The Ambassador

Mathilde Walter Clark

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

I bought the mirror from an old Jew at the Porta Portese Market in Rome. It was not the mirror itself that caught my eye as much as the golden frame, which was wrapped in a dusty blanket and stuck out from a trunk behind his stall. So as not to act too eager, I feigned interest in a rusty coin collection and a bronze paperweight shaped like a winged phallus before I nonchalantly let my eyes wander over to the trunk. "How much for that old mirror?" I asked. The Jew chewed on a wet cigar stump, sizing up my interest. He walked over and pulled the mirror from the trunk. I didn't bite. Instead I began mindlessly leafing through a box of risqué postcards from the early 1800s.

"Hundred," he said. "Fifty," I replied, not looking up.

I dragged the mirror home, still wrapped in the blanket, for 65 euros. It was antique, oval, faceted, and mounted in a gilded wooden frame engraved with clustering snakes. The mirror was opulent, tasteless even, but that was precisely what I liked. It fit with Rome's over-the-top pageant of gold, heavy jewelry everywhere, gold watches and brass buckles and buttons and shiny cuff links. And it fit the lavish style of the ambassador's residence, a genteel 19th-century house in Centro Storico with 20-foot ceilings and stone floors and niches adorned with cool marble youths.

The mirror found its way to the longest wall in the dining room, the top hanging loosely forward, leaning into the room like an old lady who has lost her hearing. I had no plans to use it as an actual mirror—I preferred not to sit and chew in the company of myself on the opposing wall—but I wanted it there, I suppose, as an abstract image. So I dipped it slightly toward the oval table until it sparkled blindly like a diamond in a cliff. I was content.

The dining room was filled with guests almost every night. Conversation was always lively, ideas flowed from the mouths of educated people with stimulating views on life, and these ideas made their way through the room alongside multi-course dinners of creamy soups, oven-baked fish, duck with red cabbage and sugar-browned potatoes, Southern Jutland apple pie, and vini superiori served in hand-blown Holmegaard glasses. This entertaining was an obligation of my profession—but I truly enjoyed it. On the rare nights I spent alone, I didn't know what to do with myself, and usually ended up on a kitchen stool eating toast with cheese or jam, restlessly skimming through junk mail catalogues.

I was fully aware that my life was not my own. I remember Madeleine Albright once talking about her nerves when, as US Ambassador to the UN, she addressed the assembly for the first time. As she sat in that hall full of black-suited men and summoned the courage to speak, the insight came in a crystal spark: I am America! The personal anxieties of Madeleine Albright were completely irrelevant.

As Madeleine Albright was America, I was Denmark. And so it was not Birgit Tranholm sitting at the end of the table in the candelabra-lit dining room under the mirror greasing the conversation between world powers—it was Denmark. I never let myself believe the guests were my guests. Just as a soldier has no face, is not an individual, the ambassador is never anything but the ambassador. An ambassador can have no friends; she is chronically lonesome.

It was also the ambassador who spoke at these gatherings. I couldn't sit there and say anything I pleased, but this suited me fine. What would Birgit Tranholm say anyway, had she suddenly been asked to speak? Certainly nothing about her lonely nights on the kitchen stool. A strong sense of etiquette and erudition must accompany the privilege of diplomatic immunity. On Ambassador Tranholm's night table lay tall stacks of poetry books and philosophical and theological texts; she went to the opera and to the theater, and she kept herself well-versed in all the subjects educated people keep themselves well-versed in.

I don't know whether the others realized their lives weren't theirs. This was not a subject we discussed. I recognized my loneliness only in the Polish ambassador, a shortish man with silver hair combed back and cut neatly above his ear, and a clean, reddish face. He looked as if he was he were visiting from the 1920s. His shirts, usually short-sleeved with old-fashioned pleated breast pockets, were carefully starched and ironed, and every little fold meticulously pressed. There was something sad and dreamy about him. When he spoke, it was as if his eyes saw things in the distance that only he could see.

He was not like the boring career diplomats, but a classic intellectual. He had a background in theology and could speak easily and at length about symbolic language in the Bible. Where did the dove come from, and why a dove? From a small beginning like this he would segue into a genuine lecture on the subject, and move in an elegant but intellectually demanding arc from Noah's dove in the Old Testament to the dove that descended from heaven at the baptism of Jesus. During these monologues I sometimes tried to catch his eye—not the eyes of the Polish ambassador, but the light blue, far-seeing eyes of Mihael. I wanted to see whether his loneliness saw mine.


It was on one such night that I noticed the whole scene repeat itself in the mirror. I don't know why I'd never seen it before, perhaps the fishing line had grown slack, altering the angle of the mirror a bit, but in any case, from where I sat it was no longer a blind frame, but a perfect doubling of the guests, the dinner, the flickering candles of the candelabra, with one disturbing exception: I couldn't find myself. I could clearly see the silver neck of the Polish ambassador and then the South African ambassador and his wife, and across the table I reencountered the Polish poet Mihael had brought along, as well as the leader of the Danish Institute in the Borghese Garden, two Italian artists, a theatre manager, and an art critic—all of whom sat captivated by Mihael and his little lecture. I counted the seats, and there, squarely between the theatre manager and the art critic, I saw a strange, new face—in my seat! The face was paler and longer than my own, with grey-black hair pulled back in a bun, and the eyes seemed dead and small and nearsighted. A quick glimpse, and then—the face was gone. Mihael had finished his speech and the guests were holding their glasses in mid-air, waiting for me to toast the dove.

The wife of the South African ambassador started talking about the secretary bird, supposedly an essential part of the South African coat of arms, and from there the conversation expanded to other birds and their symbolic meanings: swans, storks, crows, cranes, eagles, owls, ravens and, of course, the phoenix. But I didn't speak. I couldn't focus.

The evening came to a strange end. My guests left little by little before coffee was served. I didn't see anyone out, but just sat like a stone until I was the only one left. The Polish ambassador and his poet friend were the last to go. The ambassador placed his hand on my shoulder and bowed, kissing me twice on each cheek. He thanked me for a nice evening. I knew his words were not true, I looked up and met his eyes, and now he looked at me as if he was searching for something, my loneliness, perhaps. I looked away and the two of them left. I didn't move from the chair until the candles had burned to puddles, and the servants had been excused and gone home. I left the remains of the oven-roasted lamb and the dirty plates on the table, and went to bed. Whoever fell asleep in my bed that night was not the same person who had welcomed guests a few hours earlier.

When I awoke the next morning, I shrugged the whole incident off as a result of too much tension, high-strung nerves—candles had flickered, there had been wine, and perhaps I also had a headache. I convinced myself that I had not seen what I had seen.

The dinner parties grew fewer and fewer in the following months. Evenings in the kitchen became routine. I lost weight. Also, my wardrobe changed. I'd always had a confident style, well-dressed and professional, and a closet full of tailored bouclé suits in monochromes, skirts with matching jackets—the attire expected of a woman with diplomatic obligations. But a few weeks after the dinner party incident, I found myself in a shop for—I didn't even know what to call it. Antique garments? Secondhand clothes? I left the shop carrying a high-necked dress with a white lace collar that made me look like a 19th-century governess. Back home I tried on the dress in front of my bedroom mirror. I didn't like myself in it, it reminded me of the woman who sat alone at night on the kitchen stool, solving puzzles. Yet there was also an inexplicable, trembling pleasure in my discomfort, and I kept the dress on. Like a closed umbrella, it covered the body that grew skinnier with each passing week. During the day I answered questions from home, whether Danish tourists should cancel their vacations due to this strike or that, and in the evenings I rattled around in the hallways like a beetle, alone.

At the next dinner party I received my guests in the high-necked dress. I'd forgotten to change, and by the time I was standing in the doorway, it was too late. I must have made a harrowing impression: people seemed momentarily disturbed by my looks, but had the tact not to say anything.

The first part of the evening followed the usual scheme. The appetizer was accompanied by a light wine and easy conversation. But during the main course, I suddenly sensed that I was being watched. I looked around at the dinner guests, the Polish ambassador was staring into the distance, explaining the insignificance of the historic Jesus in comparison with the mythic. Everyone's attention was fixed on him. I looked up at the mirror, and there I met the gaze of the long-faced woman, same pale skin, same pulled-back hair. There was a recognition in her eyes, as if she had read my mind, as if she knew something I didn't.

There was a scream. The tablecloth darkened. Blood streamed from my hand, broken glass everywhere—I must have clenched my wine glass so hard it shattered. The gentleman sitting next to me, a polite English chargé de affaires, made attempts to remove the shards from my palm, but the slivers of glass had cut too deep into the flesh.

The Polish ambassador offered to drive me to the emergency room. He was driving himself, he didn't have a chauffeur for the night, and it was impossible to find a parking space at the hospital. But he took advantage of diplomatic immunity and left the car on the square in front of a small chapel. We both knew what kind of favor this was, but he didn't say a word as he opened the passenger door. I especially remember the feeling of shame as we ran across the square together, Mihael impeccable with his silver hair and neatly ironed shirt and me in that impossible black dress, bony ankles poking down, bleeding hand sticking up. The woman running was not me, she only appeared to be. I couldn't hide.

The doctor spent the bulk of the night removing the shards, one by one, with tweezers and a magnifying glass. I returned home with a bandaged hand and advice to take it easy. Two days later, the ambassador came by with a box of Polish biscuit-cake and a little book bound in exquisite red cloth, Metaphysics for Beginners, poems by the Polish poet who had been my guest the night I first saw the face in the mirror. We each sat on the edge of a dining room chair, me with my greasy hair and worn dressing gown, he in his freshly pressed linen trousers, poplin shirt, and gold cross. The situation was awkward and unequal, and yet a new space had arisen between us. I wouldn't call it friendship, not exactly, but something in his presence penetrated the usual layers of formality. He began to talk about Eros. We give all the power to reason, he said, claim that we're 'rational people,' when the truth is that in the face of Eros, reason is powerless. It was clear that in his 'we' he included all humankind. We could choose to walk away from the burning bush, he said, but if we walked into it armed with only our 'good sense,' we would burn to ashes. Eros made the real decisions, and reason did the explaining. Eros is always the Emperor, he said, and looked at me expectantly.

Now, in retrospect, I don't remember what I said. It was the woman from the mirror who spoke, and I remember only as one could in the midst of a terrible hangover—or a dream, a nightmare: the image of the Polish ambassador with tears in his distant blue eyes. And me, the mirror-woman, and then the ambassador leaving with a very straight back. Even as I sat on the edge of my dining room chair, I knew that this would be the last I would see of the ambassador.

After he left, I fell asleep on the chair. I don't know for how long. I woke lying on the oval mahogany table, head on arm, stiff all over. I must have cried too, my cheeks felt dry and salty, but I didn't remember what I had dreamt: only the terrible feeling of having lost something precious. It was terrible, terrible. I looked up at the mirror, and staring at me were the triumphant eyes of the pale horse face.

I could think of only one thing. Who had owned the mirror before me? Who had seen their reflection in the glass?


The old Jew didn't have his stall at the Porta Portese anymore. In its place was a shop that sold brightly colored microfiber underwear. The young owners told me the Jew had sold his space and moved to Genoa. They thought it was Genoa. Some city by the water, they were sure of this.

I went to Genoa. After three days scouring every antique seller in the city, I found him in a shop by the harbor. I asked if he remembered me. He narrowed his eyes, staring for a long time. "You sold me a mirror once," he said. "Wrong," I said. "You once sold me a mirror." He then nodded slowly. I asked if he remembered who had sold it to him. He didn't—he already said, he thought I was the one. "You must have some papers, some lists of bought and sold objects." I tried. The Jew stared at me. "I trade in old things," he said, "not diamonds."

I'm not sure what I had expected, but the Jew was my best bet, and really my only bet. Even if I managed to track down the person who owned the mirror before me, what would I have done? Seen the person, I suppose. Satisfied my curiosity.
All I could do was return to Rome and rid myself of the mirror. As soon as I got home, I took it from the wall and placed it on the floor, turning its reflective surface to face the wall, as if shaming it somehow. Then I placed a classified ad in the newspaper: "Antique mirror for sale." That was all I wrote.

There was only one inquiry, a woman, who over the phone asked in detail about measurements, shape, ornaments, frame. It seemed I was just as eager to be free of the mirror as she was to own it. After I described it, she asked if she could fetch the mirror herself. Could she come right away? She certainly could.

The woman came. As she climbed the staircase, I stood in the doorway to receive her. She emerged in stages: first the grey-speckled bun, then the face, pale and horse-like, hovering over the governess dress, and finally the bony, stalk-like ankles and laced-up shoes. Neither of us spoke upon sight of the other. "You have a mirror for sale?" she said. "Yes," I replied.

I agreed immediately to her price. She had only small, used notes, and counted them three times before handing them over. "Sometimes they stick." Her voice sounded like wind rustling through dry leaves. In the hallway light her face looked yellow against the black dress. She put me in a dreadful mood. All I wanted was for her to leave and take the mirror. Finally she picked it up and maneuvered it into place under her arm—and before she turned to go, she gazed at me for a moment with the triumphant expression I had seen before. As if she knew. But there were no words. There was only the sound of her heels, clippety-clop, down the stone staircase, pointed steps that echoed long after she was gone.

translated from the Danish by Colie Hoffman

© Mathilde Walter Clark & Samlerens Forlag, 2011.
Translation © Colie Hoffman and Mathilde Walter Clark, 2014.