Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Man in the Mirror (A Snow White Short Story)



Hi, all!  I originally wrote the following story to submit to the new issue of Timeless Tales (https://www.timelesstalesmagazine.com/) but when I realized that it was over twice as long as their maximum word count, I decided to post it here instead.  I'm too attached to it to cut that much out...  So here it is, a nice short Snow White retelling.  Enjoy!



             Today he was tall, handsome in the way that a marble bust is handsome—static and lifeless—with black hair pulled back in an elegant tail.  His coat was of silver thread, the beast of the royal house picked out on it in black.  A black unicorn, bringer of disease.  A strangely apt mascot for the dark-hearted ruler of this decaying kingdom.
            “Mirror, mirror, on the wall—who is fairest of them all?”  She gazed at him contemptuously.  It could hardly be his appearance that inspired such disdain, as he reflected her in all but her most feminine features. 
            He sneered back at her, feeling colder yet more solid with every instant she stayed before his mirror.  “Lady, lady, in the hall—you are fairest of them all.”
            “Doggerel, mirror?”
            “You began it, lady.  I wonder that you do not frame your magic in some illustrious tongue of old.”  In truth, he knew that she could not; her magic was small, though she used it to great effect, and her love of learning had never been great.
            “If I did, you would not understand me,” she said, and dismissed him, turning away as if he had ceased to exist, instead of hanging here in the solar, ever imprisoned in a cobweb’s thickness of silvered glass.

            Today he was so weary.  His face twisted, cheek bulging, then falling back sunken.  He great fat, then thin.
            “Show me my enemies,” she had said.  So he had shown them to her: long-nosed Ordinal, Lord of the Privy Purse, turned to mica with the fateful coin locked forever in his hand, and a look of condescension on his face.  Pegal, Captain of the Guard, the anger on his face still visible, though he was as rooted in the ground as any tree.  Lord Derrick, pouring an endless stream of water from his frightened marble mouth.  And all the rest of them, who had once been councilors and powers in this kingdom, until they took the gifts she gave and received her curses with them.
            With every one he showed her, the face in the mirror changed, until he could hardly hold a shape—yet her reflected face called to him, twisting him yet again.
            She smiled at him with more pleasure than she had shown in a long time.  He wished he might twist her a little—then he would smile too.  “Mirror, mirror, on the wall—who is fairest of them all?”
            A thousand days he had answered this question correctly, yet he was suddenly confused.  The one with the most money, said Ordinal’s voice.  The one who can best protect, said the guard captain.  Answers, names not the queen’s, flitted through his quicksilver mind.
            “Well?” she asked sharply, and the reflection in the mirror steadied.
            He was her reflection, and he knew the question behind the question.  Who is the most powerful?  For beauty is power, the power to enslave your enemies.
            “You are the fairest of them all,” he said.

            Today was like every other day, until it was not.
            Two women were in the room dusting.  Usually, one of the little maids came—frightened, hardly daring to glance at the mirror as she dusted it, as she lifted the knickknacks on the little tables and put them back again.  But today there were too, and one an older woman.  The mirror had never been told to show her to the queen.  She wore a cap and an apron; there was flour on the back of her neck.
            The man in the mirror felt the back of his neck itch as white speckles appeared there.  Why should there be flour on his nape when no one would ever see it?
            “Poor little princess!  She was that fond of her kittens,” said the bread-making woman, in a comfortable voice.  “Strange, them all dying like that.”
            “Poor Snow!” agreed the other.
            “They say the little things up and died just after the queen had given them their feed,” the older woman nodded.  “Well.  They would.
            “I so wish I could see her,” murmured the other plaintively.  “I miss the child so.  I’m sure the maid the queen hired for her doesn’t feed her enough.  Children should run about outdoors and be happy, not be locked up all day long.”
            The man in the mirror felt a strange sensation.  Then, as the baker patted the maid on the arm, he identified it: sympathy.
            “I so wish I could see her” was close enough to a proper request, he decided, and showed them Snow White.
            Fourteen years old, she should have been plump and rosy.  Instead, she was pale and waning.  She knelt on the window-ledge of her tower room and looked out toward the sky and the distant forest.  She whistled softly: the curlew’s call.  Then the robin’s.  A harsh caw, like a crow’s.  At last, a bird answered, and a plain brown bird came fluttering down to perch on her hand.  She smiled at it, breaking up a bit of plain seedcake with her free hand, then lifting it gently into reach.  “And how are you today, Master Wren?  And Missus Wren, and your children?  They will be fledging now, I think.”
            Belly rounded with seedcake, the wren chirped inquiringly at her.  From her pocket she pulled a twist of dark hair.  “Nest repair waits for no one, I suppose.  Take it and be welcome.”  The bird took her ring of hair gravely, then fluttered away.
            The man in the mirror watched her and felt that he could learn to love birds.  “I wish that I had hair it could carry away into the wide world,” he mused.
            She turned her head and looked at him, quite unsurprised to see a pale, pleasant-faced man in her dressing mirror.  “Do you?  But isn’t there a whole world behind the mirror, that you can walk about in?”
            He blinked at her.
            “I’ve often thought about that, you see.  Walking into the Kingdom of Mirrors.  Perhaps the tower door in the mirror kingdom would be open, and I could walk away.”
            “I’m afraid it’s not like that,” he said.  “There isn’t anything here except what I can reflect.”
            “Oh well,” she said, and sighed.  “If I had more courage, I would simply go through to the Kingdom of Fire.”
            “The what?”
            “Fire.  Don’t you think, when you stare into the fire for a while, that you can see things there?  I think perhaps I am looking into another country.  If I just jumped into the fire—“
            “Surely it isn’t big enough,” he said worriedly.  “And then you would be burned for nothing.”
            “Yes, that is just what stops me.  You understand so well!”
            The mirror felt suddenly ashamed of himself.  It startled him, for he was sure that the girl was not feeling anything of the kind.  “It’s because I’m a mirror.  I can’t help but reflect you,” he explained.
            “How strange!” she said, moving closer.  She smiled at him wistfully, and he knew that he was lonely, and that he liked her.  “Do you like to reflect?”
            “Well,” he said, thinking of the queen and the cursed councilors, “some of the things I have to reflect aren’t very pleasant.”
            “I am sorry,” she said, patting his frame.

            The queen called him back to his proper mirror soon enough, but after that, the man in the glass took every opportunity to visit Snow White.  If the maids who dusted did not oblige him with a chance remark, they often would say something that could send him to the kitchen or the scullery, where he lurked in the shine on the silver or the wash bowl until the cook began on the subject of the princess.
            The next time he reached the tower, he found the dressing mirror wreathed in flowers—paper ones, with paper birds nesting in among them, an ivory-colored wonderland.  “Is it you?” she asked gaily.  “You see I have grown a garden since you came!”
            “How beautiful it is,” he said.
            “How yellow are the lilies, how pink the apple-blossom.  Do you see them?” She patted a paper crocus fondly.
            And he did.  Before his astonished quicksilver eyes the flowers grew brilliant, green of leaf and blooming every color of the rainbow, with all the little birds singing sweetly on the vines.  Behind her, the paneled walls grew roots and branches with shocks of dark green leaves.  “I have escaped my tower!” she proclaimed.  “I’m wandering the woods.  Isn’t it fine?”
            “Aren’t you frightened?” he asked.
            “No, not now.  I shall be later, when it’s dark,” she told him with a delicious shiver.  “But I will be quite safe really.”
            A bird pecked at its reflection in the glass, and the man in the mirror jumped back.  How could she turn paper to birds and flowers?  Was this all imagining?  Was it because he reflected her that he could see what she saw, or was this true magic?
            Day after day he joined in her imaginary adventures.  A candlestick became a thin little man with a torch in his hand.  A mug, a teapot, a pair of boots, a lamp, and a ragged stuffed bear became six more little men, all delighted to welcome Snow White to their humble abode.

            “Good morning, your majesty,” said the man in the mirror.  What dark circles there were under her eyes!  He didn’t think she was enjoying her kingdom.  From what the servants said, it did not seem to be running well, with all of its chief officials gone and all of their assistants afraid to come to the palace.
            “What,” she snapped, “do you know about the morning?”
            He felt himself grow tall and severely handsome.  His certainty about the morning’s goodness shriveled into a tiny seed, hidden in his heart.  “What do you want?”
            “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”
            He knew the answer that she wanted, and, reflecting her, wished to hurt her a little.  “You, my queen, are fair of face, but Snow White far exceeds in grace!”
            The queen stiffened.  In that moment she was not fair at all, but hideously ugly.  Is she now.  Well.  We shall see.”
            The moment she left, he knew the mistake he had made.  But no magic of his could call back his foolish words.
            The queen had not gone to see Snow White in many a day.  But now she went, gorgeous in white velvet, with diamonds scattered like stars in her hair.  “How are you, my good child?” she asked, with a cool smile.
            “I am very well, your majesty,” said Snow White, with a fluid curtsy.  Her dress was shabby and too small, but she received her stepmother into her tower with as much dignity as if she and not the black-haired woman had been queen.  “What can I do for you?  Would you like a flower?” She offered the queen a paper lily.
            “I thank you, but I have flowers enough.”  The tall woman leaned away, as if even the touch of the flower were repugnant to her.  “How untidy your hair is, my child!  Here—take this comb.  Pretty things for a pretty child!”  She offered the comb in a black-gloved hand.  It was formed of silver wire, with a design of leaves on its back.
            “Oh.”  Snow looked at it carefully, then up at the queen’s face.  “How… kind of you?”
            The man in the mirror bent the sunlight, flashing a warning in her eyes.  She turned toward him, frowning faintly.
            With an effort, the man brought up the reflection of the most hideous old woman he had ever been set to spy upon, and gave her a handful of snakes for good measure.  Don’t take it!  Don’t take it!  he thought, though he would not speak with the queen in the room.
            The girl nodded.  “Perhaps you had better keep it,” she told the queen, with a sweet smile.  “No one will see my hair.  And if it is untidy—all the better!”  She stuck the paper lily into her tresses at a jaunty angle.  She looked charming, thought the mirror.
            A faint expression of puzzlement crossed the queen’s face.  “As you please,” she said, and went away.
            “What’s wrong?” Snow asked the mirror, but he was too weary and frightened to answer.

            It did not end there.  How could it?
            “My child, how bored you must be alone up here,” the queen said kindly.  It was evening, and she wore a gown studded with opals and rubies.  “There is to be a ball tonight—you must come down!”
            “Leave the tower?” Snow asked, face blank with amazement.  The man in the mirror flickered frantically, but she was not looking toward her dressing table, and did not see.
            “How glad everyone will be to see you,” coaxed the queen.  “I shall send you my dressing-women in an hour.  But for now—let me see you wear this.”  She held up a necklace, a glorious welter of silver and sapphires.  “You shall have a blue gown, and a silver net for your hair, and you shall meet everyone…”
            “Oh,” breathed the girl, staring at the door of her room.  “I shall go down?  I shall meet everyone?”
            “Yes, yes, my child.  Now take this necklace, for I must hurry down and check the arrangements.”
            Snow White held out her hands, her eyes still fixed on the door, with the same look on her face as when she watched her birds flying free from the window.
            “No!” cried the mirror.  “It’s a trick!  There is no ball!”
            The girl pulled her hands back, startled.  “A trick?”  It did not occur to her to doubt her mirror friend.  She turned bewildered to the queen.  “But why?”
            The queen’s eyes were icy with wrath.  “Why, what is this?  There is a man in your mirror,” she said.  “How improper!”
            “I don’t understand.”
            “Of course you don’t, poor ignorant child,” the queen said, trying but failing to manage a kind tone.  “Quite unsuitable!”  She wrapped the necklace about her own neck, and advanced purposefully on the dressing table.  Then, carrying the mirror, she glided out the door while Snow watched in confusion.
            The queen threw the mirror down the marble stairs.  Eyes glittering, she made her way to her private room, where the man in the mirror waited.  “What have you been up to, traitor?”
            He sneered at her, face morphing to become hard and haunted.  He produced a diamond monocle and peered at her through it.  “Is your grip on the kingdom growing unsteady, your majesty?”
            She cursed him, and he laughed at her.  “You’ve cursed me once, you’ve cursed me twice—but there is nothing you can do to me now.”
            “I could break your mirror,” she threatened.
            “Then how would you watch the rest of your enemies?  You wouldn’t last a week,” he told her, and turned his back.  It took an effort, but he would not turn again to face her no matter how she raged.

            Today he was portly, with thinning hair and a tendency toward liver spots.  He waited, fidgeting, for someone to come into the room.  He must get to the tower!  The dressing mirror might be gone, but he could reach the water pitcher at least.
            But no one came.  So he was not there when the queen went to visit Snow White, taking the dinner tray in her own unaccustomed hands.  It was the season for apples, and Snow had two every day.  Why wouldn’t she accept one from the queen?
            Her stepmother smiled, showing her teeth, as Snow rolled the apple between her palms.   “With this gift, I give you my curse,” she said, calm now that the thing was done.  “You shall be like a flower caught in glass, and shall die like one.  Only a prince’s kiss may release you.”
            Snow gasped, her fingers opening—but she could not drop the apple.  Glass ran over her skin like water, spreading up her arms.  She lunged to her feet, still graceful, and glass poured down her body, forcing her to stillness.  For a moment it pooled at her throat.  The girl looked wide-eyed at the queen.  “But why would you do this?” she cried.  Then the glass rose over her chin, to coat every eyelash, every curl, to seal off her mouth and nose.
            “Because you were dangerous,” the queen explained.  “Little fool.  Even your father was wiser than you.”
            She left Snow White and swept down the tower stair.  She flung open the doors of her solar to arrive triumphant before the mirror.
            “What have you done?” the man in the mirror demanded.
            “What do you think?  I’ve cursed her.  A beautiful statue, suffocating in glass!  Only a moment more, and she will be gone forever.  That for her grace!”  She snapped her fingers at him.  That for her fresh young beauty!  That for her smile!”
            “You can’t!  A curse must be breakable!”
            “But of course.  If a prince should arrive, he may kiss her and gain her beautiful corpse.  I think he would do better to keep her in glass and put her on display.”
            “A prince?”
            “A prince’s kiss may break the spell,” she intoned in a sing-song voice.
            “When the people of this kingdom know what you’ve done—“
            “Why should they find out?  She has been here for years—she fell ill and died of consumption.  Who will say differently?”
            “I’ll tell everyone who comes to this castle!”
            “You couldn’t.”
            “I reached her tower.  Why shouldn’t I go everywhere else?  Will you break all the mirrors?  Smash all the windows?  Let every polished surface go dull with dust?  What a castle you’ll have!”
            Her nostrils flared, and her lips went white with rage.  “Then I will send my men, and they will take her body and throw it in the deepest pit they can find.  No one will ever see what I’ve done to her.  Who will listen to you then, mirror?”
            He shrieked at her, a sound of inhuman frustration.  She hissed at him, and stormed out of the room.  “Guards!” she cried.  “Guards!”
            The grand marble staircase was polished and bright.  Was it a trick of the light that she saw a step where a step was not?  Her skirts were heavy and awkward; having tripped, she could not stop herself.  When the guards arrived, she was dead at the foot of the stair.
            A prince’s kiss.  The man in the mirror wavered.  Where was he to find a kiss at a moment’s notice?  Yes! He knew!  With a wrench, he forced himself free of the mirror in the solar, though the enchantment that bound him tore at his insubstantial self.
            There, in the portrait gallery: the picture of a dark-haired prince, looking rather stiff in his court dress, with a look that seemed to say he hoped the painter would finish soon so that the prince might have some dinner.  The man in the mirror caught the reflection, forcing himself into the unaccustomed shape.
            No time to lose!  But how could he reach Snow White, with her mirror shattered?
            Ah.  How wise of the queen to turn the princess to glass!
            The glass that covered the girl was clear as crystal, with no silvered back against which the man could appear.  Yet he forced himself into the faint glare, as the merest ghost of light.  “Be freed by a prince’s kiss,” he whispered weakly.
            If the glass had not run up against her skin, he could never have done it.  Yet it had, and he did, pressing lips of light to the pale forehead.
            The curse shattered.
            The princess pulled in a long gasping breath, then another.  “Oh,” she said at last.  Thank you.”  Then looked around.  Only broken glass lay around her; there was no trace in any piece of the young prince or the middle-aged man who had visited her.  “Mirror?”  There was no answer.
            Snow swept the pieces gently into a heap, then lifted down her paper birds and flowers, piling them around and on top of the cursed glass.  “Perhaps I only imagined you,” she whispered.  “Perhaps I never had such a friend.”  She bowed her head for a moment, then sat straight with sudden determination.  “No.  You were real.  And perhaps you’ve flown away like a bird, and not died… how could a mirror die, after all?”
            But she looked at the glass and shivered.  It was quite clear how a mirror could die.  “Goodbye,” she said, and picked up the biggest shard of glass and kissed it.
            A princess’ kiss.  Long years ago there had been a gift and a curse, and a promised remedy.  Was there enough magic left for transformation?
            It seemed that there was.  When the servants came up the long tower stair—free of the guards, who had left with most of the queen’s valuables—they were astonished to find the princess sitting on the floor with the old king’s head lying pillowed on her lap, and having an involved conversation about whether the Kingdom of Birds and the Kingdom of Clouds were in the same place.
            In the end, the pair were found to be quite mad, though quite wonderfully kind to all, and so the kingdom passed into other hands.  Snow White and her father—and the Captain of the Guard, who was also freed with a princess’ kiss—went off to live in a cottage in the woods, where they were very happy for the rest of their days.
            And the old king thought, Today I shall be an old man, with almost no hair and a sizeable paunch, in shabby woolen clothes, with a happy smile and a look that says, ‘I hope there will be something nice for dinner.’
            And he was.

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