Meredith couldn’t help but think the Carnival of Mirrors lacked something essential: the mirrors.
She stood by the edge of the crowd, her small hand tightly gripping her mother’s. ‘If you get lost in here, mija, there’ll be no chance of you finding your way back to me,’ her mother had told her before coming. There were no gentle, sugarcoated warnings with Meredith’s mother. She didn’t reassure her by saying she’d look for her if they were separated, or give Meredith false promises of them reuniting again should something happen. No, it was always Meredith’s responsibility to hold on to her mother’s hand. She was the one that couldn’t get lost because she was the one who was too young to know what to do on her own.
Meredith held her breath and tightened her grip on her mother’s hand as they entered the crowd. At first, the sheer size and amount of adults bumping into one another as they passed was nerve-racking. The oppressive heat of the sun and the proximity of the crowd made her feel like she was suffocating. But as she grew used to it, her fear of separation began to dissipate, and she started looking around her surroundings in amazement. The bright colours and movement of the people and attractions at the carnival were almost dizzying. Meredith dragged her mother from tent to tent, wanting to see it all.
After they had stopped to buy cotton candy and popcorn at a stand and seen just about everything hidden within every decorated tent—from seers who communed with the dead and glimpsed the future, to graceful acrobats dancing through the air, to lions, zebras, elephants, and other exotic animals—Meredith came to a sudden halt among the crowd. Her mother looked down at her in concern. "Qué pasa, mija?" she asked.
"Didn't you say this was called the Carnival of Mirrors, mami?" Meredith inquired, puzzled.
"Yes, I did."
"But we've not seen a single one!" Meredith protested.
Meredith's mother smiled down at her. It was the kind of smile she used to give her whenever she thought Meredith was asking the right questions.
"Ah, you're right," her mother said. "But that's because we've yet to go into the most important tent in this whole carnival."
Meredith let herself be guided by her mother's hand into an enormous tent at the far end of the carnival. The outside of it was made of deep purple velvet material; the flaps concealing Meredith's view of what lay inside. As they neared the tent, she thought she saw a flash of silver. Once they were inside, however, Meredith realized she had seen a reflection, for the interior of the tent was covered almost entirely in mirrors.
It seemed as if all four walls were made out of glass, and there were even a few mirrors positioned in the tent's roof, giving Meredith the impression of standing at the center of a giant mirrorball. She turned in a circle, overwhelmed by the bewildering sight of the smooth glass surfaces, clear as cool water, and the reflections splashing through them. The littlest movement caused a rippling effect as it was caught by every mirror around her, seeming to multiply it tenfold.
Meredith grinned at the fifteen versions of herself in the mirrors. As surreal as the tent was, however, there were surprisingly not many people inside. Meredith and her mother made up two of a grand total of five people in the mirror tent.
"If it's called the Carnival of Mirrors, and this is its main attraction, how come there aren't more people here?" Meredith asked.
She could see fifteen pairs of her mother's brown eyes looking down at her as she answered, "You ever wondered why they're called mirrors, Mer?"
Meredith shook her head.
"The Spanish word, espejo," her mother went on, "comes from the Latin word specere, which means 'mirar'—to look. Mirar sounds quite a lot like 'mirror,' doesn't it?"
"Well, there you have it," her mother said with finality.
"There I have what?" Meredith asked indignantly. Her mother hadn't even come close to answering her question. Meredith told her as much.
"Most people don't look. They see, but they don't look. You can tell them something is called the Carnival of Mirrors, and then distract them with acts and games and food, and they'll never question it. Never question why it has that name and yet there's not a single mirror in sight. Only those who look for them, who make it to the very end of the carnival, find the mirrors." Her mother smiled at her in approval.
Meredith smiled back.
Meredith came out of the tent feeling very pleased with herself for having looked for the mirrors. She was so pleased in fact, that she didn't notice the crowd thicken as she and her mother made their way back to the chaos of the main road. The heat of the day had made Meredith's hand sweaty and slippery in her mother's grip. All it took was for Meredith to stop paying attention to where she was stepping for half a second, and she tripped, ever so slightly. She didn't fall to the ground, but it was enough for her to finally lose her hold on her mother's hand.
The crowd came in like a tide between them, drawing them apart faster and more forcefully than Meredith would have thought possible. In an instant, she was drowning in a sea of people. She shouted for her mother, and she could see her mother's lips in the distance, forming her name. But Meredith could not hear her, and her mother didn't seem to be able to hear her either. A single phrase starting repeating itself over and over in Meredith's mind. It took her a moment to listen to it and identify what it was.
"...y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca."
'You hear me from afar but my voice doesn't touch you.' It was the line of a poem by Pablo Neruda that her mother liked to quote at her whenever she knew Meredith wasn't paying attention. But in reality, it was a love poem. Her mother had read the entire poem to her once, and though she had explained, Meredith hadn't really understood it. She understood that line, though. It was about two people being physically near enough that they could hear each other, but too distanced at the same time to really listen or be reached.
The last Meredith saw of her mother was her dark brown hair disappearing into the crowd. Alone and frightened, she looked around trying to find an opening from the multitude of people. Meredith's breathing was hitched and her cheeks were wet with tears. Some adults glanced at her curiously but none stopped to help. She didn't know what she would have said if they had. Her mother didn't have a phone and Meredith didn't have any other relatives. All she had was her mother.
Eventually, she gave up and stopped wandering around. Staying in one place seemed safer; all she had to do was wait for her mom to find her. Meredith sat on a bench outside a seer's tent and thought of what her mother would say when she came. "Qué te dije, mija? Te dije que no me sueltes la mano, porque te ibas a perder. Sabes lo peligroso que es que una niña de tu edad este sola en un sitio con tanta gente? Te pudieron haber raptado..."
She'd be furious, so she would switch entirely into Spanish. Meredith would feel terrible but would take the scolding eagerly if all it meant was that her mother was there to shout at her.
Her heart beating furiously with the terrifying helplessness of being lost and alone in the world, Meredith waited.
Years passed and she's back at the Carnival of Mirrors. It's not quite as grand as she remembered it. She recalled there being colour and life and finesse that was lacking now. The crowd is pitiful in its size; she wonders how the separation even happened that day. How small must she have been to have been so helpless against a tide as weak as the one she was in front of now? Maybe there had been more people back then. Maybe, like all things lose their charm, the carnival had too.
She never did find her mother. After that day, wandering around from foster home to foster home, she had never felt like she belonged anywhere again. She had been fluent in Spanish at some point. Now it tasted like foreign food in her mouth. The only word she did remember, after all these years, was 'mirar.' That's what brought her back to the carnival. On that very last day, her mother had told her that to find something, you had to look for it. Some people don't even know they're supposed to be looking. But after that day, she decided to never stop searching and questioning. She looks for everything since. Now, she looks for answers.
The tent, to her surprise, is still velvet, still purple, and still tall. She braces herself for the inevitable disappointment that will come as a result of childhood illusion and the unreliability of memory. But as she goes inside the tent, she's surprised at the fact that she finds it every bit as fascinating as she did the first time. Unlike everything else outside, the mirrors haven't suffered from time and decay. They're as smooth and pristine as they were back then.
The thing that's changed is her. She doesn't feel joy at seeing her multiplied reflection now, but doubt. The little girl she was when she was last here wouldn't recognize the person she had become. She didn't think that was a good thing.
"It's called the Carnival of Mirrors because most people come to find themselves in their reflections," a voice says from behind her; as if reading her thoughts.
She doesn't have to turn around to see the speaker; she can see her in the mirror. The woman is nearing her fifties, the same age her mother would be by now. She has greying brown hair and kind brown eyes.
"That's not what I've heard," Meredith replies. "It's called the Carnival of Mirrors because it forces you to look for things and not just see them." She turns around to look at the woman.
The woman smiles warmly at her. It's the kind of smile she used to give her whenever she thought Meredith was giving the right answer.