The mirror. How tall it stood, looming over the child, overbearing with its domineering presence. How beautiful it appeared, glistening with silver edges, bright and welcoming. How dark the glass, despite its great upkeep, sorrow seemed to seep out of it.
The girl. How small she stood, eyes trained upwards in awe of the mighty looking glass, the sturdy stature reminded her of Baba. How unkempt, bits and pieces of steamed buns’ filling strewn across her patched dress, sticky fingers fiddling with the hems of her long sleeves. How eager she was, pale face flushed red with excitement.
Hsien-Chen reached out slowly, tiny hands quivering in anticipation. Maybe it was dusty in the storehouse, or maybe she was young (when you’re that age, everything was magical anyway) — but the mirror looked ethereal. It glowed softly, a magnetic pull that didn’t fail to put her in a trance.
So her little feet skipped a little closer, messy hair and excited grins.
Carvings on the mirror became clearer the nearer she got. The characters were too difficult for her to read, poetic lines of Mandarin were too confusing for her young mind to comprehend. Head tilted, she plopped down in front of the mirror, feeling a little dejected suddenly.
What is this wonderful thing, and why can’t she fully understand it?
She traced the cool sides of the mirror. Was that a “Do not”?
Hsien-Chen thought it was.
“Do not be a what for fame?” She mumbled out loud, hazy eyes trailing repeatedly over the first line of the engravings.
“Do not be a corpse for fame?” A gentle voice sounded next to her ear.
Hsien-Chen yelped, scrambling away from the woman who had materialised from thin air. The older lady giggled gracefully, joining the girl on the soot-stained floor.
“Do you want me to read it for you?” She asked, a warm smile adorning her rosy lips as she held out a hand to Hsien-Chen. She eyed the young miss warily, then accepted the gesture.
“Who are you? Mama said there’s only an old couple in this house.”
“Your mama works here?” Her pleasant voice had a slight lilt at the end of each sentence, making her accented tone seem more foreign.
Hsien-Chen nodded, gaze still transfixed on the mirror. Specifically, the carvings.
The lady followed her line of sight, then smiled silently to herself.
“Do you want me to read it for you?” She questioned Hsien-Chen again.
She pointed to the lines engraved, pronouncing each syllable clearly and slowly. Hsien-Chen muttered along with her, a fraction of a second later.
“ Do not be a corpse for fame, do not be a storehouse for schemes; Do not be responsible for affairs, do not be a proprietor of knowledge.”
“And what?” The lady raised her eyebrows.
Hsien-Chen pouted, kicking her legs out from under her. She pointed towards the mirror,
“What does it all mean? I don’t understand.”
The young miss laughed, like the ringing of bells; tossing her pretty long hair back, scrunching her delicate features carved by the gods.
“Hsien-Chen, you’re too young to know this.”
“Then why did you tell it to me then? There must be a reason.” Hsien-Chen demanded, not in the least attempting to be more polite to an elder. She felt on edge like something was itchy but she didn't know where to scratch it.
“Your time has not come yet.”
“Then why did you tell it to me?” Hsien-Chen repeated, a frown resting on her forehead.
The lady lifted a long elegant finger towards the glass. “See.”
“I still don’t understand.”
She held Hsien-Chen’s jaw towards the mirror, hushing her, urging her to just look.
And so look she did.
At first, it was too difficult to make out her face in the unlit shed. The sun was setting, the last of its dying rays spilling through the cracks and gaps of the rotting wood. Specks of dust floated in the atmosphere like snow, accompanied by the hushed breaths of that woman on her neck, Hsien-Chen was having even more trouble concentrating.
Then it was there.
Her own face staring right back at her. Except something about it was rather unsettling. It resembled her, but it didn’t feel like her.
“What’s happening?” It came out a squeak, thin and raspy with shock.
The lady didn’t answer.
Her reflection began to possess a life of its own, slowly backing away from the mirror surface. She then copied something onto her forearm, then fervently onto a thin piece of parchment. It went under the layers of her elaborated robes.
Almost like she was watching a play, the scene changed. She was whispering something into the ear of a girl Hsien-Chen didn’t recognise, mouth wide open with scornful glee. And if Hsien-Chen could be honest, she didn’t quite like what she was seeing. Her face burned with shame, as though she did the things her reflection was doing, despite having never done it before.
Time flitted past again, this time the echo of herself was older, in her late teens. Married, two chubby kids tugging at either side of her body. Hsien-Chen’s reflection promptly smacked her son, a red mark sticking to his round face. His face screwed up in pain, globs of fat tears rolling down his equally plump cheeks.
“No, no! Make it stop, I don’t want to see anymore!”
The lady’s grip grew stronger, forcing her to continue watching. Hsien-Chen was sobbing, nails clawing desperately into the porcelain skin of the woman, drawing blood. But she did not flinch, her expression unchanging; still amiable.
“Do you understand now?”
Hsien-Chen shook her head, frightened.
“Of course you wouldn’t. It is not your time.”
She stood up, her pale pink dress dragging on the grimy ground. But there was no dirt collecting on her. The spot she sat on was as filthy as before, with no signs of being rested upon.
“Humans. It is also indeed a good thing you know of this,” The lady sighed, tucking back a lock of hair falling into her face. “Then maybe it might not be too late for you like it was too late for this poor soul tonight.”
She stared out forlornly, nostalgia painting her face.
“I hope, little girl, when your time has come, I hope you go to the right place.”
“Does this mean I grew up to be a bad person?” Her voice was small, nose red from crying.
“Humans. Thoroughly experience what is given from the Heavens, yet reveal not what is attained. Emptiness is the key. The minds of men are like a mirror, it neither sends off nor welcomes, it responds but does not retain. This way, you can triumph over things without injuries.”
Hsien-Chen stayed silent.
“The next time I see you will be the last time you see of this world.”
The following morning, the old lady of the manor passed away, and Hsien-Chen never saw that mirror again.