approx 1900 words, ~11 min read time
There is a girl behind the mirror.
You see her first when you are five, pinching your nose and cheeks and wondering if the greenish shade of your skin, which you’ll later learn is just the tint of glass, means you are made of cheese. She moves a half-breath before you do; speaks a language you have already forgotten, her pink mouth forming a childish perfect
Nǐ sì séi?
Wait, you say—tippy-toeing to reach above the faucet, pulse racing beneath your skin at this evidence of your blossoming magic—wait, but when your fingers smudge cool surface, they meet only your reflection.
There is a girl behind the mirror.
Ten years old and her nose is not swollen pink-blotchy like yours, her palms not slimy from wiping tears from too-small eyes because her younger sister, lying on the floor, tilted her face up and said, your nose looks like a pig’s nose and laughed at you for liking the boy in your Sunday school class.
She didn’t say no one could love you. She didn’t need to.
Nǐ yé yoǔ mèi měi ma? you try—do you also have a younger sister?—and the other girl says yes.
Do you—hate her, sometimes? The h-word out of your mouth is a dare: you have never tried in front of your parents, are terrified of how they would look at you after.
Her mouth purses. No, she says, at once a question and statement, as if this should be obvious, and you think: this is what it means to be beautiful, this is what it means to be good.
Twelve, in the minivan side mirror, where sometimes you do not recognize yourself: fragments of your face rearrange each time you look, new angles to jaw and mouth and nose. Yet they are always the same in photos, all cheeks and no eyes. You stop watching movies—stop aching after actors who meet each other’s gazes, whose sheer intensity of feeling and touching and looking is enshrined on those altars of light and shadow—because afterward you will stride around the house expecting your parents and sister to see you, too.
Nǐ yào sěn me? asks the girl behind the mirror, but your mother sits in the driver’s seat and you cannot respond.
Fifteen, shivering naked in the bathroom, white candle in one hand and a lighter in the other. A craft you have just discovered, ideograms traced in red thread across the counter’s plastic laminate, and soon your eyes will be wide and blue enough for the girls in choir to look at instead of past.
Then your reflection flickers, fractures, and cold burrows through your not-cheese skin into your bones.
Why, she demands in English, why?
As well as nei na me gao cuo, and a torrent of Cantonese and Hokkien you do not understand.
As her voice crescendoes—as she slaps the counter, leans so close her breath fogs the mirror’s other side—you think: she sounds like your mother. A temper you’ve never had. You tell her to leave you alone—though you cannot quite form your lips around fuck off, which will take another ten years—and she does.
But then, she was never from here. And she has never tried very hard to stay.
You light the candle. Anchor the thread with drips of pale wax. Recite words overheard from the girls in choir—who are not your friends, for you are not bold enough, but at least they smile and tuck their legs beneath their chairs when you shuffle past them to your seat. You are not sure if you have gotten the spell right, but your face begins to burn, and your tongue clings to the roof of your mouth, and when you open your eyes again, the person in the mirror is someone else entirely.
Later you imagine her more patient, a softness to her eyes that was alien to you at that age. An offhand nǐ yǐ jīng hén měi—you are already beautiful—and the raw embryonic monster that was you at the time—clawing out of yourself, out of that house with its mirrors and your parents building you up in their image—bursting into tears. Finally, you would think, here was someone who understood.
But she was fifteen, too. And even later you will marvel at her temper—the way she could explode at the world, knowing it would listen. How beautiful to be loud: to raise your voice in five different tongues and take for granted that someone, anyone, might bend to your desires.
Eighteen: college. Dining halls and classes in different buildings, hallmates who think you are one of them. A clean start, a white page. Ocean-dark eyes and you are afraid to look in the bathroom mirror—afraid to get another telling-off, from her or from yourself.
And yet. You enroll in a Chinese class; laugh with your parents over the phone at the Americans botching their zh’s and ch’s and q’s, the squawk of their voices as they attempt the five tones. In your sophomore year, one of the worst offenders will spend a semester in China and return more fluent than you, and you will writhe with jealousy and drop out of the course sequence as soon as you’ve fulfilled the foreign language requirement.
Twenty-two. Later, you will wonder what you would have seen in the mirror, if you’d tried to look: imagine her dimple-cheeked, hair still long despite the heat; imagine her, if not happy, at least single-minded in her studies, a pencil tip stabbed into a map of Australia or America or Germany, where her staying will be contingent on how useful she makes herself, how valuable she proves to the keepers of the castle.
If you’d stayed, you tell your parents whenever they argue with you about the spell, I wouldn’t have grown up thinking I looked like an alien. But maybe your family was built for leaving. Maybe if your parents hadn’t, you’d feel as trapped as they did—would claw yourself out of Malaysia’s lush green forests and long smooth highways if it destroyed you, and it would be your children who blamed you for stripping them of their native tongues.
Twenty-five: you go back for the first time since you were a child (back being what your parents still call it, and you think perhaps it can be, too, for you—a reverse movement in years, in possibility). Your body closer to yours now, you think: a new city and a new exercise routine and no one who knows what you used to be.
Yet you see her in every press of relatives, exclaiming at your appearance in rapid-fire Hokkien; in the groups of schoolgirls walking past a stand of palm trees, dark hair clinging to their necks from the humidity. And it is not just that she chose a different major, or lacks the rigidity in her shoulders and spine from years of looking different from anyone else in the room: her thoughts and yours do not even overlap. They cannot be translated.
You imagine her sometimes lonely, but WhatsApp-ing a cousin to drive her home from college on the weekends she misses her mum’s cooking. You imagine friends she’s gone up through elementary school with, and aunts exclaiming hou lang even when all she does is walk into a room and smile. You imagine a fullness beneath her breastbone, one you never knew you lacked.
And you realize you do not know her, more than ever—that the pane of glass which separates you is a million universes wide.
You are twenty-five when you break.
It is a narrative arc of your own making: she was sick and now she’s well. She was unloved but now she loves herself. You have no other story to fit yourself into—are not daring or selfless enough for the fantasy novels you snuck out of your high school library, nor sufficiently quick-witted or lovable for the romances you read in college. But damn, you can be sad. And according to some books, that gives you just enough permission to see yourself.
Right before you snap the candle, snip the red thread—both stowed, until now, in a wooden box in your underwear drawer, slowly wearing your soul thin from the inside—you take a quick selfie of the sharp line of your nose, the piercing blue of your eyes.
Afterward, there are some days you sneak looks in the mirror, some days you cannot bear to. In a few months, you will switch phones and the photos will slip into the cruft of data—along with the chunky digital cameras stashed under your parents’ bed, the burned-out laptops in the age before the cloud—that you will never find again. Just a phase, you imagine your parents telling the other members of their Bible study. You know how kids are these days. But when you visit for the holidays, you are greeted by the same cold silence as before—a negative space where your arguments used to be. And as you sort through your closet, clearing out try-hard Polaroids and thrift-store clothes that no longer bring out your eyes, there is a moment, heartbeat-brief, that you almost want the fighting back.
Twenty-seven: three cubed, you think on the day you turn. She might be an engineer by now—a software developer like your father, or an architect, perhaps her own little girl bouncing from one hip, her childhood friends constantly pinging her WeChat. No less of a person for having been bound to more.
You have been learning, these past couple years. Language apps and college courses and books, so many books—searching for echoes, images, to tell you where you’re from. You have been studying your face in the mirror, trying to piece together the fragments of what you want and what you are meant to be.
It will never be enough, of course. It will never bridge the glass—and perhaps it is not such a loss, for there to be two of you instead of one. But it matters, that you are reaching for her. That you are shuffling your tiny steps, fumbling through the dark. Because—despite ownership being a concept championed by those who have ruled and ruined you—you want, somehow, to belong to her, and her to you. Because your pulse still quickens every time you pass a reflective surface.
Because you want to believe her life was not just some tangent, a brief commonality before curving off into ether; that you were, in those strange, upside-down moments, somehow worthy of being seen.
In the bathroom of your parents’ house—your mouth still sweet with mango cake, your family’s laughter and fork-clinks leaking through the crack in the door—you flatten your palm against the mirror, and it ripples beneath your touch.
She is waiting for you, wearing a button-down shirt you suspect is the same brand you are wearing, and you greet her haltingly in each of the languages you’ve been learning—minding your tones, the vowels, all slightly different from Mandarin.
Hou lang, she says, and motions at your shirt. Uniqlo?
She grins and presses her own hand to the glass, and you feel a brief warmth—as if, for half a heartbeat, someone has held a candle to its sea-green edge.
P.H. Low is a Locus- and Rhysling-nominated Malaysian American writer and poet whose debut novel, These Deathless Shores, is forthcoming from Orbit Books in 2024. Their shorter work is published or forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Tor.com, and Diabolical Plots, among others. P. H. can be found on Twitter and Instagram @_lowpH and online at ph-low.com.
Photo by Marco Mons on Unsplash