The Face In the Mirror

Characters: Miina Awenata


She had not intended to go. Not at all. And she had just gotten out of the shower when Captain Hale made her ship-wide announcement. It would have been so easy just to sit down in her quarters and relax after the strange, puzzling mission. In fact, she had thought about doing just that as she stood in front of the mirror brushing and drying her long, black hair. No, let the others go. It was for them. The ones who had known those on the White Star. Those who had felt the sadness and the loss at the memorial service. She had felt…differently. Besides, she was needed in….

do not work all the time… a voice chided gently. The brush stopped in mid-air as she glanced over her shoulder to see who had spoken. She didn’t know if it was just in her mind, or if she had truly heard the words. …do not work all the time, the voice spoke again now clearly in her mind, stirring a memory as if coaxing her to figure out who was speaking. Dear Awenata, the same voice chided, even those of the worker caste do not work all the time. Miina could not help but smile, for the words were Kerel’s, her Minbari friend and Ranger mentor, who, at their first meeting, had discovered the meaning of Miina’s last name, and delighted in using it whenever she thought Miina was being too hard on herself.

A-wen-a-ta. Kerel was fond of calling Miina by her last name, and would then bow formally, so that Miina could only catch a twinkle in her eye, and be obliged to return the bow and “Anla’shok Kerel.”

Miina’s smile grew as she remembered how the exchange had begun. When Miina first decided to commit her life to the Anla’shok, Kerel had been assigned to take her in hand while she was still on Babylon 5 and teach her proper Minbari decorum. Miina had felt awkward and inadequate in the presence of this slight Minbari woman who unnerved her with a smile, and so Miina kept glancing nervously down at the floor until finally Kerel asked her if she came from a family of bricklayers or stone masons because of her extreme interest in the floor tiles. She had shaken her head, for she had been bidden to silence for this initial instruction. So Kerel began to discuss the virtues of taking note of one’s surroundings.

Miina had followed Kerel out into the Zocalo that was alive with color, life, and light, and there, Kerel challenged her to take in her surroundings and, to test her abilities, to commit to memory everything she saw that was green. Were there potted plants on that counter? Did she see the bright banner that hung over the farthest of the stalls? Kerel had whispered and pointed out different things for Miina to note, and her words came faster and faster, and Miina’s eyes grew wide as she tried desperately to keep a running list of it all in her head.

Suddenly, Kerel had whispered gently, “Now close your eyes–and keep them closed.” And she took Miina’s hand and led her away from the bustle of the Zocalo. “Sit.” Miina felt the edge of a bench at her knees, and turned and sat down. “Now,” Kerel began, “keep your eyes closed and think. I want you to think of everything you saw just now that was blue. Everything.”

Miina opened her eyes and felt her face go pale and cold. Her first day, and she was a failure already. “I…I thought you said ‘green,” she apologized. Then she felt the bottom of her stomach drop out as she realized not only had she failed in her first exercise, but she had also broken her silence. She was devastated. She sat and stared at the floor, and waited for the Minbari woman to tell her that she would never become one of the Anla’shok.

“I did say green,” Kerel said softly.

Miina looked up with a question in her eyes, but did not speak further.

“You see what you are missing?” Kerel asked. “If you but look at the floor tiles, you miss all that is going on about you. If you look for green, that is all you will remember seeing, and you will miss all of the other colors. In the same way, if you look for the negative, the bad–if that is all you are looking for–then that is all you will find. Do you understand?”

Miina breathed a trembling breath and nodded–and looked down at the floor tiles again.

“The mind understands,” Kerel mused. “The body will follow.” Miina looked up at the woman’s words and saw her smiling. “Stand up, now,” she told Miina. “We shall teach the body something while the mind is still otherwise occupied.” She pressed her palms together and bowed deeply and reverently to Miina. Then she gestured to Miina, indicating that she should return the bow. Miina obeyed stiffly.

“It is not like an Earthforce salute,” she told Miina in a low voice. She put her hand on Miina’s shoulder, and ran her hand down Miina’s back. Miina drew in a breath at the Kerel’s touch, but if the woman noticed, she said nothing. “It is not simply a matter of…what is your word for it?” For a moment she found herself at a loss for words. “Ah, yes. Protocol. But it conveys peace, honor, reverence and personal feelings as well. It is not merely a greeting.”

For the next quarter of an hour, the two of them stood facing each other, two arm lengths apart, in the middle of the Zen gardens, and took turns bowing. Kerel began smiling faintly, and Miina wondered just how badly she was doing, and tried to stand straighter, and bow slower or faster. Perhaps her hands were not positioned perfectly. She wished desperately that Kerel would tell her what she was doing wrong, but Kerel would only smile all the more and bow yet again.

But the warm smile was infectious as well, and it was not too long before Miina found herself not worrying quite so much. In fact, after a several minutes and what felt like a hundred bows later, it began to seem somewhat ludicrous, the two of them alternately bowing like some kind of perpetual motion machine, and Miina began to feel the need to brace herself when she had to meet Kerel’s eyes–and her smile–for the need to laugh was almost overwhelming–and unfamiliar. Lt. Commander Gina Winters had prided herself on her stoicism, and while Miina had chosen to set her Earthforce identity aside, what was inside would not be cast off so easily. There had been nothing to laugh about for a long, long while.

“Enough,” Kerel said finally, her eyes still dancing. “I see Valen has sent me a solemn initiate to temper my humor.” She reached out, took hold of Miina’s hand, and led her back to the bench. Following her new mentor, Miina could only wonder about this strange, alien woman. Miina had thought to lose herself in a faceless crowd of obedience and ritual, and instead, this woman was one of the most singular individuals she had ever met. She very nearly rivaled Ambassador Delenn.

“Come, my solemn one,” she said, as she sat on the bench and motioned for Miina to do the same. “Break your silence and tell me about yourself.”

After a short time, and in spite of herself, Miina began to relax even more. Kerel smiled warmly. “And so Migina is your true “given” name — that which was chosen for you alone?”

Miina nodded. She still found it difficult to hear her full name. It sounded too much like that part of her which she was trying to forget.

“How prophetic,” Kerel observed. “The waxing moon. Even your name is not of your world, but is set in the heavens. And what of Awenata? Does that have equal meaning?”

And Miina explained the meaning of her grandfather’s given name, and that he in turn, had given it to her.

Kerel was laughing softly. “This animal, this ‘seaturtle’–you say it has very thick skin? And a very hard shell?”

Miina nodded.

“And no doubt a very large heart, if one can but get past all the protective layers.” Miina had no idea, but nodded politely. She was puzzled by Kerel’s comment. Then Kerel stood and motioned for Miina to do the same.

“I shall leave you for an hour’s meditation,” Kerel announced, gesturing to the rock garden. “I find this place quite soothing, and so I shall leave you here to think on all you have learned this day.” With that, Kerel smiled and gave Miina a reverent, perfect bow. “Miina A-wen-a-ta,” she said, giving particular emphasis to Miina’s last name.

Without even thinking, Miina automatically returned the gesture. “Anla’shok Kerel.”

“You see?” Kerel smiled warmly again. “The body did learn quickly, did it not? My methods may be unorthodox, but my students lack for nothing in results. The mind and heart shall soon follow, thick skin or no.”

She turned to leave and Miina watched her go. The short time she had spent with the woman had been so extraordinary, Miina did not even grasp Kerel’s meaning until much later. But it soon became a private signal between them.


 

Later, on Minbar, Miina found that both body and mind rebelled at learning Adronato. When fluency proved too elusive for her, she began to spend every spare moment trying to perfect the language, but when Kerel discovered one day that Miina had studied straight through the evening meal, she was quick to take Miina aside.

“How many times have I told you embrace, but do not bind?” she asked gently. “You are much farther than any of those who began learning with you. Do not hold on to the words and the meanings so tightly that they constrict. Let the sounds flow around you like the waves of your ocean. Do you understand, Miina?”

Miina nodded solemnly. “Yes, Kerel.”

Kerel smiled. “You shall spend tomorrow in silence. You shall not study. You shall not read. You shall but listen.”

“But…” Miina began. Then she nodded again. “Yes, Kerel.”

Kerel gave Miina the familiar warm smile. “Dear Awenata,” she said gently, “even those of the worker caste do not work all the time.”

Miina smiled back. “Yes, Kerel.”

“Now you shall come with me.”

Miina nodded, and dutifully followed Kerel down the now familiar corridor. Kerel stopped outside one of the smaller mediation chambers, and turned to Miina.

“You shall spend the rest of the evening in meditation.”

“Yes, Kerel.”

“And if your stomach competes for attention, may I trust you shall attend to it so that it does not distract you overlong?”

Miina stole a glance inside the room and noticed a modest meal set on a small table in the corner. She turned back to Kerel and smiled genuinely. “Yes. Thank you, Kerel.”

Kerel gave Miina a reverent, solemn bow, but a smile and a twinkle in her eye belied her seriousness. “A-wen-a-ta.”

Miina returned the bow, and tried not to smile too much. “Anla’shok Kerel.”


 

Now the smile that regarded Miina belonged to the face in the mirror, and it wasn’t Kerel. “You think I should go, don’t you?” Miina spoke the words aloud, but she wasn’t sure who she was addressing. Well, it wouldn’t take too much to get ready. Her hair was dry. All she had to do was pull it back in a neat braid, and put on a clean uniform.

She pulled her hair back snugly, and began to braid it, and then stopped. It was to be a festive occasion, was it not? Perhaps ‘festive’ was not the right word, but special at least. Commemorative. She brought her hands forward, and the hair that was twined around her fingers followed, and she let it fall, framing her face. It softened her appearance considerably. But in her uniform, wouldn’t she look half-dressed with it hanging down in great waves? She shook her head. It would not be appropriate. And since she had nothing else to wear…

You shall know when the time is right, Kerel’s voice spoke from her memory. Perhaps when the many become but one. Miina had been trying to politely refuse a gift that Kerel had given her. I made it myself, and I made it for you, Kerel told her. And with a smile, she added, Shall I tell you how many rituals are involved in returning a gift while assuring the giver no ill will?

It had been Miina’s turn to smile. No, Anla’shok Kerel. That will not be necessary. It is beautifully crafted and a gift to treasure. But I cannot wear such a…” Kerel held up one hand and for a moment, Miina thought Kerel would reach and touch her fingers to Miina’s lips. Miina stopped mid-sentence, and Kerel addressed her in Standard.

“And what is ‘thank you” in Adronato, Miina?”

Miina gave the proper response.

Kerel smiled and bowed. “You are most welcome, A-wen-a-ta.”


 

Miina opened the drawer in the dresser in which Kerel’s gift rested. She fingered the smooth material. Dear Kerel. It was a fine gift–a beautifully made traditional Minbari robe. She held it up in front of her, and turned back to the mirror. For the last two years Miina had wanted to be Minbari more than anything. But something stopped her from even trying it on whenever she looked at it. Had that been it? Perhaps she had to be comfortable with who she really was. It would not make her Minbari. It was not a costume. It was not meant to be such. But she thought of wearing it now–as an actual possibility. Had she changed so much?

Miina swallowed. No one on the ship had seen her in anything but her uniform. Ever. And no, she was not the same timid, wounded soul who Kerel had been given charge of. She was not the same person to whom Kerel had presented her fine gift. She was not even the same person who had been assigned to the Phoenix some months ago. And of all people, and though they were not yet close, Chief Eng… She stopped and corrected her thoughts. Of all of her shipmates, Katia knew the most that she had changed. Miina was not any of those other people now. And yet, she was all of them, wasn’t she? Perhaps when the many become but one, Kerel’s voice seemed to speak into her ear. Miina nodded. Her lip quivered, and she sniffed, and took in a short breath, and somehow a tear slipped down her cheek unbidden.

She wiped it away quickly, but not in anger. It was just that simply… she didn’t cry. Never. Not since…

In an instant, the years fell away, and the face in the mirror was young, and innocent, and smiling, and framed by two thick, black braids. The dark eyes danced with wonder and love…and occasional mischief. Then suddenly, someone was standing behind the child. They pulled the braids back severely, and bound them in a knot at the base of the neck. The childlike expression faded and became dull and passive. The dark eyes, set above high, hollow cheekbones, stared blankly back at her, denying the pain that haunted them. Then the child, no, it was a young woman now, dressed in an Earthforce uniform, who stared back at her.

Miina closed her eyes and tried to shut out the pain, but the memories, all flooding over her at once, were too much to bear.

“Grandfather…” she whimpered softly, and she sank to the floor, hugged her arms to herself, and shook with great, silent sobs.


 

A short while later, Anla’shok Miina Awenata emerged from her quarters, her eyes, after the benefit of being bathed with a cool cloth, showed only the briefest hint of red. She was dressed in a long, traditional Minbari robe with soft greens and deep blues, and much embroidery, and her long black hair hung in waves down her back. And close examination of the long, hanging sleeves revealed a wide band of light blue with a row of sea turtles swimming in the silver moonlight of an almost full moon.


Copyright (c) 1998 Judy Caswell. All rights reserved.