On the morning of my fifth birthday, my mother gave me a special gift. “This is a tradition in our family,” she said, walking into my bedroom holding a flat rectangular package wrapped in brown paper.
I stood up from my nest of stuffed animals. “What is it?”
She held it away from me. “First, make your bed. Take your shower and get dressed. Pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper. Then . . .”
For once, I ran to comply. My hair still damp around the edges, we both sat on my bed. The gift was heavy, and I had to hold it in both my small hands.
“Unwrap it,” she said.
I tore off the brown paper. A shiny white surface flashed up at me. My mother grasped one edge and tilted it towards me. “Look into it.”
A shadowy person appeared within the wood frame. A little girl. I could not see her clearly, but as through a gray screen. The features shifted. Sometimes one eye was bigger. The nose stretched and flattened. The chin protruded and receded.
I reached a finger to the creature, and it met her tremulous one. All I felt was cold glass.
“It’s called a mirror,” my mother said. “That’s you.”
I laughed. In the mirror, the girl’s lips stretched into a grimace. “I don’t look like that.”
My mother nodded. “That’s you.”
The girl in the mirror did have my long black hair and brown skin.
“We’ll hang it up,” my mother said, and now I noticed a new hook low on the wall.
My mother knelt in front of the mirror and beckoned me. I scrambled to stand beside her and saw, again, the dim girl in the mirror.
“That girl is alone,” I pointed out. “She has no Mommy with her.”
“This is your mirror. It will only show you.”
“That’s not me.” I turned away from the weak figure, towards my mother, and traced a fingertip over her warm, soft face: black eyebrows arched above dark-lashed eyes, high nose bridge, plump lips curved into a half-smile. A sad smile, it seemed to me.
“In fact,” my mother stood up, “no one else except the two of us can even see this mirror.” She walked to the doorway. “Be a good girl and look into your mirror every day.”
That day, and every day after, I couldn’t help looking into it. The dull face mocked me in the morning and sneered at me before bed.
The years passed. I did my lessons and my chores. I used polite language, sat with knees together, watched my weight, shaved my legs. As I grew taller, the mirror slid up the wall, showing its sickly face. And I came to believe it was mine.
One day, a boy and I made plans to take a walk.
When I told my mother, she was disdainful. “You think he’ll really love you? He’ll leave you, just like your father left me.”
The boy and I held hands through the woods. “I want to show you something,” he said. We walked among the trees to the bottom of a steep incline.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to go up there,” I said.
“You know about this path?”
“It’s dangerous, my mother said.”
“It’s fine. I just discovered it. Come on, let’s go.”
We walked up and up until we came to a round flat area, blue like the sky and shimmering in the sunlight.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“It’s called a pond. It will reflect our faces.”
“You mean, like a mud puddle?” I laughed. I’d already seen myself in those.
“This will show what we really look like.”
I backed away. “Like a mirror?”
“What’s a mirror?”
He was at the edge of the earth, toes about to plunge into the shimmer. Curiosity overcame me. I crept closer. He put his arm around me. Two faces appeared, clear and deep as the water. One looked like him, with curly brown hair and dimpled chin. The other looked—like my mother. The same arched brows, dark-lashed eyes, and strong nose. I whirled around. But I saw no one else.
“That’s you!” he said.
I stared. He stroked my cheek. In the water, his reflection touched the cheek of the radiant woman.
Over dinner, I told my mother about the pond at the end of the forbidden path. “I’m magnificent!” I said. “Just like you.”
She scoffed. “The pond lies.”
“You should come with me,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
She shook her head.
“Have you ever been there?” I persisted.
She stacked the dishes. “I know who I am. I had my own mirror. My mother gave it to me. Remember, it’s a tradition in our family.”
“Why?” I asked.
“To keep the girls safe.”
I ran up to my bedroom, took down my mirror and, in the back yard, smashed the surface with a rock.
“Let’s do yours now,” I told my mother.
She sat in the kitchen. “I broke mine long ago,” she said. “But it didn’t change anything. You’ll see. You’re no better than I am.”
I fled up the rocky path through the forest, reaching the pond as evening waned. Leaning over, legs trembling, I saw the resplendent face—mine, my mother’s. Yet the shadow of the mirror face was there, too. As the sun slipped under the horizon, the dark trees loomed, the faces disappeared, and I was alone under the vast night sky.