María Elena Llana – ‘In the Family’ (2003)

One day, a family notices that the old living room mirror is occupied by the ghostly figures of long-dead relatives. The family is surprised at first, but comes to accept the ghostly reflections as a matter of course. Both sides of the mirror go about their days largely unimpacted by the other–the reflected living room appears identical to the real one, except for the dead family members within it.  The dearly deceased seem to entertain themselves by mirroring the movements and positions of those living on the other side, though always a few seconds out of synch.

This routine changes, however, when cousin Clara returns home.  A family trailblazer–the first female dentist in the country!–Clara studies the situation and decides to move the mirror into the dining room. There, she leans it against the big table so both sides dine in the others reflection, creating the illusion of a table double the length and occupancy. This works out cheerily enough, until one particularly fateful meal. Clara, seated besides the mirror, mischievously asks a ghostly Aunt to pass over a the salad. Clara then eats of the this food from beyond the grave in the spirit of adventure, and promptly collapses dead on the table.

The living side of the family is shocked and betrayed by this development. During funeral planning, they consider eviction! But when cousin Clara appears in the mirror the next day for dinner, some point out that it was her own irresponsibility that caused her demise in the first place. Hardly reason enough to evict the entire ancestral line. In the end, they agree to leave the mirror as it stands.

But time and familiarity blur distinctions. It becomes harder for the household to distinguish one side of the mirror from the other. Another young cousin finds herself sitting across the old glass from Clara at the dinner table. The curtain draws on the family’s last scene, and the girl worries that soon the irreverent Clara will successfully pass her a tempting piece of spectral pineapple.

Excerpt

Accompanied by Thomas Newman’s Chez Olaf.

That summer when Clara returned from her vacation and learned about my mother’s discovery, she remained pensive for a while, as if weighing the symptoms before issuing a diagnosis. Afterwards, without batting an eye, she leaned over the mirror, saw for herself that it was true, and then tossed her head, seemingly accepting the situation. She immediately sat by the bookcase and craned her neck to see who was sitting in the chair on the other side. “Gosh, look at Gus,” was all she said. There in the very same chair the mirror showed us Gus, some sort of godson of Dad, who after a flood in his home town came to live with us and had remained there in the somewhat ambiguous character of adoptive poor relation. Clara greeted him amiably with a wave of the hand, but he seemed busy, for the moment, with something like a radio tube and did not pay attention to her. Undoubtedly, the mirror people weren’t going out of their way to be sociable. This must have wounded Clara’s self-esteem, although she did not let on.

Naturally, the idea of moving the mirror to the dining-room was hers. And so was its sequel: to bring the mirror near the big table, so we could all sit together for meals.

In spite of my mother’s fear that the mirror people would run away or get annoyed because of the fuss, everything went fine. I must admit it was comforting to sit every day at the table and see so many familiar faces, although some of those from the other side were distant relatives, and others, due to lengthy–although unintentional–absence, were almost strangers. There were about twenty of us sitting at the table every day, and even if their gestures and movements seemed more remote than ours and their meals a little washed-out, we generally gave the impression of being a large family that got along well.

For a while, we ate all together, without further incident or problems. We mustn’t’ forget Clara, however, whom we had allowed to sit at the frontier between the two tables, the equator separating what was from what was not. Although we paid no attention to the situation, we should have. Compounding our regrettable oversight was the fact that lethargic Eulalia sat across from her so that one night, with the same cordiality with which she had addressed Gus, Clara asked Eulalia to pass the salad. Eulalia affected the haughty disdain of offended royalty as she passed the spectral salad bowl, filled with dull lettuce and greyish semi-transparent tomatoes which Clara gobbled up, smiling mischievously at the novelty of it all. She watched us with the same defiance in her eyes that she had on the day she enrolled in a man’s subject. There was no time to act. We just watched her grow pale, then her smile faded away until finally Clara collapsed against the mirror.

 

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