Missing child in the mirror

Saturday 1 June 2019

(First prize in the Dr. Alam Darsono short story competition 2019)

For Mei Lan, and our special friendship that began once upon a time in a train

Stop and linger a while, dear visitor: this is me lying here before you, in clay. Yes, here, behind this curtain. Feel free to lift it up a little higher and run your hands over my body. But suppress your urge to see me. There is really no point, after all; it is pitch black inside this casket. The darkness in here is many times more profound than in the shadowy room where you are standing. I know: in a museum like this you expect objects in glass cases and statues made of wax or marble cordoned off by ropes – beyond reach, at a safe distance, but all the more exposed to your hungry gazes. Well, that illusion of distance between us doesn’t exist in here. Why don’t you come a bit closer? Believe what your fingertips are telling you, even if only this once!

Don’t imagine that the woman who made me despises you for the possessiveness of your eyes. She has felt the same desire to look often enough, burning behind her inactive retinas. And it really wasn’t just during those first few months, when her reflection slowly started to dissolve.
She must have been about eight years old, nine at most. The girl who always pulled silly faces at her in the bathroom every morning or stuck out a long, pointy tongue had enveloped herself in a fog that gradually got thicker and thicker. It wasn’t the condensation doing it; she’d checked that several times. If she stood on tiptoes to wipe the mirror surface clean with her pyjama sleeve, the image was still just as misty as before. At first she thought the goofy girl in the mirror was playing another trick on her. And it did strike her as pretty funny, as if the only cold place in the boiling hot bathroom was behind the mirror and the girl opposite her was breathing out little clouds of vapour that swirled upwards.
It was only when she started seeing wreathes of fog in the clear spring light outdoors as well, in shop windows and between the branches of trees, that she felt herself starting to panic. But she didn’t dare tell anyone about it yet, and just laughed a bit sheepishly when the other children in the neighbourhood made fun of her for stumbling over a step or kerbstone for the umpteenth time. By now the scornful faces around her were vague blotches like the face of the girl above the bathroom sink.

As your hands run over my body, do you recognise the shapes? A torso straight in front of you, and a head to the right? Both are more or less life-size, you say? Not bad, not bad at all! You’re right: I’m lying on my back with my left side facing you – and below, above and to the right of me are the wooden walls of a tilted casket.
A slender neck? Yes, that is probably my most fragile part. But please don’t go too fast. Touch demands a careful exploration, returning to what you thought you had worked out a long time ago. What is that wavy pattern around the neck that covers my shoulders as well? You tell me! The folds of a dress, perhaps? A cascade of hair? Who knows... or might the marks be the impression left by the fingers that shaped me? Feel them again, carefully. 

One morning the mirror had disappeared along with the girl inside it. The bathroom was nothing more than a collection of wobbly outlines. The same went for every object in the house and for her anxious parents, who held her firmly by the hand everywhere they went. They dragged her along to an endless succession of doctors, who all mumbled the same kind of thing and – she assumed – gave the same discouraged shrug. After a while she got really fed up of the sterile smell of hospitals and chilly waiting rooms.
Because unlike her parents, she soon realised there was nothing to be afraid of. If she stopped clinging desperately to the fraying silhouettes around her, the world was still there. Fair enough, it wasn’t the way it used to be, but it was still as familiar as ever. She really didn’t need to count the number of steps across the landing from her room to the top of the stairs, as her mother begged her to do at first. She could hear perfectly well where the stairwell was, and so her foot found the first step without hesitation and she went running downstairs as fast as ever. Once she stopped depending on the last bit of vision she had, she stopped bumping into things so often as well. She wasn’t ashamed to walk across the playground arm in arm with her best friend; laughing and chatting, she followed her friend’s movements without even thinking about it to avoid rubbish bins and bicycle racks. But even when she crossed the street on her own, she had a stick that warned her of any steps up or down. And then there was that curious feeling against her forehead – like a gentle pressure on her skin – that alerted her to a large obstacle like a billboard or parked car nearby.

That’s where your fingers are now, aren’t they, on my forehead? Can you make out my features, determine my ancestry? But usually you’re so good at that, aren’t you? At categorising people by their skin colour, the shape of their nose and their cheekbones? Right, it’s a lot more difficult to do by touch! Suddenly all those certainties and categories have melted away. I don’t mind telling you that my skin is red ochre, but that is just the colour of the glazed clay. Do you think I have almond-shaped eyes? Because of that fold in my skin? Maybe you’re wrong, and these are just my closed eyelids, and behind them my gaze is directed inwards, peering into the unfathomable void. 

Although the woman who made me had rediscovered the world, in her heart she did still miss the child in the mirror who had disappeared. Slowly she grew up, but the girl from the bathroom never aged a day. She could see the child in sharp focus before her, as if magically frozen in time, shortly before the image evaporated forever.
The sense of loss was often nothing more than a gentle swell that sometimes ebbed away completely, but now and again it rose up and hurled itself furiously against her ribs. The most difficult times usually followed some comment or other about the changes to her appearance. That she would soon be a real woman, for example. Or that her hair was getting darker, that glasses would suit her, that she shouldn’t dress like such a tomboy, that a bit of mascara would bring out her long eyelashes, that the make-up she was wearing didn’t suit her at all, that she had a waist to die for, that she needed to lose weight, that she had nice breasts but they were a bit on the small side...

No, really, don’t rush. Only one visitor is allowed into this room at a time, and each one gets half an hour. Of course you can, kneel down gently beside me, there is plenty of space, and let the curtain fall behind you. Cosy, isn’t it, with the two of us in the same casket? The velvety voice that has been talking to you for a good quarter of an hour now is the voice of my maker, by the way. Yes, here in the darkness she is everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Have you noticed that I am pressing the palms of my hands together above the swell of my chest? With my fingertips pointing towards my chin and my thumbs against my collarbone? Are you wondering whether I’m praying? You are free to interpret the gesture that way. But it might just as well be a greeting, like the Eastern namasté. Perhaps I am bowing before the gods, people, plants and animals. So you think there is something abstract about the way my hands and arms are rendered? Like folded wings or a large, raised fin? Why on earth not? Let your imagination run wild!

She doesn’t recall when exactly she decided to make me. But it gradually dawned on her, as a young woman, that she was made only of words, things other people said, people who thought they knew her, sometimes after hardly sparing her a glance. And who could contradict them for as long as she remained a mystery to herself?
How could she ever find that disappeared child and bring her back to life? And now she came to think of it, what had that girl actually looked like? The mirror had usually only shown her cheeky little face, a cropped image like a bust, a profile, but never her entire body. What had that mirror concealed from her eyes, flattened into an incorporeal image?
Captured in the reflection of her memory, the broken child remained inevitably beyond her grasp.

Come and lay your head on my belly. Yes, there, close to my navel, with your cheek against the cool, smooth glaze. Of course not! I’m not that easy to crack now that I’ve been through the kiln twice and heated up to almost a thousand degrees. This isn’t the first time you’ve done this, is it? Surely you’ve cuddled up to your beloved sometimes in the small hours of the night. With the murmuring and bubbling of their insides in your ear. Inside me, though, there is silence: absolute silence. Listen...

She ended up working on me for more than a year. As I lay on the table in her rented studio, she added lump after lump of clay to me, and each time I needed to be moistened, kneaded, shaped and smoothed all over again. Slowly I welled up out of her, but don’t ask her where I come from.
And do I look like my maker? I most certainly do, to anyone who looks beyond the mirror.

You say my legs remind you a bit of a stylised tail? Because my knees are open, you mean, and the soles of my feet are pressed together? You really do have a vivid imagination! Come on, though, stop avoiding the issue. Seriously, you don’t need to be such a prude with me, there’s no reason to be. You know exactly what your clammy hands have been circling around the whole time. Let them have their way...
Oh, you’re startled, you feel wetness! Yes, where you were hoping to find the truth of my sex and your desire, there is merely a triangular pool of water. Exactly, a pool placed artfully between my thighs. Don’t hold back: dip your hands in up to the wrists, or further if you want, into the refreshing basin. There is really nothing in there that is going to bite you. Lower yourself a little further. Yes, like that! Who can say what pearls await you in the depths...

Our time together is almost over, dear visitor. I know it will be hard for you to let me go, but the next guest is already standing at the door, ready to come in. Would you arrange the curtain tidily in front of my casket again? It has been a real pleasure!
Oh yes, and there is a box of tissues to the left of the exit. Please use them to dry yourself off. That feels much better, doesn’t it?

Dutch original: ‘Vermist spiegelkind’
Translated by Helen White

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