The Other World
By Enock I. Simbaya
John Kapolo got a raise from work. He was a good salesman and his Indian boss thought he deserved a raise to prevent him from going to work for a rival stationery shop. The boss gave him the extra cash without delay, doubling the salary.
John didn’t know what to do with the money. He found himself stopping at every other makeshift stall to look at what he could get. He bought a power adapter for the TV, a set of three plastic mugs, and a rectangular mirror framed in an intricately decorated silver frame.
He liked the mirror the moment he saw his reflection through it. It was half a meter in one length and slightly above that in the other. It was a significant upgrade to the tiny mirror his wife used, and he thought she would appreciate.
“I’ve sold it to you at a good bargain,” the vendor said, wiping the dust off the mirror and wrapping it in old newspapers. “I am making almost no profit. It’s a good mirror, mudala. When I look through it, it makes me feel like I am looking at a better man, and I have a feeling I will be one day.”
John knew sales talk, too, but he was a bit richer to care about the price.
“A mirror? First thing you do with the extra money is buy a mirror?” said the wife when he got home. But she looked at herself through it, lifting her chin this way and that, prickling a pimple between her fingers. “You could have bought a bigger bag of mealie meal.”
“Relax my baby,” he said. “I can get you more than mealie meal. “You know that song Nizakugulila kalilole? This is the kalilole I have bought for you, my wife. To see your beauty with, to see how beautifully you are ageing.”
She gave a demure smile. She didn’t need placating, she was excited about the raise. She even gave him a peck on the cheek. She count recall the last time he called her beautiful, and he couldn’t recall the last time she pecked him. Things were looking up.
She set the mirror on the wall between the sitting room and the bedroom. They held each other as they looked at their reflections, smiling and laughing and making a bigger budget.
The next morning, he was full of smiles and compliments for her. He dressed his best for work, choosing from his Sunday clothes. She looked at him, told him he looked good.
“We’ll have a better life now,” he said. “We’ll move from this house. Find a better place, eat meat often.”
After a good breakfast of sliced bread and butter spread ungrudgingly, he looked at himself in the mirror one last time before going for work. The wife was preparing for shopping.
He smiled at it and his image smiled back. “John, you lucky boy. What would father say if he saw me now?” He turned left and right to look himself over, and left the house.
Work was pleasant. So he sold paper and pens and notebooks as usual, but he was happier. And if that wasn’t enough, the boss called him to the little office at the back just an hour into the day.
“John, sit.” It was the first time the boss asked him to take a seat. “Listen, my man… wait what is that on your cheek?” the boss beckoned him closer, and dug his nail into something on his cheek. It was hard to pull off and pinched his cheek. The boss showed him a white crumb.
“It must be from breakfast,” John said, rubbing his cheek. “I don’t know how I didn’t notice it in the mirror.” He thought about that. How was it possible he hadn’t seen it?
“I am going to India to visit my sick mother,” the boss said. “I am not coming back for a while. I see how you work, John. I am watching you and everyone on camera. I know you, trustworthy. So here is deal: you manage the shop and get paid twice your new salary. What you say to that?”
“Boss, I don’t know what to say! Is this true? Twice?” John stood up, held his waist.
“Yes. Please take care of shop.”
John never had a better day in his life. Patience and good work attitude do pay, after all, he thought. His wife was ecstatic. She shouted praises to God, jumped up and down. “Wasn’t I telling you?” she said. “Didn’t I say things will get better?”
“You did, and you were right.” They danced around a spot and he pulled her close to him, held her. Turning his head, he saw themselves in the mirror, it was a beautiful picture.
“Look,” he said. “Look at that couple. That is a rich couple.”
He saw a black spot on her forehead through the mirror. He faced her to brush it off. She was a queen now and needed to be spotless. But the speck wasn’t there. He turned back to the mirror, and it wasn’t there either. Probably just a dust mote or something that was on the mirror.
“What is it husband?” she asked.
“Nothing darling. Just happy we have a good life finally. I’m telling you, we’re going higher.”
She smiled and nodded.” I will cook you your favorite.”
“You beautiful and sweet woman.” His mouth was watering already. Things were indeed going well.
His eyes kept going to the mirror as he passed by between watching some TV in the sitting room and going hold her by the waist as she cooked. He couldn’t really tell what was drawing him to the mirror. It was either he couldn’t believe that he, the man he was looking at in the mirror, was finally getting rich, or…
“We’ll make changes here,” he called to her as he held his hands over his hips and watching his reflection do the same.” A bigger fridge, a better TV.”
“That will take some months. We must start building a house first,” she replied above the sound of frying.
“Not if we sell and top up. I’ll ask someone I know.”
Or… the man in the mirror wasn’t actually him.
He’d seen his reflection many times. He even went to look at himself through the smaller mirror in the bedroom to see if he felt the same. He didn’t. The reflection on this particular mirror felt like looking at a stranger.
At work the next day, he found his mind going back to the mirror. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced something weird was going on with it. When his cousin Mwale walked into the shop, he was the perfect person to ask. Mwale was a genius, he was studying some engineering at the University of Zambia and got good grades.
He rarely visited unless he was buying stationery from this shop, which he found cheaper.
“Mwale, I have something to ask,” John said, when his cousin stepped to the counter.
“Is there witchcraft?”
“No way. It’s superstition and illusion and scary stories passed down through the years, compounded by the mind’s ability to make imagination feel real. Why do you ask?”
“There’s a guy who bought a strange mirror and every time he looks at it, it’s like he’s looking at someone else, like the way I am looking at you.”
Mwale laughed. “He’s being weird.” He shrugged. “Or he’s looking through a window into a parallel world.”
“What is that?”
“There are theories, okay? Experiments are going on and stuff. And because of things like Déjà vu and strange stories, it is said there are many parallel worlds. Some are similar to our reality, others different but the thing is it’s all invisible to us unless we can travel through or harness some other dimension. Imagine a world with different laws of motion. What technology can they have?”
“I don’t understand. How would that explain being sure that the person you see in the mirror is not you?”
Mwale thought for a moment. “It’s the other person doing the same thing you’re doing at the same time. There will be differences that can change the entire sequence of events there from here. If for example the other person sneezes and you don’t, you get a totally different history.”
“There are those small differences,” John said, recalling the spot of his wife and the crumb on his cheek. Everything else is the same. How isn’t that witchcraft?”
“It’s science. Quantum physics. Energy and stuff. Okay, look at it this way, and I think this might just be my theory. A mirror and shiny surfaces reflect light. What if there was a line through reality that reflects energy? In short, it can create an entire world exactly like our own and whatever would be happening here would be happening there. Weird right?”
John wasn’t getting some of it. He didn’t know if he wanted to believe his cousin. Mwale after all impregnated three girls almost at the same time and had a booze problem. Why would such a person give him advice? But it wasn’t advice. It was an explanation, which he would hear and take or discard.
Mwale was running wild with his explanation. “Think of a semidetached house. The wall in between is the energy mirror that reflects one to the other.”
“And the mirror? The thing that makes you see the other side?”
“A rip through the fabric or something like that. Like a window on the wall separating the houses. Nice.” He seemed pleased with himself. “So the other guy would be doing the opposite, like lift his left hand when you lift your right and you’d think you’re seeing your own reflection.”
John was caught up in his mind he didn’t hear what Mwale said next until he slapped him on the arm. “Hmm?”
“I said I want two highlighters, a small notebook, three pens. Black, red, blue.”
Worsened by his cousin’s explanation, John Kapoko couldn’t stop thinking about the mirror. The next morning, his wife had to remind him to stop admiring himself and go to work. He went out but hid behind a tree, waiting for her to go to the market. After all, he was the boss now with the keys to the store. The other workers could wait a few more minutes, couldn’t they?
He stared at his image for a long time. It did everything he did: blinking, showing his tongue, making funny expressions; but he couldn’t get over the feeling that it was another person in another world who was also convinced about this being another world.
How to observe any markable difference was what John didn’t know to do. Everything he did, the image did. The little deviations he saw could really be his imagination or illusions of light. There was no way to really tell whether the fly that zoomed by on the other side and not here, was actually a fly; or the twitch he saw on his image but didn’t feel on his eye, could just be overthinking on his part. But he stared, getting really close enough for his and the other John’s noses to touch.
But it wasn’t flesh on flesh as he was anticipating/apprehending. He just felt the cold of the mirror on his nose and made a stain on the glass. He wiped it off, went for work in a bitter mood.
Clients were angry; they’d come early to order stationery for their offices and schools but had to be late now. One of his workmates shook his head at him, saying something like, “Just because you’re boss now we have to work by your timing.”
“I don’t like your comment,” John said. “Don’t say such things. You don’t know where I was.”
Work was affected though. He botched up some quantities to be ordered, miscalculated figures, gave wrong amounts of change and snapped back at whoever tried to correct him. He didn’t like it himself, didn’t like what the mirror was doing to him. But he couldn’t get rid of the obsession. He just had to know.
At home, he snapped at his wife. After supper, he stood before the mirror for a long time.
“What’s with this mirror kanshi?” she complained.
“I bought it, waumfwa? If I want to be here all night, I have the right!”
“But why do you just want to be looking at yourself all night?”
“It’s not me, can’t you see?” He pointed at the reflection, and it pointed at him, also trying to convince its wife.
She gave him a bitter look and went away. Only when he saw another eye twitch on the image did he realize how late it was. He called her to come and see, but she didn’t respond and the wall clock said it was past midnight. He found her asleep.
He woke up early, still needing sleep. His mind couldn’t let him. He went to the mirror and the image’s left eye had a terrible twitch, which he didn’t have. Every other action was the same, the grin at the discovery; the delight at the proof.
The wife exclaimed in shock when she found him at the mirror. He was only in his underwear. “My husband, please! What is it now? You are scaring me.”
“Come here.” He pulled her toward him. “You see that? His eye is moving but mine is not. He’s not me. She’s not you. These are people far away, who do things opposite from us.”
“No, my husband. Stop this nonsense. Please go to work. Let me boil bathing water for you.”
He wasn’t having it. He held her tightly, asking her to look. But she couldn’t look at both him and the reflection to see if his didn’t move while its did.
When she came back from sweeping and boiling his water, she gave him a pained look. She was more than concerned now, and she thought he was possessed by a demon or was running mad from sudden riches. She was thinking of calling a pastor.
She tried to pull him away from the mirror. “Please, time is going. You need to go and work.”
“Just look, mamma, look! His eye is moving.”
She angrily wiped off fingerprint stains from the mirror at the exact spot he observed this twitch and he was left nonplussed. The twitching was gone, probably an illusion facilitated by the stain. “Will you go to work now?”
He didn’t move. “No, that doesn’t change anything. I still know it’s not me.”
When she pulled at him, he gave her a hard slap and she bent down, crying. She cried not because he’d slapped her, but because he was no longer the man she knew. He remained adamant on the mirror.
Some of his workmates came by in the afternoon, wanting to know why he wasn’t going to open the shop and why he wasn’t answering his phone. She explained to them what was going on, and they came into the house.
They couldn’t talk him out of stepping away from the mirror, and they were convinced he had gone mad. They said they must take him to the mental hospital.
“Maybe to a pastor first,” she said.
They agreed and attempted to dress him up. He fought, slapping and punching at them, yelling for them to leave him alone. He wanted the mirror, reached out his hands toward it when they lifted him off the ground. They grasped him as he cried out, forcing his clothes on him. He kicked and spat and hurled expletives that his wife had never heard from him.
When they were ready to take him away, the wife told them to wait a moment. She unhooked the mirror from the wall and went outside to throw it in the garbage pit. She was feeling deep regret about it coming into her life and ruining her husband. She looked at it as she walked, wondering how such a thing could cause her husband to go mad. She reached the edge of the pit and let the mirror go.
As it fell, she saw her image smile. She herself didn’t smile.
The mirror fell onto an old broken microwave oven and shattered.