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45: We are all dancing like Madame Ludmilla: Senseless Figures in Front of a Mirror

(The Active Side of Infinity by Carlos Castaneda)

After a very long silence, don Juan spoke to me again. “I’ll do better than give you an example of a memorable event from my album,” he said. “I’ll give you a memorable event from your own life, one that should go for sure in your collection. Or, I should say, if I were you, I would certainly put it in my collection of memorable events.”

I thought don Juan was joking and I laughed stupidly. “This is not a laughing matter,” he said cuttingly. “I am serious. You once told me a story that fits the bill.”

“What story is that, don Juan?”

“The story of ‘figures in front of a mirror,'” he said. “Tell me that story again. But tell it to me in all the detail you can remember.”

I began to retell the story in a cursory fashion. He stopped me and demanded a careful, detailed narration, starting at the beginning. I tried again, but my rendition didn’t satisfy him.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he proposed. “When you walk, you are much more accurate than when you’re sitting down. It is not an idle idea that you should pace back and forth when you try to relate something.”

We had been sitting, as we usually did during the day, under the house ramada. I had developed a pattern: Whenever I sat there, I always did it on the same spot, with my back against the wall. Don Juan sat in various places under the ramada, but never on the same spot.

We went for a hike at the worst time of the day, noon. He outfitted me with an old straw hat, as he always did whenever we went out in the heat of the sun. We walked for a long time in complete silence. I tried to the best of my ability to force myself to remember all the details of the story. It was mid afternoon when we sat down under the shade of some tall bushes, and I retold the full story.

Years before, while I was studying sculpture in a fine arts school in Italy, I had a close friend, a Scotsman who was studying art in order to become an art critic. What stood out most vividly in my mind about him, and had to do with the story I was telling don Juan, was the bombastic idea he had of himself; he thought he was the most licentious, lusty, all-around scholar and craftsman, a man of the Renaissance. Licentious he was, but lustiness was something in complete contradiction to his bony, dry, serious person. He was a vicarious follower of the English philosopher Bertrand Russell and dreamed of applying the principles of logical positivism to art criticism. To be an all-around scholar and craftsman was perhaps his wildest fantasy because he was a procrastinator; work was his nemesis.

His dubious specialty wasn’t art criticism, but his personal knowledge of all the prostitutes of the local bordellos, of which there were plenty. The colorful and lengthy accounts he used to give me – in order to keep me, according to him, up to date about all the marvelous things he did in the world of his specialty – were delightful. It was not surprising to me, therefore, that one day he came to my apartment, all excited, nearly out of breath, and told me that something extraordinary had happened to him and that he wanted to share it with me.

“I say, old man, you must see this for yourself!” he said excitedly in the Oxford accent he affected every time he talked to me. He paced the room nervously. “It’s hard to describe, but I know it’s something you will appreciate. Something, the impression of which will last you for a lifetime. I am going to give you a marvelous gift for life. Do you understand?”

I understood that he was a hysterical Scotsman. It was always my pleasure to humor him and tag along. I had never regretted it. “Calm down, calm down, Eddie,” I said. “What are you trying to tell me?”

He related to me that he had been in a bordello, where he had found an unbelievable woman who did an incredible thing she called “figures in front of a mirror.” He assured me repeatedly, almost stuttering, that I owed it to myself to experience this unbelievable event personally.

“I say, don’t worry about money!” he said, since he knew I didn’t have any. “I’ve already paid the price. All you have to do is go with me. Madame Ludmilla will show you her ‘figures in front of a mirror.’ It’s a blast!”

In a fit of uncontrollable glee, Eddie laughed uproariously, oblivious to his bad teeth, which he normally hid behind a tight-lipped smile or laugh. “I say, it’s absolutely great!”

My curiosity mounted by the minute. I was more than willing to participate in his new delight.

Eddie drove me to the outskirts of the city. We stopped in front of a dusty, badly kept building; the paint was peeling off the walls. It had the air of having been a hotel at one time, a hotel that had been turned into an apartment building. I could see the remnants of a hotel sign that seemed to have been ripped to pieces. On the front of the building there were rows of dirty single balconies filled with flowerpots or draped with carpets put out to dry.

At the entrance to the building were two dark, shady-looking men wearing pointed black shoes that seemed too tight on their feet; they greeted Eddie effusively. They had black, shifty, menacing eyes. Both of them were wearing shiny light-blue suits, also too tight for their bulky bodies. One of them opened the door for Eddie. They didn’t even look at me.

We went up two flights of stairs on a dilapidated staircase that at one time must have been luxurious. Eddie led the way and walked the length of an empty, hotel-like corridor with doors on both sides. All the doors were painted in the same drab, dark, olive green. Every door had a brass number, tarnished with age, barely visible against the painted wood.

Eddie stopped in front of a door. I noticed the number 112 on it. He rapped repeatedly. The door opened, and a round, short woman with bleached-blonde hair beckoned us in without saying a word. She was wearing a red silk robe with feathery, flouncy sleeves and red slippers with furry balls on top. Once we were inside a small hall and she had closed the door behind us, she greeted Eddie in terribly accented English. “Hallo, Eddie. You brought friend, eh?”

Eddie shook her hand, and then kissed it, gallantly. He acted as if he were most calm, yet I noticed his unconscious gestures of being ill at ease.

“How are you today, Madame Ludmilla?” he said, trying to sound like an American and flubbing it.

I never discovered why Eddie always wanted to sound like an American whenever he was transacting business in those houses of ill repute. I had the suspicion that he did it because Americans were known to be wealthy, and he wanted to establish his rich man’s bona fides with them.

Eddie turned to me and said in his phony American accent, “I leave you in good hands, kiddo.”

He sounded so awful, so foreign to my ears, that I laughed out loud. Madame Ludmilla didn’t seem perturbed at all by my explosion of mirth. Eddie kissed Madame Ludmilla’s hand again and left.

“You speak English, my boy?” she shouted as if I were deaf. “You look Eyipcian, or perhaps Torkish.”

I assured Madame Ludmilla that I was neither, and that I did speak English. She asked me then if I fancied her “figures in front of a mirror.” I didn’t know what to say. I just shook my head affirmatively.

“I give you good show,” she assured me. “Figures in front of a mirror is only foreplay. When you are hot and ready, tell me to stop.”

From the small hall where we were standing we walked into a dark and eerie room. The windows were heavily curtained. There were some low-voltage light bulbs on fixtures attached to the wall. The bulbs were shaped like tubes and protruded straight out at right angles from the wall. There was a profusion of objects around the room: pieces of furniture like small chests of drawers, antique tables and chairs; a roll-top desk set against the wall and crammed with papers, pencils, rulers, and at least a dozen pairs of scissors. Madame Ludmilla made me sit down on an old stuffed chair.

“The bed is in the other room, darling,” she said, pointing to the other side of the room. “This is my antisala. Here I give show to get you hot and ready.”

She dropped her red robe, kicked off her slippers, and opened the double doors of two armoires standing side by side against the wall. Attached to the inside of each door was a full-length mirror.

“And now the music, my boy,” Madame Ludmilla said, then cranked a Victrola that appeared to be in mint condition, shiny, like new. She put on a record. The music was a haunting melody that reminded me of a circus march.

“And now my show,” she said, and began to twirl around to the accompaniment of the haunting melody. The skin of Madame Ludmilla’s body was tight, for the most part, and extraordinarily white, though she was not young. She must have been in her well-lived late forties. Her belly sagged, not a great deal, but a bit, and so did her voluminous breasts. The skin of her face also sagged into noticeable jowls. She had a small nose and heavily painted red lips.

She wore thick black mascara. She brought to mind the prototype of an aging prostitute. Yet there was something childlike about her, a girlish abandon and trust, a sweetness that jolted me.

“And now, figures in front of a mirror,” Madame Ludmilla announced while the music continued.

“Leg, leg, leg!” she said, kicking one leg up in the air, and then the other, in time with the music. She had her right hand on top of her head, like a little girl who is not sure that she can perform the movements.

“Turn, turn, turn!” she said, turning like a top.

“Butt, butt, butt!” she said then, showing me her bare behind like a cancan dancer.

She repeated the sequence over and over until the music began to fade when the Victrola’s spring wound down. I had the feeling that Madame Ludmilla was twirling away into the distance, becoming smaller and smaller as the music faded. Some despair and loneliness that I didn’t know existed in me came to the surface, from the depths of my very being, and made me get up and run out of the room, down the stairs like a madman, out of the building, into the street.

Eddie was standing outside the door talking to the two men in light-blue shiny suits. Seeing me running like that, he began to laugh uproariously.

“Wasn’t it a blast?” he said, still trying to sound like an American. ” ‘Figures in front of a mirror’ is only the foreplay. What a thing! What a thing!”

The first time I had mentioned the story to don Juan, I had told him that I had been deeply affected by the haunting melody and the old prostitute clumsily twirling to the music. And I had been deeply affected also by the realization of how callous my friend was.

When I had finished retelling my story to don Juan, as we sat in the hills of a range of mountains in Sonora I was shaking, mysteriously affected by something quite undefined.

“That story,” don Juan said, “should go in your album of memorable events. Your friend, without having any idea of what he was doing, gave you, as he himself said, something that will indeed last you for a lifetime.”

“I see this as a sad story, don Juan, but that’s all,” I declared.

“It’s indeed a sad story, just like your other stories,” don Juan replied, “but what makes it different and memorable to me is that it touches every one of us human beings, not just you, like your other tales. You see, like Madame Ludmilla, every one of us, young and old alike, is making figures in front of a mirror in one way or another. Tally what you know about people. Think of any human being on this earth, and you will know, without the shadow of a doubt, that no matter who they are, or what they think of themselves, or what they do, the result of their actions is always the same: senseless figures in front of a mirror.”


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