by Francis Rosenfeld
© 2016 Francis Rosenfeld
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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“Stop lollygagging, Mary! The world is not going to wait for you to catch up, it’s almost sundown!“Mary’s great-aunt Lucille scolded her, as it was her habit.
Mary didn’t flinch, she knew how difficult it was for people to be around her, and how much gratitude she owed to the one person gracious enough to take her in. The shocked reaction everybody had when they laid eyes on Mary was a never ending source of pain for the young girl and a great inconvenience for her great-aunt, whose neighbors and acquaintances, people whom she’d known for decades, had started avoiding her because of her little charge. Lucille was a self-assured woman who had worked very hard to assert her authority over the Ladies’ Circle, the charities group and the church committee, and this kind of snubbing constantly irritated her.
She tried not to show it, of course, it wasn’t the poor child’s fault she’d been born that way, and taking her in was definitely the right thing to do after Mary’s birth family decided that parting with an abnormal child like that was what faith and tradition demanded. Lucille was not in any way related to Mary by blood or family, a small detail the great-aunt had decided to keep to herself.
It was irksome enough that some of the villagers had made unseemly assumptions about the origins of this unfortunate child, despite the fact that Lucille’s advanced age made it quite unlikely that she was trying to hide an indiscretion by pretending the girl was adopted. The plethora of cheek stinging gossip made it a bit harder for her to miss some of the people who left her circle, but the fact that nobody could look at her protégé without averting their eyes started grinding her nerves by repetition, and she often questioned whether doing the right thing did anybody any good. She sighed, then, looked up with a martyred look on her face, and told herself that even if people didn’t agree, this was definitely what God wanted; she consoled herself that she was suffering for a good cause.
Still, she never got quite used to the child’s odd appearance, and no matter how much she kept telling herself that the being in front of her was an innocent deserving of love, she surprised herself trying to find reasons to avoid Mary’s presence.
After these awkward soul searching sessions, she occasionally praised the wisdom of her village elders, whose religion forbade the ownership of mirrors altogether. The community reviled these traps for vanity and self-centeredness which did nothing to advance the growth of the spirit. The absence of mirrors provided Lucille some comfort, however meager, and her spirit rested in the knowledge that her great-niece, whose lot in life was so unfair, would never get the chance to see herself as others saw her and be haunted by her own image for the rest of her life. The good lady was pleased that at least she managed to instill into the foundling the basic virtues of diligence, cleanliness and economy that would make her life a little bit more tolerable.
In her advanced years Lucille was still an imposing woman, with thick and lustrous jet black hair framing her pale features, a very striking figure even in their village, where everybody looked more or less like her.
She had been considered a great beauty in her youth, when she had had countless suitors, was the belle of the ball and had quite a few marriage proposals. At the time she was the envy of every girl in her circle of friends. After she got married, her status grew even more prominent, due to her husband’s privileged position in society. If she thought about it, Lucille couldn’t think of any way her life could have been more pampered.
Sadly, the Lord had taken her husband home a couple of decades ago, may he rest in peace, and after that she decided not to remarry. Her children went on to live their own lives, and she had grown fastidious with the passing of time, quite set in her ways, so adjusting to a new relationship and the societal expectation to submit to a new husband didn’t seem like something she was eager to take on. In time she had gotten used to being the authority figure in the village and she ran all sorts of societies and committees, ran them, that is, until she chose to act out her faith and adopt Mary. Every expectation of normality fell through the cracks and vanished after that.
Lucille often contemplated how much better her life might have been if she remarried instead of adopting this one person social life wrecking ball, at least she would have consolidated her privileges and kept the deference of the people! Every time these thoughts crept up on her she blamed herself and sought strength in the knowledge that she was doing the right thing.
Lucille liked life neat and proper, things always in their place, dresses clean and modest, foods simple, and she kept Mary’s hair always cut very short, to avoid it becoming a source of distraction for the girl.
Some of her closest friends decided to brave ostracism and stand by her in her misfortune, and they didn’t miss the opportunity to offer a wealth of advice; some suggested that maybe it would be easier for Mary, and quite frankly, for Lucille, if the latter managed to dissimulate some of the girl’s striking attributes, but sadly, the girl’s eyes were so startling and impossible to avoid that they drew even more attention to the disguise.
Lucille dreaded the future, she didn’t know what she was going to do with Mary, who was approaching fourteen and started showing her age. She deplored the fate of the poor girl, who was never going to attract anybody and was doomed to a miserable life of loneliness and rejection. She never told Mary that, though, and tried to put a brave face on this whole situation, because after all she had been providentially guided to take care of the child, who was to say what destiny had in store for her?
“Walk faster, girl! Those grapes will turn to vinegar before we get home!”
Mary picked up the pace in silence, as she’d gotten used to over the years. Since she had started walking she noticed that people were repulsed by her, and even if she didn’t understand why, she was fully aware of the negative implications of her unusual appearance. Sometimes she wondered what exactly was it that people found so disquieting that they couldn’t be in her presence for more than a few minutes. She spent her childhood in solitude, but didn’t mind it, because she was an introspective type and didn’t know how to miss something she never had. As she grew older, she could feel her great-aunt’s growing discomfort over her life situation, and wished she could do something about it, but didn’t know what.
The basket of grapes was heavy, and carrying it on her head made her neck hurt. She stopped for a second to lay it down and rest. The basket weave got stuck in the short hairs on the back of her neck and pulled them painfully. She winced.
Lucille looked back, annoyed by the sudden interruption, sighed and stopped to wait for her, standing and stomping her foot to express that she didn’t appreciate this change in the established schedule.
Mary rested for a few seconds, and then picked up the basket quickly, to shorten the discomfort of buckling under her great-aunt’s disapproving stare. There was a little gleaming strand stuck in the basket weave, something that would have passed for hair, except for its color, which looked like that their mare Rosemary’s mane. Nobody she had ever known had hair like that, nobody! She shuddered, terrified by the countenance she presented to the world, and for the first time in her life she really wanted to know why everyone was avoiding her, and what did all of those people see to make them avert their gaze.
All her other features, her body, her hands and feet, looked like everybody else’s, but her own face she had never seen, so she assumed that whatever it was had something to do with it or her hair. She made it her first priority to figure out a way to see her own reflection. This was easier said than done in a village with no mirrors, no open wells, and no lakes or ponds. One was hard pressed to find open waters in an arid climate like the one they lived in.
She tried every excuse in the book to dissuade her great-aunt from cutting her hair, but Lucille was relentless in the neat and proper management of her locks, which got even shorter than before.
Mary looked around for anything the least bit reflective, but there was nothing, really: the food bowls were matte porcelain, the silverware was dull metal, and the dark painted wood planks of the floors were always covered by overlapping wool carpets whose busy and colorful patterns made her dizzy. She figured if she stared in her great-aunt’s eyes she might be able to get a glimpse of her own reflection, but Lucille couldn’t bear to look straight at her, ever.
In time the preoccupation with her own appearance reached the point of obsession, which made her great-aunt more and more concerned about the poor girl, whose behavior was spinning completely out of control. Lucille deplored this newfound attitude that made her great niece even less socially acceptable, if such a thing were possible!
Mary spent the next year surreptitiously looking for reflective surfaces, under a barrage of criticism, resentment and complaints about being difficult and ungrateful. She wasn’t happy to see her great-aunt angry with her, but it didn’t matter: whatever it was that made her an outcast, she thought she had the right to know. Sometimes, when the pressure of Lucille’s disapproval surpassed the limits of her endurance, she snuck out to the desert to watch the giant moon cast gleams and shadows on the dunes and make them look soft and liquid, like waves of molten metal.
It was during one of these nights, when the moonlight bounced off of the dunes, that Mary caught a glimpse of her own face in the shimmering sand, polished like a silver mirror. She gaped at this complete stranger, whose large eyes shone in the most unusual shade of green, eyes so remarkable they overshadowed the rest of her features, the oval face surrounded by short wisps of hair the color of corn silk, the straight nose, the high cheekbones, the graceful arch of her eyebrows, the well contoured lips, tightly closed in defiant silence.
She stared for a while, incredulous, at the eerie reflection, her eyes growing wider to take in the unexpected image and then she smiled and thought:
“Oh, my God! I’m beautiful!”
Mary arrived home before the break of dawn. She tried to make as little noise as possible, knowing full well that she couldn’t bypass aunt Lucille’s superhuman scrutiny. The old lady had the senses and instincts of a mountain lion. As expected, her great-aunt was waiting for her in the kitchen, seated at the table with a prayer book in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, in order to press the point that her ailing old body had a very hard time coping with Mary’s lapses in discipline.
She hadn’t been crying, of course, because she secretly felt that at her age she was entitled to the privilege not to, but she liked to display that handkerchief in critical instances, as a symbol of her grave disappointment. The second she saw the dreaded piece of cloth, Mary knew she was in trouble.
Aunt Lucille sensed the girl slide quietly into the kitchen, but didn’t turn her head. Her shoulders were so tense they loaded the whole room with an uncomfortable, almost palpable weight. Mary stopped and waited for Lucille’s chastisement, which was usually doled out in installments: hurt, disappointment, anger, rejection, humiliation and submission, always in the same sequence. Mary had learned this pattern so well that she could anticipate her aunt’s words, those words that tore at her heart with pangs of guilt. Lucille uttered a shrill sigh, and the young girl was almost relieved that her aunt had decided to start directly with installment three.
“Where have you been, Mary?!“her aunt wanted to raise her voice, but her throat had tightened up with all the tension she had accumulated in the last two hours, so the words came out in a strange, almost silent shriek. Mary paused to chose her words.
“Aunt Lucille, why didn’t you tell me?“she asked, strangely poised.
Aunt Lucille turned and pinned her down with a probing stare, despite the discomfort she always experienced looking in those clear green eyes. There she saw the truth, which made her gasp and bring the handkerchief to her mouth.
“Oh, child, what have you done!“she muttered, terrified.
The mirror taboo was so ingrained in the old lady’s heart that she considered Mary all but lost, her anger dissipated instantly and managing this crisis became her only priority. The girl tried to interject a comment, but her aunt was on a roll.
“Did you look in a mirror? Where on earth could you possibly find such a cursed thing around here? Did anybody see you? Mary, please tell me that nobody saw you! We can fix this, you know? Don’t worry, your aunt Lucille wasn’t born yesterday, I’ll smooth things out with the Ladies’ Circle, we’re just going to have to be very careful,“she went on, outlining the plan that had already started congealing in her mind.
“Why is it so wrong to look in a mirror, and why didn’t you tell me my hair was… different?“Mary managed to overcome her aunt’s verbal avalanche.
“Why, of all the things…! How could you….! The shame I have to endure….! How are we ever going to show our faces again…!“Lucille tried starting several of her favorite penalty sentences, but they all seemed to fall of deaf ears, except for the last one, which filled Mary with outrage.
“Aunt Lucille, I couldn’t show my face in public before, how is this going to be any different? Why am I this way?“she asked her aunt directly, in a tone that required a response.
Lucille stopped for a second, glancing swiftly at the girl to assess her state of mind, and quickly calculated the pros and cons of telling the truth, weighing exactly how much of that truth she had to divulge in order to make this dreadful situation go away. She finally answered.
“We don’t talk about these things! You are called fair, dear, or blond,“she spoke softly, looking down, embarrassed.
“So what!?“Mary blurted, forgetting for a moment that aunt Lucille abhorred insolence.
The latter ignored the unseemly behavior, determined to be done with the awkward conversation as quickly as possible.
“It’s been a long time since someone… like you has been born in this village, we were all hoping that…“she didn’t continue, concerned she would hurt Mary’s feelings if she completed her sentence.
How could she tell the poor child that the village had hoped, after so many generations, that God finally forgave their transgressions and the blond curse was extinguished from their kin. When Mary was born, the village fell into such despair that nobody got out of their homes for three days, and when they finally emerged, they did so dressed in mourning garments and consoled each other like after a terrible loss. Despite her conservative nature, Lucille had been so outraged by this display of injustice towards an innocent baby that she decided on the spot to adopt Mary and protect her with her life if need be. Ignorant heathens!
“What’s wrong with being fair?“Mary asked, more curious than upset.
Nobody discussed it and few remembered its origins, suffice it to say that being blond was considered a bad omen in and of itself.
“I don’t know exactly, dear!“she brushed Mary off.“Did anybody see you?“the great-aunt continued compulsively.
“No.“Mary grumbled.“What difference does it make? Nobody looks at me anyway!”
The morning sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and bathed the young girl in a sea of golden light. Her face glowed radiant and her hair caught ablaze, surrounding her face with light, like a halo. Lucille didn’t know how to react to this unearthly vision, so beautiful in its own way, the harbinger of doom. A chill went through her bones, she shuddered, then composed herself.
“Don’t give it another thought, child. We’ll discuss this later,“the good lady changed the subject.“Whatever possessed you to seek your own reflection? Don’t you know it is sinful and forbidden? Do you want to get banished?”
She would have liked to give Mary the standard speech about how God would be saddened to learn that she needed to feed her vanity and gaze at her own beauty, when He put so many loving hearts around her to reflect this gift with their friendship, appreciation and kindness, but then she remembered Mary’s specific situation and reconsidered.
“I could, maybe, color my hair…“Mary suggested tentatively.
“Good graces, girl! Is there no end to your dissent? Whatever did I do to you to shame me so! Coloring your hair! How can you ever harbor such a horrible thought! What would people think?“Lucille built herself up into an outrage.
The conversation suddenly took a familiar turn and Mary found herself, wretchedly, facing installment one.
“What am I to do, then?“the young girl asked, and her aggrieved tone made her great-aunt dial down her indignation.
Lucille wrung her hands and started pacing to chase away her growing panic. What were they going to do, what was she going to do, what will people say, how was she going to explain this, and did she have to? She knew she did, there was no question about that, one of those nosy busybodies in the Ladies’ Circle must already know something, she could swear they had a special sense for gossip, those ladies, and nothing moved in the village without their knowledge and consent.
The more she thought about it, the more she panicked, and a deep muscle shiver set in, against her will. What was to become of Mary, anyway? She couldn’t help but jolt at the thought that there may be some truth to the blond curse, otherwise why would so many wise people hold it in such dread? One has to remember that traditions are usually born of common insight and who was she to judge the reasons behind the warnings of her ancestors?
How was this fair child born of raven haired parents anyway? Lucille’s panic turned to sadness at the fate of Mary’s mother, poor thing! Her entire life had fallen apart after the girl’s birth, and nobody believed her innocent. The whole family repudiated her and she had to leave the village with only the clothes on her back and without her child. Lucille could only hope that God, in his kindness, found a place for Mary’s mother, because the latter was a kind and saintly woman who deserved to be protected.
Lucille remembered all those stories she had heard when she was a child, of a maiden born of fire, whose locks were the color of gold and who was going to herald the end of time. Nobody ever elaborated on what that meant, exactly, and none of the children knew what to expect, after all there hadn’t been a golden hair person among them for generations. When Mary was born, though, there was an instant recognition of the omen from everybody, young and old alike. There was no doubt whatsoever that she was the fire maiden and since she’d already arrived into the world, there was nothing anyone could do to stop the reckoning.
The old lady shook her head to chase away these superstitions, for she liked to think of herself as an enlightened woman, who doesn’t let her mind be filled with this kind of nonsense, but she had to admit she never thought the fire maiden would be born in her lifetime, and couldn’t help being constantly distracted by Mary’s eerie appearance.
She finally looked at the girl, who stood there, wide eyed, waiting for her to answer, oh, those huge, clear eyes that put a shiver through the old lady’s bones!
“We’ll figure it out, Mary. Aunt Lucille will think of something, don’t you worry about that! You should go to bed, child, you didn’t sleep a wink,“she remembered her motherly doting.
Mary turned around, obediently, and started up the stairs to her bedroom, and her faint halo of golden light lit up the darkness as she ascended.
As predicted, a couple of the most involved members of the ladies’ circle showed up at Lucille’s door within hours, with appropriately concerned looks on their faces and spelling trouble from a distance. Lucille crushed a few choice words between her teeth and remembered to smile. She sometimes wished that the mores of their society allowed women to express frustration in the same care free and irreverent way men did, but alas, she was a lady, and ladies never lost their composure. She took a deep breath to let irritation settle down, raised her chin and opened the door.
“Rosemary, Giselle, what a pleasure to see you so early! Everything is well, I hope?“she mimicked concern, at the same time managing to point out the etiquette gaffe of showing up at one’s house so early in the morning.
She was hoping this detour would unsettle her acquaintances enough for her to redirect the conversation to a safe subject, like the deplorable state of young girls’ fashion these days, or who had the best recipe for jam, but the ladies were on a mission.
“Our poor Lucille!”
“Such misfortune, dear, and so unfair, but we want you to know that we’re here for you, after all it was never your fault and the Circle shouldn’t hold this against you.”
“Such a shame! We can’t even imagine how you’re coping!”
“How could Mary do such a thing to you! If there is anything that we can do to help!“they took turns bombarding her with fake sympathy the same way poker sharks confuse a sucker with kindness before they wipe him out.
Lucille wasn’t a sucker. She reevaluated her position, cursed Mary under her breath for having put her in this situation and smiled, gesturing politely to the ladies that they should come right in.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about,“she faked worry.“Let me sit down for a second to catch my breath, I feel a little lightheaded,“she said, bringing up a pallor and patting her face with the handkerchief to elicit concern.
The ladies had known Lucille for decades, and the handkerchief production was old news to them, but they couldn’t breach the social mores, so they had to spend about twenty minutes rubbing her hands and fetching her cold water, while Lucille made herself look sicker to play for time.
The fact that the good lady could look unwell at will was an amazing skill that would have ensured her a glorious career in theater, if only the rules of society didn’t prohibit a woman of her standing from entertaining such pursuits. She’d been masterful at engaging audiences since she was a young girl, and her gift of emulating and drawing upon human emotion made her a formidable opponent in deliberations within the Ladies’ Circle.
She made good use of the twenty minutes, steeling herself against the sharpness of embarrassment and blame, two weapons she assessed would be brandished by default. She was looking through her eyelashes at the two, trying to figure out what they knew in order to develop her strategy. Unfortunately for her, she let out a little shrewd glimmer through, and it didn’t escape Rosemary’s keen eye. The latter got up and went back to her chair on the opposite side of the table, thus putting an official end to the charade.
“Well, we’re hoping you feel better, dear! The situation is grave, you really have to do something, Lucille…“she paused for effect.“About Mary, poor thing!“and stopped, in a hope that the reverberations of the last phrase would press Lucille to volunteer information.
The latter didn’t budge. The silence between the two became uncomfortable, with poor Giselle left in the middle to wriggle in the drama.
Giselle was relatively harmless, at least compared with Rosemary and Lucille, who could guilt the feathers off a chicken if they felt the situation warranted it. Poor Giselle couldn’t take the pressure anymore and spoke, despite a glut of piercing glances from the battling opponents.
“We’re afraid poor Mary sought her own reflection,“Giselle’s mild voice faded to a whisper.
As she stood across the table, wringing her hands with a pained look on her face, it would have been difficult for a distracted person to distinguish her from the furniture.
Rosemary always brought Giselle along everywhere, to create the illusion of social support, but everybody knew the latter had as many personal opinions as a potted plant, and pretty much the same personality. Rosemary was secretly furious that Giselle spoke out of school and ruined the scenario she was trying to develop; she couldn’t show that, of course, so she smiled and decided to torment the wallpaper flower later with one of her favorite conversations. If delicate allusions about Giselle’s lack of talent for needlework didn’t do the job, she could always fall back on the wedding subject. Her friend never married and this gave Rosemary ammunition for decades of put-downs.
Lucille looked distressed and brought up the handkerchief again. As much as she loved Mary, she could choke the girl right now for forcing her into this uncomfortable situation. She wiped her nose needlessly and spoke.
“Poor Mary, oh, my poor dear! Where did I go wrong? I tried so hard to raise her well, even considering her dreadful… condition,“she brought the handkerchief to her eyes in an attempt to engender sympathy.
Rosemary didn’t relent.
“We fear the dear girl has lost her way, Lucille. We’re all very concerned of what this means for our society, you know, with the omen, and all. I know you don’t give any credence to these superstitions, but she’s going to cause trouble if the situation isn’t addressed immediately. What if other young girls start defying the principles of our society like that? As if the dreadful state of fashion of our youth weren’t enough reason for concern!“she descended from her moral outrage on a safe subject, to signal to Lucille an opening for negotiations.
The latter was wondering what Rosemary wanted, and nodded to allow her to follow her streak.
“If only we could find that dreadful object and destroy it, maybe we can nip this terrible corruption in the bud and protect our young people from its wickedness. You wouldn’t happen to know where the poor child could have found a mirror, would you?“she glanced swiftly at Lucille, giving away the real purpose of her visit.
There had been gossip during Lucille’s youth that Rosemary had sought her own image, and the rumor mill ran for months, in secret, debating her reasons, her morality and her endangered soul. Rosemary never admitted to any of it, of course, and her parents defended her honor fiercely, managing to shield her from what could have been a socially disastrous event while arranging to get married off quickly, before the rumor broke out publicly.
One didn’t know what Rosemary had seen in that mirror, but her personality changed overnight. She turned from a Giselle to a Lucille with a speed that made her family members’ heads spin, and Lucille could only assume her acquaintance had been pleasantly surprised by what she saw.
‘So this is what you want!’Lucille thought. ‘Our pillar of morality wants her mirror back, if only a little late!’
She meant it as a mean comment, but the state of fact was that Rosemary had aged well, with a glowing, wrinkle free complexion, a nice figure and only a few strands of gray in her hair. The she-dragon looked good and she knew it. Lucille continued.
“What on earth would you want with such a cursed object! I hesitate to ask Mary, she never talked to me about any of this! Are you sure she saw her reflection, Rosemary? You know people can be very cruel with their gossiping? We haven’t had mirrors in this village since our youth, when council leader Abraham destroyed the last one in the public square. You remember that, don’t you?“she threw a sharp glance at Rosemary to catch her unawares.
Rosemary looked like the picture of innocence, wide eyed and expressing proper moral outrage.
“That was a long time ago, my memory isn’t what it used to be,“she went on the defensive.
“Nonsense, dear, I’m sure you’re as sharp as you were in your twenties!“Lucille retorted.
“So you didn’t talk to Mary about this?“Rosemary continued prodding.
“Why would I even think such a terrible thing were possible?“Lucille reached high moral ground.“I’m really reluctant to discuss grave issues like this with her, she is sensitive, you know? Even considering the terrible misfortune of her birth, she has a kind soul. I fear that expressing suspicion might make her lose her way, and if this is just gossip!…”
“I’m sure it’s worth the risk,“Rosemary interrupted her bluntly, with an irritated tone she couldn’t dissimulate.
She never liked Mary, saw her as a threat and was secretly pleased that finally a reason for banishment had presented itself. How could one live in the same house with the green eyed curse was beyond her.
“After all, the girl is fair! How do you know what she is capable of?”
Lucille didn’t answer.
“Well, we took a lot of your time, didn’t we, Giselle?“Rosemary looked at her self-effacing companion with a commanding stare that dislodged the wallflower from her chair.
“Oh, yes indeed, we really were on our way to the market, we just thought we’d stop by your house and give you the news,“Giselle started to talk, only to be met by grizzly looks from Rosemary, who didn’t appreciate when people of Giselle’s caliber attempted to convey meaning in her presence.
“We won’t keep you, dear. Could you please give our best to Mary, and assure her that we’re all thinking of her and praying for her, now in her time of need,“she ended the conversation, getting up from the chair with a grunt.
She hated old age passionately, especially during moments like this, when her aching back reminded her she wasn’t twenty anymore.
“I’m so glad you could stop by early, you know it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, we really should do this more often!“Lucille reminded Rosemary that it was ten in the morning and she was woefully in breach of etiquette.
“We’re looking forward to seeing you at our house, Joel was asking about you and I’m sure he’d like to express his well-wishes directly,“Rosemary threw a poison arrow back at Lucille, managing to touch upon her prolonged widowhood and the fact that Joel used to find Mary’s auntie quite fetching in their youth.
Rosemary straightened her shoulders triumphantly.
“We really have to be off, look at the time! Don’t forget to ask Mary about the mirror, will you? We need to nip this in the bud!”
‘Wouldn’t you give an eyetooth to get it!’Lucille thought, waving at the two departing ladies, who had already started whispering among themselves the second they were past the garden gate.
As soon as the ladies departed, Lucille summoned Mary in a tense voice that still bore the remnants of her recent irritation. Mary emerged from her room sheepishly, trying to hide her glowing hair and looking for ways to diffuse her aunt’s annoyance. Lucille didn’t seem upset though, rather intrigued, a look that the girl knew very well and that was a sure sign the good lady had come upon an interesting little project to work on.
“Sit down, dear,“Lucille encouraged, smiling broadly to put the girl at ease.
Mary sat, uncomfortable.
“Have some cookies,“her aunt offered.
They were the girl’s favorite treats and she helped herself to a good handful. Lucille let her munch in silence for a while, and then opened the subject, from a safe distance.
“Sweetie, you never told me how you figured out there was something different about you? How did you find out you were fair?“she finally asked, gently.
She didn’t want to rattle the girl and risk one of Mary’s taciturn streaks. Her stubborn niece could spend weeks and months in silence, a habit she had acquired by necessity, since most of the town’s people preferred to avoid addressing her altogether. This habit of hers managed to drive her aunt up the walls. Lucille appreciated eloquence, a skill that had served her very well over the decades. One of the reasons the good lady managed to command attention and respect was her uncanny ability to talk her way out of any situation. The girl’s silence undermined this very aspect of her command and as such, annoyed her greatly.
Mary looked up at her aunt, trying to gather her thoughts before answering. Lucille suppressed an irritated twitch. What on earth was there to think about? Half the time she couldn’t tell if the girl was purposefully defying her authority or had become too shy to speak up due to her unfortunate situation. It took all of her resolve to refrain from prodding the answer out of Mary. She smiled instead, and waited patiently for her niece to answer.
“The sand,“the girl mumbled, still munching on her cookies.
“What on earth do you mean?“Lucille forgot her composure.
“I saw my reflection in the sand,“Mary clarified.
“Mary, this really is not the time! Seriously, where did you see your reflection?“Lucille forced.
“I swear, auntie, the moon was bouncing off the sand, I only got a glimpse,“Mary swore.
Her aunt believed her, she knew her niece couldn’t be deceitful if she tried.
“You didn’t find a mirror, then?“she asked directly, driving a probing stare into the girl’s green eyes to make sure she wasn’t hiding anything.
Their large pools didn’t harbor any hidden thoughts, but as usual, glancing into their transparent depths put a shiver down Lucille’s spine. She lowered her gaze, uncomfortable.
“A mirror?“Mary asked.“Where would I find a mirror?“she asked, lowering her voice more and more until it reached a whisper.“Is there a mirror in the village?“she asked, almost without sound.
“No,“Lucille spoke unconvincingly, stirring Mary’s curiosity to new heights.“Not that I’m aware of,“she left the door open for additional details, wondering if she couldn’t persuade the girl to let out more precious information out of that sealed tomb of a mouth.
Unfortunately it didn’t look like Mary knew anything else, but now that the cat was out of the bag, her aunt decided that sharing a little more of what she knew might prove beneficial in the future.
“There have been rumors…“she continued, keeping a keen eye on Mary for any tell tale reaction.
The girl looked just as confused as always, with a slight hint of curiosity.
“There have been rumors,“her aunt continued, mincing her words to play for time, but since there didn’t seem to be any acknowledgment from Mary that she had any clue about anything, she sighed and continued,“that some of the ladies in the Ladies’ Circle have sought their own reflection in their youth. We were all very young and the elders didn’t go into details, but when they learned about it, they found the mirror and broke it. We all assumed it had been the only one, so the incident died down, fortunately.”
Lucille looked down quickly to hide a little pang of guilt, and her reaction didn’t escape Mary, who was a lot sharper than her aunt thought.
“Did you seek your own reflection?“Mary asked directly, rousing a bout of outrage.
“Mary, what a disrespectful thing to say! How can you even suspect!“Lucille overplayed her hand, giving the girl the confirmation she was looking for.
Mary didn’t let her off the hook.
“Why is it wrong, aunt Lucille? What’s so wrong about knowing what you look like?“she stared at her aunt, giving the latter the chills.
“Those eyes could keep a person awake at night,”Lucille shuddered, “I can’t get used to them, no matter how innocent she is, so help me! She knows, the imp, how could she possibly know?”Lucille looked for a reasonable explanation for the mirror ban, but couldn’t come up with anything that stood to reason. The rule had always seemed absurd to her too, but it had never been open to discussion; the council of elders, and council leader Abraham in particular, weren’t the kind of people who could be swayed to give up the power and control that came with being the bearers of absolute moral authority. The result of this social dynamic had been that all those who didn’t believe mirrors were a wide open door to hell sought their own image if they were lucky enough to find a reflective surface, and said nothing about it, not knowing who to trust. They enjoyed the revelation of their own countenance privately, drew their own conclusions about it and became the wiser for the knowledge. Lucille happened to be one of them.
“It isn’t allowed, Mary,“she eventually said, feeling awkward because she couldn’t find anything to add to qualify this comment.
“Why?“the girl asked, really wanting to understand the purpose behind the ban.
“I don’t know, why are you asking me?“the aunt snapped.“I didn’t make the rules!“she let out, carefully fishing out the adjective ‘stupid’ from the phrase before it passed her lips.
Mary’s eyes were shining with curiosity, so she continued.
“There have been rumors,“Lucille said again, cautiously,“that there may be some reflective surfaces left, and that some of the girls way back then managed to actually make some,“she whispered.
“All you have to do is paint the back of a shard of glass!“Mary blurted loudly, and her comment terrified Lucille to such a degree she actually covered the girl’s mouth, looking around to make sure nobody heard.
“Shut up, girl! Do you want to get us banished? Oh, mercy, I knew this was going to end badly! How stupid of me to discuss grown up issues with a child! Don’t ever mention it again!“Lucille regained her parental authority.
“I’m just saying,“Mary replied, in a much lower voice,“if they are that easy to make, there must be some still laying around.”
She wanted to comment that Lucille probably had one hidden on one of her deep coffers, but reconsidered.
“We don’t talk about these things, Mary!“her aunt ended the inquiry abruptly.“You know,“she changed the subject,“my friends Rosemary and Giselle were gracious enough to stop by this morning. They were worried sick about you, thinking that you sought your own reflection! I told them I’d talk to you about it, to ensure you couldn’t possibly have done something like that! I hope you didn’t, sweetheart, you know it is forbidden!“she stared at Mary, with her eyes conveying the imperative more than her words.
“But,“Mary blurted, innocently, ready to point out that they already discussed this subject. Lucille interrupted her.
“More cookies, dear? Oh, it feels like only yesterday you were just a baby! I’m getting old, my memory is not what it used to be! I’m so glad we had this talk, and so relieved you couldn’t possibly have broken the rules! I didn’t think you’ve done something wrong, I raised you well, thank goodness, to be a comfort in my old age.“She watched Mary munch on her cookies and her impatience grew.
“Well, we have things to do, Mary, we can’t sit here and chitchat all day long. Idle hands, you know?“she got up and rose her niece from her chair.“I’ll just have to get to the council hall and let the Ladies’ Circle know they were mistaken about you. I can’t wait to see the look on Rosemary’s face…“she started with a wry smile, but realized she was setting a bad example for Mary and stopped.
“Go on, dear! Don’t you worry about wicked reflections anymore! To think they suspected you, poor innocent child! The times we live in!”
Mary acknowledged the fact that the conversation was officially over, and as she went up the stairs to her room she glanced at Lucille, out of the corner of her eye, to see the latter pace the room, energized, deep in thought and smiling at the strategies that started developing in her mind. Mary hadn’t seen her aunt so excited about something in a very long time, and since it was her adventure that had engendered this excitement, the fair child felt proud.
Nothing in society exceeds the speed of gossip. By the time Lucille arrived to the Council Hall, its usually quiet chambers were buzzing like a beehive. All the ladies were there, a feat that hadn’t happened in decades, and the animated conversation subsided suspiciously upon Lucille’s arrival.
Rosemary and Giselle were already there too, of course, coagulating loose density centers in the crowd and generating spikes in the conversation volume with well placed comments. Rosemary noticed Lucille and proceeded towards her immediately, all smiles and parting the crowd with the inevitability of an ocean liner.
“Lucille, my poor dear! How are you coping, darling?”she asked with fake solicitude, in a tone loud enough to be heard across the room.
The room’s attention instantly focused on Lucille, drawn to the fresh scoop of embarrassment like ants to a puddle of syrup.
‘I’ve got to hand it to those two, it took them less than an hour to summon an entire village at the ready. At least next time we need a quorum, I know who to call.’She smiled, showing a socially acceptable level of relief.
“Great news, my dear! Mary didn’t even know what I was trying to ask her! I felt so awkward trying to explain my concern, it is unfathomable that a innocent soul like hers could even be under suspicion. What kind of soulless person would even consider spreading rumors about Mary flouting the rules of our society like that?”she stared Rosemary in the whites of the eyes, hoping to make the latter lower her gaze. Rosemary didn’t blink.“To think that someone would be so callous as to accuse a child!”Lucille doubled down.“She doesn’t even know what it means to seek her own reflection!”
“I don’t mean to pry,”Rosemary pried, trying to throw Lucille off her balance and hopefully squeeze out an unguarded comment,“but I have it on very good authority that the child knows she’s fair, how else could she have found out? We never talk about these things, you know it’s forbidden! I hope the nasty rumors that plagued our community in our youth aren’t coming back to bring mayhem to good people.”She got closer to Lucille, to whisper in her ear.“Rumor has it that some of the ladies in this room didn’t exercise enough discretion in their youth in regards to their reflection.”She moved away and continued out loud.“I pray that none of us provided the young girl with an excuse to misbehave.”
“I think you can put your mind at ease, dear, there is no reason for you to worry. As I said, who knows how this rumors spread, it is sad that some people are given to spiteful gossip, but we shouldn’t dwell on human weakness,”Lucille pushed back.
“Some of us have heard,”Mrs. Gentry rose her voice over the crowd,“that Mary went out into the desert at night. We are very concerned about this type of behavior, I don’t think you should abandon your parental obligations like that, before you get to the truth!”she concluded, in a very assured tone.
Mrs. Gentry was a self appointed challenger to Lucille’s authority and never missed an opportunity to point out how she could have managed the situation better, if it were for her.
She was slightly older than Lucille, and like most of the ladies in the Circle’s leadership, had acquired an authoritative presence over time, beginning with the imposing stance, helped out by her tall stature, and ending with the stentorian voice, whose higher frequencies could break glass. She always wore black, despite the fact that her dear husband had passed more than fifty years ago, and insisted on not being called by her first name, a habit she found way too familiar.
Her veiled silhouette didn’t bring up mournful thoughts, though, because it wain high contrast with her stupendous amounts of energy. She could wear down an army of staff with her constant demands and always ended up redoing their work, just to emphasize that it hadn’t been done to her standards.
Mrs. Gentry had started many of the sub-committees of the Ladies’ Circle, and as a consequence she headed most of them, which gave her the chance to think up projects and tasks for the less assertive members. In her opinion, she was doing the ‘shy flowers’, as she called them, a favor, by encouraging them to become more involved in the life of the community. She liked to point out that the tasks were always matched to the person’s level of skill, so that they wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by responsibility, and made sure none involved any decision making, which, she wisely pointed out, was better left to more experienced members, like herself.
She had tried repeatedly to involve Mary in one activity or another, because she felt it was her duty as a social leader to help the girl, whose misfortune was not of her doing, find some place in the village that was fitting her social status. Lucille had to work a few small miracles to keep poor Mary out of Mrs. Gentry’s eager talons, because every time the girl was assigned to one of her well meaning tasks she was ridden within an inch of her life.
Mrs. Gentry, of course, considered her intervention to be socially responsible, and expressed this opinion very loudly, on many occasions, disparaging Lucille’s failed parenting and wondering rhetorically why Mary couldn’t exert herself even in the slightest. She honestly believed the tasks she gave the girl were no-brainers, just as she thought about the tasks she assigned to everyone else. Every now and then she liked to demonstrate the proper way to sort beans, for instance, just to give her protegés an example of the right way to do it, and then left them with countless sacs to sort until well into the night, together with the pronouncement that it wasn’t that big of a deal, if one had some goodwill.
“You don’t honestly believe I would allow Mary to go to the desert alone at night, I hope?”Lucille challenged her.
“You don’t know how young girls are, she might have snuck out without your knowledge,”Mrs. Gentry insisted.
“Nothing happens in my house without my knowledge,”Lucille retorted.
“I wish I had your assurance about that,”Mrs. Gentry declared.“You must be among the few who don’t worry about Mary. It is the prophecy, you see,”she continued, in a softer voice.
“There is nothing wrong with Mary other than being the subject of backwards superstition!”Lucille’s cheeks were instantly flushed with irritation.
She had heard the story of the Fire Maiden one time too many. The room was instantly flooded by a wave of murmurs, doubts and protests. Many of the ladies were raised with that belief and they felt threatened when it was challenged.
“I wish you gave some credence to the wisdom of our ancestors, they must have had a reason to pass down this story,”Mrs. Gentry retorted bitterly, for she was one of those who believed the omen to be true.
“I don’t think you have to worry about being turned into a cursed creature, dear,”Lucille answered with just a hint of sarcasm. “And if you were, how would you notice the difference?”she thought, but then decided it wasn’t nice and felt bad about it.“I can assure you I looked into Mary’s eyes many a time, and I’m still here to talk about it,”she declared.
“At dawn?”Mrs. Gentry clarified the terms of the curse.
Lucille didn’t answer, because despite her best intentions she had never dared look in Mary’s eyes at dawn, to prove to herself that she wasn’t going to turn into a winged creature with snake skin, whose gaze sets things on fire.
Mrs. Gentry rested her case. She gave Lucille a patronizing look and left the scene, looking dignified and followed by a small entourage.
“What if I do that in front of you, right here, in the Council Hall?”Lucille presented her challenge.
“And put our safety at risk?”Mrs. Gentry turned around.“If you turn there is no telling of what you’ll do! I think I speak for everybody when I say that we don’t want to be around that when that happens!”
“I’ll do it at home, then,”Lucille counteracted.
“Sure you will, dear! I wonder what you wouldn’t do for your dear Mary!”Mrs. Gentry replied.
Lucille thought about the catch twenty two for a second: she couldn’t disprove the superstition publicly, for lack of volunteers, and if she did it alone, nobody would believe her. The situation bore an eerie resemblance to the truth of having seen her own reflection, only without any discernible benefits. She decided the whole issue wasn’t worth her effort and didn’t give it a second thought as she worked the room, discussing current events from the village, the proper way to raise children and the questionable mores of the younger generation.
After the council meeting ended, Lucille skipped the usual tea and cookies and headed straight home. She made a beeline for the attic where she opened an old coffer, covered with a thick layer of dust. Its contents were arranged with great care, like one would for long term safe-keeping, breakable items interspersed with delicate linen and fabrics protected from moths and mildew with shards of cedar and lavender buds.
She took the contents out, one by one, laying them aside on a round silver platter she had found inside, platter whose patina had dulled the original polish. The objects had no logical connection to each other – a large tortoise shell comb, a cut crystal candlestick, Mary’s favorite baby blanket, her mother’s betrothal gift, a very ornate emerald necklace, her own wedding veil in Chantilly lace, a gilded glass goblet, a single white glove in the softest kidskin.
At the very bottom, tucked inside a folded tablecloth, was the book she was looking for, the original copy of the Prophecy of the Fire Maiden, as it was foretold before the folk stories and village gossips ran it through the sieve of fantasy and rendered it unrecognizable.
Few people in the village remembered the Book of the Prophecy had been bequeathed to Lucille as a family heirloom, and if they knew they didn’t like to talk about it. Between Rosemary and Mrs. Gentry there was enough inference woven from spotty knowledge to rewrite the legend from scratch, and they certainly didn’t want the original to stand in the way of a more expedient story.
“What are you doing, aunt Lucille?”Mary asked from behind her and despite her soft voice she made the lady jump to her feet and get her hair tangled in the rafter ties.
“Good grief, girl! You’re going to be the end of me one of these days! What are you doing snooping around my business?”she mumbled, upset to see Mary and the Book of Prophecy share the same ten square feet.
The book was bound in snake skin, a detail that Lucille hadn’t paid attention to before and which put a shiver through her bones. She looked at Mary, who seemed as bewildered as ever, as if life always took her by surprise.
“I’m sorry, aunt Lucille, I didn’t mean to startle you,”Mary dragged the conversation, stretching her neck at the same time to satisfy her curiosity with regards to the contents of the coffer.
“That’s all I need,”Lucille thought, “to have you read what your eyes supposedly do to people! Like we don’t have enough trouble managing the mirror gossip already!”she thought, and then smiled reassuringly and changed the focus of Mary’s attention to the first object she laid her eyes on, the white kid glove.
“Just going down memory lane, dear. I’d forgotten about all of these, aah, how young I was when I lost the pair of this glove, almost as young as you are now, going to my first dance, years before I even met your uncle,”she waxed nostalgic, with a little too much enthusiasm.
Mary, who was a very smart girl, despite the bewildered appearance she wore to shield herself from well-intentioned advice givers, caught on to the diversion immediately but pretended to follow the cotillion story. She knew full well that her aunt never had a taste for these functions, which she considered pointless and pernicious, because like musty surfaces breed mold, they created a perfect set-up for the village gossip dramas.
Mary listened patiently to Lucille’s first dance story, at the same time trying to inventory the rest of the objects. They all looked quite harmless, not something a person like her aunt would feel the need to conceal, including the snake skin bound scrapbook.
Every household had one, it was a tradition of the village and the pride of the lady of the house. These scrapbooks looked so similar one could almost think that the same family inhabited all of those households, living exactly the same life.
“Can you show me the scrapbook, aunt Lucille? I don’t think I ever saw yours!”Mary asked innocently.
“How does the green-eyed curse always know exactly where to meddle?”Lucille asked herself, biting her lip to choke a few choice words. “Those busy bodies should be more worried about her eyes rummaging for truth inside their souls than the curse of the Prophecy. I swear sometimes I can almost feel that icy stare drill through my skull!”She sighed, resigned.
“Oh, what’s the use! You always find just the wrong things to get involved in, girl. Suit yourself, but don’t blame me if you don’t like what you read!”The girl grabbed the book, eagerly.
“This is about me!”Mary commented, shocked, while reading the ancestors’ story. “Isn’t it, aunt Lucille?”
“Yes, dear. It’s supposed to be about someone like you. Well, in fact it is about any fair maiden born into the village, but we haven’t had any others. Don’t pay heed to it, it’s just a story.”
“But it says that if I look at cows, their milk dries out!”Mary protested.“I look at our Rosie all the time and she’s just fine!”
“As I said, pay it no heed,”Lucille appeased her.
“And it says that you should never give me water, because the second I drink a drop, my gaze will be able to turn people into winged snakes whose eyes throw fire. How am I supposed to never drink water?”Mary protested, outraged.
“It’s just a story, dear. Old wives’ tales,”her aunt said.
“And it says that you shouldn’t bear me to live!”Mary continued, more shocked by the second.“Did people really feel it was their responsibility to rid the world of me?”
Lucille looked down, utterly embarrassed, not knowing what to say to her.
“No wonder nobody ever looks me straight in the eyes, apparently my gaze drains people’s souls into eternal darkness!”Mary started sniffling softly. Lucille wrapped her arms around the girl, to comfort her.
“How am I supposed to live my life, aunt? It’s one thing for people to dislike me, quite another for them to think my very existence is an abomination!”
“Sweetheart, don’t give this another thought, you hear me? Not another thought! I wasn’t born yesterday, I can deal with the ladies, don’t you worry. You just mind your own life and pay them no heed,”she gently caressed the girl’s fiery hair, rocking her back and forth to soothe her like one would a toddler with a scraped knee.
“But,”Mary managed to utter, between bitter sobs,“this is so wrong! Why doesn’t anybody see that this is wrong? I haven’t done anything to deserve it!”
“I know, dear, nobody said you did. Don’t you worry, aunt Lucille won’t let anybody bother you,”she said softly.
“But you shouldn’t have to defend me for being alive! Nobody else has to justify why they should keep breathing! I’ll go to that she-dragon, Mrs. Gentry, tomorrow at dawn and look her straight in the whites of the eyes, just to see her face!”Mary mumbled through her teeth.
“You will do nothing of the sort!”Lucille regained her authoritative voice.“Every time you have a thought, my life gets more difficult. Just set aside the cursed book and find something useful to occupy your time, I’ll handle the Circle.”
“If only half of the stuff in it were true this village would have ceased to exist a long time ago!”Mary continued, outraged.
“You know what? How about we go to the kitchen and see if there are any cookies left?”aunt Lucille tried to entice her.
“I don’t think cookies are going to make this all better, aunt Lucille. This is not a cookie kind of problem,”Mary said. She looked so hurt that her sorrow made Lucille’s heart sink.
Despite Lucille’s constant rebukes Mary became fascinated with the story of the Prophecy and didn’t miss a chance to sneak up into the attic and read it again and again, until she learned its unpleasant contents by heart. It gave her a strange feeling, this story about her, written generations before she’d been born, the script of her life. It didn’t even make her bitter anymore, just filled her with intense curiosity and a weird sense of control over her own future, for if one doesn’t know the script to one’s life, however vexing it happens to be, one can’t make any sense of its circumstances.
After she was done learning the contents, she started studying every other one of its details, the sumptuous snake skin cover, the dark, purplish ink, the rough pages, thick as papyrus, that made the book heavier than lead. She caressed the rugged surface for the hundredth time, as if trying to read the cursive writing with her fingers. The surface was not even, it had continuous indentations that flowed on the page like text, but didn’t follow the well known flourish of the old writing. She looked closer and gasped. Almost unnoticeable (the writer had done a wonderful job scraping off the old content before he wrote over it) underneath the dark purple lettering there was an older writing, undoubtedly the work of a more educated hand.
Mary was about to jump and run to her aunt, to tell her about what she’d discovered and ask for assistance in deciphering the contents, but then she remembered that her aunt forbade her under threat of punishment to go near the Book of Prophecy again, so she reconsidered, put it away and retired to one of her mindless chores to develop a strategy going forward.
Over the following weeks she spent a few hours every day painstakingly making out the old text, sometimes one letter at a time, and then running into the desert and scratching it into the soft soapstone sides of a small cavern she had discovered, until the entire contents of the book embellished its walls like ancient murals.
She never tired imagining who the original writer might have been, or what the text said, because, sadly, the language was unknown to her, with its strange stick like characters that gave it uneven rhythms and the rugged quality of an art form meant to be chiseled in stone.
During her daily routine, whatever she happened to be doing at the time, her mind was always focused on her new project, which gave her a reason to look forward to each day. That afternoon she finished peeling the potatoes for dinner, washed all the dishes and swept the kitchen, and she peeked out the window to make sure the way was clear for her to take the path through the back gate out into the desert in order to delve into the activity that now had her undivided attention.
“Where are you going?”Lucille boomed from behind, stopping her in her tracks.
“Where did she come from?”Mary asked herself, peeved about the change in schedule, and then said out loud:“Nowhere.”
She didn’t feel bad about giving a laconic answer, because in all fairness, she wasn’t going to go anywhere now, so she really wasn’t lying.
“Have you peeled the potatoes for dinner?”her aunt asked unnecessarily, since the bowl of peeled potatoes was placed prominently on the table, right under her nose.
Lucille didn’t know how to talk to Mary, who was obviously hiding something, to ensure the girl didn’t get herself in trouble. She stared her down, only to be met with the usual confused stare, and then sighed and abandoned pursuit.
“We have guests for dinner tonight, we need everything to be just right. I’ll make pot roast!”she boasted, pleased. Mary cringed, since she couldn’t stand pot roast, but said nothing.
“Who’s coming, aunt Lucille?”she asked.
“Rosemary and Giselle, dear,”Lucille choked down the extraneous commentary, more suited to grown-up talk than sharing with a child.
“Oh,”Mary said, turning one shade paler, because Rosemary’s visits always upset her aunt greatly, and the poor girl had to brace against a mound of dirty dishes and Lucille’s unbearable mood after she left.
“Why doesn’t she ever go to Rosemary’s, why do they always have to come here?”she asked herself, and then she remembered Rosemary’s husband and his alleged fondness for Lucille, and figured that would move the situation from the frying pan into the fire.
She sighed, inside her head, of course, if one could conceive of such a thing, because she couldn’t take it anymore when her aunt gave her one of her half hour guilt trips about lack of gratitude and missing for nothing, and moved about the kitchen quietly to bring out the china, polish the silverware and set the table in a way that ensured nobody could find anything objectionable about it.
The dinner unfolded exactly as Mary had imagined it, with the invisible sharp arrows of wit flying precariously close to her head between Lucille and Rosemary, while Giselle interjected completely absurd and, unbeknown to her, inflammatory commentary at the least appropriate moments.
“So, my dear Lucille, don’t tell me you’re the last to hear the news again?”Rosemary asked.
“Whatever do you mean, Rosemary?”Lucille replied.
“I’d rather talk to you about this some other time,”Rosemary made an obvious gesture towards Mary, who, evidently, was somehow entangled in the latest gossip.
“We have no secrets here, if it concerns Mary, she should know about it,”Lucille encouraged.
“It’s just that… Well, you see… I’m sure it’s just talk, Lucille. I don’t mean to bring strife into your household,”Rosemary looked down, waiting for Lucille’s encouragement to continue.
“Sure you do,”the latter thought, “that’s exactly why you are here!” She then continued out loud.“What could possibly have emerged that all of us don’t already know?”she asked.
“Well, people talk.”Rosemary paused.“It appears there is a copy of the Que’d out there, and since this whole story started with all of us thinking dear Mary might have sought her own reflection, and with all the prophecy wisdom being visited upon us again, some of us feared this new peril might have something to do with you,”she whispered.
“The Que’d?!”Lucille laughed heartily.“Did they find the Ghost of the Mists too? The Midnight Fairy?”
“Don’t laugh, Lucille! This is serious!”Rosemary replied offended.
“Sure it’s serious! The Que’d! From the fairy tales! Why shouldn’t I take it seriously!”
“Somebody swore they saw it with their own eyes. Nobody had used the old language in centuries, if it wasn’t the Que’d, how would they have known?”
“Anybody can make up gibberish, how would the person know it was the old language?”Lucille retorted. Rosemary looked a little less unsettled.
“Maybe it was somebody who could read it,”Giselle threw in her two cents and crumbled under the weight of dread springing from both sides.
“Nobody can read the old language, dear!”Lucille bore down on her even more.
“Rumor has it that some people do,”Giselle continued, oblivious, making Lucille’s cheeks suddenly flush. The reaction didn’t escape Rosemary.
“How can you say such a thing, Giselle! You know as well as I do that the old language was banned when the Book of Prophecy was written, it is forbidden to teach it to anyone, especially the young. Who would dare expose themselves and their children to shunning?”she stared Lucille straight in the eyes, thinking “Oh, my, she can read the old language, sure as day! I wonder what else she knows?”She continued.
“You didn’t hear any of this, Lucille? I was hoping to learn more about it from you, why, with your family descending from the Scholars’ line,”she pushed.
Lucille got instantly aggravated. Being a descendant of the Scholars’ line had been the bane of her existence and something she had tried to make people forget her entire life. It kept her out of the better circles, away from prestigious positions and generally held her at arm’s length from sophisticated society. Only grace to marrying her husband, whose lineage had never been tarnished by unseemly ancestry she finally succeeded in reaching a better place in life. The fact that Rosemary never missed a chance to bring that up really did a number on her stomach acids. She paused for a second, to express disapproval, and then answered.
“Of course not. We never discussed forbidden subjects in my family, I’m surprised you’d even ask.”
“Please forget I said anything, then. You know, I’ve been waiting for that exquisite peach pie of yours since the beginning of the evening, do you think we should start dessert?”Rosemary smiled sweetly.
Mary breathed a sigh of relief because she could finally skip out to the kitchen and sort out what she’d just learned, without the all knowing stares of Rosemary and Lucille reaching all the way to the back of her head. She made a mental chart of knowns and unknowns: Lucille could read the ancient language, somebody had discovered the cavern, the even older writing under the old writing was germane and nobody really knew what it said.
The best part of her analysis was that regardless of the content of the older writing, the modified prophecy written over it was no longer relevant. She reminded herself to find out everything she could about the Scholars’ line, transferred the peach pie to the silver platter that had made it out of the attic and back into the dining room, despite its reflective properties, and brought dessert to the table, to the guests’ delight.
“What is the Scholars’ line, aunt Lucille?”Mary asked, braving her aunt’s stormy looks.
The room was quiet for a few moments. Normally Lucille would have chastened the uncouth youth for asking such an impertinent question, but under the circumstances it dawned on her that the spirit of cooperation might bring to the surface details that her niece would otherwise not think of sharing with her. She answered.
“It’s our family line, dear. Way back when the Book of Prophecy was written, some of the members of the council were in disagreement, they insisted the Circle had misinterpreted the ancestral wisdom, they persisted in using mirrors, they founded their own school of thought. There they taught their own philosophy, and science, and rules of conduct, which unfortunately were in direct violation to the Council rules, in every way, really. It didn’t take the Circle long to declare their teachings toxic, a plague on society’s morals and a blatant trampling of our truths. The Circle required them to cease and desist any activities not endorsed by the Council. The more audacious members of the group protested publicly, in the Council Hall, during the plenum meeting, and thus pushed, the Circle, wanting to display strength and cohesion, voted unanimously for immediate banishment of the non-compliant.”
“The remaining members of the Scholars’ line acquiesced to denounce their erroneous teachings and adhere to our society’s truths, and despite the fact that they could never regain the full status and privileges they enjoyed before, they reintegrated in society and managed to live their lives in peace.”
“Of course the Circle never trusted them again, their teachings were showing such disregard for the Prophecy that nobody could in good faith believe them when they said they changed their minds. It’s not something that we usually share with our children, we don’t want to worry you unnecessarily, but some of the things they said…”Lucille paused briefly, unsure if she should continue.
“Please tell, aunt Lucille, I promise I won’t be disturbed,”Mary insisted, wasted effort, really, because Lucille had already decided to share the whole story with her.
“Well, for one, it appears that they worshiped mirrors,”she whispered fearfully. Mary gasped.
“Really?”the girl asked, matching her tone of voice.
“At least that’s what the Council kept saying, over and over, it seems the Scholars protested adamantly when the mirrors were broken and some even placed themselves in front of the cursed objects to protect them. They had this weird belief, though, that not all mirrors are equal, for some they didn’t care at all, and for others they would have laid down their lives.”Lucille paused again, before she continued in an even softer tone of voice, filled with sadness.“Some believe that a few Scholars did lay down their lives to protect the mirrors. What a weird and wasteful idol worship, what would push someone to die for an inanimate object, and an undesirable one at that?!”She stopped to reflect.
Mary waited a few seconds, but curiosity was stronger than her.
“So, what happened next, aunt Lucille? What do we have to do with all of this?”
“Well,”Lucille continued reluctantly, knowing that she’ll have to arrive to her socially undesirable status sooner or later,“again, rumors have it that some of the repenting Scholars weren’t all that repenting. It seems they kept teaching their knowledge in secret, at great peril, at least to their direct descendants, some say they continued teaching the old language,”Lucille continued fearfully,“some say that the old language does something to the mirrors, something unnatural, terrifying.”
“And we are descended from them, aunt Lucille?”Mary said.“How come your parents didn’t try to teach you the old language?”she asked innocently.
“You do realize that what you are asking me is if my parents violated every commandment of our society to fill my head with poisonous untruths?”Lucille objected.
“Really, aunt Lucille, if you did know the old language and wanted to teach me, I’d be more than eager to learn it,”Mary’s eyes shone with curiosity, and her aunt gave her a probing stare and wondered why the girl was suddenly so interested in a dead language nobody could understand anymore.
“Why would you…? Of all the things, Mary!”she continued reluctantly, and then she became a little sad.“I don’t know it, dear. Over time, because of the secrecy and the danger, most of the knowledge was lost, and in the end we were left with bits and pieces, more ritual than true knowledge, really, and that’s all my mother taught me, a few words, I don’t even know what they mean…”
“Surely, you could pick it up if you happened upon the language, if you saw it written, for instance,”Mary insisted. Lucille was drenched in the sudden realization that the girl had gotten herself in over her head and if she didn’t find out exactly what the trouble was, they were both going to end up joining their audacious ancestors in exile.
“See it written? Have you lost all common sense, girl?! Do you know how much effort and grovelling it took me to make those dragon ladies of the Circle look past my undesirable ancestry? Get me kicked out of the Council, why don’t you!”Lucille shouted, outraged.
“Please, auntie? For me?”Mary begged, her clear green eyes looking tearful all of a sudden. Lucille relented.
“All right, I’ll teach you what I know, but mark my words, girl, if you end up getting yourself in trouble, I wash my hands of you,”Lucille agreed reluctantly.“First things first, there is the legend of the Fire Maiden,”she started again.
“I know about the legend of the Fire Maiden,”Mary interrupted her, somewhat disappointed.
“Not that legend. The other legend. I don’t know truth from old wives’ tales, so I’ll feed it to you straight. They say that the blood of the Fire Maiden can open the mirrors, whatever that means.”
Mary stood quietly for a second, pondering what she had just heard. Lucille continued.
“See, it seems that some of the ancestors in the Scholars’ line happened to have hair and eyes like yours. They all got banished, of course, repentant or no,”she continued, trying to pour some ice water over Mary’s newfound elation.“Don’t look so pleased with yourself, girl, I didn’t say that was a good thing.”
“What else do you know?”the girl prodded.
“You heard Rosemary talk about the Que’d, didn’t you?”Lucille whispered.
“The Que’d isn’t exactly a book, more like a set of instructions on how to use the mirrors, some think even how to build them. The legend says that one of our ancestors hid a copy somewhere the Council would never think of looking, and it’s been around ever since. The Council gave up searching for it after several generations, nobody can read it anymore, even if they managed to find it. The old language is forever lost,”she stopped again.
“What else, aunt Lucille?”Mary continued prodding.
“You’ll laugh, I find it hard to believe this myself, but my mother always said that our society was pushed backwards, that the knowledge we lost was infinitely more advanced, she said that our village could talk to other villages through the mirrors, that we sought knowledge in them, all forbidden things, of course.”
Mary gasped, shocked. She started pondering. Nothing good could come out of this, of course, of the mirrors that had secret knowledge in them, that showed pictures from afar, how could this not be from evil? Then maybe the village was right that she was evil too, even though she was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to give anybody snake skin and eyes that set things on fire, she was pretty sure of that.
If those mirrors could pour forth knowledge, who knows what else could come out of them? Who knows what she herself could inadvertently draw out of them, as she and the mirrors were intricately connected. She panicked and decided to tell her aunt what she knew. She went to get the Book of Prophecy.
“Mary, I told you a thousand times to stay away from this cursed tome. What do I need to do to make you listen to me?”Lucille regained her usual attitude.
Mary said nothing, she just opened the book, took her aunt’s hand and started caressing the rugged pages with it until the look in Lucille’s eyes turned from bewilderment to awe.
“Great mercy, it’s all here! Oh, girl, what have you uncovered!” Lucille thought, turning apprehensive eyes towards Mary, to see if her niece had any idea about the importance of her finding. It only took one glance to ascertain that Mary knew she was holding the long lost copy of the Que’d.
They looked at each other for a while, in a tacit understanding that any knowledge driven from the precious tome will never pass their lips. Finally Lucille decided to comment.
“What a strange thing, you know, with all of this resurgence of the legend of the Que’d, that somebody supposedly saw the old language in a cave not far from here! Why would somebody make up a story like that?”she asked, mostly rhetorically. The conversation continued unfolding naturally, in the third person, touching upon the subject lightly, without emotional involvement.
“I actually know that to be a fact, aunt Lucille,”Mary confirmed, omitting to mention the whole month of labor during which she scratched the old language text all over the walls of the cave.“I happened to overhear some of the girls in our workshop talk about it while we were weaving. It’s true, they even mentioned where the cave was,”Mary embroidered upon the truth, prompted by her aunt’s example.
“I worry about you young ladies, these are not acceptable subjects for an evening sitting, what would the Council think?”Lucille faked outrage.“Tell me more, my dear, we need to get to the bottom of this before somebody’s curiosity pushes them to delve even deeper into these treacherous waters!”she prompted.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,”Mary reassured her aunt that discussions about the Que’d hadn’t left the room.“It seems that cave is quite near to our home, aunt Lucille, no farther than eight hundred paces from here.”
“The thought!”Lucille picked up the information and rolled with it.“The Council will want to know all about it, I’m sure. You know what? The ladies have a Circle meeting next evening, maybe I should do some research on the cave before that, just to get a head start on the work. I’m sure the Circle will ponder this subject at length before deciding the fate of the unfortunate artifact. It is not the kind of decision to be taken lightly,”she presented her point.“As much as I dislike involving an innocent child in this grown up matter, I will need your help finding the cave, Mary, since you seem to know where it is. I’m sure the Council will understand my choice, given the importance of this finding.”
“Of course, aunt Lucille,”Mary acknowledged.“I’m ready to go whenever you want.”
“You don’t have any chores? Didn’t Mrs. Gentry assign you anything to do?”Lucille sought reassurance, because the last thing she needed was to have the dragon lady chew her up for overstepping her authority.
“No, I’m all caught up,”Mary embellished the truth again, because in all fairness Mrs. Gentry’s chores were not the ending kind, they tended to go on and on until the complete break down or death of the unfortunate laborer, whichever came first. “Be finished with Mrs. Gentry’s chores, my aunt really does have a sense of humor!”Mary giggled silently in her head.
“Well, then, we should be going, no point in wasting time,”Lucille tried to dissimulate the urgency of her quest. She wanted to make sure she arrived at the scene before any righteous objector managed to damage the writings. She found it very hard to temper her excitement about being among the first people to see the precious text after so many centuries, the sacred book of her ancestors, a treasure of wisdom so many Scholars found worthy of their tribulations and their blood.
She didn’t question whether the copy of the Que’d that adorned the walls of the cave was genuine, Mary’s attitude made it quite clear to her that was not an issue, and she was curious to see how accurate her niece had been in duplicating the pages she could neither see nor read, secretly and in the dark. Lucille worried that the Circle would destroy the cave the moment they found its location, goodness knows some of the members weren’t the most open minded individuals.
She worried that the person who spread the rumor had already risen the entire village to attention, and they were going to find a whole crew at the site when they reached it. She worried that the rumor spreading person was a lot closer to the Circle than Rosemary let out, even one of the members, maybe. She worried that sharing with Mary whatever she could decode from the old language would put them both in danger.
She looked at Mary, who was unfazed, as always, and wondered at the tides of thought that rose and fell behind those transparent eyes. The girl’s hair was very long now, trailing way past her waist, and when the sun shone through it, her entire being was surrounded by its glow, like by a halo.
They had arrived at the cave right before dawn and found it empty, to Lucille’s great relief. The cave had a natural opening at the top, which provided plentiful illumination during the day, but it was still too dark outside, so they waited patiently until the first rays of light hit the beginning of the text, as if the writing had been placed on the wall at that precise location on purpose.
Lucille looked Mary straight in the eyes, in an attempt to figure out whether she had planned the placement of the script, only to realize that she was enacting the very terms of the Fire Maiden’s curse. The bright light of dawn shone from behind the girl’s slight silhouette, rendering her features too dark to distinguish, only her icy green eyes glimmered softly in the darkness.
“Well, at least we crossed one item off the nonsense list, it seems I’m not going to be throwing flames out of my eyes,”Lucille thought, slightly disappointed by the absence of wing growth.
She looked around at the cave, impressed by the amount of thought that went into choosing it. Besides the good illumination the cave had a natural narrowing, like a bottle neck, that wound down, under the wall and then straight back up and divided it into two sections, of which the front was significantly smaller than the back. At first glance one wouldn’t have known there was a second room or a passageway there, since her resourceful niece had the foresight to push a large boulder in front of the opening.
Lucille wondered how did the slight girl have the strength to push that weight back and forth every day, it seemed that Mrs. Gentry’s endless list of hard chores offered some benefits after all.
Upon closer look, the text on the walls of the first cave didn’t seem to make any sense to her, and she feared she must have lost too much knowledge of the old language to decipher it, but Mary went right past it, as if it were of no importance, snuck through the narrow passage that led to the main room and disappeared. Lucille followed her. She emerged into a large hall filled with light, whose walls were adorned with ancient writing, of which she could only make up words here and there, and it saddened her that the wisdom of her ancestral line slowly tapered off until so little of it was passed onto her.
The sun was now high in the sky and she realized that if their presence there were noticed, this would make both of their lives quite difficult, so she signaled to Mary that it was time to go.
“Come, girl, I’ve seen enough. I don’t think it is my place to bring up these findings to the Council, after all many other people seemed more interested than me in this artifact, I’m sure they’ll look into it as they see fit. As for us, we don’t need to meddle into forbidden knowledge and venture into dangerous surroundings, away from our village and home. We’re better served by forwarding our knowledge of the Book of Prophecy that we’ve been so blessed to inherit,”she looked intently at Mary.
“Yes, aunt,”the girl acquiesced. They crawled back out to the first room, whose walls were covered in beautiful graphics, albeit completely decorative. Mary pushed the boulder firmly in front of the entrance and sprinkled a good fistful of dust over and around it.
“We will never come back here again,”Lucille ordered Mary in a low tone of voice.
“Yes, aunt,”Mary replied again, softly.
The Circle meeting was quite boring, filled with organizational issues and the usual polite gossip. Lucille found it hard to pay attention to things she’d been hearing for decades, especially now when she was on pins and needles, filled with curiosity over the contents of the Que’d.
She was lost in thought, trying to make sense of the few words she managed to recall from her childhood, words that jumped at her from the ancient writing. For all intents and purposes, the text was as obscure as an abstract painting, and the fact that she couldn’t read it saddened her.
Lucille tried to remember what her mother had taught her when she was a child, and was furious at herself for not having paid more attention at the time. She was only four or five and the puzzle of the ancient text seemed like a silly game, but she could still remember some of the nursery rhymes. For what it was worth, none of them seemed to have anything to do with the words she had managed to decipher.
Lucille was trying to assess how long it would take Mary to make another copy of the Que’d, one they could study in peace, sheltered from Mrs. Gentry’s prying eyes, when Rosemary’s voice snapped her back to reality with the finality of a sharp arrow.
“Don’t you agree, Lucille?”
She turned towards the source of the sound, and when she was met by Rosemary’s piercing eyes she realized she hadn’t listened to the last half hour of the conversation.
“I apologize, ladies, I’m a little tired today. Agree with what, dear?”she asked Rosemary directly.
“The cave, of course. We have to find out who is responsible for this blatant disregard of our statutes! I don’t mean to impose on you, dear, but, well, with your heritage and everything, we were hoping you could illuminate us in this respect,”Rosemary threw a barb in Lucille’s direction.
The indignity of being descended from the Scholars’ line was again flaunted in front of the entire Circle, and some of the ladies shuffled uncomfortably. Lucille was not bothered. Under normal circumstances, any reference to her lineage irritated her, because she always found herself having to defend being born, but this time it filled her heart with warmth and longing for the lost wisdom of her people. Rosemary noticed the look in her eyes and grew aggravated.
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It is never easy growing up different, but when no one has looked like you in seven generations, social life can become quite difficult to manage. Of course nobody blames you, poor innocent child, for being born a green eyed blonde in a village full of raven haired people, certainly not your aunt, who loves you just the way you are, for the most part. No enlightened elder would give heed to ridiculous superstitions such as â€œthe blond curseâ€ or â€œthe fair maiden of the apocalypseâ€, nor will any reasonable person believe that one glance from your clear green eyes can render cows barren, butâ€¦ Thereâ€™s always a but.