Atonement + Untranslatable

Angela Woodward


The priestess, who was herself so beautiful, took their vanity as a failing, so she forbade the women to look at themselves in mirrors for the month of their atonement. Older women who had long ago stopped flicking their eyes up when they brushed their teeth had no misgivings about taping newspaper over the medicine cabinet. The female prisoners laughed, because they’d already been doing penance for so long. The nearest they had to a mirror was a battered metal cup. They kept secret even from each other the rare moment when the wash water stilled before they dragged it out to the drain: sometimes in that instant, the brown surface showed them a weary face. The women who worked downtown had to petition the cleaning contractor to have the night crews soap over the gleaming brass elevator plates. Now as they rode up and down in their kitten heels and primped scarves, only an oily outline met their stare. The janitors tacked brown paper over the mirrors in the powder rooms of the pious. The women covered the shiny silver faucet with one hand while they washed the other. When they cheated and looked down, a huge clown nose bloomed out at them, mocking their sins.

The priestess’s mirror longed for her attention. She had spent an hour with it every morning, while pinning up her hair. Now the mirror never saw her. It grew thin and faint behind its sheet, and started to rave. She got bored with me, it thought. She must have taken up with someone else. Faint with hunger, the mirror imagined the window, dark and uncurtained, decorated with the priestess’s brilliant reflection. It spent its lonely hours despising the tiny mirrored lid of her eye shadow box. It suspected even the stainless steel coffee urn of stealing the priestess’s attention. It pined and dwindled, hidden behind its cover.

What’s that noise? the priestess wondered as she lay down to sleep. The strange, slippery sound of the mirror crying lulled her into unconsciousness. The mirror sent its spirit to float over her. The silver oval implored her, Open your eyes! Look at me! In sleep’s paralysis, the priestess couldn’t open her eyes, and she moaned and struggled until the maid rushed in. They both noticed the frost in the air, but nothing else seemed wrong. The priestess settled back uneasily under her blankets. The crying sound came again, and as she slept, the mirror’s imprecations crept into her dream. “Save me,” it said. “All I want is for you to look at me like you used to.” The priestess groaned and burrowed deeper into the bed.

All the other mirrors came too. “You’re killing us,” they chanted over the priestess’s sleeping form. “How can you be so cruel?” But she wouldn’t wake a second time. The flock of mirror spirits drifted out the window. Men hurried down the main street and into alleys as the late-night card games broke up. They had not been bothered by the fast. The men remembered how they used to look ten years ago, when they were thinner and handsomer, and that was all they needed. If they used a mirror to shave, it was just a tool. The month-long injunction at most caused their girlfriends to clamor at them, How do I look? You look fine, the men said. They had never been faithful the way the mirrors were. The mirrors ignored the gamblers, and wafted down to the lake. Thick fog covered it like bandages. The mirrors got ready to throw themselves into the icy water. Better to drown quickly than to keep up this hopeless waiting. They said a prayer for mercy. Just then the clouds obscuring the moon passed on, and a yellow light shone down on the water. A clumsy circle, vagued by fog, gathered itself. Then for one moment, the mirrors saw the moon looking down at her reflection. The lake held herself flat and calm in these rays of adoration.

Abashed, the spirits slunk back to their frames. They would wait one more day. When the priestess woke up, she noticed the sheet on the mirror had sagged. She seated herself in front of it, just like the old days. She pulled a tiny corner of the covering aside. There, blazing out at her, was her eye. She let the sheet drop back and picked up her hair brush. One more day of atonement, and then the celebration.


I was so sick of talking to him that I left the house. He came with me down the alley and towards the overpass. Though I hadn’t seen him for eleven years, I didn’t need him to tell me everything he’d done. I knew most of it any way, that he drank a lot, left his wife, then joined a monastery. Then he’d come to a major disagreement with the brethren. They had thrown him out, or he left. He failed to be precise when it got to that.

He told me a story about the monks a thousand years ago, who made all the women in the town give up their brass mirrors so they could melt them down and forge a bell. One woman, though, regretted giving up hers. It was a family heirloom, and she’d always been so happy looking into its rosy face. She went to the yard where all the mirrors tumbled in a mound. Out of the hundreds there, she picked out hers immediately, lying on top of the pile, beseeching her. But a locked gate kept her out, and she couldn’t snatch it back.

When the monks melted all the mirrors, this one refused to change its shape. Out of the vat of liquid metal, the one mirror clung to its form. ‘It belonged to a very selfish woman,’ the monks decided. They lined all the women up and demanded that the owner of the mirror take it back. They knew it was her, the way she cried and twisted. As she stepped up to the vat of molten brass, the mirror floating on top, she declared that whoever could break the bell would ring out three hundred gold pieces.

“What is this place?” he said. At the bottom of the channel, a brown stream carried socks and condoms towards a further destination. The steep concrete walls invited beer bottles to roll down. Their shattered skins refracted arrowheads into our eyes, the stings of light accompanied by languorous gurgling almost drowned out by the drone of cars on the Beltline. The next lane was actually the service drive, tunneling alongside the exalted highway. If we kept going, we’d get to a car lot, and after that, a nursery, begonias and impatiens staring down the chain link fence.

“You’re not worried about your shoes, are you?” I asked. The monks may have taught him not to take pride in his appearance, but now he was a free man.

“No, I don’t mind,” he said, hesitantly sideways down the artificial gully. With his arms out for balance, he made a gesture of flying, but his lips and cheeks retained their anxious restriction.

“What I wanted to tell you,” he said, “is that this concept is utterly untranslatable. There’s no word for it in English.” After the woman died, hands scalded off in the vat, the monks cast the bell and hung it in the chapel. All day and all night, the desperate and homeless, the idle and discontent, whaled at it with the clapper, trying to break it. No one could sleep, always this din, bong bong, little boys, pregnant girls, thieves, farmers, madmen, ringing the bell as hard as they could. Finally the monks cut the bell down and sank it into the swamp. “This is the word,” he said, “something like ‘thinking one thing stands for another through magic.’ They couldn’t break the bell, but the warlord’s sister focused her mind on a brass bowl, and broke that. All the money came pouring out. If you convince yourself that one thing is another thing, then the magic works.”

I didn’t say anything, but my skeptical shoulders received a volley of explanation. Of course we can describe it, but they had one word for it. Like a wrapped package, the syllables when uttered meant all this transference of animate force from one object to a different, weaker, more susceptible one. “If it was only one syllable, like ka—” I said, but his word in his foreign tongue gangled from his lips. Even though I couldn’t understand the parts, it sounded like an awkward conglomeration, no more concise in its source than in its translation.

The litter of glass and brown and purple stones spread out around us as we got down to the very edge of the trickle. Tall stalks ending in delicate, star-shaped flowers barred our way intermittently, as did splayed containers of french fries, an entire pair of pants, and tiny sculpted ridges of dried sand we stepped over so as not to crush. Swallows winged overhead as we neared the overpass. They cut back and forth, fast and twinkling, coming near our heads and arcing up.

“Are those bats?” he said.

But this is as far as the story goes. He wanted to tell me about this idea that belonged to the faraway place where he’d done his penance. The bell will not break, no matter who does what to it. But a bowl taken in its stead gives in right away. One night he told me he was getting married, to his other girlfriend, who surely I knew about. He’d told me, hadn’t he, that he didn’t believe much in constancy? Since I knew him so well, I must have known that about him. If I hadn’t suspected, it only meant he thought less of me. Really what he told me when he came to visit was another story altogether. After his dismissal from the monastery, or his leaving in a huff, he went to another city and bummed around aimlessly. He had paid for a little room for a week. He knew no one, and didn’t speak a word of the language. Nobody looked him in the eye, and they even bumped into him in the street, as if he wasn’t there. He went to the zoo, to loiter away the daylight. Over by the seal pond, two women stood facing the water, their backs to him. He couldn’t take his eyes off them, as if they were summoning him, had been for years, though at no point did they look at him. They stood next to each other, leaning on the railing, half turned in to see each other’s faces, gesturing each with the outer hand. They became, he said, like two halves of one woman, these two symmetrical bodies, not that they were dressed alike, or had the same color hair, or were exactly the same size. But their posture, their intentness on each other while not directly confronting each other, and the simultaneous waving arms, looked to him like a spectacular conjoined creature, more than human, a superior combination of beings, two into one.

“Why are you telling me this?” I said. Though when he’d written, he said he needed to make amends, I was afraid he wanted a place to stay, or to borrow money.

But this story too stands for another story that he told me, my magic translating one set of words for another, more amenable one. “I’m sorry I won’t get to see Marisela,” he said, referring to my daughter, six when he left. He asked me if maybe he seemed like more of a decent person now, but I couldn’t possibly answer. I stared down at the water at our feet, which started to rumble and flush with ripples as it flowed faster. In fact the whole point of the story at all is to see this open channel, the culvert overflowing with water suddenly sweeping down from the unknown heights. He jumped back from the edge, but I stood steady, letting it lap my ankles, then splash my knees. The current tugged at me, I need you, I need you, its roar finally blocking out the steady mechanical whir of the cars on the highway. The water brought with it sticks and vegetable matter, heaps of green and brown gunk, flashes of bandages, rags, a bicycle tire, the carcass of a fish. I watched it rise and rise, until it drowned us both, and then began to subside.

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Angela Woodward's short fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Black Warrior Review, and Diagram. She is the author of the collections The Human Mind and Origins and Other Stories, and the novels End of the Fire Cult and Natural Wonders. Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize and is forthcoming in 2016. She can be found online at