A Certain BrightnessSoramimi Hanarejima
Even a week after swapping, I didn’t mind that you wouldn’t give mine back to me. I still liked having your reflection—having her company in the bathroom, seeing my delight curling her lips, reminded by her posture to keep my back straight. Those gleaming eyes you appeared to see with so clearly, sensitive to things in their corners, looking right back at me—freckles below like a hermit thrush’s speckled chest. A little taller than me, she seemed just slightly ahead of me in growing up, encouraging me to catch up, showing me something of what I could soon become. I wanted to see more of that and more… just more. I stood in front of the mirror for a long time before taking a shower—and afterwards too, when she was wet with the water on my body. Maybe you did the same thing.
I wanted to ask my mom if she had ever traded reflections when she was a child, but I worried that just mentioning this might upset her the way some benign things unexpectedly did.
Besides this unease about how my mom would react, nothing about the swap really bothered me. There were just minor inconveniences, like not being able to tell if I had combed my hair properly in the mornings, and having to be careful around mirrors in places with other people to avoid unnecessary attention. So at school, I’d only use the bathroom when I was pretty sure it would be empty, and if someone came in, I waited in a stall until they were gone, then washed my hands as quickly as I could.
I wanted to tell your reflection that she didn’t have to copy all my movements because mimicry didn’t matter to me. But I was afraid that when we switched back—whenever that was going to be—she would be out of practice and wouldn’t imitate you correctly.
Instead, I told her the things I wanted to tell you: how one day we would go on adventures together, rafting down raging rivers and slashing our way through jungles to find ancient ruins; how you could count on me to write your biography after you became famous; how I had once seen my mom hurl the toaster against the kitchen floor, then laugh, then cry a little, and then at breakfast, she acted like nothing had happened—how I never saw the toaster again.
I thought your reflection might somehow tell you these things later—maybe in dreams, when she could become anything, like a talking leopard or a long-lost twin.
In her own way, she told me things too. Some that I’d find out more about later, like your very short haircut, which I then saw at school the next day. And some things that I would never find out about, like all the crying you must have done to make your reflection’s eyes red and puffy.
Hoping that she might tell me more, I made it a point to look as closely as I could at your reflection’s eyes, searching for clues to your feelings in there—the only part of her unchanged by my actions. But no matter how deeply I peered into her eyes, I didn’t see anything. Maybe a glimmer of joy or twinkle of delight or smoldering of anger. Probably my imagination making something of the sunlight through the bathroom window. Because would I even recognize emotion if I saw it in your eyes? Were they even there?
I asked my mom if it was in fact possible to read emotions in a person’s eyes.
“Sometimes,” Mom answered. “There’s a certain brightness you can see.”
So of course, I began studying your eyes for that brightness.
What I liked most about having your reflection was seeing her in the bathroom mirror at night. She reminded me that in the vast, quiet darkness outside, you were close by—on the other side of town, on the other side of the night when you’d be back in the same classroom as me. Your reflection also reminded me that we could be connected in other ways besides the usual ones of talking and activities, like playing badminton or making pizza.
This often got me excited that we could be connected in more ways when we were older, too old to switch reflections anymore; when we would grow other parts of ourselves—new tastes, complex abilities and stronger qualities, including the ones our teachers spoke highly of: patience, compassion, resolve. The kind of things that I couldn’t see in your reflection but that she reminded me of, like the way you’d pay attention to Ms. Darqli reading poetry and birds singing in the woods by closing your eyes to listen carefully.
I also liked the flights of fantasy your reflection would suddenly launch me into. The first one that really got my attention was on that sunny afternoon I rode my bicycle too close to a neighbor’s rose bush and scratched up my leg. As soon as I got home, I went straight to the bathroom, to get the antiseptic ointment from the medicine cabinet above the sink. When I opened the medicine cabinet, swinging its mirrored door over to the left, your reflection pivoted out to the side with it, seeming to reveal the memories neatly arranged within you, right behind your sharp eyes and round cheeks. Like all the bottles and tubes on the little shelves held not pills and lotions but moments, pieces of the past tucked away for later—or never. Like I could open these containers and get glimpses of who you were before you moved here and other times you never told me about.
Staring at tubes of creams and bottles of tinctures inside the medicine cabinet, I forgot all about those rose-thorn scratches on my right shin, becoming lost in thoughts about what memories I’d put in your mind if I could reach in there: a mouthful of hazelnut ice cream from the creamery down the street from my grandparents’ place, the sea lion show you missed when you were sick the day of the aquarium field trip, my favorite lullaby, the silhouette of a great-horned owl in a eucalyptus tree stretching its body out to hoot.
Then there was the Saturday night you slept over, when we were brushing our teeth together in the bathroom. Our reflections were in the same mirror for the first time since we had swapped. Diagonally across from me, mine was doing everything you were—brushing, spitting, rinsing—and in front of me, yours was doing everything I was. It was as though we were seeing another world where we were each living the other’s life. The longer I looked, the more I was convinced that our world and theirs could flip at any moment, then tomorrow I would go home to your parents. But of course, nothing happened. We finished brushing our teeth and went back to my room. After playing glow-in-the-dark dominos, we got into bed.
I switched on the planetarium to fill the ceiling with specs of light, and a moment later, you asked, “Does anyone else know?”
“No,” I answered. Who was there to tell?
“I think my mom is getting suspicious,” you said.
“Should we switch back?”
“Only if she says something.”
She never did. Or if she did, you never told me. Either way, I was relieved when the next school week ended without any mention of this.
And ended instead with an afternoon at your house and you showing me a trick I hadn’t thought to try.
“Check this out,” you said, after bringing me into your parents’ bathroom.
You angled your mother’s makeup mirror at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. The arrangement created a little tunnel of reflected mirrors, and repeating throughout it was the endless alternation of my face and yours.
“Because the reflection of your reflection is my reflection,” you explained.
Which made immediate sense. If a mirror reflected you to me, then it should reflect my reflection to your reflection. Despite the clear logic of it, I remained astonished by the ceaseless sequence of our staggered images.
That Sunday, I went on one of those long drives in the country that Mom needed in order to “mentally cleanse.” Whenever the direction of the late-morning sunlight was right, I stared at your reflection on the passenger-side window, faint against hills, fields, woods or sky. Mom always kept her eyes on the road, so I didn’t have to worry that she’d notice. I wondered how your reflection felt as sunlight streamed through her and the world rushed by behind her. Could she see what was on both sides of the window at once?
The blur of a farm stand streaked by, and I began to imagine what it would be like to always have her company like this during long drives and train rides. I pictured myself old enough to drive, making my way down a country highway, pulling over and stepping out to buy strawberries from a farm stand, seeing your reflection in the car window when I close the door, walking away as though I’m leaving her to wait in the car, the way Mom sometimes did with me.
This would be after you disappear, never to be heard from again—whisked away by wizards to fight a war in the magical kingdom you had always been the secret heir to. Leaving me here with your reflection as she gradually reveals how the years change your appearance. Or how they don’t because time passes differently between our two worlds. As I age, your reflection stays young, always a reminder of our childhood days together—except during the couple weeks I see a fox in the mirror because you need to keep yourself disguised while making your way through enchanted woods.
Or you don’t disappear, but we wait too long to switch back, and your reflection becomes fully attached to me. Then, would there be days when I don’t want to look in any mirror, keep my gaze away from all reflective surfaces? Maybe after some argument or a major decision we disagree on. And I finally find out how seeing your reflection can hurt just as much as—or more than—it can comfort and delight.
I turned to Mom and wondered how much hurt and how much delight I had brought her so far. There seemed no way to really tell. Over the years, so many things had happened, and sometimes, I couldn’t tell how Mom felt about those things. Other times, one of us would forget how something had felt or that it had even happened. Usually I would be the one who forgot. Mom would often describe a place or event, then ask, “Remember that?” and I couldn’t.
But I could say for myself with certainty that Mom had made me happy more than she had ever made me sad or angry.
And this brought to mind the concept of ratios, which we had started learning and you were good at, making bold declarations like “Two to one!” after a classmate had tentatively offered “Ten to five.”
As Mom’s car continued to zip down the road, there seemed now some similarity between how math and the heart compared things. They both dealt in relative amounts and proportions. Not always but in meaningful ways.
Like right here, the calm of Mom’s steady focus on driving far outweighed the lingering unease about how she’d react to me having your reflection. And that comparison led me to decide that I would make the ratio of delight to hurt as high as I could for the people who mattered most to me. Make its fraction form infinite, if I could—a divide by zero situation, at least on some days.
“You’re missing the scenery,” Mom said, eyes still aimed straight ahead. “Is the sun too hot on your side? You can turn up the air conditioning if you want.”
“No, I’m fine,” I answered.
“OK. Then why don’t you tell me what’s out there, outside my field of view,” she said.
So, with hurried words trying to keep pace with everything going by, I described the grazing cows, the red tractor and stand of trees, the perched shrike, the wire fences and bales of rolled up hay—the myriad things on the other side of your reflection, appearing as though they were all in her imagination. Sunshine was on everything, my face aglow with a brightness that I hoped you could see, that seemed to make both of us the narrators of this unspooling landscape.
Soramimi Hanarejima is the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection Jack Cheng said, “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags, and gives us the pleasure of opening them, one by one.” Visit her at CognitiveCollage.net.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.