Born Out of the Front
by Mélanie Fazi (from Le Jardin des silences, 2014), translated from the French by Lynn E. Palermo
She was born out of the frost, yesterday, on my window.
Crystals fanned out across the glass panes. Methodically, inside and out. Like a layer of white lichen creeping from the edges in toward the middle. Filtering milky—even brittle—light. Seemed like I should be able to peel it off. A harsh, glacial light that made the hair on my arms stand on end.
I’d swathed my body in layers of wool, but still it shivered. Shoving up the heat made no difference. Cold was taking over the whole apartment. Seeping into my bones.
Then a face on one of the panes…took several hours to gain definition. The frost spread out in arabesques too regular to leave room for chance. To melt them, I blew on the glass, with no result. An outline emerged around a still-empty face – a hollow through which I could still make out the street. Light sculpted the raised contours. I hadn’t known that frost could hold so much nuance in silver and white.
The street disappeared as features completed the face, one by one, in relief. It was a sculpture carved in ice, more than a painting in frost. As if its traits had grown out of the glass itself. Fine, precise, translucent. Silver filaments for hair. A frigid gleam in the eyes.
She looked like me.
I thought it was my portrait, that the panes, or maybe the winter, were talking to me. Which would have been flattering: she was magnificent, everything I’m not.
Then at last, in the center of the tableau, I saw her mouth emerge. Lips pulled back to expose teeth of glittering frost.
As she watched me, she laughed. And her laughter was biting.
She’s living in the mirrors now. Because of me, I think.
For a long time, I looked myself over from head to foot in the mirror on the armoire. Compared features she’d formed on the window, searching for some resemblance. But I could see only my pale skin and dull, messy hair. Nothing to equal her grace. I clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering.
Blowing warm air on the mirror, I covered it with my breath. A hazy pool of mist shrouded my face. I tried to trace her face with my finger, the way I’d drawn on the car windows when I was little.
But my sketch was crude, clumsy. Not even close to her or to me. Not even approaching the delicacy of her features. The mist faded – the mirror drank in my breath.
I think that’s the moment when she passed through to the other side: when I blew her into the mirror.
The other face, the one on the window, faded. First the contours, then the hair, until all that remained was a face carved in the ice, or in the glass itself, and losing its mass. Her laugh was the last trait to dissolve from her hollow, dripping face, just after her eyes. Which had never left me for a single moment.
When I awoke this morning, I found her in the mirror. As if cut right out of the windowpane and deposited there, on the other side, while I slept. She has devoured my reflection. If I stand in front of the wardrobe, it is she who stands before me. With her winter-colored dress, her long, translucent fingers, and her hair full of icy flakes. Her eyes like frozen pools. Her skin dusted with hoarfrost. And as always, the sharp teeth revealed by her laugh.
She starts by my movements. Then gradually she disengages from them. I watch her acquire a life of her own, with an elegance that ice should not possess. An elegance that flesh never attains.
Her movements are growing more fluid. Her gait, less stiff. Her skin is slowly taking on color. She has shed the winter like a molting bird.
On the pane where she first appeared, frost has veiled the window entirely. The street no longer exists.
I should probably be frightened. But I don’t know how. My mind has been numbed by the cold.
She plays at being me: a doll of frost, a doll of blood. In the space beyond the mirror, I see her touching the books, furniture, and knick-knacks, learning their shape and texture. Her fingers are still ungainly. She leaves glinting droplets in her path, sowing a trail of glitter and scales that melt as they touch the ground. Under the layer of frost, her skin is a faint pink. She cocks her head with curiosity, shakes the objects, smiles at the rattle of a jar filled with needles or a box of jewelry. When she sits on the bed and sinks into the quilt, I could swear I hear snow crunching under her feet.
Now she’s pulled off her dress with its texture of evergreens hanging heavy with snow. She’s trying on my clothes. Clothes I haven’t worn in years, as the colors are too bright. The cherry red and bright orange stand out against her pale skin. Now that her fingers are more limber, she digs into my make-up. Dabs her face with autumnal golds and browns that turn her face into a clownish mask. Grotesque blots of my nail polish dot her fingertips.
Despite the caricature, she’s divine. Beneath her disguise, she’s almost me. Me, if I were beyond human.
Since she has no name, I give her my own. We have to name things. It’s the only way to hold onto them.
Spring has arrived in the other bedroom, the one deep in the mirror. Her skin is now pink and warm. Must be where all the heat has gone. On my side, the frost has worked its way into the locks, jamming the front door. I’ve spent long hours probing the mirror for the crack that absorbed all the heat.
Last night, she slept in a bed that was the twin of my own. I could hear her breathing over there under the other quilt. For most of the night, I tossed and turned under my covers, not wanting to give in to sleep. I was too afraid of having her dreams. I didn’t want to know what images turned round in her head. She might be dreaming of me.
If she stays, I’m afraid she’ll end up possessing me. I don’t know how to exorcise her.
Her arms are now bare. Her skin more soft, supple. Meanwhile, mine has lost its color and my lips are turning blue.
Her face is almost mine. But I can still see hints of frost in the depths of her eyes. And a harshness in her smile that mine has never had. She’s taken every part of me and crafted it into something else: she’s turned a mouse into a wild animal.
A little while ago, she was studying herself in the mirror before putting on make-up. I reached out my hand to catch her attention. She imitated me. Our fingers joined, mine thrust into the mirror up to my knuckles. Hers sticking out, free. It felt so warm in there; the contact with her fingers slowly warmed my own. Her ring with its sharp corners dug into my flesh. It looked like a silver scorpion.
Then she pushed my hand away. A drop of blood formed at the base of my index finger. It had no taste at all.
She disappeared into the living room. I could hear her moving about in there. I heard muffled music through the mirror. It was one of my albums, but I couldn’t remember which one. She seemed know: I could hear her humming along.
Ever since then, my fingers bear the mark of her touch. Like an infection. Everywhere I lay my hands, colors grow faint. Textures harden. It spreads before my eyes. Sheets of ice cover the walls. I can still make out the paint in a few places. Not many. I’ve already almost forgotten the color, anyway. The floor crazes under my feet. I’m walking on a frozen lake with a shadowy floor beneath the surface. Going into the kitchen, I leave a tracery of spider webs in my wake. The food in the refrigerator is covered with mold. I’m not sure if that’s my fault or the scorpion’s. But I’m no longer hungry. Or cold. My fingernails are blue, but I feel nothing.
It’s better that way. The bedroom is freezing. The world has turned white. Everything is covered with frost. A book just shattered when I knocked it off a shelf. It split into two sharp-edged pieces. Now I don’t dare touch anything: I’m afraid of breaking it all. Objects that don’t yield might snap off my fingers, leaving my hands with frozen stumps.
Once again, I take refuge on the bed. I can’t worm my way under the quilt: the frost has fused it to the mattress.
I gaze into the depths of the mirror at summer. A square of sunlight on the floorboards under the window. Colors that grow more brilliant as my own fade away. Over there, the walls are salmon. The bedspread is red. The curtains hang in vivid colors. She has decorated it all in her image. She’s dyed her hair a shade of copper. She flaunts her grace as she parades back and forth in front of the armoire.
Sometimes she raps on the mirror to remind me that she hasn’t forgotten I’m here.
There are people over there. I hear voices and laughter in the summer apartment. Music and the clatter of silverware. But I can’t see them. They’re in the other room.
My bedroom has turned into a closed-up box: a white box. The keyhole has frozen over and frost has veiled the last window. I no longer leave my bed. Huddled atop the quilt and on the pillow with its frozen wrinkles, I can no longer feel them against my skin. Nothing but the exhaustion pressing me to the bed. I can’t close my eyelids. Immobilized, I listen and watch.
I thought the frost would make my body hard and brittle, but instead, I’ve lost substance. I don’t dare lift my arms for fear that my hands will stay stuck to the mattress, pull off. My fists have less mass than cotton. I’ll no doubt end up completely dissolved. I no longer have a body, I’m a quilt and some clothing. I’m the winter and the bedroom.
From this point on, the other one lives her own life. She fills her hours with visits and activities. She’s never alone, never silent. She speaks with my voice. I gave her my name, then forgot it.
It’s all so far away. On the other side of a mirror that I lack the strength to approach. In an apartment that no longer has the same colors as my own. She moves about in conquered territory.
Around the edges of this mirror, a fine layer of frost has made its appearance. Little by little, it’s growing toward the middle. Soon, it will build a wall between us. And I will no longer even be her reflection.
Mélanie Fazi is an acclaimed author of French fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction. She has published two novels in addition to several collections of short stories, her preferred genre. Fazi is also a literary translator at Editions Bragelonne in France. Her short stories, novels, and translations have all been recognized multiple times with the Merlin award, the Masterton award, and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.
Lynn E. Palermo, Associate Professor of French at Susquehanna University, translates literary and academic works. Literary translations, some in collaboration with Catherine Zobal Dent, have appeared in journals including the Kenyon Review Online, Exchanges Literary Journal, World Literature Today. In 2015, Palermo and Dent received a French Voices Award for their co-translation, Destiny’s Repairman, by Cyrille Fleischman. Recent academic translations appeared in the 2015 issue of Dada/Surrealism (University of Iowa).