilded mirror from its stand, nestled between a Fortnum and Mason’s teacup set and a handwritten diary from the Gilded Age, and propped it up on the kitchen table.
“It only works for me, Nelson. I thought I explained that to you.” The corners of her mouth were curved upward sarcastically.
I set my smartphone on the miniature tripod and retorted, “I think it only works for the two of us. It’s some kind of resonator—or something like that—which senses our mutual love and total commitment to each other, and that’s what makes it work.”
“When did you become an expert on paranormal phenomena?” Her eyes were saying that she agreed with my theory.
Before I could respond to her taunt, the mirror came alive, showing young Talia in bed. A figure loomed in the semi-darkness and announced that she was old enough to fulfill her purpose. Shahadi and I held hands, grimacing, wanting to look away but unable to divert our eyes from the mirror as it showed Randolph Porter having anal and vaginal intercourse with his daughter. Her cries of pain and pleas for relief went unanswered in scene after scene as she grew older in the horrendous videos. She was still a young woman when it ended, not with her publicly denouncing her aging father’s incestuous abuse, but with his funeral. Shahadi and I were silent when the horrific video ended.
Released from the spell of the mirror, my stomach revolted and I ran to the bathroom to try and eradicate the images from my soul. I returned to the kitchen to find Shahadi reviewing the film my smartphone had recorded. She pointed to a scene I hadn’t noticed before, her countenance twisted in pain.
“She got an abortion from this doctor,” she began, pointing at the young man wearing a suit and tie. I hadn’t caught the change in the scenes, so many shadows lit by gas, intent on Talia’s genitalia. Apparently, Talia had had several abortions before her father’s death from pneumonia.
* * *
As the weeks passed, Talia’s story unfolded, revealed through images of events in her life, as well as monologues spoken to the mirror as if it were a close friend. She had accepted her role as Randolph Porter’s concubine and kept it a secret from her family but not from the mirror; she despised her father and prayed for his death every day. Her prayers were answered when he died at the relatively young age of fifty-five, leaving her oldest brother Randolph Porter II in charge of the family’s fortune. She confessed to the mirror that he was a fool who wasted his days hunting and drinking, his nights spent in the company of women of whom Talia strongly disapproved. Despite—or perhaps because of—his wanton ways, Randolph II followed her business advice and the family fortune increased; he also found time to marry a socialite and have three sons, the eldest given the appellation Randolph Porter III.
Talia bemoaned the stupidity of primogeniture, which handed the family’s fortune to her nephew when her brother died of a heart attack in 1869. Surrounded by men she deplored but from whom she couldn’t escape, Talia made the best of the situation by consoling her sister-in-law and influencing her nephew—Randolph Porter III—through his wife. Amelia was a rather plain young woman who became pregnant before the wedding and was thus sent to France, ostensibly to complete her education, until the pre-nuptial birth of their daughter, Dalia. Immediately after the wedding, the bride returned to Paris to care for her infant, before introducing her to the nobility of England. No one noticed that the infant, who Randolph III readily accepted as his daughter, was born a little early because appearances had to be maintained. Talia took responsibility for Dalia and raised her as if she were her own daughter.
Shahadi watched Talia’s story with me over several weeks, usually expressing her opinion after the video camera was turned off. (I had replaced my smartphone with a professional camera borrowed from a work colleague.)
She jumped up from the table and exclaimed, “We’ve got to make a film about this! I mean, Talia is sharing her innermost thoughts…from another century—”
I held my hand up to stop her and said, “That thought had crossed my mind, so I’ve been working on a script—nothing finished yet or anything but I have some ideas…and I’ve got some time because production has stopped on my current play due to Covid… so I’ve got some time on my hands. The truth is that I’ll probably be out of work soon and I’m ready for something new.”
Shahadi became my collaborator and, with her creative insight, my idea quickly congealed into a short film that we would submit to several film festivals. The central theme focused on the mirror as a window into the Victorian Period, showing the treatment of young women within high society. The original concept expanded substantially when the mirror revealed Talia’s bequest to her great-niece, Dalia Porter, made on her death bed.
* * *
“I want you to have this mirror, Dalia. My mother gave it to me on my tenth birthday and it has been with me every day of my life, the one friend I could trust through thick and thin.” She thrust the gilded mirror at the young girl with straight, dark-brown hair and continued, “I know what your father is doing to you because he has the same look in his eyes that my father, Randolph Porter, had when he came to my room in the darkness of night and—well, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
The frightened child took the mirror and nodded uncertainly.
“It’s a disease that afflicts the Porter men. Fortunately, there haven’t been very many women in the family, just you and me.” Her wrinkled hand took Dalia’s small hand in hers and she added, “We have a special bond, that’s why I took it on myself to raise you, to teach you how to accept what I knew you would one day suffer. Do you understand, Dear?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I do. Thank you for taking care of me, Mother has been very busy and Father…well, Father has already come to my bed chamber and…well, he has touched me and…and made me touch him like you talked about.” The child took a deep breath, wiped a stray lock away from her face and looked in the mirror before adding, “I am going to be strong. I will not let him overcome me the way my great-grandfather defeated your spirit, Aunt Talia, because you have prepared me for the battle. I will not be his concubine. I don’t care if he kills me, I will not allow him in my bed again, and I will make certain that everyone knows what kind of animal he is!” Her nostrils flared, eyes slitted in anger, determination hardening her voice as she held the mirror up like a weapon, slashing the air with its gilded frame.
A wrinkled hand took her wrist, ending the wild flight of the mirror, and Talia said, “Just remember, my dear, that the path you have chosen will be more difficult than the one I chose. Your father may well take your life in anger when you refuse his advances…do you understand the danger?”
The mirror was lifted, facing the determined young face, as Dalia replied in a steely tone, “I know. I will remember what you’ve taught me, about being smarter than the Porter men, which isn’t very difficult, but I don’t think I’m as smart as you.” She took the withered hand in hers and held it to her lips.
The other ancient hand waved feebly and Talia’s weak voice said, “I’ve tried to prepare you for what lies ahead and you’ve been an attentive student. You’re a very smart young woman, Dalia, and I will go to God confident that you will make me proud…” She coughed quietly and mumbled something I couldn’t make out…maybe a good bye.
Dalia fell on the old woman, kissing her shrunken and unmoving cheeks, sobbing quietly, the mirror held tightly in her small hand.
* * *
Shahadi had the mirror in her hand as she leapt to her feet. “Oh my god, Nelson! Do you know what this means?”
“The mirror has a lot more to say. This is no longer just about Talia Porter and child sex abuse in Victorian England. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”
I stood up and took her hands, grinning. “Dalia and her brother, Randolph Porter IV, disappeared from the tabloids in England in 1912, less than a year after their father’s death. I don’t think she died or succumbed to her father’s incestuous advances. There’s a lot more to this story—”
Shahadi interjected, “They moved to America! Tired and disgusted with the English nobility and their misogynist ways, Dalia took her stupid but nevertheless primogenitor brother to the new world…”
I added, “He was her lifeline to the wealth Talia had accumulated for the family. She couldn’t afford to let go of him. They must have made a lot of money in America and probably—”
Shahadi finished my thought. “Dalia would have made a splash in the tabloids, probably in New York City. We have to look into that—”
“I’m on it.”
* * *
“The English have invaded!”
That was the headline in the New York Times when Randolph Porter IV and Dalia arrived in New York City, taking up residence in the most expensive penthouse in the city. Their wealth was speculated to exceed that of Andrew Carnegie or even John D. Rockefeller. Randolph Porter IV had brought his family to America, leaving their many estates in Great Britain occupied by members of the extended family, maintained by an extensive cadre of butlers, cooks, gardeners, maids, and an army of support staff. Their wealth was beyond belief, even in the Gilded Age.
“Ms. Dalia Porter is the Queen of New York,” was pronounced on the front page of the New York Post. Photos of her with celebrities and well-known politicians, accompanied by lurid descriptions of her late-night antics, filled the papers for years. She didn’t seem to age as the Roaring Twenties passed, the Porter family’s fortune doubling then quadrupling while her antics, displayed on the pages of every newspaper in the country, became more extravagant. She was the richest woman in the world when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929.
She made the headlines one last time, when she leapt to her death from the balcony of the penthouse in the Woolworth Building. Both her fans and critics were shocked at her death because it was well known that she hadn’t had much faith in the stock market, railing against the foolishness of investing in an institution that was nothing more than a lottery, a tool to steal from the gullible.
* * *
Laid off from my job as an assistant production coordinator, I had plenty of time to work on the film and it was coming together. I also had time to watch Dalia’s life in America unfold because the mirror had started working for me when I was alone. I didn’t tell Shahadi. It was my secret.
The scenes portrayed in the mirror told a slightly different story from the newspapers, a tale of abuse by her brother Randolph Porter IV. He was not happy with the reputation she had engendered since coming to America.
“I will cut you off!” he shouted at a grinning Dalia. “And I’ll send you back to England where you might be taught some manners. That’s what I’ll do.”
Gin and vermouth erupted form her nose in an explosive display of humor. She set the glass on the bar, laughing hysterically as she went to make another.
“What’s so funny? You will do as I say, as head of the family. It’s your duty. What will you do when I cut your purse string? Get a job for Woolworths, possibly selling perfume…or liquor, which seems to be your only hobby. You are an embarrassment to the Porter name.”
Dalia regained control and shook the ice-filled shaker while her brother fumed. Finally pouring it into a glass, she responded, “Oh, I have other hobbies, dear Randolph, rather a few actually…” She paused, sipped her drink and looked around, her mouth twisted with uncertainty, before she nodded as if making a difficult decision.
“This is as good a time to tell you as any I suppose. I was going to wait, I don’t know why because I’ve plenty of money…let’s see, where do I start?” She sipped again with a thoughtful expression on her attractive face, framed by straight brown hair.
Concern skipped across her brother’s face.
“Do you know why I wanted to come to America? The real reason?” she asked.
“To be close to the hottest financial market in the world,” was his ready response.
She nodded before replying in a casual tone, “True enough, but that was only a cover story. I can’t believe you and your lawyers didn’t figure it out… I guess it’s true, what Aunt Talia always said about men and their clubs: You are incapable of thinking outside the box. The real reason we are living in New York City is that it isn’t England, or even Europe. They don’t play those silly games about the eldest son inheriting everything here, not in the New World, Randolph. I don’t need your money any more. I’ve outsmarted the titans of Wall Street and the barristers of The Temple. I made our family even wealthier than Aunt Talia, but I also took care of myself, although I’m not as well-off as you and the sycophants who depend on you for their luxurious lifestyles. Best of all, my wealth is out of your reach because, as I said, here in America it’s every man and woman for themselves. I was planning to resign from my position with Porter House Financial next year and open my own investment firm. The documents are awaiting my signature—”
Randolph jumped from his chair, nostrils flaring. “You can’t sign a legal document, not obligating our money. That’s theft and even in America they won’t stand for it!”
Dalia laughed out loud. “Oh you foolish boy. Did you actually think I would steal from my own family? I guess you don’t think much of me after all, just like Aunt Talia warned me. I have invested the very generous stipend you so graciously supplied, and now it’s time to cash in and go into business for myself. I’m finished with the lottery they call the stock market, which is bound to crash with all the unbridled greed controlling Wall Street. I suggest you do the same.”
Before he could respond, she held up her empty glass and said, “I hereby resign my post as the unpaid chief economic advisor for Porter House Financial, as well as my position as a dependent member of the Porter clan. I’m not going as far as disowning you and the rest of the family, and I’m sure we’ll all laugh about this one day.” She put the empty glass on the bar and walked out.
“You can’t do this!” he wailed at her back.
* * *
“Have you been keeping secrets from me?” Shahadi asked.
I avoided eye contact, my gaze on the bottle of wine resting on the table. “I just wanted to do something on my own,” I mumbled.
The concern dissipated from her countenance and she took my hand. “I understand. And you’ve done a great job with the screenplay and the preliminary filming. I know it’s hard losing your job, especially when it wasn’t your fault, and here I am still working, but don’t let that get to you. At least one of us has a paycheck.” She paused.
I didn’t meet her gaze.
“Look at me when I’m working so hard to be a better person,” she added tenderly.
I reluctantly met her concerned eyes and stammered, “I’m sorry for not telling you. I was just caught up in the moment, as if it were happening to me, I was there, I know this woman. Sometimes, I think I know her better than I know you because the mirror shows her private life, the one the tabloids didn’t know about, the thoughts she shared with the mirror that no one else witnessed, except me. It’s a view of another person that none of was ever meant to see. I feel like a stalker…”
“She’s been dead for almost a century, Nelson, but I understand how you feel. I think it’s because you were watching Dalia’s private moments alone, like a stalker would do, without a witness, a more historical approach, which is what we’re doing. You shouldn’t do that anymore. Just look how it’s affected you. It might even be dangerous because we don’t actually know what we’re dealing with—”
I interjected, “Are you worried that I may become possessed?” I rolled my eyes and raised my hands theatrically.
Her eyes were laughing as she retorted, “Yeh, you just might, after all you’re a very sensitive guy. That’s why I love you. I’ve read that evil spirits go after the nicest people first. You’re an easy target.”
Shahadi was only half right. After our conversation, I realized that I was being drawn into the emotional lives of the characters portrayed in the mirror. It was like a black hole pulling me inexorably towards its center and the oblivion of the past, joining people whose time had come and gone. But I wasn’t dead; that had been her point. I was a historian, not a voyeur, so I would continue my research but more carefully; nevertheless, I continued observing Dalia Porter’s life alone because there wasn’t time to wait for Shahadi to have a day off to assist. She was busy whereas I was… I was available, but I would be careful.
* * *
The mirror presented Dalia’s last years in excruciating detail. I watched enthralled as she had sexual encounters with one man after another, always confessing to the mirror afterward that she needed the stimulation—just like her appetite for martinis—to keep from losing her mind. I shouldn’t have known anything so personal about her, but I reminded myself that I was a historian recording her thoughts as completely as possible.
I was drinking martinis myself, made with cheap gin and a dash of vermouth, and no ice. I felt Dalia’s pain and shared her sense of nobility—the Queen of New York!
One thing worried me, besides knowing of her imminent death on Black Friday: Why had I witnessed her argument with Randolph out of chronological order? It had taken place just before the stock market crash, months if not weeks before her death. Besides this anomaly, the mirror was presenting events chronologically; in fact, I was transforming the mirror’s story into a short film with very little effort, mostly editing work.
There had been plenty of disagreements: Randolph accusing Dalia of behaving like a tramp; her reminding him of how he ignored his wife and children after bringing them to New York, running around with women and drinking, acting as shamelessly as her but avoiding the spotlight. That comment had elicited a scowl from him.
I knew what was coming, knowing as I did the Porter family and how women were treated, but I was still shocked when it happened. This was years before Dalia’s announcement of forming her own investment company, when she was still dependent on Randolph IV for her livelihood.
“Didn’t father teach you your place?”
Dalia laughed as she made a martini, sampling her work before retorting, “He tried but learned that I wasn’t as pliable as Aunt Talia; he probably heard that nonsense from Randolph Senior on his dying bed. I’ve spoken at length with Aunt Talia—she was the one who raised me—about the problem with you Porter men, and I applied what I’d learned. Our dear father only tried once to subjugate me sexually.” She laughed before adding, “I almost bit his cock off…”
Randolph lunged, taking her in his hands as if she were a ragdoll and tossing her onto the leather sofa, punching her several times in the stomach to soften her up. He lowered his trousers and stripped her undergarments. His hands remained busy as he forced himself on her, punching her, tearing away the remnant of her dress, wrapping his fingers around her throat until her breaths came in gasps. Dalia succumbed to his power, barely conscious and unable to resist, she fought weakly until he’d satisfied his animal lust, leaving her damaged but not broken.
When his hands released her throat, she gasped and spit out, “Do you feel better now?”
* * *
I didn’t tell Shahadi about Randolph raping Dalia. I was obsessed with how Dalia’s story ended, desperately needing closure on her ordeal before sharing my film with anyone. I identified with Dalia more than Talia, partly because the mirror was revealing her life in greater detail, partly because I knew she wasn’t going to die an old woman, surrounded by a loving family. Dalia’s isolation ate at me like a cancer, twisting my stomach into spaghetti; to make matters worse, Shahadi had been working late and thus stopped coming by to see how I was doing. Preoccupied, she hadn’t insisted on seeing what I was up to, instead trusting my reports to be complete and truthful.
That was a big mistake.
The mirror was silent for a few days, giving me time to edit the threads that were coalescing into a film. As if reading my mind, the mirror came to life when the film’s storyline caught up with Dalia’s unfolding tale, but the plot had gone off script.
* * *
“I suppose you don’t think much of me after what Dalia has told you?”
My bewildered gaze was intercepted by the dark eyes of Randolph Porter IV peering from beneath a lock of brown hair, his beard neatly trimmed to a three-day stubble. I struggled to find my voice.
“Cat got your tongue? Well, let me explain events from my perspective.” The view expanded to reveal the same room where he had raped Dalia earlier. He went behind the bar and began to make a drink.
“Let’s have a cocktail. I believe you’re fond of martinis, just like my dear sister, Dalia. I favor a gin and tonic myself…make yourself a drink and then we’ll talk, man to man.”
I did as instructed and sat down at the table. Randolph did the same in his exquisite salon. I was confused. The mirror had never shown the slightest awareness of my presence when presenting its tale. I mumbled, “How can I talk to you? You’re dead…”
“I assure you that I am not deceased in my time.” He sipped his drink thoughtfully and continued, “I’ll let the scientists figure out the physics of whatever has connected us across more than a century. I wanted to speak to you about what Dalia has been saying, get my two-cents in so to speak. Are you willing to hear the rest of the story?”
I felt obliged to say, “I’m just a historian, not a judge or even an interested observer. So, of course I want to collect as much data as I can, and you are right; your rape of Dalia put you in a very bad light…”
Randolph’s confident demeanor cracked but held. “You should know more about our relationship. We were close, very close, because of our overbearing father and indifferent mother. Aunt Talia was the center of the family but her attention was focused on Dalia, leaving me to find my way… Dalia is not a copy of Talia, but instead a young woman with her own expectations, and she has a very strong need for stimulation, which I supplied as her younger brother. Do you know what I mean, Nelson?”
His raised eyebrow said it all. I blurted, “You and Dalia had sex as teenagers—children…?”
He nodded. “Every day after I reached puberty.” He grimaced, finished his drink and stood up. “Let’s have another shall we? The story gets better.”
I made another martini in my kitchen while Randolph stepped behind the bar. He continued his monologue while pouring Bombay gin over the ice cubes. “My loving sister was brainwashing me, no doubt following the instructions of our dear Aunt Talia, addicting me to the amazing experience of an orgasm! So, what you saw in her version of the story was—I admit I misbehaved a bit, but it isn’t like I assaulted a woman I wasn’t intimate with; I mean, we had regular sex up until that moment, her way of controlling me. Do you understand, Nelson?”
“Regular sex?” I asked.
“Yes, Nelson. Dalia is a very good sexual partner, having learned from so many experts after coming to America. She has me for a light brunch most days. Despite knowing this, I crave her touch, the feel of her receptive flesh. She is in my brain, controlling me, directing my thoughts and actions. I would probably kill to have her. So, what you saw as rape was nothing more than a consensual sexual act with a twist because we were arguing about family history—always a sore subject—but I admit to getting carried away. However, she enjoyed it because dear Dalia likes rough sex. I put my hands around her neck for her benefit, if you know what I mean.”
My mind was reeling from Randolph’s revelation, but I was certain he was lying because of the look I’d seen on Dalia’s face with his hands throttling her. She had been afraid of dying. “I don’t believe you, but it’s important to hear both sides. By the way, are you implying that Dalia is somehow controlling what I see in the mirror?”
His head nodded slowly. “Now you’re catching on. It is her mirror, after all, given to her by Aunt Talia on her deathbed. I’m sure you know more about her twisted relationship with that cursed device than I. I have questioned her about it—why it is always in her purse, never far from hand.”
“Has she shown any interest in the occult, magic, anything like that?” I already knew the answer.
“You strike me as an intelligent and inquisitive man, Nelson, you must have looked in the old papers, read articles about Dalia attending seances and having her horoscope read by a quack she found among that crowd.”
Randolph’s story didn’t check out. “Then how are you contacting me? Have you ever used her mirror?”
He stepped behind the bar, as if to make another drink, and suddenly produced the mirror I was looking into, a sarcastic smile on his face. “I slipped it out of her purse to try it out. Apparently, it’s connected to you by some mysterious force scientists haven’t discovered yet. I’m sure that men like Professor Einstein will figure it out eventually. I can’t control it the way she does, but she must have left it…I don’t know…maybe turned on, like a light switch.” He made a drink and retook his seat before continuing, “Does she ever speak to you like I’m doing right now?”
I shook my head and started to answer but thought better of my response. “She has never addressed me but her face appears in the mirror while she’s talking to herself…maybe to the mirror…”
“Maybe to you? She’s working her psychological magic on you now, Nelson. You’ve fallen under her spell as certainly as I—” He was interrupted by the sound of the front door being slammed.
“I think my dear sister has noticed my crime. I doubt I’ll be able to speak to you again but I’ll try…” His image disappeared from the mirror.
* * *
I was afraid to share Randolph’s revelation with Shahadi. Being a feminist, she would dismiss his unsubstantiated claims of Dalia’s hypersexuality as an attempt to cover-up his abusive behavior, especially with the visual evidence of his raping her. However, when I reviewed the video, I noticed that her cries weren’t that desperate, her struggle much less than a fight for her life, her expression not as frightened as I’d first thought; and her final comment didn’t make sense for a rape victim: “Do you feel better now?”
I put off Shahadi’s inquiries with a promise to reveal the first cut of the final film to her after her current project was completed, in a couple of weeks. She was skeptical but distracted by professional responsibilities.
The videos continued, now revealing a not-so-innocent picture of Dalia engaged in mystical orgies, passed out from opium use, disturbing images were verified by newspaper articles from the period. Randolph hadn’t been telling lies although I was certain he wasn’t being completely open with me. One of the most alarming scenes was a visit with an astrologer, a middle-aged woman with black hair and heavy makeup. The garish interlocutor announced that Dalia would die young and at her own hand, a prediction that evoked a scoff from Dalia.
“Tell me something I don’t already know, Madam Backus. I plan to end my miserable life as soon as I stop having fun, which could be any day. Not today because I’m still enjoying myself. You are quite good, but let’s get to the juicy part.”
So, there it was from Dalia’s own lips; she planned to commit suicide as soon as her precarious lifestyle, teetering between one outlandish activity and another, no longer kept her interest. I could understand how she would leap to her death when the stock market crashed, leaving her with one less exhilarating enterprise to keep her hormones active. She was a speed freak, waiting for the inevitable crash, planning for it.
The images kept coming with increasing frequency, revealing a pattern of thrill seeking that was unsustainable, the climax coming two weeks before the stock market crash of 1929.
Dalia’s sad, tired eyes gazed into the mirror, reminding me of Randolph’s warning, that she was getting into my head just like she had brainwashed him. He was right. I couldn’t escape from her hazel orbs, lustrous with unshed tears. She spoke as if we were facing each other across my small dining table.
“I can’t go on like this. It isn’t fun anymore, but I’m not ready to end my life, I don’t know why, maybe I’m just like everyone else and not so special after all, maybe Randolph is right. I wish he and I were married, as strange as that sounds. I love him as my husband, not my brother, and he feels the same. We fight like cats and dogs and then he forces himself on me, much to my delight because we’ve been doing it for so long—more than twenty years—that I can’t wait to be alone with him, the argument, the insults, my mind overcome with the expectation of what is coming. Oh god! I love him so much.” She paused, sipped from her martini glass, brushed a lock of brown hair from her eye, and continued, “It isn’t as bizarre as it sounds because I can’t have children, some abnormality I was born with, so we wouldn’t have to deal with deformed children or anything. I just wish he would leave his wife and live with me. It’s so exciting when we’re together, enough to make up for the mysticism, alcohol, and opium, just fighting and making love with Randolph would be enough to keep me happy. Making money for him is one of my greatest pleasures. I don’t know why I’ve never told him. I guess I assumed he knew it because he feels the same. I may have been wrong.”
Dalia’s tormented façade was replaced in the mirror by my own deeply disturbed countenance. It all made sense now. She and Randolph were in love. They had been in love their entire lives. In Victorian England, and even America, they couldn’t voice their true feelings and thus their relationship had deteriorated to what I was witnessing through the mirror.
An ominous thought descended on my mind like an evening fog. Randolph hadn’t worked through his feelings for Dalia, and saw her as a… Unable to express his feelings for her as elegantly as she had, he trusted her counsel on financial matters, argued with her and made love to her every day, missed her when they were apart, but couldn’t say three simple words: “I love you.”
Neither could she, but her thoughts were reflected on her countenance in the mirror; she was going to speak the truth to her brother, the love of her life, the man she would do anything for. A shiver ran up my spine when I considered what his response might be.
* * *
I rewrote the screenplay to incorporate what I’d learned from the mirror, as well as Randolph’s story, which became more plausible with every look in the mirror. Their arguments continued with the same ferocity, always ending with his assaulting her, usually with her begging for more; sometimes they argued several times about meaningless topics, as if engaged in foreplay, each event ending the same way. They had an unusual relationship, but I was convinced they were in love; however, I’d seen enough movies and read enough books to suspect that an unrequited love such as theirs would end in tragedy. Dalia’s astrologer had been right, even if she’d missed on some of the details.
* * *
“What do you want, Dalia?” Randolph didn’t seem very happy about visiting his sister.
The mirror’s story had caught up with the teaser I’d seen, her creating an investment firm free of her family’s fortune. Black Thursday had come and gone with no serious damage to the Porter family’s wealth.
“I suppose that you took my advice and got out of the lottery they call the stock market here in America?” She was teasing him and he was taking the bait.
“I always follow your counsel because you’re good at more than one thing, Dalia, if you know what I mean.” He approached her, brushing against her as he stepped behind the bar to make a drink.
I noticed her quick intake of breath at his touch, her eyes dwelling on him as he reached for the bottle of Bombay gin, her eyes softer than I’d ever seen them. “I thought we might do something different today, Randolph, if you don’t mind?” She was wearing a silk robe that revealed her slender and well-proportioned body in tantalizing detail.
“What? No fight?” he asked as he mixed his drink.
Dalia shook her head quickly, moved close to him and prepared a martini as he ran his hands gently over the silk garment covering her body. She took his hand and led him to the balcony. It was an unusually warm December day, with temperatures in the fifties.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked, pulling her to him, wrapping his arms protectively around her.
“Not when I’m with you,” she responded.
He stepped back. “What does that mean?”
Dalia took a long drink from her martini before responding, “I love you, Randolph. It’s that simple. I know you feel the same way, so let’s stop playing a game of being brother and sister. We need each other in the depths of our beings. We are soul mates. I love you so much that I would die for you. I wish I could have your children, but I can’t, so we don’t have to—you know what I mean.”
Instead of answering, he went inside, leaving Dalia in the cold air, before returning with two glasses. He held one out to her and said, “I would have never had the strength to say what you just said. You are my heart and soul. Let’s toast our love!”
She accepted the glass and gulped from it, tossing the empty container aside before saying, “Oh my god, Randolph, I never wanted you as badly as I do now. You don’t have to rape me, I’m yours, take me for god’s sake, take me…”
I watched in fascination as he disrobed and removed the flimsy gown from Dalia’s lithe body. Their limbs entwined in a symphony of spiritual union as their bodies became one. She was sitting on the balustrade as he gently penetrated her repeatedly, his thrusts accompanied by cries of pleasure instead of false pain, her arms locked around his neck, lips caressing his chest and neck.
“I love you. I love you, oh god I love you!” she exclaimed.
Nearing the pinnacle of pleasure, he retorted, “You are mine!”
“Oh, yes, always, always, I am yours forever, Randolph, forever…” Her words trailed off as they climaxed together, her arms holding him tight.
I saw what was coming and jumped from my chair. “Hold on to him! For god’s sake, don’t let go!” My warning went unheeded.
A loving smile on her face, Dalia released her hold on Randolph. The mirror showed the horror in her eyes, reflecting Randolph’s shock at events beyond their control. She fell backwards over the balcony rail, his hands helplessly reaching for hers. I watched her plummet to the earth but thankfully the mirror didn’t share her untimely demise with me.
I fell into my chair and cried until brought out of my stupor by Randolph’s voice.
“It would have been a lot of fun, the way Dalia imagined it, but…well, she’s gone, not my fault, she was a good fuck and a brilliant financial strategist. I guess I’ll just have to get by on my own. You do understand, don’t you, Nelson?”
* * *
Randolph Porter IV’s response to the tragic death of his sister appalled me, but I was relieved to learn the truth: Dalia’s death was neither suicide nor murder, just the horrible result of irresponsible sex. Still, I wondered if he’d planned to kill her all along.
The mirror was now firmly under Randolph’s control. The chronological sequence of images stopped; there were no scenes of Randolph’s life after her death. Instead the mirror projected an image of a confident Randolph who advised Nelson on the lessons they had both learned from the tragedy.
“This was inevitable. Don’t you see? I admit I was completely caught up in the fantasy—I told you how she had gotten into my mind…as well as yours—before our lust got the better of us. You know what it’s like to have an orgasm, maybe not on the penthouse balcony, but still…”
Randolph had a point. He hadn’t murdered her, but he was glad to see her gone. “Were you planning to kill her?”
His jaw dropped in shock. “Have you lost your mind? Whatever the cause of my obsession with Dalia, I would have died for her, but the spell was broken when she tragically fell from my loving embrace. Do you know what you’re saying? My god! What has the world become in your time, that people could be so in love and then casually commit murder? My god, Nelson, I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in such a world. God help you…”
Something told me that he was lying, covering up his acts. He had let her go on purpose. He was a murderer. I knew it. “It is convenient that Dalia is out of the way, isn’t it?” I asked casually.
“No!” was his empathic response. “I loved her and she had a brilliant mind. Of course I was envious of her talent, which is why our lovemaking had taken a violent turn as you saw with your own eyes, but it was uplifting, perhaps spiritual, to know that my future, and that of my family, was in good hands; of course, I no longer have to stand in her shadow, but now I have to walk in her footsteps. I can’t do that! I’m not as smart as Dalia!” His words were partially hidden by sobs and tears running down his cheeks.
I didn’t believe him. He killed her, the culmination of a rehearsed plan he’d been working on for years. His grief was real, but so was his envy; I recalled the sight of his hands around her throat, wanting to murder her, but afraid of the criminal repercussions. Unwilling or unable to squeeze the life from her, he had pushed her off the balcony, I was certain of it, but he wasn’t going to admit his crime. Actually, it wasn’t a criminal act because Dalia’s behavior had shown that she had wanted to die. Randolph had simply helped her reach her goal. I had a sudden thought.
“Will you be better off, overall, now that Dalia is out of the way?”
His blank stare said it all. He was unable to respond because I had spoken the truth. Despite his fascination with Dalia, Randolph’s life would be simpler, even if the family’s income was less. He was glad she was dead.
“Have you been listening to anything I’ve said, Nelson?”
“Sure, but why didn’t you explain the circumstances of Dalia’s death to the authorities?”
His head bobbed as his index finger cut a figure-eight in the air. “You are so incorrect…I saw no reason to…she was dead, and it wasn’t my fault although I certainly contributed to her death through negligence. I made a decision—maybe not a good one—I told you that I’m not as smart as Dalia…but I stand by my acts under the circumstances. I loved her more than my own life…” He was sobbing.
I didn’t believe his words, spoken with tears running down his cheeks. He was good. But I knew the truth: Dalia had to die for Randolph to reach his full potential; she had been holding him back, brainwashing him to believe he wasn’t as intelligent as her. There was no point in continuing the conversation because he wasn’t speaking his own mind. Dalia’s influence reached beyond the grave.
I wouldn’t make the same mistake.
* * *
Apparently, the mirror stopped working for Randolph because I never saw him again, but I read about his life in the archives. He lived until 1969 and died very wealthy although no longer living like royalty. He was never implicated in his sister’s death and spoke warmly of her in several interviews, giving her credit for the family’s success in America. He never discussed how she died until just before his own death when, in an interview in Forbes, he confessed to being present when she fell from the balcony. They had been drinking and she got carried away, leaning over the balustrade and shouting about how wealthy they were. She lost her balance and fell before he could reach her. He hadn’t admitted his presence to avoid a scandal that would have served no purpose other than casting suspicion on him for her tragic death. He claimed that he’d lived with the horror of that moment every day of his life and would be glad to finally stop dreaming of the sister he’d loved so much. His carefully crafted speech convinced the interviewer, but I knew better.
I understood the humiliation he must have felt, overshadowed, dominated and brainwashed by Dalia, because Shahadi was doing the same thing to me. Her unvoiced control kept me from focusing on the story of the mirror, which at that point consisted of a string of unconnected threads, most of them only one or two images taken from the mirror. The screenplay was a jumble of incoherent thoughts, mental trash with no depth or meaning. I had to get free of Shahadi. She was still working late and on weekends so I hadn’t seen her in a week, but we talked every night. I lied about the film. She lied about missing me. I was certain she was sleeping with another man, probably the production manager on the project that was supposedly keeping her so busy.
Notes for the screenplay littered my usually orderly apartment because I wasn’t going to take orders from Shahadi anymore. Her neat and structured life, imposed on me as if I were a trained monkey that had to earn the privilege of living with her—that was over and finished because I wasn’t going to let her get into my head the way Dalia had overpowered Randolph. I was inspired by his acceptance of her death, free of her influence, able to be his own man; and he’d done fine without her.
Out of desperation I picked up the mirror and gazed into its gleaming depths, hoping to speak to Randolph about my problem; but he didn’t respond because he was in denial of what he’d done—accomplished. No help at all. Without warning, the mirror woke up. I started the video camera, planning to review Randolph’s advice later if it proved to be useful. But it wasn’t Randolph’s countenance that confronted me.
Shahadi and I were on a balcony high above the streets of Manhattan, drinking wine and eating hors d’oeuvres, laughing about nothing, enjoying each other’s company. Just like old times, but this wasn’t a scene from the past. This was the future.
“Let’s make love on the balcony,” I suggested confidently.
Her mouth opened in surprise, eyes wide open, as she retorted, “We can’t do that—can we?”
It was a warm summer day, just like the weather New Yorkers were currently experiencing, so I removed my shirt and kissed her passionately. Her lips responded, tongue probing, hands desperately removing her t-shirt and bra, as we stood and dropped our shorts. Standing naked together a thousand feet above the streets, I understood what Randolph had meant about sharing a sexual experience at such an altitude. Our hands were all over each other as I backed her to the railing. Desperate, she didn’t make the same choice as Dalia; instead, she turned around with her hands on the balustrade.
“Do it, Nelson! This is a moment to die for!” she exclaimed between sharp breaths.
I obliged her, smiling at the irony of her words. A moment to die for. I couldn’t have put it better myself. She laughed and cried, begging me not to stop. I imagined being with Dalia on the balcony. Her last minutes on earth. Shahadi was Dalia, that was the message of the mirror all along, to break the chains these women had used to imprison Randolph and me. I took my time, relishing the moment, sharing the termination of our relationship. Her legs were weakening, collapsing, when I finished, suddenly pumping hard. The emotional rush of the best orgasm of my life, with Shahadi leaning over the balustrade in ecstasy, culminated when I lifted her thighs and pushed her over the rail.
* * *
“This is a great idea, Nelson,” Shahadi said, leaning against the balustrade, a glass of champagne in her hand.
She was distracted, vulnerable, and I should have skipped the lovemaking and done the deed right then, but I didn’t. There’s something about murder that makes one stop and think, “Is this a good idea? Did I forget something?” I was having doubts, remembering Randolph’s ambiguous responses to my questions about Dalia’s death. Maybe he had been speaking the truth all along; we were brothers, loving but hating the women who controlled us, stealing our masculinity, leaving us to wither on the vine.
“I’m glad you like my choice of venue, Shahadi,” I began. I couldn’t stop the flow of words that poured from my lips, unloosed by her trusting behavior. “I’ve been lying to you about the film. It’s nothing more than a draft, I botched it horribly, and I’m sorry because you trusted me, and now the mirror is silent…” I stopped because the mirror hadn’t been silent recently.
Shahadi set her drink on the table and threw her arms around me, holding me close while showering me with kisses. “Don’t worry about any of that, Baby. We’re together, that’s all that counts.”
Between sobs I told her about my conversations with Randolph, his explanation of Dalia’s death given to me through the mirror; and how it differed from his account in the Forbes interview. My tirade ended with my confession to having suggested an extravagant reunion after so many weeks apart, with the intent of throwing her off the balcony during sexual intercourse.
She looked at the balcony, gazed into my eyes mischievously, and began undressing. “Do you still plan to rid the world of my evil influence?”
I shook my head. “Still, let’s use this luxurious chaise lounge and stay away from the edge of the balcony.”
* * *
Lying in Shahadi’s arms in the king-size bed, the sun creeping around the corners of the shades, I couldn’t help wondering why I deserved someone like her. “Why are you lying in bed with me? I might have been overcome with some kind of delusion during the night—I am certifiably crazy—and murdered you in your sleep.”
She gazed at me lazily, her hands caressing my arms, as she responded. “You are the perfect spouse, Nelson, because you speak what’s on your mind, even your delusional plan to murder me. What woman wouldn’t want a husband like that? Of course, I have to keep your close, to monitor your delusional behavior but, based on everything I’ve seen, I’ll marry you. Before we discuss the post-nuptial arrangements, make love to me, and then we’ll work on editing the wonderful film you’ve created from Talia’s mirror.”