From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

The Mirror Test

“The mirror test . . . is a behavioral technique developed in 1970 by American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. . . . In the classic test, an animal is anaesthetised and then marked (e.g., painted or a sticker attached) on an area of the body the animal cannot normally see. When the animal recovers from the anaesthetic, it is given access to a mirror. If the animal then touches or investigates the mark, it is taken as an indication that the animal perceives the reflected image as itself, rather than of another animal . . . Very few species have passed the test.”

– Wikipedia

• • • •

This morning, I finally recognized myself.

I was in the living room when it happened, licking my testicles. The whole month had been an amnesic stupor, sniffing around the house and neighborhood, searching for my identity. Then, on my third lick, it suddenly became clear.

I can’t wait to show her.

She’s almost home. I can smell her car, coming around the corner house with the grey forget-me-nots. I can smell the lunchtime coffee on her breath, staining the seams of her cow-skin seats, a small pool on the passenger side floor. I can smell the approaching heat off the front grille, hear it rattle like the teeth of a tasty yet frightened squirrel. I smell it all come to a stop on the driveway.

My chest quivers. This anticipation—this is what love feels like: paws up on the couch, tail swishing in fevered applause, looking out through the living room window as she steps out of her car.

And what heartbreak feels like: How could she have left me?

Once she finally sees me, the question evaporates. She bares her teeth—that’s how you know a human is happy—and explodes with loving scents. As she traverses the driveway, my heart swells; as she turns the door’s lock, my spine shivers; as she steps across the threshold, I lose all restraint.

I throw myself at her like a floofy fetch stick. She catches me against her chest, her hands working me over. She ruffles my cheeks, rubs and pats my spine. Our faces touch; if I may be a bit lewd, moisture is exchanged. Two become one; I become her becomes me becomes she, scents intermingled, realities melded.

In this moment, we recognize each other. She is the smell of coffee and avocado; yoga sweat and gym spandex; sharp brie cheese atop a lunchtime salad; tangy lemon car deodorizer; bedsheets and cologne. And I am—once again, finally—me.

Then we part: the one becomes two again. I shimmer with pride, ready for us to celebrate my rediscovered sense of self.

But she just sniffs me and pulls away. She speaks, but her words are too fast, too garbled. I never understand. Her bared teeth contort into a closed and downturned mouth, a wrinkled nose and brow. I’m confused.

So I sniff. She smells equal parts hesitant and perturbed. Why, my love? What is it?

Her frisbee eyes rove my body, then she rises and disappears down the long hall. There’s a quiet whine, like a strangled squirrel. Twice, then thrice, then water rushing through the walls.

Huh.

From the far side of the house, I hear her call to me. It’s all gibberish until a familiar word emerges. “Huuuuuwauncetagophiruh WALK”

Walk? I like walks. But even as she calls me toward her, I hesitate. Something is wrong.

“WALK,” she repeats.

I take shaky steps forward. As I lurch toward her sweet song, I recognize a scent from the rooms to my left and right, emanating from my scatter of old toys, my tin food bowls, my bed.

“WALK.”

It’s me. The house smells like me. I smell like me. For the first time in a month, everything is in alignment. So why am I afraid?

“WALK.”

At the hallway’s end, the water is loudest, gushing grey from the bathtub faucet just ahead of me. I can’t see her, but I know she’s there—she smells like herself. And like victory.

Then the door closes behind me and I realize, all at once, what has happened.

There will be no walk.

She grabs my collar, yanks me up into the tub. I thrash, but my paws can’t find purchase on the slick ceramic, and the tub is filling. Her grip—the clamp of toothless jaws—is tight on my neck. Her teeth are bared in joy. Laughter ripples her throat. Her rapid, meaningless words flow like the water, both of them splashing over me, leaving me drenched and confused and betrayed.

Love, I’ve learned, is like a squirrel.

Titillating.

Delicious.

Fickle. I’d thought she loved me, but she only loved the me she could control. The real me, she found unbearable. In need of change. In need of erasure. It wasn’t the first time, but love—again, like a squirrel—is so often blind. I should have known.

I howl. It rips painfully from my gut, as cold and raw as good meat. I’d thought pain was a universal language, but in the way that I don’t understand her, she doesn’t understand me. My plea goes unheeded.

She pours a substance into her hand that smells like lavender and rosemary—nothing like me. She lathers it into my hair, her fingers kneading deep. Piece by piece, from head and back to legs and tail, she scrubs me off, lets me float in foam. I watch me swirl down the drain, and as the last of me spirals away, I sniff.

I was the odor of backyard rocks and teddy bear belly. The decaying musk of old lasagna torn from the side of the kitchen trash bag. The aroma of upturned soil and earthworms from the hole near the neighbor’s fence. The fragrance of uncut hair, squirrel bits stuck between teeth, wet tongue against meaty testes.

That was me. She washed me away.

When the deed is finished, she dries with a towel some dog I don’t know. She holds it up to the mirror above the sink, where another dog—grey and confused—dangles from her grip. She bares her teeth again, gazes at her reflection.

That’s how she recognizes herself—with sight.

When she speaks, I don’t understand her words. Except for one.

“Seeeethasnautsobadizzit Cooper!”

Cooper. That’s how she recognizes me—with sounds.

But I sniff and I sniff and I don’t recognize myself. The dog in the mirror sniffs too, and the longing in his expression fills me with pity.

He looks like he’s lost something he loved.

Moses Ose Utomi

Moses Ose Utomi

Moses Ose Utomi is a Nigerian-American fantasy writer and nomad currently based out of Honolulu, Hawaii. He has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and short fiction publications in Fireside Fiction and Purple Wall Stories. His debut books, Daughters of Oduma (Atheneum Books) and The Lies of the Ajungo (Tor.com), will be coming out in early 2023. When he’s not writing, he’s traveling, training martial arts, or doing karaoke—with or without a backing track. You can follow him on Twitter, but he wouldn’t advise it.