"These look so real," Sheila said, as she peered into the glass figurine. Surrounding her were dozens of them; all tiny glass people and animals, perfectly colored, posed in various positions.
"They are real," said her grandmother.
"That's impossible. If they are real, why are they so small?"
"The body is soft, not nearly as dense, comparatively. When something is compressed and hardened, it must shrink in size. The one you are holding, he was a painter — sort of an impressionist type, reminiscent of Van Gogh, but with sharper edges — beautiful work, but never got much attention on the East Coast."
Grandma Natasha sat in the corner of the room, her old features only partly revealed by the surrounding blue light. She was staring into a bizarre crystal, which seemed to serve as a lens with a strange geometric shape Sheila couldn't entirely discern. The figures were all around, and the candles throughout the darkened room made the figures sparkle and glow, refracting tiny rainbows onto the walls.
The prospect of them having existed as real people was frightening. There were people of all types, all appearances and ethnicities, gathered together like motionless dancers. There was a girl with her hands clasped between her knees, staring down into the distance. Perhaps she was looking out a window on a dreary day. There was a homeless man in ragged clothes, shoes worn down to several layers of socks, unshaven, hair uncombed for perhaps weeks. A hard-faced businesswoman in her late thirties wore a viridian suit, stared impatiently ahead, maybe late for an appointment as she waited for a delayed subway train.
Sheila examined their faces collectively. "They wear their past on their faces; every wrinkle and line is visible. It's like you can see what they were feeling, sort of frozen instantaneously."
"They do feel — in a way. It's not so much an active or conscious thing, but closer to being half asleep and finding yourself swimming in a particular mood but unsure why, like a fog that never breaks. In the way glass can be stained with a certain color, their minds remain mostly in the same spot as when they were solidified. Their essence is preserved indefinitely."
The granddaughter picked up the school-aged girl with her hands folded between her knees. She was probably in grade seven or something close. Her face looked so lonely, like she had been staring out her window at other people, longing to feel at home in a crowd. Sheila, remembering days of feeling the same way, wondered what it would be like to be paralyzed in those emotions — thoughts, blood, and dreams all condensed to cold borosilicate.
"Why do they all seem sad? I don't see any of them smiling or laughing."
"After the process is complete, one has to capture them. It would be very difficult to obtain the cast while other people were nearby. The process is impossible when others are watching since it would create a huge distraction, so the ones I capture are generally alone at that moment."
"You are serious, aren't you?"
Her grandmother did not answer, remaining in deep concentration, still staring at the strange, optical curiosity in the corner.
"So all these people were alone when you took them?"
"It just so happens the ones who smile and laugh, they are always surrounded by others. They aren't alone. The ones who are alone are usually sad, frightened, depressed and confused. The darkness emerges fiercely when others aren't around. People even take their own demons as friends rather than accept that they are completely isolated. Even perpetual loneliness itself can be comforting in a small way, and affliction is still a better friend than nothingness."
"What happens if they are broken? What if I were to drop one of them?"
"The answer is simple, but requires a larger explanation. In their current state, it would be difficult to consider them as being alive because they are trapped in a sort of stasis, but they are not dead either. That being said, they are unable to move to their next incarnation. They are trapped as long as they remain intact, and when they are shattered, their minds can resume, but they are no longer tethered to a body. They will pass to their next existence. When they are broken, they die, just as any other person dies."
"How long can they stay this way?"
Grandma Natasha's eyes began to close as she drew in a long, deep breath. Her hands were pressed flat onto the table as if she were steadying herself, grounding her mind to the feel of the room surrounding her. She opened her eyes and focused them on her granddaughter. She drew a glass figure from behind her viewing lens and held it out for her to see. "Do you know what I've been looking at, dear?"
"You've been looking at that figure?" Sheila asked.
Sheila made her way around the ebony table and other dark cabinets rowed with small, sliding compartments. With her tall grandmother seated, their eyes were not far from being level with each other, and between them Natasha held the glass figure. It was a woman in a gypsy dress, with layers of purple and gold.
"What do you see?" said Natasha.
"It's a woman — a woman, in a dress."
Sheila looked for a bit and said, "She looks young and very pretty."
Natasha shook her head in disapproval. "Look there," she said, and raised her finger pointing over Sheila's shoulder.
Sheila turned and saw herself in a long, oval mirror. Her slightly curly hair was drawn up and clipped at the back of her head. Her grandmother placed the figure back onto the table and stood behind her, making eye contact with Sheila through the mirror as she pulled the clip from her hair, letting her brown hair fall around her shoulders. She brushed her fingertips through her hair as they both looked at her young reflection.
"What do you see, darling?"
"I see a weird-looking girl with weird clothes and a weird nose. I should have straightened my hair today, but I was lazy. My face is breaking out again. I'm twenty-six and my face still breaks out."
"How old were you when your brother died?"
Sheila turned around to look at her directly, confused by the question. "Why would you ask me that? You know that. You were there."
"Answer me, and look," she pointed again into the mirror, and Sheila looked.
"I was eleven."
"What did you wear to the funeral?"
"I wore my white dress with pink flowers on it…" She thought a bit harder. "...but I wore my black dress coat over it, and black flats. I remember because I stared at them through the entire ceremony."
"Why did you stare at your shoes?"
"I didn't want to look at anyone. I hated them. I wanted them to go away."
"Why did you hate them?"
"Because they didn't know my brother. They didn't understand him. They didn't care about him. I felt like they didn't deserve to be with him, even after he was dead. They never tried to help him. Not a single one of them."
"Look." Natasha said, staring intensely at her granddaughter in the mirror. A tear was falling down Sheila's cheek as the memories of her brother mixed inside her head. "Everything you just told me — where do you see it? Where is it written? Is it written on your forehead? You are too young to have lines on your face. Does it show in your hair? Can it be seen in your cheeks or eyelashes? Where is it?"
"I don't know."
"It's here," Natasha said, running her finger gently down Sheila's cheek, tracing where the tear had fallen. "The tears come from memories and thoughts, and places you've been that don't exist anymore. When you swim through your mind, some of it comes to the surface and seeps out, like it does now for you. This — " she said, grabbing her hair, "doesn't mean anything. It doesn't say anything about you aside from how long you spent staring blindly into a mirror this morning. There is nothing about you visible here. Some of the greatest minds in history died without friends. Some of the richest men died homeless, and had you seen them, what conclusion might you have come to? Appearances are convenient, but they afford very little, especially when they are static. Don't make that mistake."
Natasha moved back to the table and picked up the figurine. The old, Romanian woman bent down eye to eye with Sheila, and held it in front of her eyes again.
"Look closer now. What do you see?"
Sheila wiped her face and sniffed her nose to stop the tears. She batted her eyes to see more clearly and looked at the figure again. "Nothing," she said after a few moments. "I know nothing about that woman. I don't know what her name is, I don't know what she does for a living. I don't know if she has a good heart or if she's a serial killer. I don't know anything."
"You are right. Sit down now."
Sheila sat down in the chair and looked down at the strange crystal in front of her. It was strangely angular and asymmetric, and seemed to reflect light in many directions depending on which direction she looked into it. She put her fingers down behind it and noticed that some of the flat surfaces magnified, letting her see every chip in her pink nail polish, while other surfaces made them appear farther away.
Natasha carefully placed the figure behind the crystal lens. "Now look closer."
She could see details that were not visible before, like the long gold earrings and the color of the woman's green eyes. She thought the figure must be some kind of exotic dancer.
"What does the wind look like?" Natasha asked.
"It's invisible," Sheila said.
"It's invisible, but you've seen it."
"Sort of. I've seen it in other things like the trees, and leaves, and when the clouds spin when a storm rolls in."
"That's right. Don't be fooled. Remember what I told you, and look closer."
The blue lights flickered and glowed around her, some landed on her face just as they had on her grandmother's, but smooth and without the many lines the drawn by harsh sun over the decades. She peered for several minutes and began to feel a strange sensation, as if someone's lips were drawing close to her ear about to whisper something. Her breathing slowed and then stopped, and all of her attention moved intensely onto the visions in the crystal, forgetting the weight of her body in the chair.
Sheila gasped, and felt the ocean pour in through a hole in her stomach, forcing itself up through her chest, and into her throat. She began choking in short breaths frantically, eyes locked onto the crystal, arms shaking. Natasha grabbed her wrists and forced them back down onto the table, holding them as her lungs spasmed and shuddered. Her vision was locked somewhere else, unable to perceive her surroundings as she panicked, drowning in dry suffocation.
"Calm now! Breathe!" her grandmother shouted.
Gradually she was able to breathe more deeply, slightly more controlled, her eyes came back to the room and met Natasha's, her arms still shaking involuntarily.
"What did you see?"
Still breathing fast, her voice was tight and broken, recovering from inner strangulation. "I saw — I saw the city — old streets and cold." She looked at her grandmother with fear and swallowed with a dry, burning throat. "There were dancers in the snow — but the snow was red — with blood. Something horrible happened."
"I know. I've seen it also. How many people have seen what you just saw? Not the events written by history, or secondhand accounts we've heard from the people who lived in that time, but the real sights and sounds and thoughts of that particular woman. Normally, only one person sees what comes into their own eyes, but you just saw exactly what she did, with all the blood and fear and dread. Even now, you tremble from it. This is just a memory to this woman, but it's an active memory. It is just as real to her as the memory you have of your brother. You can enter into it anytime you like, and you can enter into her just the same. There is no filter or bias allowed when you see this way, because your entire self is forgotten, including your beliefs and prejudices. It's all left on the curb when you make the leap into darkness. We pride ourselves on being empathetic, giving others the benefit of the doubt, but this is different. It's not clever wordplay or philosophy. It doesn't condescend. It doesn't pretend to understand what it really doesn't. People who see this way see truly. They understand things that history hasn't written — that it couldn't have written."
Calmer now, but her thoughts still swimming, Sheila watched as Natasha walked behind her to a heavy, wooden cabinet, with layers of drawers. She opened the top drawer, which was divided into small compartments, each lined with thick velvet, and each contained a different glass figure. Stored in this fashion, Sheila realized her grandmother might have hundreds in the room.
"Look at them. Imagine what it would be like to know what history has never written. Not just to know, but to see it with the eyes of the people who were there. What kind of knowledge could you have, not just about the world, but about human beings?"
Sheila stood up to look closer at the row of figures, having to balance herself by holding onto the chair. They were all unique, some wore French clothing, Chinese, Greek, Aboriginal. Some wore very little clothing at all, much of which she didn't recognize even from her courses in anthropology.
"This didn't start with me. I am part of something larger, and something older than I can surmise. I have spent most of my life gathering these. Imagine the insight of just a single person, the massive amount of experience and knowledge, and then multiply by a hundred. When the same person is able to see the minds of this many people, the amount of understanding is incomprehensible. It gives the opportunity to understand humanity in the most detailed, most honest way possible — greater than anyone could imagine. This is surely the largest collection of castings that survives, and I'm giving it to you, because my time is quickly dwindling. Soon, all of this will be yours."