‘Reflection’, Jessica E. Birch

Illustrations © 2010 Carmen

 [ Mirror, © 2010 Carmen ] This is how it begins.

You open the carved cherry-wood shutters and gaze into the mirror. The skirt with its heavy midnight brocade, the high-heeled slippers pinching your feet, the viciously tight corset stealing the air from your throat like the hand of a jealous lover—they make you beautiful.


Mirror, mirror, on the wall
Who is the fairest of them all?

You are.

Yes. Beautiful, with your blonde hair and blue eyes. He said it, and the mirror agrees.

They tell you about the child later. His child. Her child. Not your child.

“Poor thing, her mother is dead,” they say.

You have them bring the child to you. She is quiet, small, and sweet. She is also lovely. At age seven, she makes grown men stutter when she enters a room. You smile at her and try to talk, but she does not want to talk. Her dark eyes stare accusation at you from her pale face. You are in her mother’s place.

She does not like that.

She does not like you.

You send her away. Back to her nurse, back to her games, back to whatever it is that she does, in her silent beauty. You wish that you could like her, that you could be friends, but when you think of calling her back, you remember her eyes and the way she tossed her black hair—darker than midnight in a graveyard—when she left. You decide that you need not contend with the child. She does not want to talk to you. You can accept that.

After all, you are not her mother.

“There is no heir,” he says to you. The mirror reflects the glittering gaze of his crown. He wears it always. When he wooed and won you, you did not think that you were marrying a man who would wear his crown to visit you.

You smile in the mirror, into your beautiful face over his shoulder, and you consider saying: There is the girl. And then you remember her lips, scarlet and smiling a tiny, secret smile as you pass her in the halls. Looking back at his eyes, you say, “I will see the midwife.”

She gives you a potion to drink. It will increase your fertility, she says. Hatred oozes from her small dark eyes. You wonder whether she tells you truth or whether the black bottle is poison, but you smile at her—at yourself in the mirror as you look past her impassive face and vicious eyes—and thank her. You are to drink the potion thrice daily, she says, and holds out her filthy, grasping hand for the payment.

In time, you are able to advise him that you are with child. He nods carelessly and pats your head in precisely the same way he pets his favorite hound bitch. Days pass. He does not come to you to perform that act in the middle of the night that you pretend to loathe and secretly crave.

Mirror, mirror...

The mirror shows your high, round breasts above the stays that press into your skin so deeply that you sometimes bleed at night. They keep your waist so narrow that his hands can span it and often have, but not now, not through the changes of the moon from new to quarter to half. Tomorrow night the moon will be full. If you are beautiful, why will he not come to you? Was this all that he wanted from you, for you to sweat and scream and bleed until an heir slides from between your thighs?

Why does he absent himself?

A shimmer, a change, and the mirror answers. You see yourself far gone with child, your belly bulging out in front of you like a millstone attached to your body. Your eyes are still blue, but they are tired, and deep, bruised shadows lurk under them. Your blonde hair is limp and unwashed. A cheap cotton dress hangs on your frame, strained across the breasts and stomach. The image repulses you, and you shove it away, realizing what you do only when your hands touch the mirror.

The image vanishes, replaced by you as you are now.

When you are vomiting and the blood is running down your thighs, you look into the mirror, over the shoulder of the maids. As they wail and cry for the loss of his heir, the mirror shows you the image again of yourself, heavy and tired. The image gradually shrinks and brightens until you see yourself: not the woman huddled over a basin with a rag clutched to her pelvis, but the true you. The beautiful you.

Between the heaves, you smile a tiny, secret smile.

The second time you paid the midwife, the money was better spent.

“I will never betray you, my lady. Never.” She lied, but you knew that as you watched her eyes shift in the mirror. No matter. You had planned for that, remembering the sour turn of her mouth and the way she stared at you from the corners of her eyes. You are the queen. Treachery is treason and treason is punishable by death.

On the wall...

He would not come to you in the night, but another would.

Another did.

Beauty is power. You thought it was all the power that a woman could have until you discovered what men would do for a few short minutes of being sheathed inside you.

The mirror shows your breasts hanging down as the huntsman plunges into you, ecstasy and agony one in his face. For a moment, he is beautiful, as you look at his reflection. Then your view clears and you see that he is but a man, rutting as men do. He tells you that he loves you, over and over, as he kisses your pink mouth and the curve of your hip and the arch of your foot. Then he goes, and once he is gone, you wash quickly and thoroughly.

Staring into the mirror, you think of his words and you wonder: what is love?

Perhaps he will come soon. He intends to get you with child again. How long will it take until he realizes that it will not happen? Until he no longer comes to your room with its tapestries and the clinging scent of your perfume?

No matter.

That feeling, the small shameful warm feeling, that you used to have in your bed with him at night, it is gone. It may have left the first time with the huntsman, or perhaps it was when you swallowed the midwife’s potion. You wash male scent from your skin, and you think that perhaps you imagined that feeling before.

You never felt anything during the act.

How could you have?

No, nothing.

A knock sounds at the door, and when you stand to open it, the mirror shows your beauty.

The perfect porcelain skin that you had when you came eight years ago is no longer so perfect. From a distance, you are the same, but the mirror shows your truth. The mirror shows your age: twenty-six. You see the fine, fine lines around your eyes. The mirror shows the thickening of your waist, and your breasts are no longer so round and high. A faint shadow under your jaw causes you to look more closely, and it is then that you see it. Sagging flesh, there, under your chin.

You are appalled, and a sneaking terror twists its way into your soul.

Who is...

You are the fairest, the mirror says. You nod, and when you wave away the food that they bring you, when you are doubled up in bed from the cramps of your belly, when your ribs bleed and ache from the tightening of the corset, you remember. The fairest of them all. So you are. So you must remain.

As the huntsman bends you over, you fix your eyes on the mirror.

You are twenty-eight.

“Beautiful, my lady, she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen," says the huntsman as he toys with your hair.


You are no longer a girl. There is a sudden sharp pain, and you wince. He has pinched you, roughly. The hands that once handled you with care and awe are different now. They know that you cannot object, that in the death that lies between you is the power, for he understands—he has always understood—why the midwife had to die. For a short time, he was yours.

Now, you are his.

Beauty and sex and power.

What do you have?

When the huntsman goes, you dally before washing. The other has not come to your chamber for sixteen moons. Some girl. She must be from the village, they say, whispering as they bustle about your chamber, pretending that they do not know you can hear. Some girl. You wonder if he wears his crown when he visits her.

The fairest...

When you ask, the mirror shows you the girl. Hair black as a moonless eve, lips red as blood.

You have nothing.

“Do you understand?”

He nods with no hesitation. “Kill the girl.”

“Take her to the forest first,” you correct sharply. No one may know, no one may hear, and most of all, no one may see. Only you will see, if the mirror chooses to show you. The huntsman’s eyes glitter in the mirror. They shift, like the eyes of the midwife.

To your surprise, it hurts.

The mirror chooses to show you.

Of them...

As you watch him take his pleasure of her—a payment she completes with alacrity, suggesting that perhaps she is not so sweet as she seemed, and with an enthusiasm that makes you think of a small, warm feeling you might have had once—before sending her off into the forest, your chest hurts. A sharp, painful stab, almost as though someone has plunged a knife into your heart. You carefully apply the paint to your too-pale cheeks, and the feeling fades.

When he comes back, his eyes go to your cheeks, with their artificial color.

In the mirror, you see pity in his face. Looking away, you offer him the mulled wine: warmth against the cold of the forest he so recently entered. He takes it, and then he takes you, and this time, you do not watch in the mirror.

As he lies on the funeral bier, you smile a small, secret smile.

Treachery is treason.

Moons pass while you plan. The mirror shows you the girl, surrounded by the small, hairy men of the forest. She lives with them, paying them as she paid the huntsman. But sometimes, they must leave. To gather food. To hunt. One day, when they go hunting, so do you.

She is pathetically grateful to see you, and the fear that she might recognize you passes within moments. After all, it has been ten years since she tossed her hair as she left your rooms, ten years since her dark eyes measured you and found you wanting. Now she smiles, talks endlessly as she has you sit near the fire: “Here, Mother, warm yourself at the hearth.”


You are ten years older than she, ten only. The warmth that you had begun to feel at her artless chatter dissipates. She accepts your gift with the same enthusiasm she gave to the huntsman—your huntsman—and you watch as she greedily eats the sweet.

“It comes from the castle, my lady,” you say to her. “My cousin gave it to me.”

She does not ask why you have chosen to give it to her, just as she did not question your presence. Instead, she licks the crumbs from her fingers and smiles, satisfied. She does not say thank you. No thanks are necessary for what she expects as her due. She is beautiful.


When she chokes, her hands going to her throat, you watch until she lies on the floor, her black hair pooling around her, her red lips a stark contrast to the paleness of her skin—skin white as death. Then you pick up your basket and you turn to leave, but you go to her and close her dark, staring eyes.

Why did she call you “Mother"?

Perhaps you always knew that there was no hope, that one day she would come back. One day is sooner than you expected, but in a way, it is a relief. The mirror shows you her return, triumphant as the foreign prince holds her before him on his steed. You watch until they are only a few leagues from the palace, until the mirror shows you her face. She is twenty, now. Six years until she, too, begins to fade.

Fewer if she becomes a mother.

 [ Beauty, © 2010 Carmen ] Before you step out of the window, you open the carved cherry-wood doors of the mirror and gaze into it. You consider breaking the mirror. Saving her. She has done nothing, except take that which the world allows her to have—a small portion, soon to be lost, just as yours has been.

She called you “Mother.”

Perhaps the cycle could change.

Then the doors swing closed, protecting the mirror. Try as you might, you cannot open them.

“She is dead, my lady,” they say. “Stepped right out of the window, we don’t know why she would have done it.” They look out of the window, down at her body lying broken and still on the pavement, and they shake their heads. “So beautiful, she was, too. So very beautiful.”

When they go, you open the carved cherry-wood shutters and gaze into the mirror. The corset squeezes your lungs as it compresses your waist, and the weight of the gown he gave you is exhausting. But they make you beautiful.


Mirror, mirror, on the wall
Who is the fairest of them all?

You are, I say.

Yes. Beautiful, with your black hair and your red lips. I agree.

For now.

This is how we begin.

© 2010 Jessica E. Birch

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