Christina Janousek

Born in Vienna, Austria, Christina Janousek has a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature and is currently working on her master thesis at the University of Vienna. In her paper, she analyses visual and photographic discourses and metaphors in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading”. She has gained work experience at different cultural institutions (e. g. publishing houses such as Passagen Verlag and Amalthea Verlag, literature societies like the Austrian Society of Literature and a small magazine called “Zwischenwelt” of the Theodor Kramer Society). This did not only give her the opportunity to work together with journalists and write short adds, but also to look behind the scenes of the literary business. This concerns, among other matters, discussions between authors and editors. In 2023, she will complete a newspaper internship in the culture section of DER STANDARD. Christina is an admirer of the literary fairy tale (Hoffmann, Tieck, Odoevsky, Hawthorne, Wilde, Ewers) the Decadent Movement (Mirbeau) and absurdism (Kafka, Nabokov, Charms). Her previously published work “Der Spitzel in Viktor Pelevins Roman ‘T.’” can be found on the homepage of the Documentation Centre for Central and Eastern European Literature. She is fluent in German and English and has basic knowledge in Russian, Italian and Latin.

Synopsis “The Mirror of First Gazes”

Inspired by some characters of ancient mythology, this tale revolves around the ‘otherworldly’ reasons for a boy’s blindness and how he faces them – a challenge he first is not even aware of and does not seem to be able to cope with. The speculative element is richly nuanced. There are both subtle and evident tones, but they are present from the very beginning (especially regarding names and places).

The Mirror of First Gazes

Cecil had always been disheartened by the phrase “love at first sight”. Jokes like “I can see, said the blind man” or “Never say ‘oops’ to a blind man” brought only a humble smile to his lips. When he was a child, his parents would read tales to him about Matt Murdock and his mentor Stick. When Cecil’s father, a successful singer, and his mother, a fascinating magician, got married, they could not have been blessed with a more flawless child. On and off stage, they were an inseparable team, had the whole world at their feet and even had their birthnames changed to ‘Dolos and Apata’, named after the god and the goddess of illusion and deceit. Cecil vaguely recalled them saying that before their wedding they had originally opted for Orpheus and Eurydice, but he had never given their change of heart a lot of thought.

The now 22-year-old Cecil had not been born blind. Nine months after his birth, the doctors detected an anomaly that resembled a cataract. At first, the boy was visually impaired in one eye only. The doctors hoped it would turn out to be a temporary impairment, when after another nine months, the other eye became affected. Before Cecil, whose parents introduced his blindness to him as a flaw of nature, had turned two, his field of vision was a colourless abyss. Not the slightest glimmer of light penetrated to his pupils. Not the faintest outline of a shadow emerged in his field of vision. Although his ability to unite the impressions of several senses was advanced, he couldn’t compete with his comic book idol who could hear things from afar before the sound waves had reached his ears.

With every passing year, Cecil felt that sharing these uplifting tales, however removed from reality they seemed, was merely his parents’ attempt to make him feel appreciated and embrace his defect as a gift. Although he was grateful for their guidance when he took his first steps, learned the brail alphabet, and now enrolled at college in Tellur Town, he could not suppress the idea that they harboured a darker truth about him. At moments of such discord and dishevelment, he felt something flicker up in the back of his head. He could never determine whether his eyes were acting crazy, and he urgently needed another medical check-up. Or – he believed this to be less likely – his mind tried to impart memories to him, fuzzy images of……. he did not know what. “My usual memories have never given me this stinging sensation, this twinge that drills to my temples and gathers in my eyes, as if they wanted to spit… lightning?” Cecil pondered restlessly. His attempts to apply mental images to spoken language for such experiences were like a match refusing to light. He felt as if his synapses suffered a short circuit. Whenever Cecil felt this sharp flicker, his parents had yet again started arguing. He could not say whether his episodes preceded their fierce quarrels and thus triggered them, or whether the quarrels encouraged this unpleasantness. They had increased since his last birthday and worsened with the ever-approaching mirror date, February 2nd, 2022.

Cecil had tried several times to confront his parents about their disputes but could not get a word out of them. The tense situation at home had not escaped the notice of the neighbours. When they saw Cecil sitting on the stairs in front of his house, they just walked past him speechlessly. It wasn’t long before they avoided him completely, as if he and his parents didn’t fit the suburban picture-book family. Some even spread the rumour that Cecil was adopted. Whatever his parents’ disputes had been about, they drove Cecil further away from them and closer to Selena and Sol, whom he had met at college. For incomprehensive reasons, they were naturally drawn to him. Although they introduced themselves as a couple, they seemed to Cecil more like brother and sister, twins even. If he could envision them, he would have imagined them as the kind of couple where the male partner was the spitting image of the female one and vice versa. What they didn’t share with Cecil about their background – something he appreciated and didn’t want to compromise their unique friendship with – they compensated for with inexhaustible talks about stargazing and astronomy. What fascinated him was that they talked about such matters as if their studies seemed superfluous. Cecil who attended some of their courses wondered whether they had only enrolled as a pastime. Some gossiped they were spies, or even nouveau riche, though they were too well-behaved. Occasionally, Selena had to suppress her impulse to correct the professor when he explained the phenomenon of elliptical orbits. When he mentioned Kepler as their discoverer, Cecil felt Sol flinch. They always knew about discoveries of new celestial bodies before their public announcement. When Cecil broke the news to them, they seemed hardened, as if the discoveries had happened eons ago. Apart from these somehow heartfelt trifles, they had not struck him as suspicious, and so he easily forgot such incidents.

Like other boys, Cecil was overcome with desires for tenderness and intimacy. His blindness did not prevent him from feeling a certain interest, however much he tried to resist it. He had never been aware of his appearance. He had not been able to deduce much about it from his parents’ descriptions. Although, unlike Murdock, he didn’t have the ability to gather emotions from the pounding of someone’s heartbeat or to unmask liars, he didn’t miss the way the frequency of some of the girls’ voices changed when he entered the room. However, he was most likely to pay attention to someone’s non-immediate touch, such as air drafts that were caused by even the subtlest hand movements. He felt them brush his cheeks or how someone ‘accidentally’ brushed his arm.

One day, Cecil left campus late in the afternoon to pick up equipment Selena and Sol needed for an Astronomy project. Due to a short-term appointment, they could not make it but had given him the address of the shop. Although it did strike him as odd that they asked him of all people for this favour, he agreed. He was supposed to take the bus to the end station “Lake Astraeon”. When the bus approached the last stop – it was already dark, the sky strewn with stars – Cecil felt such a powerful draught through the open window that it gave his left cheek a deep cut. Shortly afterwards, the bus driver braked sharply and asked all the passengers to walk the last part, as a tire had flattened. When he saw Cecil get off, he looked at his cut and took him aside for a moment. Cecil tried to reassure him, “Don’t worry, just now I felt a strong breeze, and it must have stirred up a sharp object.” The bus driver frowned and replied, “What are you talking about, it hasn’t been this windless for ages.” Cecil paid no further attention to him and marched off.

He stampeded into town, where the shop was located. But from where the open wound had formed, he felt a magnet-like pull that led him in the opposite direction. After many futile attempts to resist, he gave in and continued until he arrived at the lake, where the wind drafts had picked up again. However, this time they streamed down from the sky until there was a dull plop followed by a hissing splash. Cecil thought of a heated object that was in the process of cooling off. Then he heard someone moving through the water. He could have sworn that the recurring word “Scylla” rose from its depths, and that the sound belonged to a feminine, tender, and hurt-sounding voice. He pushed aside his own fears and dived under the rippling water. With his eyes shut, he scanned the abyss and reached around in panic with his cane, hoping he could render help to the woman whose presence he suspected there. As if directly following his intention, the water suddenly shone in utmost brightness. A crystalline layer had formed on the surface, against which Cecil suddenly struck his forehead, breaking through. With one hand pointing through the broken layer towards the starry sky, and the rest of his body clinging to the unbroken area, he kept searching. The familiar colourlessness liquefied, and it was broken for a moment by a swathe of light, like trickles of fluid stardust.

In this crucial second, Cecil couldn’t help but tear his eyes open. Defying the fear of contact with the water and the light rays, which by now had become one, he felt as if this swathe of light not only hit his pupils, but also stroked them soothingly. Without his eyelids twitching, a hand, as if carved out of alabaster, placed itself on his bleeding cheek and stroked it smooth until the skin contracted and healed completely. Then Cecil felt his cane slowly slipping from his other hand, as if he no longer needed it. Without his being aware of it, a pair of eyes – elongated, pulsating and with an intensity he could not oppose – appeared in blurred and shaky outlines on the still smooth crystalline surface. Once again, Cecil perceived the word “Scylla” – or was it “Csilla”? This time it was as if the female’s eyes had uttered it. Then, as Cecil’s lips began to form its sounds hesitatingly, the outline of a bare graceful figure revealed itself to him. Its light hair protectively and soothingly engulfed his head like seaweed.

Cecil struggled to process the stimuli by which he was too overwhelmed. He did not know whether he had just been given his sight, let alone whether this woman was also capable of depriving him of it. Perhaps it was she who had even deprived him of it in his childhood! Although he did not have the right to pass judgement on her or to make general comparisons about natures of her kind, he had the feeling that he would never again encounter such an epitome of perfection. That was precisely what struck fear into his heart. Had she not lured him in by inflicting the wound on him, only to heal it again? What motives could she have had otherwise? He was now convinced that she had nothing to lose, while his life was at stake on the other hand. Not trusting her seemed safer to him. He tried to push the creature away with his cane that had gotten tangled in her hair. But the being had already caught the vibrations of Cecil’s vacillating thoughts before he could finish them and carry out his next action. She abruptly let go of him, as if fearing for her own life. The crystalline, almost transparent surface shattered into thousands of pieces as Cecil’s wound opened and began to bleed again. Furiously, the crystal surge penetrated his open flesh until it embedded itself deep into his body. After the last strands of her hair had come loose from his head, Cecil plunged out of the water’s depths. To his horror, he found that darkness had enveloped him again, as if it now, like the creature before, never wanted to let go of him. He felt as if a sharply edged stone had been rammed into his chest with full force and replaced his heart, as if he was bleeding internally. He tried to shake off this foreign body-sensation and felt like a host that had just been infested by a parasite. Exhausted, he fell to the ground until a leaden heaviness settled over him. Like in a state of benightedness, he plunged into the merciless precipices of the night.

When he regained consciousness, he found himself in the bed of his college dorm room, with Selena and Sol already having come to his aid. “I am sorry I let you down. I don’t know what happened. I must have gotten lost. How did you find me?” Cecil babbled, still taken by the aching pulsation of his wound, and struck by the female apparition. “Don’t worry about trivialities. We’ve already taken care of that. Zephire, the bus driver, and his wife Florence happened to be in the area. They travel the route regularly and know the area inside out. The most important thing is that you get your strength back,” the two retorted in unison. Their voices sounded gentle, but there was a certain degree of seriousness and tenacity to them. For the next three days, Cecil rested. This fleeting creature by whom he had initially felt blindsided now preoccupied his thoughts more than he would have liked. Regret and shame sprouted up in him. Had he wronged her? He decided to keep his experiences to himself. He felt as if he could commit a second offense that would bring the being into disrepute. Selena and Sol who had picked up on the boy’s change of nature paid more attention to him than usual. They suggested he go on an excursion with them during the semester break, for a change of scenery.

On February 22nd, a week after Cecil’s incident, the three paid a visit to the Pantheon Stadium which was just a few minutes’ walk from where Cecil’s parents lived. This was where a certain constellation of stars should be visible twice, standing in opposing directions. Cecil, who at first felt slightly insulted and did not know whether the two jokesters were pulling his leg, wanted to protest, for obvious reasons. In the end, he agreed, after they assured him that the meaning of the visit would disclose itself to him. So, the three sat in the empty stadium. Several hours passed without them exchanging a word. Although Cecil was still clueless, he felt he could disrupt the effect, whatever it might be, even with the slightest sound. When the unbearable silence began to embarrass him, he reached out to his companions, but could not find them. He desperately called their names. The two who had apparently wound him up had simply left the field! Although Cecil felt he should give them the benefit of the doubt – words such as kidnapping were furiously swirling in his head – his anger and the humiliation prevented him from doing so, and he trudged away. After last week of all weeks, they should have understood his squeamishness.

So why not drop by his parents’ house as a surprise? Cecil needed some comfort now. Maybe this time they would appreciate his presence. What a fool he was! His parents were once again fighting and almost missed his arrival. Cecil slipped into his room, only catching snatches of sentences such as “You made him like that!” accompanied by tearful outbursts of his mother and the smashing of dishes by his father. Cecil curled up under his blanket, covered his ears and imagined the whole world slowly dissolving around him. Full of resignation, he fell into a deep slumber. Cecil dreamed for the first time since…. when actually? At the same time, he had his eyes wide open, as if they had been torn open with vigour, so that the dream did not appear as such. Had the female apparition returned to taunt him? Once again, his temples began to throb. This time it wasn’t just a flicker, his eyes felt as if they were trying to free themselves from their sockets, as if they wanted to reveal something to him, or as if something or someone wanted to pull away the darkness, like removing a veil. This darkness, in which small crack lines formed, burst into thousands of pieces which were then assembled like parts of a mosaic. They turned into an oval picture laced with a shiny and smooth surface. To Cecil’s bewilderment, they seemed even more familiar to him now. These little pieces reminded him of the crystal splinters the woman had poured into his wound. It was not only that he gained visual impressions. In fact, he remembered that he had literally seen the light of day before.

Yet, these impressions did not correlate with the ones he had gained a week ago. What happened next so overwhelmed him that he ran his hands up to touch his eyelids, but this time his hands were forcefully thrown back. Despite his fixed position, he felt dizzy as if he were a clock hand running counterclockwise. His hair stood on end and goosebumps spread to his face. Images merged into one another like a film strip that revived the episodes that had been faded out of Cecil’s life. He saw himself as a new-born, then his parents at their wedding in a gazebo carrying him frolickingly on their arms ……at the Pantheon Stadium! This was followed by a scene in which his parents’ gazes at the tempting, but empty eyes and the marmoreal, almost sculpturesque lips of others morphed into lightning. The shiny surface switched back to the gazebo at the wedding scene. But this time, young Cecil’s eyes looked as if they had been blotted out by his parents’ gazes. An intimidating, yet heart-rending cry poured out from the highest spheres of heaven:

I, Urania, daughter of Zeus and Mother of Star and Sky,

have come tonight to separate truth from lie,

for after your parents had been wed,

the same night even my children, Selena and Sol, took the eternal vow,

in a constellation perfectly aligned back then and now,

your parents committed a crime worth regret,

broken love’s oath, fallen into another’s arms,

when their gazes first met, fully entranced by the strangers’ charms,

blemished the purity of love at Pantheon, the union of Earth and Sky,

the sin of the earthly stained eye,

has caused your vision to die,

my granddaughter to depart from the sky,

tonight, on February 22nd,

the Mirror of First Gazes has beckoned,

shown what has been hidden from you all this time,

ripped from the spheres of mine,

imbedded in the soul of thine.

To its rightful owner it must return,

for what it has been denied it will not stop to yearn,

only if you selflessly meet its need,

from the blemishes you and the mirror shall be freed.

Having lost all sense of time, Cecil startled from this trance-like state. What felt to him like hours of revelation and endurance of pain, had indeed just been a couple of minutes. He had now uncovered a suspected secret that had tormented him all his life. He had been prepared for everything but this! Even after this disenchantment, he relapsed into this unsettling murkiness – his sight had only been given back to him temporarily. His entire life, his parents had been quarrelling because they had severely endangered his life, and they had withheld that from him and thus inflicted even more pain! Their selfishness had even torn asunder something they could have been rewarded with themselves. Having everything did not suffice! Cecil questioned the situation. As a child, would he have believed them if they had told him? And Selena and Sol! Of course, they knew! Why else did they always have the perfect response ready and act accordingly? Why else were they at the lake that night? Why did they not confide in him? What he could least dismiss was the fact that his parents had hurt another living being for whom their ignorance could not justify anything! In thought, he turned back to the woman from the lake. Csilla! Had he almost betrayed her with his viciousness like his parents had betrayed each other? He had to pay for the sins of his parents, but so did she! If Csilla was Urania’s granddaughter, and Sol and Selena were Urania’s children, then Csilla was …. their daughter who had bestowed the Mirror of First Gazes upon him! Cecil had been wounded, but so had Csilla when crashing from the celestial spheres. Had she not in all her purity genuinely attempted to communicate through the wound and to set an end to Cecil’s suffering, offering the mirror to him in form of a crystal layer through which he had already met her gaze? Still hearing the arguing from the living room, which was now so intense, Cecil feared the neighbours might call the police. Despite his contempt, he stormed downstairs. As long as it was still the 22nd and the configuration of the stars remained constant, he had no time to lose. He had to return to Lake Astraeon. Cecil stepped between his parents with a firm resolve. Without admonishment, they fell silent. Despite his still fixed gaze, they saw that Cecil had been let in by the same being who had once announced this auspicious day and their punishment to them.

Accompanied by his parents, Cecil arrived at the lake shortly before midnight. Selena and Sol, who had been waiting for him, stood by the bank, their hands clasped. He joined them, until his wound drew him to Csilla who had been expecting him on the river. Leaving all doubts behind, he placed himself in her tender hands. Caressing his cheek, Csilla pulled a crystal strand from Cecil’s flesh. She did this until his sight was restored and the crystals covered the water. Fully manifested and like a shifting platform, the Mirror of First Gazes lifted Selena, Sol, Cecil, and Csilla towards Urania who held her arms spread out to embrace her happily united family. Cecil became aware of four graceful beings of timeless beauty, as if the mirror were the quintessential fountain of youth. He could have passed for one of them, for there was no resemblance to his parents. But Cecil couldn’t escape their heart-breaking sobs, the three looked at each other tearfully. Deeply moved, Selena and Sol pulled out an object with which they caught the tears. They added a crystal to them until the mixture solidified to a miniature of the Mirror of the First Gazes. Turning to Cecil, they fluted with a light-hearted smile, “You haven’t forgotten about our astronomy project, have you? With this, your parents can summon you at any time, so you can always visit each other.” They added, “Provided that your parents always look at each other like on the day of our weddings, until death do us apart.” And so, as a last task, the parents had to make a blood oath. During the ritual, which was not allowed to begin one second after midnight, they gave each other a cut on the arteries of the wrist with the small mirror and then pressed the wrists together. Afterwards, the wounds were closed so that the blood of one parent was directed into the body of the other. They both nodded thankfully and hugged their son goodbye. Like meteors sweeping in the opposite direction, Cecil and his companions flew to the reflected constellation, in which he set the mirror and waved back to his parents. From now on, this ritual had to take place every year on February 22nd. It was the only way to maintain the balance between sky and earth.

End

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