The mirror around which my story revolves is not an ordinary mirror. It is a treasure passed down by the queens of fairyland to their daughters. Each princess receives the mirror on her thirteenth birthday and must protect it until her own daughter comes of age.
When the mirror is well guarded, the fairies prosper. Friends are loyal, generous and kind. Grandchildren safely play at the feet of the old. The weak are cared for with devotion, the wicked punished. But, sometimes, when a careless princess damages the mirror, chaos reigns. Then no fairy understands why he has been born, why he lives and why he dies.
If no daughter is born to the king and queen, the mirror is taken to a vault beneath the palace to be cared for by The-Oracle-That-Never-Dies until a new princess can receive it.
At the time our story begins, there hadn’t been a princess for some generations. But the queen of fairyland had finally given birth to a girl and tonight was the evening of her thirteenth birthday. The Oracle’s servant had come and gone leaving his precious gift. The princess was alone with the mirror.
Now this princess was quite a frivolous princess. She was good-hearted, but much too pretty and much too fond of getting her own way. She’d been eagerly looking forward to this moment for there were no other mirrors in fairyland. The fairies had to be content with seeing their reflections in bits of shiny metal or pools of water.
The princess stared at the object on her lap. It was, she had to admit, a disappointment. Instead of the jewel-encrusted treasure she’d expected, this was a plain wooden box with a circle of tiny seed pearls on the lid. And what lay within was even plainer, a small, flat object like a dish, without embellishment, without glamour.
But the worst surprise came when the princess lifted the mirror and gazed at her own image. For the mirror reflected what no casual observer saw. The princess’s eyes were large, a lovely shade of blue, but they were vacant. The pink and flawless skin resembled wax. And the mouth, the plump bow mouth, looked petulant and spoiled. The princess felt a prickle of irritation which grew and grew until she was very cross.
The angrier she became, the more the face in the mirror became distorted. Finally, the princess couldn’t bear it. Forgetting what she held, she jumped up, opened her window and flung it away.
At the sound of glass breaking on rocks below, the princess suddenly realized what she’d done and rushed from her room. But, since she lived in a tower of the palace, by the time she got downstairs, all the fragments of the mirror had disappeared. Attracted by their sparkle, birds, insects and animals had snatched them up and fled. The princess stood rooted to the spot, frozen with dread.
Suddenly she remembered that no one saw the mirror but herself. If she told nobody of the loss, pretended that the mirror was still safe, perhaps all would be well.
At that moment, something caught her eye, a wink of light from the ground. She bent and scraped the earth, and as she did so, she felt a prick of pain. She pulled her finger back, and saw, embedded in the tip, a tiny sliver of the mirror. The princess plucked it out. Holding it reverently in her palm, she carried it back to her room and placed it in the box.
The next day passed uneventfully. But, late at night, as she slept in her canopied bed, the princess was awakened by a storm. A ferocious wind shrieked and rain beat down. Trees in the forest groaned as their branches broke. Some were even uprooted and flew away along with entire houses. There hadn’t been such a storm for generations.
Now, the princess was not stupid. Her silly little face and spoiled manner disguised a clever mind and sensitive heart. It wasn’t her fault that she was much too pretty and had been badly raised. As the night wore on, she felt more and more certain of the connection between the broken mirror and nature’s rage. It would be wise to consult the Oracle. But the princess was too frightened and too ashamed. Perhaps, she told herself, the only punishment will be this storm. Consoled by such hopeful thoughts, she fell asleep.
But the storm was just the beginning. The fairies had barely managed to repair the terrible damage and restore a little order to their kingdom, when a war began. The king must have been mad. His comments to a neighbouring monarch had been unpardonably insulting. So armies clashed, young men died, and families wept. When peace was finally declared, a plague broke out and wiped out half the kingdom within a year. Babies were particularly vulnerable to the disease. Their filmy wings went first, crumbling to dust. After that, death came in a matter of hours.
The princess resolved to speak to the Oracle. Concealed in a cape, she slipped into the forest. No one really knew where the Oracle lived or if he would show himself. Sometimes he chose to appear and sometimes not.
Hours passed. When the forest was utterly dark, the princess curled up to rest under a tree. After some time, she slept. She awoke to find herself inside a glittering mist.
“You certainly took your time,” the Oracle said. “I thought there’d be nothing left to salvage in the end.”
“I’m sorry,” murmured the princess shakily. “There’s no excuse, I know. So many deaths….” Her eyes began to tear.
“Don’t be maudlin,” snapped the Oracle. “There’s no time to indulge in self-reproach. You know what you must do.”
“I’m sorry, no,” said the princess, feeling bewildered. The Oracle wasn’t quite as she’d imagined.
“Use your wits, my dear. You must get the mirror back.”
“But the mirror’s broken…..”
“Then find it and stick it together!”
The princess wrinkled her forehead. “Is that possible?”
“I don’t suggest impossible things! You might ask the forest’s creatures to help you out.”
“Yes, yes of course,” said the princess.
“Good,” said the Oracle, sounding a little less vexed. “Now get to the palace, pack whatever you need and start searching.”
“I’m sorry,” said the princess yet again.
“Regret is so unhelpful,” the Oracle said.
The sparkling mist thickened and swirled around her until, overwhelmed, the princess fainted.
When she recovered, it was morning. She ran through the dew wet grass to the palace. No one was awake. After tossing clothes and food into a rucksack, she slipped a note into her parents’ chamber, then rushed out.
The search began quite well. As she entered the forest, eyes glued to the ground, she saw two chipmunks playing with a fragment of mirror.
“Please,” she begged, “may I take your toy? It’s very important.”
The chipmunks frowned. “But what will we play with instead?”
“What would you like?” asked the princess.
Cheekily, they looked her up and down. “Your cluster of golden curls looks nice to us,” they chattered in unison.
So the princess cut off her hair. The chipmunks quickly snatched it and scampered off, leaving behind their fragment of the mirror. Carefully, the princess placed it in her pouch.
Heartened by her success, she traveled on. The sun was growing hotter. As she wiped her brow and looked skyward, she noticed something flashing in a tree top. A sliver of mirror! But how to reach it? She wasn’t a monkey or a bird. The princess approached a sparrow pecking at the ground searching for seeds.
“Do you see that glittering object in the tree?” asked the princess.
The bird glanced up and bobbed its head.
“Could you bring it to me?”
“I suppose I could, if I had the strength to fly. The pickings have been very slim this morning.”
The princess took out a thick slice of cake and offered it to the bird.
“Will this help?” she asked.
The bird tore off a generous chunk of cake and swallowed it. Then he flew to the top of the tree and brought her the bit of mirror that was lodged there. The princess thanked him warmly. Waving his nut-brown wing, the bird flew skyward, the rest of the cake gripped securely in his claws.
And so it went for many, many days. Sometimes the creatures of the forest parted easily with their treasure. At other times, the bargaining was fierce. The pouch filled up with fragments of the mirror. But the princess’s own belongings were soon depleted. A lady weasel had demanded her crimson coat. A bear had taken all her store of food to prepare for hibernation. Beavers had wanted her shoes to strengthen their dam, and insects had taken the tiny pearls from her ears. Soon she was walking about dressed in leaves, eating berries and nuts and drinking from brooks. Where there were no brooks, she licked dew from petals. And when there was no dew, she went thirsty.
After a few weeks, only four fragments of the mirror were still missing. A mother wolf had one. She was using it to decorate her lair and entertain her cubs, and was loath to part with it. The princess had little left to offer.
“Well,” the wolf said, “you have such a shapely nose. I’ve always fancied a nose just like that. Mine is so long and sharp.”
The princess and the wolf traded noses. Grasping her prize, the princess hurried on.
A few nights later, the princess stopped to rest in a clearing. At the center of the clearing was a pond, and in its depths swam a tarnished silver fish. Glittering among its scales was a chip of mirror. The fish preened happily when the princess noticed, for he was such a dull, dark fish that the gleaming sequin was a source of enormous pride. The princess barely had the heart to ask for it. But, finally, she did, explaining that it was a matter of life and death. She could see the fish struggling with his conscience. And as he did, the princess realized what she could offer.
“How would you like the colour from my eyes? You will be such a beautiful blue fish, the handsomest fish in the pond.”
The fish gazed up at the princess. Her eyes were, indeed, a gorgeous shade of blue. Much better than one little sparkle. He gave in to temptation and agreed. The eyes of the princess exchanged their sapphire hue for the gray of the fish, and the two parted as friends.
The princess slept. In the morning, she rinsed her face in the pond and nibbled a few berries. Only two fragments were still missing.
As she walked, the princess met a little band of humans, a mother and her children, dressed in rags. The pale baby clasped in the woman’s arms was playing with a shard of the mirror. Reluctantly, the princess approached the sharp-faced, angry looking woman and explained her problem. As expected, the woman proved difficult and shrewd. She stared greedily at the princess’s pouch.
“Now this here is a very valuable item. What do you propose to pay for it?”
Sadly, the princess shook her head. The baby and the two dirty children who clung to the woman’s skirts looked hungry and irritable. She would have liked to offer them food or money, but she had none.
The woman narrowed her eyes.
“Those pouty lips of yours are very pretty. They would please my Jenny. She’s so thin.”
“Yes,” said the princess. “She shall have them.”
“And your rosy cheeks would suit my baby well.”
Bravely, the princess nodded.
“We can’t leave Jimmy with nothing,” complained the woman. “That would be unfair.” She inspected the princess’s face. “You have such fine teeth, white and strong. My Jimmy suffers terribly when he chews.”
“Done,” said the princess.
“And what about me?” whined the woman. “Since my husband died, I’ve hardly had a moment’s peace or joy. Now, that’s an idea!” She bobbed her head in excitement. “I’ll bet you’ve got a heart full of pleasant memories and hopes. That’s what I want.”
The princess drew back a little.
“Well,” said the woman, “my baby’s very attached to his plaything. Perhaps we’ll forget it.”
“Oh no,” said the princess quickly. “You shall have my heart if you want it.”
She snatched the bit of mirror before the woman could change her mind, and the trade was completed.
And now the princess walked slowly, oppressed by care, for the woman’s heart was indeed a heavy burden. Where could the last fragment of mirror be? At that moment she remembered: the last piece was at home in the wooden box, the minute splinter she’d found before setting out. Incredibly, her mission had been accomplished. Fairyland could prosper once again.
The princess hurried home. The journey took only days, but they stretched like years. She could hardly wait to reassemble the mirror.
She slipped into the castle unobserved. It would be awkward indeed to be seen as she was now. Finally in her room, she seized some glue, spilled out the heap of fragments and stuck them together. All the pieces fit.
The princess sat contented for a time. Then, as she rested, a feeling grew within her. It wasn’t elation or pride at her success. It was, quite simply, curiosity. Just as she had on that first, fateful day, the princess longed to see her own reflection.
She held the mirror tightly in her lap, torn between need and fear. Perhaps better not to look at all. Just imagine: the wolf’s sharp nose, the thin, unhappy lips of the little girl, the sallow skin of the hungry baby. And her eyes! That would be worst of all. Instead of transparent blue, they were the dark, tarnished silver of the fish.
Just then, a strange thing happened. The princess began to laugh. She laughed and laughed. For, buried deep in the defeated heart of that poor woman, was a splendid sense of humour. Radiant with laughter, the princess turned the mirror to her face.