By C. M. Gill
Chapter One: The Descent
I knew I wasn’t supposed to go down there, but I just couldn’t resist.
Every year on this day, for as long as I can remember, mother would pad her way down the stairs, winding down, down, down to the cellar of our easternmost wing.
Last year, I swore that this year, I would find out what she did down there. For months, I’ve been practicing my silent descent, climbing day after day in the stairwells no one used.
I swore my friend Ashley to secrecy on the risk of losing her life so that she’d help me be truly silent. Otherwise, Mother would hear me behind her, and it would all be off.
This morning, after breakfast, I knew Mother would make her excuses to leave the table and then secretly head down there. It was easier than I thought to escape. The King, my step-father, was busy with his work as usual and didn’t notice a thing. I removed my shoes and hid them in the basket outside the kitchen door.
A few seconds later, I tiptoed past the now-sleeping guard who’d foolishly drunk the “tea” I’d given him—really, it was a sleeping tonic Ashley had made for him.
As Mother descended lower and lower down the staircase, I was careful to stick to the shadows cast on the walls by the few glowing torchlights that were lit.
I soon realized with mounting excitement that all my practice was finally paying off. Mother never even so much as glanced backwards toward me. I don’t think it ever occurred to her that I would dare to follow her down here. She still thought I was a little girl who cared only about my dolls, but I knew more than she thought I did. I paid attention to more than she knew.
When she finally reached the end of the staircase, I saw that it dead-ended into a large wooden doorway. Mother fished a large key out of her front pocket, and I tried not to panic. How would I get through that door? She’d never in a million years not notice if I walked in after her. I knew those kinds of doors. They were hundreds of years old, and they creaked so loud when you opened them that the people in China probably cringed.
I need not have worried. The door slowly creaked open and was as loud as I imagined it would be, but it must have been very, very heavy because Mother looked to be pushing it with all her might but was only able to move it a few inches, just enough to allow herself entry. She didn’t bother to close it behind her, so it remained standing open, like an invitation to come pass through it and enter the room that it guarded.
I couldn’t resist.
Once I figured Mother was far enough into the room to not notice my entry, I inched my way toward the open door.
This was it, I told myself, pausing to relish the moment. I was finally going to know what in the world mother came down here to do every year.
Chapter Two: The Chamber at the Bottom of the Stairs
When I reached the door’s opening, I found myself blinking. It was so dark down there that I couldn’t see a thing. Still, I’d come too far to turn back now, so I took a deep breath and made myself walk forward into the room, putting my hands out as I did, just in case there was anything blocking my path.
My eyes began to adjust after a few seconds, and I realized I could barely make out the shapes in the room. I came to a large one and felt it with both hands, trying to discern what it was exactly. It felt like a chest of drawers, so I decided to take cover behind it and wait until I could see better and figure out where Mother had gone.
My eyesight slowly got better, and as I looked around, I realized the room was a large chamber filled with old, dusty furniture, clothes, and other things that someone had carelessly draped sheets over and tucked away down here.
Suddenly, I could make out a figure just a few feet away from me. Mother! She was standing in front of a large, oval-shaped object that hung on the wall.
She paused in front of it and seemed to be staring at it. I could tell from the movement of her shoulders that she was breathing deeply. She was nervous, I realized. But Why? What is going on? I wondered.
As she stood there for several minutes, standing silently in front of the object, I realized that there was a clock ticking somewhere in the room, still diligently measuring the passage of time, even though no one ever came down here to hear it.
Tick tock tick tock, tick tock, it insisted.
Even above the sound of the clock’s incessant ticking, I could hear mother’s quick and shallow breaths. They were starting to come even quicker and more rapidly as more and more time ticked by.
She was obviously upset and nervous, and I wanted to go to her and comfort her, but I didn’t dare. I forced myself to wait. I just had to know what she was doing.
She finally lifted her hand, and pulled the sheet off the object. My hands flew to my mouth to silence the gasp that wanted to escape from it when I saw what the object was.
It was an enormous, oval-shaped mirror. It was both horrifically ugly and somehow enchantingly beautiful at the same time. I felt both terrified of and drawn to it at the same time.
Mother stepped closer to it, and placed her right hand onto its glass, and I almost tumbled backwards when I saw a figure appear in it and begin to speak.
To You, My Queen, I give my loyalty
For you, My Queen, are highest royalty
Ask me now what ye wish to know
And in my reflection the truth will it show
I stared breathlessly at the mirror, unable to move. As I squinted and leaned forward to get a better look, I realized I could see mother’s reflection in the mirror.
She looked terrified, and I watched her close her eyes and mutter to herself. Then, finally, her eyes flew open and she spoke, her voice commanding and certain:
“Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
Who is the Fairest of Them All?”
The figure in the mirror offered a slick, menacing smile in return, and then delivered his ill-fated lines.
Famed is thy beauty, Majesty,
But Hold. A lovely maid I see.
So fair in fact,
She is more fair than thee.
Oh, no! I thought desperately. Surely there was no other woman in the Kingdom more beautiful than Mother.
No woman would dare claim to have more beauty than Mother, I thought. I found myself even feeling a little sorry for this poor creature who thought to challenge Mother.
She was a kind woman most of the time, but not when it came to her beauty. She might even banish the woman forever from our midst.
I watched as Mother’s face grew dark, and anger filled her entire body, stiffening her limbs, and swallowing up her beauty, turning her into a growling monster, her eyes green like a tiger’s and her nostrils flashing like a charging bull’s.
“Alas for her,” Mother spat. “Reveal to me her name. Immediately.” The mirror again spoke:
Lips red as the rose
Hair black as ebony
Skin white as snow.
She’s a young one, she is,
But her, oh her, you do know.
“Bianca?” Mother whispered.
My eyes flew up to hers in horror. She must have seen me in the mirror.
What a fool I was for coming down here. I prepared myself for the tongue lashing I was about to receive, but then I realized Mother hadn’t seen me. She wasn’t even looking at me. Her eyes flashed with a desperate and crazed fear, then with anger and rage, and I found myself wanting to be out of that room and as far away from it as I could possibly get.
“Indeed,” the mirror replied. “Your own daughter, Bianca, is becoming more fair even than thee. Her beauty shall only grow over the coming years, and it will surpass and overshadow your own—unless…”
My panic soon turned to terror, and I felt myself sweating, my heart pounding furiously.
“No. It can’t be,” I whispered, shaking my head violently.
“No,” Mother whispered, backing away from the mirror.
“Oh, yes, it is true, and furthermore, you know it to be true,” the Mirror assured her. His voice sounded to me like a slick snake, and as he spoke, he seemed to wrap himself around Mother, slowly squeezing the life out of her as he praised my beauty.
“Wait,” Mother suddenly cried. “You said ‘unless’. Unless what??” Mother asked, pleading and pushing herself up against the mirror.
The mirror suddenly became silent.
“ANSWER ME! I command you to speak. NOW!” Mother screamed.
“Very well, my Queen,’ the mirror answered. “Your daughter’s beauty will surpass and cast a shadow on your own, unless,” he paused dramatically here.
Both Mother and I leaned forward.
“Unless you destroy her,” he said.
“Destroy her? My own daughter?” She asked, backing away from the mirror.
“Oh, please, God. Let there be some other way! Please! I prayed. I couldn’t lose Mother; I just couldn’t.
“It is the only way,” the mirror assured her.
“No,” Mother protested. “I won’t do it.”
I smiled through the tears that were now cascading down my face. Yes, Mother, yes. Resist this evil. It isn’t true! It isn’t true! I love you, Mother, I told her silently.
The figure shrugged. “Then you shall never again, after this year, be the fairest of them all,” he told her. “Good day, My queen,” he said. “Enjoy old age,” he added, and his likeness began to fade.
Just as I was about to rise and go to Mother, she suddenly cried out. “Wait!”
The figure appeared again the mirror. “Your Majesty?”
“I…I…well, what would we have to do, exactly? Is there a way she can still…live?”
He smiled that sickening smile again. “Come closer, my dear, and I will tell you all you need to know.”
I shook my head back in forth in horror. No. NO! She wouldn’t do it. No way.
My stomach seemed to fall out of my body as I watched in disbelief and terror as my mother slowly drew herself nearer to the mirror, and commanded him to speak his plan to her.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe, and the room began to spin around me. I felt hot and cold at the same time. I couldn’t make sense of anything. Who was I? Where was I? Somehow, something told my brain to get me out of that chamber. I still don’t know how, but my legs miraculously carried me out of the room and up the long, winding stairwell.
When I reached the top, the guard was still fast asleep, drool dripping from the side of his mouth. I raced past him and stopped only when I got to my room. I slammed the door shut and threw myself on my bed and wept for what felt like hours.
When my tears finally dried up and I could cry no more, I realized I must face this problem head on.
But how? I asked myself, fear and desperation again mounting themselves in my heart. My own mother wanted to destroy me? How could this be?
Suddenly, I realized I knew someone who would be able to help me, probably the only person on earth who could help me. I somehow summoned the strength to force my body to rise, and I headed out of my room, down the stairs, out into the grounds, and then onto the road to town.
I just prayed she’d be home when I got there. I had no idea how much time I had.
Chapter Three: At Grandmother’s
When I reached grandmother’s beautiful cottage about half an hour later, relief flooded my body when I saw her huge straw hat bobbing up and down among the beautiful flowers that she kept in her garden. Mother had offered to hire her a gardener, but grandmother had refused because she loved flowers so much that she said she wanted to tend to them herself.
“Grandmother?” I called out, dashing my way toward the hat.
“Bianca?” Grandmother’s voice returned.
“Yes, it’s me!” I yelled back.
“Hello, darling!” she called, rising as she saw me rushing toward her.
When I reached her, I fell into her arms and found myself sobbing all over again.
“Darling, darling? What’s all this?” she asked.
I couldn’t stop sobbing, so she just held me to her chest and rocked me back and forth.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally dried my eyes with the handkerchief she’d produced for me, and I looked up into her eyes and sniffed, trying to control myself.
“What is the matter, Dear?” she asked, gently brushing my hair out of my face.
“It’s…it’s mother,” I finally managed to say in between hiccups.
“Bella?” She asked. “Is she okay?”
I felt myself grow resentful at grandmother’s concern about Mother. I was the one standing in front of her crying. “Oh, she’s fine. It’s me you have to worry about!” I cried.
“But darling, you just said—” Grandmother began, but I interrupted her.
“She’s become EVIL, grandmother,” I said, and then paused, not sure how to explain everything that had happened.
I expected her to laugh at me and tell me I was being silly, but I should have known better. Grandmother always took me and everything I said at face value. We were honest with each other; that was our pact.
Instead of laughing away my concern, she looked at me with great seriousness and asked, “What do you mean, Bianca? What’s happened?”
I started to spill out the story as best I could in between sobs and hiccups. I barely made it to the part where I entered the chamber, and she held up hand to stop me.
“Is it that damn mirror?” she asked.
My eyes widened. “You know about the mirror?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Of course,” she replied, sighing deeply. “Every woman in the Kingdom over 14 years of age knows about that damn mirror,” she told me.
“What?” I asked, so confused.
She shook her head. “Never mind for now, my dear. I thought we had more time before it poisoned her. We’ll have to act quickly. Come along, darling.”
“But…where?” I asked as she practically dragged me through the garden and to her cottage.
“It’s time we destroyed that mirror. Once and for all,” she said. I’m not sure if she was speaking to me or herself, so I said nothing. I would not be 14 for almost 2 years, and besides, I didn’t understand what age had to do with the mirror.
She stalked into her cottage and picked up a large book and stuffed it into an oversized bag that she slung over her shoulder.
“No time to waste, my dear. Let’s get going,” she told me, carefully locking her door behind her.
“But where, Grandmother? I don’t understand what’s going on,” I told her as we took off down the path toward the road that led to town. She offered no response, so together, we headed into town.
Chapter Four: Circling the Wagons
When we reached the town, Grandmother headed into the Herb district, where all the women who worked with herbs lived.
All of the homes looked the same to me, and I had no idea how Grandmother would find anyone, but she walked right up to a building with a red painted door and beat on the oversized brass knocker that hung on it.
“Sally?” Grandmother called. “It’s time!”
The door flew open, and a young boy motioned for us to enter. It was small but cozy living room we entered, and we stood and waited for whoever this woman was that Grandmother knew.
“Sally?? It’s TIME!” Grandmother repeated.
“Time?” We heard a woman’s voice called back to us from somewhere in the distance.
“Yes! TIME,” Grandmother said, stressing the word.
A woman’s head popped up from around the corner and her eyes became big as saucers the instant they met Grandmother’s. “Oh! Time,” she said. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?”
Grandmother shook her head, and the woman simply nodded and then called out. “Clara? Jennifer? Leasel? Let’s go. Bring the supplies. It’s TIME.”
Within minutes, the woman called Sally somehow had about half a dozen women gathered in her small, round living room, all of whom looked solemn and determined. Some of them held strange-looking sacks of herbs or bags of crystals that they clutched tightly, but all of them were beautiful, each in her own way, I noticed.
“Well, no time like the present. Let’s go get the men,” Sally announced.
“The men?” I whispered to Grandmother. She nodded but motioned for me to remain silent.
“Should the girl be going?” one of the women asked, motioning toward me.
“This concerns her, too,” Grandmother replied.
“Is she old enough to understand?” another of the women returned.
“She’s old enough to be harmed by it, then she’s old enough to understand,” Grandmother told her. “Honestly, we should have told her years ago. All of our daughters,” she sighed.
Sally paused. “You’re right, Eleanor,” she told Grandmother. “Ladies, go get your girls,” she told them. “They should come, too.”
The women remained frozen. “But…” one of them protested.
“We must not hide this from them anymore. They must know the dangers they face,” Sally said, her voice firm. “Gather them and meet us at the castle. We’ll go get the men, and then all of us will enter together.”
The women exchanged glances and then sped off, leaving just Sally, Grandmother, and I alone in the room. The three of us then dashed out of her house and into the streets of town.
Horses and people whirled past us in a blur as we turned down this alley, then that one, and then yet another one. I was starting to feel dizzy, and all of the alleys looked the same to me. Yet, in each new alley, Sally seemed to know someone else, and she went up to certain doors and knocked, telling them simply, “It’s time,” and the person would always nod, grab some accoutrement that they tossed into a bag, throw the bag over their shoulder, and then join us.
When we arrived at the last door—a large wooden one that was painted green—I was surprised to see that I actually knew the person who answered.
“Michael!” I squeaked. I hadn’t mean to cry out, but his presence took me by surprise. Surrounded by strangers, except Grandmother, it was just so nice to see a familiar face.
Sally whirled around to look at me. “Do you two know each other?” she asked, her eyes darting back and forth between Michael and me.
Michael blushed and looked down at the ground as he ran one of his hands through his hair and nodded.
“Yes,” I replied. “He is one of my classes at school,” I explained.
“Demon slaying,” he said, raising his eyes to meet mine. “She’s one of the best in the class,” he told everyone.
Now, it was my turn to look at the ground and blush. “Thanks,” I managed to say.
After Michael joined us, we had quite a large group, about a dozen or so people, and we marched wordlessly through the town. We must have made for an odd-looking group because many people stopped their work to stare as we went by, some of them making funny faces or noises at us as we passed them and made our way out of the town and into the countryside.
I did my best to control myself as we walked. I didn’t want to start sobbing in front of everyone, but I couldn’t get the image of mother stepping up to that mirror out of my head.
Michael fell in step beside me but didn’t say a word. It was like he somehow knew something was wrong, yet he didn’t pry. I was silently grateful, as I didn’t think I could speak without bursting into tears again. It had been one thing when we’d been in town, going from one house to another, but now that we were back in the countryside and heading straight back to my castle, the horrible memories just came flooding back, echoing in my mind, over and over and over.
As we approached the gates of my castle about an hour later, the guards rose, looking with suspicion at our large group. Their faces softened a bit when they saw it was Grandmother at the helm, but I noticed they kept their spears in their hands.
“Good day, Stanley, James, Sherman, Thomas,” she said as she nodded to them.
“Good day, Your Ladyship,” they echoed, nodding to her.
“We’ll be going inside in just a few moments. Waiting for a few more people,” she informed them. She stood on her tip toes to look over the hill that led to our castle. Within minutes, the women we’d met earlier came into view, and I could see they’d brought their daughters.
Anna and Sophia and Clytemnestra and Mary and Ruth trailed behind their mothers, trudging up the hill. When they reached us, I waved to the girls in greeting, and they waved in return, but I could tell from the confused looks on their faces that they were as baffled as I was about what was going on here.
Grandmother nodded to the guards again and then stalked past them and into the outer edges of our grounds. Everyone in our group just followed her and traipsed onto our land, trailing behind Grandmother.
I could tell the guards didn’t quite know what to do, but they didn’t dare question or stop Grandmother. They knew better than that.
When we reached the moat that surrounded my castle, grandmother paused and turned to look at the group. “All right,” she said. “Now, this will probably get ugly, so just follow my lead, okay?” she asked.
“Of course,” Sally replied, nodding.
“Um, what is going on?” Anna piped up in a small voice.
“Don’t worry, Dear, when we get down there, you’ll know what to do,” Grandmother said, clearly thinking this would reassure her.
I could tell from the terrified look on Anna’s face, that this reply meant no more to her than it did to me, and as I exchanged glances with Michael, I got the feeling everyone there knew something none of us girls did.
Chapter Six: Confronting the Mirror
Grandmother charged across the bridge that lay over the moat, and we soundlessly followed her. She headed straight for the easternmost tower, and I found myself for the second time that day making the descend down, down, down to the cellar that lie at the stairs’ end.
This time, I didn’t bother to hide my footsteps, as our group’s noisy clatters were already echoing their way down the stairwell. Anyone who was down there would have no trouble knowing we were coming. I assumed that was part of the plan.
“Your castle is beautiful,” I heard a voice whisper to me.
I turned and saw that Michael was climbing just behind me. “Oh, thanks,” I muttered back, wishing I had something more sophisticated to say to him.
“Listen, I’m sorry about all this, with your mom and everything,” Michael told me. “I think it’s going to work out okay, though.”
“How do you know about any of this?” I asked him, but he never got a chance to answer. Grandmother had reached the bottom of the stairwell and delivered a loud “Shhh!” as she paused at the door to wait for us to reach her.
I have no idea why she bothered to shhh anyone when we’d just made all that clamor coming down the stairs, but I suppose she had her reasons.
When we all finally got there, she gave us quick but strict instructions. “Let my granddaughter and me handle my daughter. The rest of you are mere back-up. Understand?”
“Come on, darling,” Grandmother said to me, and I felt myself being pulled to the front of the group, just behind Grandmother.
“What, uh, what are we doing?” I asked.
She never answered but simply took my hand and walked forward, and suddenly I realized I was back in the dark chamber.
Chapter Seven: Happily Ever After?
For the second time that day, I saw the outline of the oval mirror, and in front of stood a form that could only be my mother. Yet, she seemed different somehow, transformed—no longer herself. I shuddered as I realized what her energy reminded me of: the demons I slayed in my class.
“Bella, step away from that mirror,” Grandmother said.
An icy laughed escaped from my Mother’s body. “I knew you’d come, Old Woman. What power do you think you have over me?”
Grandmother reached into her bag and pulled something out of it.
“Just this,” she said casually.
Apparently, Mother couldn’t stand the suspense, for she finally whirled around to see what Grandmother was holding. When she did, I gasped. The woman who used to be my Mother was almost unrecognizable.
The body was the same, but her usually kind, beautiful blue-green eyes were gone and in their place sat two hate-filled green eyes that flashed with a furious rage. Her mouth looked like it was ready to spit fire, and her limbs were stressed and shook oddly. What had happened to her?
As her eyes processed the book Grandmother held up to her, she reared back, and I thought I saw a hint of her old self, but it soon faded and she laughed again, though this time not as heartily. I glanced at Grandmother’s hand and saw that she held a copy of our most sacred book.
“Oh, yes, and this, too,” Grandmother said, pulling another object out of bag. I turned to look, and saw it was the most beautiful painting of Mother that I had ever seen. It was the one of her in the town, tending to the sick children whom she’d nursed when the Plague came through.
“Ha ha, you’ll have to do better than that!” Mother cackled, but again I saw a trace of her coming back, and I just couldn’t resist. I stepped forward.
“And me, Mother. She brought me. Your daughter. I’m your daughter, and I love you!”
“Get away from me!” Mother screamed, throwing her arm up over her face.
“NO!” I screamed and dashed forward, throwing my arms around her. I held onto her for dear life, gripping the folds of her dress, scratching and clawing at her to stop her from pushing me away. I was stronger than either of us had realized, and slowly her fight lessened, and I felt her body give in.
I then became aware of the chanting sounds going on around us, and when I finally looked up, I realized everyone in our group had formed a circle around us. Torches were lit, and some of the men and women sat on the ground, kneeling and either chanting or praying while others held hands and sang hymns as they circled us. A small group of 7 garden gnomes smiled up at us, and I wondered where they’d come from. A quick glance at Michael’s smiling face answered that question.
Grandmother walked directly up to Mother and put the sacred book into her hands. “Look in here, my daughter, to find yourself,” Grandmother told her.
“Or here,” Sally said, handing Mother a rose.
“Or here,” another woman said, handing Mother a crystal.
“Or here,” one of the men said, giving Mother a seed.
Mother paused and looked at each of us, and I could see her eyes clearing. The flashes of rage were gone and had been replaced with something deeper, a light that I’d seen in her before and couldn’t quite remember at first, but then I suddenly did.
“Or HERE, Mother,” I said, grabbing her face and forcing her to look into her eyes. After several long seconds, her body convulsed, and something seemed to leave her. She smiled that beautiful smile I’d remembered from when I was a little girl.
She hugged me and then turned back toward the mirror. For one sickening second, I thought she was going to activate it again. Instead, she attempted to lift it off the wall, pulling at it with all her might.
“Help me!” she cried, and with that our group rushed to help her rip the mirror off the wall. Once we finally loosened it, and Mother had it in her hands, she glanced back at me, and then at Grandmother, who nodded. Mother lifted it high over her head and then turned and threw it across the room, the sound of millions of pieces of shattered glass filling the chamber.
I wish I could say that from that day forward, everyone in our Kingdom lived happily ever after. But, sadly, that wouldn’t be true.
We destroyed a mirror that day, it’s true. But, there are millions of other mirrors out in the world, mirrors just like the one that used to be in our cellar. Now, we await our happily ever after as we hope that our friends will discover something better to find themselves in than the mirror..