Half-heartedThe young woman spoke eloquently about the void she lived with, the constant hole in life her twin once filled. Earnest and seventeen, she longed for that mirror-sister who looked like her, thought like her, and, most importantly, understood her. She felt deep loneliness, knowing that no one in the world could ever identify with her that way. She stood on the edge of life, looking in, wishing for a hand to hold, a familiar face to glance at before she took the plunge.

There was only one problem.

She didn’t have a sister.

Her mother, she told me with all seriousness, experienced ‘some bleeding’ during the fifth month of pregnancy. The girl knew what it meant: her twin passed from the world before even entering it. I nodded gravely. I offered what cold comfort I could for the loss of a non-existent sister.

Personal fable, I decided, cataloging and moving past the experience at once. But there’s more, isn’t there? What makes one short sentence, a throw away line, leave a girl mourning a twin sister she never knew? I can picture the scene, the girl maybe five or six, her mother, the two of them in the kitchen maybe, or a park. The girl expresses her wish that she had a sister, and the mother off-handily says “I always thought you would, but then I had some bleeding and there was only you.” The mother looks off, a glance the daughter interprets as grieving when really she’s just remembering the laundry she left in the washer and is it going to rain tomorrow?

A moment the mother doesn’t remember, but it becomes the basis for the daughter’s world. Whenever she feels isolated and strange, whenever she longs for someone who agrees with her and loves her completely, that phantom twin resurfaces.

As we write, as in life, we look for big things that define a character – a car accident that kills wife and child, a disfiguring injury, a horrible sin – but what about the small things? What about the sentences that fall from ignorant lips, spoken and forgotten almost in the same breath? The brain is a magpie, picking up shiny bits and holding them close. Why shouldn’t a soul be based on the off handed comment of a stranger?  You have such a pretty face. You’ll make a brilliant doctor someday. You’re blessed. You’re cursed. Always spoken in a casual way, words without weight, until the hearer gives them some purpose, makes them the foundation of their world.

And I wonder. what tiny comment, buried in the subconscious, drives my characters?  And I worry, what forgotten phrase drives me?