The people are bemused when they see the circus wagons wheel into town, churning up dust in their wake. There are the horses, with promises of silver hats; there are the lions, gold and lithe behind the bars; there is the strongman, twirling his mustache at the head of the caravan; there are the quintuplet acrobats, dressed in a quintuplet of plum doublets; there is the contortionist, twisted and beaming. Right at the end of the procession, where eager eyes turn to find glimpses of the circus’ exotic oddities, there is only a strange, plain caravan, marked THE MIRROR OF LONGING.
That night, when the big top goes up, the townspeople flood into the seats, streaming through the box office, their coins clinking and clattering across the counter faster than the sleepy-eyed boy can tear off tickets. The show is spectacular and the applause ripples across the rest of the town, evoking envy in all those who had decided to stay home. The audience flows out chattering in wonder and seeking the nearest barkeep. But some eyes are drawn to that singular caravan parked in the shadow of the tent. Those who do slow inadvertently in their steps, drawn by some strange compulsion. Most move on.
Peter Oleander does not. His fists are stuffed in his pockets as he walks out of the show, angry steps cursing at the hot night wind. Crushed beneath his knuckles are two tickets, one untorn. Estelle Landry had been the love of his life, until she showed up at his doorstep last night with his ring, an apology, and a suggestion he find someone else to go to the circus with. He should have thrown the damn tickets away, but perhaps the need for some sort of cheer—and the pervasive need to show Estelle exactly how much he didn’t need her—had driven him to put on his good shoes and crawl out of the house with all the dignity he could muster.
Now he finds himself wandering to the lonely caravan. As a child he always loved the circus sideshow. He saw the dwarfs and the Siamese cow and the mermaid with the skin like salt. He tried his hand at the cards, had his fortune told, and stepped into the hall of mirrors. But there is no hall here, no glass case, no elaborate cloth tabletop. Heavy curtains hang over the entrance, smelling of a husky sweetness. He pushes them aside and steps through.
To his surprise he finds Estelle sitting by the window, her face still painfully lovely in the cloudless moonlight. Her hair falls in pale ringlets over her shoulders. She is wearing the scarlet dress and on her finger glitters the ring, though hazily he remembers throwing it in the river.
“Hello, Peter,” she says softly.
He understands then, that this is not Estelle. Yet as she comes towards him, floating and light, that certainty evaporates. He teeters before this Estelle-not-Estelle. “You look so beautiful,” he says hoarsely, truthfully. For she always does, in that dress. Before he can help it, he cries, “Estelle, why? You have to at least tell me why.”
“Does it matter?” Estelle replies, ever so gently. She cups his face and he wants to sob with the familiar touch of her fingers.
“One last kiss,” he begs. “That’s all.”
She leans in and touches her lips to his. Her mouth is soft and tastes of the sweet tea she brews every morning. He wants to drink in the scent, to hold onto this moment forever so it never ends, but Estelle draws back and once again she is lost. Except this time there is no biting turn, no cryptic sorry. This time Estelle looks at him with all the anguish he feels and she is not leaving.
This time he leaves. He turns and runs and pushes through the curtains, tumbling out into the hot night. The tears dry on his cheeks. He digs out the tickets from his pocket, one torn and one untorn, and holds them up to the wind. They flutter in the breeze and then catch, swelling like sails and lifting off from his fingertips, disappearing into the night like twin butterflies.
The Mirror of Longing knows her customers’ deepest aches. They have the most troubled souls, the ones that are drawn to her, the ones that leave the big top still with a hole in their hearts. She steals them from the dissatisfying spectacle into the shadow of her embrace. Never the same. She can sense their desires like a desolate song, echoing through the night to her. The response that she sings, a harmony to every note of their loneliness, pulls them up her steps. The circus shows them all the things they have never seen; she shows them the things they want to see again.
For sad, grey-eyed Laura, she is a flutter of silver butterflies that flit about the darkest corners and take flight from the tip of Laura’s nose. Her wings release a shimmering rain that makes Laura smile and twirl upon the rug. She reminds Laura of twilight in a forest glen, once in a happier time, where the stars shone like crystals and the fairies danced upon the leaves.
For the old bard Charles, who is going deaf in one ear and whose brittle fingers can no longer play his guitar, she is the song he has spent his whole life trying to find. She is flute and strings and rushing river, drums and harp and racing pulse. Every note is a snapshot of his youth, spent travelling across the country riling up crowds, no father and no lord, only him and his song. Each chord speaks of lyrics scrawled in fading ink by candlelight, calloused fingers plucking at the strings, and the echo of playing to the mountains. When the coda comes, Charles weeps.
For Nathan, who has never left his father’s farm, she becomes the world he longs to see. The four walls of her wagon are the Omsbur Mountains of the Great White Way, their jagged diamond peaks trapped in spinning snow; they are the plunging ravines of the Fernel River, the blue vein of the South, flooding life into green fields and fishing villages, wildebeest herds and verdant forests. The ripples in the rug, which she purchased in a town’s market for a cheap price because the pattern had been woven wrong, become the glittering Auran Sea, cobalt from one horizon to the other, cresting with white underneath an empty sky, or the undulating umber dunes of the Uncor Desert. The twisted lamp, which never holds its light, becomes the statue of Jorian the Chainbreaker, standing at the gates of the marble city of High Paravel with a spear in one hand and the shattered links held aloft in the other with ten thousand flowers planted at his feet for every slave whose shackles he freed. She herself is a proud freeman of High Paravel; a dark-eyed, supple limbed dancer of the Gjsela Tower, clad in skirts like streaming smoke and bangles cut from stars; a square-shouldered knight of the Blue King’s army; a wrinkled fishmonger whose wrists are brittle but can still cut the vein from pale shrimps quicker than any youth.
She is all. Phantom mothers, won battles, recovered treasures. For Sophie, a clockmaker whose initials are carved into her family’s timepiece. For Alex, a lost love, dark curls and burnt freckles. For Ari, a kind father. For Ezra, a better version of themself. It is the same in every city. Those townspeople who are content drift by her wagon without notice. They wonder, briefly, what it is the troubled folks find in there that makes them come out dizzy and sobbing, but these have always been the whims of troubled people, and besides, the wagon itself is so nondescript they are sure it contains nothing of any interest to them. There are brighter, more wondrous things to see.
She has spent so long being everything she has almost forgotten who it is to be nothing. But the memories are there, tucked away beneath the illusions, a younger woman with her own longing waiting for the circus to come to town.
She was the daughter of mirrormakers and through her father’s steady hand and her mother’s careful discipline she learned to polish reflections to a shine, learned to lay refractions in gilded frames so beautiful the passers-by could not help but be entranced by what they saw. She learned the angles at which the mirror could be set, just so, to show the customer what they wanted to see.
The ringmaster had come into their shop, just a simple man then, with dreams as big as any other customer. He was tall and thin and wore a dark coat with a split tail. She thought perhaps he would want to see himself as a more muscular man, with a straighter back and richer colours. But he waved off her attempts to place the right mirror.
“I want to buy all the mirrors you have,” he said.
Her father brushed her out of the way, quick to spot an opportunity. “All?” He hesitated, for he was really only asking to be polite. “Whatever for?”
“For my circus,” the man-who-would-be-ringmaster declared, with a sweep of his arms. “I am putting together a circus, and every circus must have its hall of mirrors.”
And so the mirrors went, stacked in the wagon, and in the gold came. She sat up and helped her parents count the coins, and as a reward they bought her a new dress and they ate the fattest cut of the freshest cow for dinner and she waited, with excitement, for the completed circus to come.
The carnival procession was grand and made the people cheer. The wagons in their bright colours paraded down the thoroughfare, the acrobats and the strongman and the fire-eaters waving, and the horses and the lions and the magician’s doves stomping and roaring and fluttering.
She watched the big tent go up, and then the smaller ones for the strange things and the eclectic acts of the sideshows: the hooded woman with her glass ball, the wizened hag with her potions, the magician who proclaimed pick a card, any card. Most of all she watched for the hall of mirrors. It rolled in, in its own grand white caravan, its name painted in great letters on the side.
When night fell she ran to the carnival armed with her coins. The hooded woman cried, Your future! I see your future! And the wizened hag cried, Change your luck! No bad days from now on! And the magician cried, Pick a card, any card! But she ran past them all, right up the stairs into the hall of mirrors.
And there she found every single mirror smashed to pieces. The shards coated the floor in silver dust, reflecting fractals of the ceiling. In the planes that remained she saw a hundred splinters of her own horror, cracked along the edges.
Footsteps were coming up the steps, and she thought that she could not let this secret out. She spun on the stranger, a little boy with pink cheeks, and found she knew, without a word, what he was looking for. She drew from the splinters a thousand threads of a reflection and hung it in a gilded frame and turned it upon the boy, who saw in its sheen his dear dog who had died just the morning past. He leapt with joy and then wept and then dashed from her, both aching and swelled.
Another footfall threatened the stairs and she prepared the reflection, sensing out the want, but it was the ringmaster, freshly finished with his show. He had gained corded definition in his body since they had last met and he stood with cocky confidence and he wore a coat of red velvet. She found herself amazed, for she had been right.
The ringmaster surveyed the broken hall and said, “Would you like to join the circus?”
And how could she say no? The broken mirrors were swept and cleaned and she found herself a cot and a chair and a twisted lamp and a miswoven rug, and called it home.
It is the last day before the circus moves again. There is no true end to longing, but after a week in this field, where the wheels of the carnival wagons have begun to sink into the grass, she has tapered it to a trickle.
For little Lorelei, who builds palaces with broken sticks and painted murals on the walls of her bedroom before it burned down, she is a fine manor, a castle on a cliff, a glass spire, a great amphitheatre. Lorelei has a lightness to her step as she leaves, eyes full of replenished dreams.
Meanwhile she is… tired. It is usually like this, towards the end of another town. The first few days are a whirlwind of new visions and new aches. The stories she conjures touch her heart and she carries fragments of them, she knows, with her from town to town. Peter’s Estelle will become a girl in some other boy’s wonder; Charles’ song a rhapsody in some other soul; Lorelei’s palace the home of some other drifter. They are pieces of the same reflection, rearranged as needed.
For now she rests on her rickety rocking chair, gazing at her confines. Once pearly white, the walls have faded to a patchy cloudwash, the dark of the wood peeking through. They stopped in the famous pigment market in the Uncor Desert and the ringmaster offered to buy her a fresh coat of paint, but she turned him down. She doesn’t remember why. But she likes that there is something original in this room, something from when it was a hall of mirrors, and not just a tired woman.
The others—Nathalie the soothsayer, Great Heg the magician, even Jepp the top-spinner—they have come and gone. Moved on to other circuses, other exotic displays. Some have died. She alone has been the constant companion of the big top. She has seen the world, collecting its pieces, and shown it itself.
She senses a soul approaching and tunes into the longing. She senses apprehensive hope, the end of a long journey. A familiar shade of desire she can’t quite place. Still she takes a breath and stretches for the threads, working on muscle memory now, bringing them together just as the newcomer steps through the curtain.
She becomes a young girl, with smooth skin and flowing hair and frayed edges on her best dress. The old woman that has entered stumbles when she sees her, eyes widening. “Guinevere?” she whispers. “Can it be?” The woman reaches for her laughing face, then draws back, and there is a shift in the longing like she has never felt.
“Oh, Guin,” the old woman says sadly. “What have you done to yourself?”
She doesn’t understand. Is there something wrong? She has never needed to second guess her instincts. She searches the woman’s soul, finds the girl again, her nimble hands painting a frame. But the old woman shakes her head.
Frustration sweeps through her. She tries one more time: the girl standing in a doorway with a handful of coins. She runs through it, but stops, and turns, holding out a hand.
The old woman doesn’t take it. “I don’t want this, Guin,” the woman says gently. “I thought I did. For many, many years I thought I did. I travelled all this way, wanting to see my little girl again. But now… show yourself, Guin. No more of these mirrors. Who are you?”
Who is she? What kind of question is that? Who does she want her to be? She probes that crack in the woman’s soul and sees, in its deepest shadows, the flicker of a face. Triumphantly she grasps it and tugs, willing the new vision to spool about her.
Instead something slams into her chest and a consuming pain splinters across her, as though someone has taken a hammer to her ribs. She gasps; the woman catches her as her knees buckle.
“There you are,” the woman whispers, and her eyes are full of tears.
Through the throbbing pain she smiles weakly, successful and satisfying. Whatever the old woman sees, it is a reflection she has not used in a very long time and its edges are cracked. Still, she thinks, cupping the old woman’s cheek, because she senses it is what the woman needs, there is something strangely familiar about it, like an echo that has finally made its way back.