There once lived a maiden so beautiful that white roses blushed themselves pink in her presence and red roses threw off their petals, they were so ashamed of their plainness beside her. Malvina’s comeliness blossomed with each passing year. As did her pride.
One morning she sat at her vanity table while her maid combed her hair. The post had just delivered the day’s pile of love-letters.
“Look, Clarisse!” Malvina laughed. “This poet wrote a hymn to my beauty in his own blood!” She waved the red-stained paper at her maid.
“Prince Claudio and King Werther have declared war,” she beamed, scanning another letter, “over who deserves to dance with me at the next ball.”
Clarisse said nothing. She was not expected to.
“At last I have decided which suitor to wed. I will choose him,” Malvina waved a third letter at Clarisse like a flag. “King Darius vows he adores me more than his own breath. From the way he sighs whenever he sees me, it must be true. I like the way his eyes follow my every movement. Besides, he’s handsome and lives in a very grand castle. They say he rules an island kingdom filled with treasures.”
And so Malvina married King Darius. The people welcomed her with cheers. “Has there ever been so beautiful a queen?” they asked each other.
The couple lived very happily. King Darius indulged Malvina’s whims and never ceased to praise her loveliness. She bore him three children, each one handsomer than the next and none handsomer than herself.
Nothing pleased the young queen more than her own image, so she collected mirrors: dainty ones with mother-of-pearl handles, oval ones with flowers etched on the glass, narrow pier-glasses adorned with golden bows. She never had to guess whether a wrinkle ruined the flow of her gown or a strand of hair had fallen out of place or her cheeks were insufficiently rosy. She had mirrors everywhere. The king ordered craftsmen to turn the very corridors of the castle into two long, facing mirrors. Walking from one room to the next, Malvina need only glimpse at a wall to find endless views of herself that grew smaller and smaller until the tiniest queen vanished beyond the eye’s ken.
And so the years passed, filled with balls, and picnics, and tournaments in which the hero crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty (the champion always chose Malvina) and other pleasant pasttimes.
One morning, as soon as she awoke, Queen Malvina gazed as usual into the gilt-edged looking-glass hanging opposite her bed She discovered that three of the hairs on her head had turned grey during the night.
“I grow old, I grow old!” she shrieked. “Call the kingdom’s counselors at once!”
Barely taking time to curtsey, Clarisse ran to assemble them.
The counselors discussed the problem at length. They called forth doctors, professors and cosmeticians to bring the queen whatever remedies they had.
“This potion will keep your skin as soft as rose petals,” claimed a professor whose long beard swept the floor as he bowed. He handed her a crimson bottle.
“These powders will smooth all wrinkles from the face,” crowed a tiny apothecary. She stood on tip-toe to reach the queen a pink-bowed box.
Every day the kingdom’s scientists offered new rinses that promised to banish the grey from her hair. But none of them worked for very long. Six months passed, and still Malvina’s beauty diminished.
For three whole days, she spoke to no one. Hours on end she stood still as a statue in her dressing room, scowling before her favorite mirror. Reaching from floor to ceiling and almost as wide as the wall, its massive oak frame was carved with the heads of gruesome imps. Malvina’s anxious family surrounded her.
“My dearest,” King Darius assured her for the fifth time that day, “my love for you burns as fervently as ever. And you are still the loveliest woman in the land!”
“Mother,” Princess Ada said, “I wish I possessed but half your beauty!” Princess Selene and Prince Alec rushed to hug her.
Malvina waved them away. She smoothed out the creases her children had pressed into her plum satin dress.
“The counselors’ remedies provide nothing but empty promises!” she grumbled. She twined a black curl round and round her finger.
What could she do? What could she do?
And then Malvina remembered. A powerful witch, feared by many, lived on the far side of the island. Only the most desperate resorted to her aid.
That night, the queen covered herself with a dark cloak and crept from the castle. A dark horse waited for her in the courtyard. Malvina slipped a coin into the groom’s hand, his payment for silence. She urged the horse through the shadows to the witch’s dwelling.
The ramshackle hut stood beside a foul, brackish pond. The queen raised her cloak to cover her nose. She knocked.
“Enter,” a coarse voice answered.
Malvina banged the door open. The noise disturbed an ancient woman who sat at a table poring over a hand of cards covered with strange symbols. The queen shuddered. She was not affrighted by the witch’s reputation for dealing with demons nor by her evil glare (for she herself sent servants scurrying for cover with a single foul look). It was the hag’s ugliness that terrified the comely queen.
Meager strands of hair hung limp and colorless from her head. Veins purpled her nose. Cataracts clouded her eyes. The puckered hands shuffling the cards looked as if they’d been held under bathwater for three days. And the wrinkles on her face criss-crossed each other like the pattern of wheel-ruts carved by a century’s worth of traffic on the island’s main road.
Is this what I will become someday? Malvina wondered. She shuddered again.
From under her cloak, she produced a bulging velvet pouch. It clinked as she held it towards the crone. “I have brought a bag filled with gold, and jewels for which emperors would ransom their kingdoms,” she said without prologue. “All this will I pay you if you bring my beauty back to me.”
The witch opened the pouch. She fingered a few coins, not with greed but curiosity, as if judging what value such things might hold for herself. She held an enormous emerald up to the candlelight.
“Well, can you do it or not?”
The witch arched a tufted eyebrow at the queen, as if judging her value as well. She answered in her own good time, “Oh, I can do what you ask. But would you be willing to see blood spill? That is the price for your beauty.”
“Is the blood my own?” Queen Malvina whispered. She would not be willing to shed her own blood—unless it was only the littlest bit, perhaps nothing more than a finger’s prick.
“No, not your own,” answered the witch.
“Let it be done then, and at once.” The queen dropped the pouch onto the table and flounced out of the room.
When she returned to the palace, Malvina crept back to her bed. All night, she tossed and turned, wondering how soon she could expect her beauty to return. But the next morning, she saw no change. When Clarisse arranged her hair, she spied four new grey strands in her reflection.
“You brute!” Malvina screamed at the poor girl. “You pull at the roots! Leave me!” She sat before her favorite mirror, waiting and watching. The oak imps seemed to laugh at her. She could have sworn she caught the ugliest of all stick out its tongue.
Suddenly she heard a shout, “The prince!” and the sound of many feet running. “Prince Alec is ill!”
The queen rushed to his room.
“He suddenly swooned over his books,” explained the tutor, placing a trembling hand on the boy’s brow. “I called to him. I placed cool cloths on his face. I carried him to his room but he has not revived.”
“Have you ever seen a child so pale?” cried the boy’s nurse. “It’s as if he has been drained of every drop of blood!” She propped another silk cushion behind his head.
Prince Alec, loved as much for his charming nature as for his good looks, looked whiter than a corpse. Malvina’s youngest child had just turned twelve.
All day the king stayed at his bedside. The queen herself looked in on him several times.
“We can do nothing,” the royal doctor finally pronounced. The lesser doctors sadly nodded their heads in agreement.
That night, Prince Alec died.
Queen Malvina could not believe that her son had been taken from her. She spent the next day choosing the fabric from which to make a gown of mourning.
How terrible to be forced to wear black, she thought; it’s the color of old women! But what can be done?
Every black looks different, so Malvina held each fabric against her face. She examined her mirror carefully to find the one that made her skin appear the least sallow. Why, the little crow’s-feet that had crept about her eyes were gone! In only a day, some of her beauty had been restored! At last she could smile a little. At the funeral, she held her head up high again.
“Ah,” many sighed as the royal mourners passed by, “there goes our remarkable queen. She has lost her child but not her loveliness.”
A week later she re-visited the witch.
“Only some of my beauty has been renewed,” Malvina complained. “I am not as pretty as on my wedding day.”
The witch studied her carefully. “But you are very beautiful. Is it not enough?”
“You did not keep your bargain! Get my beauty back!”
“Are you willing to let blood spill?” the witch asked as she had the first time.
“Yes, of course,” the queen snapped. “You are wasting time!”
“As you wish.”
Queen Malvina returned home. She waited out the night impatiently. How bare the red rose bushes will soon become! she thought, suppressing a giggle.
The next morning, Malvina’s mirror refused to show her any improvement. As she reproved Clarisse for pulling her hair, she heard cries and the sound of feet running.
“Princess Selene is dying!”
The queen rushed to her daughter’s chamber.
Selene lay senseless on her bed, her face drained of all color. Malvina’s second child, a girl of fourteen, was stricken with the same odd sickness that had killed the young prince. The helpless doctors wrung their hands. By sunset, she was dead.
Ah, what a bitter thing, to bury not one child but two, and in so short a time! The king’s cries of grief echoed throughout the palace. Lines of pain etched themselves around the lips of the queen.
But the next day, as she chose the fabric for her second mourning dress, Malvina’s mirror showed that those lines of pain had disappeared, and other wretched lines besides.
I am exquisite once again, thought the queen. Could it be—no! But—could it be that the blood spilled for my beauty belongs to my own children? I cannot stand to think of it!
And so she didn’t. She selected a long ostrich plume to nod like a mourner atop her head and a pair of jet earrings shaped like tears to fall from her ears.
At the second child’s funeral, the people marveled at the sight of Queen Malvina. How proud she is, they thought; how well she bears up under her grief. She is more beautiful than ever.
A month passed. The queen was still dissatisfied. Three grey hairs yet remained on her head; nothing would make them disappear.
She had quite lost her fear of the witch by now. This time she summoned the old woman to the castle.
“Your Majesty commands me?”
“I am still not as fair as I once was,” the queen said in a strained voice. “Restore my beauty to me.”
“And the price?” asked the witch. “You are still willing to pay it?”
Malvina hesitated. She needed to know if what she’d guessed was true. She did not know the king stood outside the door. Seeing the crone enter his wife’s chamber, he’d wondered what business brought her there, and waited to hear their exchange.
“Is it so—is the price for my beauty the blood of my children?”
“Yes, my queen.”
“Will you take no other payment? I have but one child left.” The beautiful woman bit her lip.
“No, Your Majesty. If you wish your beauty to return, you must forfeit the child.”
King Darius gasped in horror, but Queen Malvina never heard. She wrestled with the choice for but a moment before answering. “Make it so.”
“What have you done?” the king cried out. He fell to his knees in despair.
He had not yet risen when they both heard servants running and calling, “Help! Help! Princess Ada has fallen ill!”
The king and queen ran to her, their eldest child—now their only one. Ada was just turning sixteen and of such surpassing loveliness that young men were already making themselves foolish over her. There she lay, white as a lily. With each strained breath, Princess Ada grew paler and more feeble. And as the princess waned, so the queen waxed younger and more beautiful. When the girl gasped her last, her mother stood over her bedside looking not a day past twenty.
King Darius let go of his daughter’s hand once it grew cold.
“Behold the woman who has killed my children for her vanity,” he said pointing to his wife. Before the doctors and the counselors and the ladies-in-waiting and the servants, he condemned her, telling them of how she’d bought her beauty.
“Monster!” exclaimed the tutor.
“Murderess!” screamed the nurse.
Others called her worse names besides.
“I cannot bear to look at such an ugly thing,” the king said. “We will remove the entire court from this island and live elsewhere. Let Malvina stay here alone and think on her heartlessness.”
The packing began at once. Carts crammed the roads. Ships crowded the harbor. During those last busy days, so many people rushed to and fro, the mirrors in the castle corridors registered but a blur of activity.
“Have you no mercy?” Malvina cried to courtiers and servants alike. None would even cast her a look of acknowledgement.
“Clarisse, I command you—I beg you to stay! My favorite box of jewels—all will be yours!”
Clarisse turned on her heels and sped down the hall.
Within days, the castle had emptied. The island was deserted.
And so she who had once been so eagerly sought after, now found herself utterly alone. Never again did Malvina hear a word of admiration or even simple kindness.
“It’s hard to have to cook all the meals and milk the cow and do all the mending!” whimpered Queen Malvina day after day, as she wrung out her wet clothes or dusted her throne.
It was hard to fix the roof when the rain began to find its way in through the cracks. It was harder still to have no one to talk to throughout the long days and the longer nights, especially when the years grew cold and she had only the stubs of candles left to light.
“Did ever woman have so selfish a husband?” bewailed Malvina. “Did ever queen have such cruel subjects?”
But she did not find her life too burdensome. For ever and again, night and day, she was consoled by the sight of her beauty smiling back at her from her beloved mirrors.