Mirror

A short story about perceptions.

Painting of a huge eye, with a black pupil in the center. The sky and clouds and painted where the iris and sclera should be.
“The False Mirror” by Rene Margritte (1928)

“Dude, has anyone ever told you that you’re ugly?”

“I’ve heard,” the boy said. And with that, the boy’s heart aged yet another day; he fixed his gaze upon the floor, but he could swear that the sky had turned greyer.

For the millionth time, the boy traced the contours of his face, trying to discern what was wrong, questioning his hands and fingers to try to find the reason behind his hideousness. Throughout all this, the bully laughed in the background, somehow amused by the lava grey colour that the sky had turned into. And yet again, the boy could not find anything wrong with his face.

“What exactly did you find ugly about my face?” the boy asks the bully in a meek voice, barely audible, still staring at the dusty ground of the playground.

“Man it’s OBVIOUS!” the bully cackled, slapping his knees, bending over with laugher as black clouds appeared in the sky above.

“But…could you tell me? Please? What exactly?” the boy dared to ask; he didn’t usually talk to these bullies because of a mix of fear and shyness. But now he had to know.

“Well, I –” the bully was still laughing, tears in his eyes, but some of the effects of his amazing joke seemed to have subsided. “I really can’t explain that to you, man. It’s like trying to define beauty.”

“Try,” said the boy, a bit more determined now — but he immediately regretted this as he was met by a tremendous punch from the bully which sent him staggering to the dust-ridden ground, knocking the sense out of him as he saw drops of blood fall onto his own grubby hands which were placed on the ground in a desperate attempt to seek support.

“Now I’ve got to wash my hands for touching your fucking face, dipshit,” the bully spat on the ground before leaving for the exit of the park.

_____

“I just wish they hadn’t banned mirrors,” the boy found himself saying. “I can’t even know what about my face makes me ugly. How do I work on it then?”

“Everyone knows why they banned mirrors,” Ed says.

“They shouldn’t have! I — I want to see how I look! It isn’t fair!”

Ed just smiles. “So? And anyway, why are you so obsessed with seeing your face if you’re so sure that you’re ugly?”

“So that I can know what it is about me that’s ugly!”

Ed nods for a while. “What if I told you the opposite?” The boy looks at Ed confusedly. “What if I told you that you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever laid my eyes on? Would you want to see what makes you beautiful?”

“I — I’m not really so sure. But beauty wouldn’t really be a problem for me, would it? You telling me that I’m beautiful wouldn’t ruin my day. If you tell me that I’m beautiful, I don’t have to correct the symmetry of my face, I don’t have to work on erasing the hideousness. However, if you tell me that I’m ugly, I have to correct that disfigurement or misalignment or whatever it is that’s making me ugly — am I right?

“But…wouldn’t you want to maintain your beauty? Wouldn’t you want to admire it and make sure that it stays the same? Wouldn’t you want to protect your silky hair from the dry winds so that they don’t become brittle or shield your skin from the sun so that you wouldn’t get sunburnt?”

“Well now that you put it that way…”

“Looking at yourself continuously is an obsession. Everyone gets affected by it in some way — the ugly ones lose their self-confidence and the pretty ones become narcissistic. It doesn’t do anyone any good.”

The boy stayed silent. Maybe Ed was right. He should give up on trying to determine what made him so ugly. And it’s not as if he could change his looks overnight.

Above all, he wasn’t going to find a mirror anywhere. They were a thing of the past now.

“But who told you that you’re ugly?” Ed asks.

The question baffled the boy. What did Ed mean, “Who told you that you’re ugly?” It was a meaningless question; it was like looking at the colour red and asking someone to prove it was red; it was like staring at a cloud and not believing you were looking at one; it was like questioning why someone was calling the trees green. The boy tried thinking about it for some time — the correct answer was, of course, everyone. But the boy couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“I don’t understand,” the boy manages to answer in his shy, soft voice.

“It’s a simple question, man. Who told you that you’re ugly?”

“Well,” the boy searches his heart for the answer, an elusive one, a catastrophic one. “Everyone.”

“And you believed them?”

“Um…yeah. They’re right.”

“Why did you believe them? You haven’t even seen yourself.”

“Because everyone says it. Everyone can’t be wrong.” This was the most bizarre conversation that the boy had had in his life. What do call someone who names blue after the colour green? What do you call someone who points at the clouds and calls them leaves? Crazy.

For if everyone calls blue blue, you call blue blue. Because blue is blue. Not green.

“You’re not understanding my question, man. Why did you believe them?” Ed persists.

The boy didn’t understand. Ed was going crazy. Was he high?

“Again,” the boy tries to explain, “because everyone kept saying that. Everyone can’t be wrong.”

Ed gives up with a smile. “Alright man, you win. So tell me — what if someone comes along one day and calls you beautiful?”

“I’d say they’re crazy.”

“Ah, okay,” Ed says with a titter, amused. “What if a hundred more people, separately, over a span of two or three years, called you beautiful?”

“I’d call it an elaborate prank.”

Ed chuckled. “Well, then, I guess we’ll never know for sure.”

_____

The boy had to know now. He just had to. Ed had planted a seed of mild doubt in his mind. What if, what if, he really was beautiful? He had never seen his face. Ever. Maybe he shouldn’t be absolutely sure that he was ugly. Maybe.

He decided to visit the old, abandoned building, where, rumours had it, the remains of a broken mirror lay scattered. The legend said that the mirror was cloudy, fogged up, the silvering faded like the time to which the mirror belonged to. But if you tried hard enough, you could see yourself in those pieces of glass.

The boy had heard how if you looked at the mirror long enough, the mirror would reveal the deepest and darkest secrets hidden within your soul. He was a bit scared, but curiosity won over fear as he climbed the fateful, rusted fence which only a handful of people had dared cross.

It was common knowledge that all who peeked into the pieces of glass that could be found in the dilapidated building would go crazy. No one could handle the knowledge those enigmatic pieces gave them. With these thoughts in his mind, the boy picked up a piece and stared at it. Long and hard.

He was beginning to see something. Finally, he thought. Finally, I’ll know how I look.

From that day on, each and every person called the boy crazy.

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