“An ingenious experiment developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. was used to determine whether an animal has the ability to recognize itself in a mirror — possessing of consciousness could henceforth be equated to passing a mirror test.”
She shifts her weight from one leg to another. That symbol, Death, is stamped across the forehead of her reflection, again.
She heaves a sigh.
Two months ago it was just a black smudge that had no meaning, no purpose. And now… She recalls; it all started when her handler dragged a mirror into her home. He kept gesturing with his twig-like arms, as if inviting her to the greatest ever entertainment or feast. He vocalized. He called her name a lot — T-ah-t-ah. No forgetting that day, the day of the mirror.
Of course she knew what a mirror was. That was why for the first week after it had appeared she did her best to ignore it. She remembered the fables that dear old Marba had passed on to her. There had once been a young tiger by the name Narkisos, who had looked in one of those. Everyone knows what’d happened to him. No way would she look in that mirror.
But with three walls, four corners, and a mirror, it was so hard to avoid it! Her own motion, reflected, would catch her eye and startle her; she’d arrest a turn of her head, but even so she’d glimpse a hulking shape — it was already there, it had popped into existence even if she did not look directly at it. Resist, Tatah! Remember: Narkisos had once roamed the jungle and come across a big, broad pane that seemed like nothing, at first glance, just an extra layer of trees and air. Then he’d caught a motion inside it and, curious, approached. He’d beheld a perfect beast.
Resist! But one day she grew so fatigued of avoiding the mirror that she looked.
It was a shock. Then — a relief, of sorts. Narkisos, in the fable, had met a challenger. Narkisos would dodge and weave, and swipe his paw at the other — and the other would respond with the like. Narkisos would spin, and roll, and jump — and the other would twist faster, jump higher; he’d leap behind the pane — but the other, always a step ahead, would hide faster than it’d taken Narkisos to snatch a glance.
But Tatah — she saw no challenger in the mirror. She saw her age: mottled skin, deep creases on the bridge of her trunk, tired shoulders, pancaked feet. Has it been that long? Why am I so big, so old? She looked like Marba, the way she remembered the old friend. That was the shock.
But the relief — that was because she’d looked straight in the mirror but she knew she’d escape Narkisos’s fate. The stupid, vain tiger, the fable said, had stayed by the mirror forever, trying to best his own reflection. He’d stayed till he’d wasted away, and a passing troop of baboons pulled at his tail, and a hunter finished him with one strike of a spear. Tatah wouldn’t stay like that. She’d looked in, now she’d look away. She was not vain, she saw nothing to be enamored with or challenged by. Just something sad. Something that was a life lesson in need of acknowledgment and contemplation. A prompt to run a tally of one’s memories. And that was all.
Yet it wasn’t. That night her sleep was dark and heavy, and troubled. She thought she heard commotion but could not quite wake up. When she did shake off the lethargy, Tatah decided it was all right to look in the mirror once a day in the mornings. It would be like saying Hello, here I am. Sparse eyelashes, wrinkles under frayed ears. So big, so old, so like Marba. Tatah missed Marba. Come to think of it, she missed Marba dearly. Marba had been an adoptive mother, a teacher, a friend. It made sense that she’d begun to resemble Marba. Looking in the mirror was a way of honoring Marba’s memory.
So Tatah looked. The reflection was almost the same as yesterday, but for one thing. There appeared a black smudge on the reflection’s forehead.
She thought it a random occurrence, at first. She even rubbed her eyes with the lip of her trunk. The smudge did not go away just then; still she thought it would, sooner than later, as did many other nonsensical and irreproducible objects or effects, or colors that she would catch sight of once in her lifetime, never to see again. Glitches and blips, all of them, while what she needed to focus on was her memories, real, reproducible memories that went far, far back, forty years at least. Wasn’t it the purpose of a mirror — to face one with one’s memories?
Being a little child, lonely and terrified, was not a good memory in and of itself but it made the one next to it that much better — the memory of being hugged for the first time by Marba. Tucking one’s head into Marba’s warm chest, armpit. Standing sheltered under her belly and nosing the back of her knee. Love. Safety.
Thus she stood for a while, reliving the memory. Then the handler came. It was mealtime. Twiggy — that was the nickname Marba had given him. Tatah had almost forgotten. Of course, Twiggy, called thus for his limbs that were so thin and twig-like! Twiggy led Tatah down the corridor from her room to her playground, as he did every morning. There was light drizzle outside, pungent-smelling straw, and bright-orange pumpkins. The pumpkins had bone-dry, woody pigtails — so easy to pick them up by those pigtails and smack them into the ground. Then she and Twiggy did the usual exercises: show the heels of your feet, one at a time, show your teeth and eyes, let him look into your ears. He patted her on the shoulder with his light-weight, snappy pat-pats.
In three days the black smudge on Tatah’s reflection faded to nothing. Three days of recollection — and the smudge, while it lasted, had been a part of the process. It faded as the memories became brighter. In the grand scheme of things, this must have been its purpose. It had to be.
That’s what she thought, and so when the smudge reappeared fresh and bright the next morning, she became worried. Clearly, she’d failed to face all that there was. The purpose of the smudge had not been fulfilled as of yet.
Like it or not, she had to go on remembering. A blur of days, years spent with Marba. How long had it been? One day Marba became sick, then sicker yet. The ground shook when she fell. One should never fall like this and make such a thud on the ground. Such a deathly, vicious thud. Never, not on her own accord. This was the kind of a thud Tatah’s real mother — she remembered now — had made before she died.
When Marba had dropped, Twiggy would not let Tatah stay by Marba. Twiggy chased Tatah away, and after that Marba disappeared. What had he done to her? Is that what Tatah needed to keep recalling? Did the smudge mean Loss?
She tried countless times to wipe the smudge off the reflection’s forehead. Oh, she tried. All attempts futile —nothing but running into a cold, smooth surface with a tip of her trunk, while the mirror insisted that a convergence of two trunks was occurring — one real, one reflected. As if the reflection fought back, as if it warned, not yet! But what else could Tatah do?
Once she turned away from the mirror and saw Twiggy. He’d been standing by the wall — for how long? It wasn’t his usual time. Are you going to take me outside? No. When he met her eye, he made this deliberate gesture, moving his arm as she would move her trunk, swinging it up and mopping his forehead with it. Slow, exaggerated moves. Why was he doing this? What did he want? She could not understand it, but when he finally left her alone, she realized one thing — Twiggy was the one behind it all. How else? He had brought in the mirror in the first place, hadn’t he? True, he had been a welcome constant for so many years, an assurance that each new day would come and go on schedule. Safely. With habitual, peaceful things to do. But then he had also hurt her in the trunk that day a — year? two years? — ago, when he chased her away from Marba, who lay heaped on the ground, crying, urinating a sickly smell all over herself.
And he had brought the tormenter-mirror into her home.
She was spending hours by it now, day or night, standing still, curling and uncurling the tip of her trunk, scrubbing, absentmindedly, at the hard floor, gathering a clutchful of dirt only to blow it off with one sigh. The smudge had since worn off, and then reappeared. Because it wasn’t really a smudge, it was a symbol that said — Abandonment. What was she supposed to do? She had done all she could. All memories, vivid, relived, even the times of terror that had come after her mother’s death. Even the mud that sucked in and trapped her feet, a hedge of sharp sticks, a crowd of glowing eyes and maws that chewed on her.
The smudge would not go away.
She heaves a sigh and shifts her weight from one leg to another. The symbol, which, as she now understands it, means not Loss, not Abandonment, but Death — is fresh and black on the forehead of the reflection, again. She feels unsafe. She wants to get out of this. Go outdoors at least, but Twiggy is late. She hates the mirror but there is no such thing as unseeing the reflection. It is here, its presence is irrevocable. It will be here for as long as Tatah is. And so will be the smudge — the symbol, the sign, the reminder, the accusation. What — oh what does she have to do to make it go away and never come back? What would the reflected Marba-Tatah have her do?
Twiggy comes at last; you are late, small man! But she can go outside now. That, at least. He clangs the gate open, and the down-sloping corridor beyond glows blue with daylight at its other end. Daylight makes the walls look slick. Twiggy walks in front of her, turned half her way, he vocalizes her name. He carries a lidded bucket and a goad-stick. Suddenly, he stops. Why? Why should he stop when all she needs is to keep going? He is doing something with his foot. His shoe. Something senseless, unnecessary. Doesn’t he understand? How can he not understand that she can’t wait right now?! That it feels like a creeping trap! She lunges at him. She knocks him off his feet. He topples like a tree but makes no thud, only a light-weight, unreal slap as his face hits the floor. His bucket is hurled away and breaks open; carrots and cucumbers scatter. He twists to face upside, gathers and props himself. His goad-stick dangles on a cord off his broken wrist. She steps forward, about to kick him.
His face is smudged with —
She freezes. “Tatah,” he says, and then another sound, she does not know what it means. “Why?”
He lifts his goad-stick arm and drags it shakily, forearm to elbow, across his face, and before blood flows over his brows again, she meets the stare of his eyes — wiped clean, white with surprise — and then she understands what she needs to do.
She backs up, shaking her head in disbelief. How could she not have figured it out earlier?! She turns around — painstakingly, in the narrow corridor — and runs to the mirror. She presses as close to the reflection as the mirror will let her. Look, now, we can do it, Marba.
She swings and twists her trunk, groping about her own, own forehead this time. Not the reflection’s. Of course! She curls her trunk’s tip into a clutch and scrubs and mops her forehead with it; blindly, shakily, ineptly at first — the reflection fumbles so badly — but she persists, and soon, as she figures out the way the reflected Tatah-Marba chooses to guide her — it’s all reversed, right is left and left is right, but that must be the best Marba can do — and so Tatah’s own trunk gets steadier at its job, and steadier yet. We got it, we got it, Marba. We can do it, see? — we can wipe the smudge off. Clean. You and I, together. I and you. So it’ll never come back.
And it won’t.
J.M. Sidorova hails from the Pacific Northwest. She is a biomedical scientist and a writer of speculative fiction. Her critically-acclaimed debut, The Age of Ice (Scribner/Simon & Schuster), a magic realism novel published in 2013, was featured in Locus Magazine’s recommended reading list, and received an honorable mention on Tor.com’s best fiction of 2013 list. J.M.’s short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Abyss and Apex, and other venues. She is a graduate of the Clarion West workshop. Learn more about her at http://www.jmsidorova.com.