5 min read

Building Beyond: Mirror Mirror

Let's make a change

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

Every time a person looks in a mirror, something about them changes.

Seanan McGuire writes stuff. It is difficult to make her stop.

It can be almost anything. Jawline, eye color, shape of the nose, angle of the cheekbones. One day it was the shape of the upper lip and nothing else, just a slight deepening of the vermillion border, and that day was unnerving in a way that couldn't quite be expressed, because to anyone who didn't wear that face, it looked like no real change at all. Near as they can tell, there are only two rules: nothing takes away their scars, and nothing changes the color of their skin. Ornamentation, sure. Freckles come and go, moles, beauty spots. A birthmark once, port wine red and covering half the right side of their face. But the overall complexion stays exactly the same. It's always something small, something that might make someone who wasn't watching closely think that they have a mental condition of some sort, and not a malfunctioning nanotech condition.

It's always something small. It's always something big enough.

They haven't recognized themself in years.

Emma Osborne is a queer fiction writer and poet from Melbourne, Australia. Emma’s writing has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shock Totem: Tales of the Macabre and Twisted, Apex Magazine, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Pseudopod, the Review of Australian Fiction, the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, and GlitterShip. Emma is a graduate of the 2016 Clarion West Writers Workshop (Team Arsenic forever!) and a former first reader at Clarkesworld Magazine. They currently live in Melbourne, with their cats Maze and Pancake. You can find them on Twitter at @redscribe.

The mirror arrives on a Tuesday morning, wrapped in rose-coloured silk, with a note that says “From your Aunt Hilda, all the very best.” It takes you a moment to remember that you do indeed have an Aunt Hilda, although you’re pretty sure she lives somewhere in Sicily. Still, you sign for it with a small smile at the delivery driver and unwrap it over your chipped kitchen table, gently pushing aside mugs of cold tea and stacks of unopened mail.

The wood around the frame is heavy and black, and you almost think it’s been painted, but when you lean in and scratch it gently with your fingernail you realise, no, it’s the colour. The glass, too, is darker than you’d expect. Almost like the scrying mirrors you’ve seen online, although you don’t mess with that kind of thing. There’s a tiny inscription on the wood right up close to the glass that simply says “I see you.”

But then again that’s what all mirrors do, right?

You hang the mirror up over the spot you leave your keys. Just beyond the door of your small apartment. You figure you can do a last minute check of your hair before you leave the house, make sure you look presentable. Whatever that means.

The first time you stop and look you notice the worry lines in your brow. You sigh. Too many bills, too many people to call and things to organise and remember. The stress almost feels like a miasmic fog some days. But when you lean in and look, really look, the dark glass shows you your brow unlined. Something shifts in your chest when you see the smooth skin, and you leave the house feeling lighter than you have in months. Maybe years. Everything will come together in the end, you think. You’re capable of making it work, and hey, if you’re not, you can ask for help. It hadn’t really occurred to you before.

The sky is dark when you get home, but you call up your best friend. They promise to come over on the weekend, get some things off your to-do list, help you out. You nearly cry when you hang up. Is it all supposed to be this easy?

The next time you look in the mirror your eyes are heavy and dark with lack of sleep. Nightmares have plagued you for as long as you can remember. But the mirror gives a light shimmer when you peer into its depths, and you feel a blossom of warmth in your chest. Perhaps tonight will be better, you think. That night you sprinkle a hint of lavender oil on your pillow and climb into fresh sheets.

The nightmares do not come. Instead, you dream of ice cream on your favourite childhood beach, warm sun, cool breezes, and from somewhere you can’t see, music. You soak your lavender-scented pillow with tears of relief. Could it be? That the mirror is taking from you, helping you? The day passes in a dream. You can’t remember the last time you slept so well. The next night blesses you with sweet, perfect dreams, and the next.

You’re not quite sure how the mirror works, and Aunt Hilda isn’t answering her calls or her emails. There’s one thing you’d ask the mirror to take if you could. A darkness you’ve been carrying for years. An insidious voice that echoes through your entire body. The worst part of it is that the voice belongs to someone who once claimed to love you. Their broken expression of love has nearly been the end of you, and yet. You keep stepping forward, keep moving into the future despite the weight of it. But it hurts. It seizes you at all of the wrong times and grasps your heart with cold fingers.

And so, you stand in front of the mirror. You’ve polished the obsidian wood to a shine, and the glass seems incapable of holding dust, or a smudge.

You look yourself in the eyes, thinking about hours you’ve spent telling the voice that it’s wrong, that you’re OK, that you’re worthy of love, worthy of beauty and goodness and light. You know that the voice is wrong, and yet. And yet.

“Mirror,” you ask, nearly choking on the tears that flood from you. “Take the voice. Please. Take it away.”

There is a pulse, like the shine of the moon from behind a cloud on a storm-filled night. And there, and all at once, your body is filled with a rush of love. And you realise that the voice is gone, and all of the love you’ve been trying to gift to yourself can finally flood in. You crawl into bed and feel the change marching through every cell in your body. You’re OK now, you’re OK.

The mirror hangs in your hall for years, until you move, until it has gently taken from you all of the things that lodge painfully in your heart. You love, and you adventure, and you are your true full self, and there is not a day that passes that you don’t thank the mirror for finding its way to you.

Eventually, a day comes when you know that it’s time to pass the mirror on. You kiss the wood, thank it one more time. You wrap it up in the same rose-coloured silk that Aunt Hilda sent it in, and you send the mirror to your young niece. You hope that it’ll save her, the way helped you to save yourself.

It does.

Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Seanan's nanotech malfunction lays the groundwork for a world in which a person’s shifting features might reflect a deeper, more troubling danger. Emma's magic mirror is the start of a stunning meditation on the way self-reflection can literally heal us.

What might your mirror hold? What kind of changes might you see in it?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

No matter what you do, please find ways to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, support Black people and communities, and participate in local mutual aid.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.