THE LOOKING GLASS
by Alethea Eason
One day the two of them sat on a grassy knoll
that rose in front of the cottage, sunning themselves while Marta mended a hole
in a fishing net. Elena
watched Marta work and thought about how the trees looked as they stirred at
night. For the first time, she wondered if Marta and she were all alone.
there any others like us?”
look up. “Not in this world.”
face had freckled from spending most of her days outside. The sun had bleached
her hair to a sandy white. She scratched her nose with dirty fingers. “Then how
did we get here?”
hair was the same shade as the girl’s. Lines traced her face, especially when
she smiled, but Elena was thankful she was not very old, not yet.
Marta tied a knot in her string. “We were sent.”
of them. They all wanted us here. I found you one morning, sitting as calmly as
you please, right here in this spot.”
Elena frowned as Marta continued working. “Were we bad?” ‘
no. We are here for good reasons. There’s much we have to do. The work is mine
now, but someday it will be yours.” Marta yanked on the net and was
satisfied her mending would hold. She stood up before the child could ask more
questions and gathered it in her arms. “The tide is low. Go to the rocks, and
bring back a pail of mussels for dinner. I’ll have a surprise when you return.”
After she filled her bucket, Elena studied the
water. The surface appeared
to be eye level, and she felt the sea breathe as it rose and sank. She climbed
out of the low pools and up the sandy bank so that she could see the gray water
meet the grayer sky. Did anything exist beyond that line?
Goosebumps crawled up Elena’s arm, and her
stomach felt queasy. She
grabbed the bucket and hurried as fast as she could to home.
Elena ran into the cottage. “Where is the surprise?”
took a frying pan from its hook and poured wine from a large green bottle into
find out in a little while. Elena, do you ever wonder where we get the
things we need? This pan, for example, the wine we cook with, or even this
bottle that holds the wine?”
a strange question. Elena put a cork in the wine bottle after Marta set it
down. “Haven’t these things always been here?”
didn’t answer, and Elena’s uneasiness grew. After dinner, she cleared the table
and wiped it clean. As she worked, Marta went into her room. When she came out,
she held a disc encased in ebony and supported by a thick handle of silver. A
sapphire cord looped through a hole at the end. She laid the thing face down on
rosebud, it’s head slightly bent on a stalk with three delicate leaves and
three thorns had been engraved in the round back of the object. Elena traced
the pattern with her fingertip.
watched her for a moment. “Do you feel anything?
was Marta up to? “No. Should I?”
Marta turned the object over. Elena peered into
it. Her face reflected back to her. She gasped and pushed it away. “That’s me?”
Marta smiled. “Of course, that’s you. This is a
tool called a looking glass. I
use this to create all we need. I made the sea, the trees, and the birds that
fly above us by gazing into it. I even made the frying pan because we needed
something to cook with. I could have created another world, but I have memories
of the sea, and so here we are.”
Elena folded her hands on the table, grateful
for how real and secure it felt beneath them. How could things not be? Why did
they need to be created? Then a more troubling thought entered her mind. “How did we get here?”
Marta moved the mirror to the side and reached
across the table to place her palm on the little tent that Elena’s hands had formed.
“As other worlds began to die, they
dreamed of this place. They dreamed you, and they dreamed me, other Martas and
Elenas before us, and even the looking glass. We were made from the desire for
bent her head and looked down at their hands. “To die? Like the mussels I
pulled from the rocks?”
things die, but you and I, we are here to help life itself to continue.” Marta reached
for the looking glass and held it in front of Elena again. “Don’t be afraid.
What you see is your reflection, just like when you look into a window or a
puddle of rain water.”
cocked her head, and the image did the same. Her dirty fingers that afternoon
had smudged her nose. She blinked. A young woman looked at her, the smudge no
covered her eyes. “Marta, someone is in there.”
turned the glass over and held it to heart. “You saw yourself, that’s all. Your
power has now been linked. And now I must ask you to do something very hard. You
must promise me to never look into it again until after my death. The power it
holds will be yours, but only then.”
gripped the table edge. “But, Marta, you’re not going to die, ever.”
for a long, long time.”
means that someday you will.” Elena squeezed the table harder. “What do you do
with that thing?”
you sleep, I remake worlds, and always this one first.”
Elena’s body suddenly felt heavy. She squeezed
her eyebrows together and covered her eyes again. “My head hurts. I can’t fit your
words into it.”
at me, Elena.
Elena lowered her hands.
“You must take what I am telling you
seriously. A part of your readiness, the test of your power, will be to resist
the glass. When I am away, you are not to touch it. Do you understand?”
you promise me anyway?”
As Marta tucked her in a few minutes later,
Elena looked at the trees beyond her window. “I wish you made the eucalyptus less scary.”
Marta sat on the bed. “I had no idea that they bothered
you. They are another memory I seem to have. Their leaves would be used
when people caught colds.”
I chose not to bring into this world.”
Elena woke in the middle of the night and found Marta in her rocking chair holding
the mirror before her face. She stood with cold feet in her doorway and stared
at the back of the chair, afraid to lift her eyes in case she might catch sight
of what was shown in the glass.
lowered it to her lap. “Come here.”
Elena couldn’t move. “I don’t want to create the world,
night after night. How could I think of everything in the world?”
Marta pushed herself from the rocker and placed
the looking glass by its dark blue cord on a peg next to where her thick shawl
Where had she kept the glass before? Elena put on foot on top of the
other. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
Marta reached for the shawl and wrapped it
around her. “I no longer need to. I’ve
been here for what would be lifetimes in the other worlds. Once something has
been created and put in its place, the sea, for instance, all it needs is a
little attention and I can move on to new things. Put your slippers on and come
followed Marta to the back of the cottage. The sea had sent only a breeze that
night and the eucalyptus waved gently above their heads. They walked under the
shaggy branches through the bark that lay in piles on the ground.
Marta finally stopped. “I don’t want you to make the same
mistake I did.”
didn’t trust what the one who was here before you told me.” She picked up
a leaf and broke it in half. “Smell this.”
Elena took a whiff. “It’s musty.”
Elena sniffed the leaf again. “Something strong.”
Marta knelt and took Elena’s hands, pulling them
to her heart. “And
healing. There is nothing in the world I have made here for you to fear.”
the craving to peer into the looking glass grew stronger inside Elena each day.
When Marta left the house, she often stood transfixed before the rosebud,
wanting to trace its delicate lines again. What would she bring into her world?
Would the glass show her animals and plants and objects that she’d never think
of by herself?
One day when Marta had gone on a ramble, the
desire to touch the glass became a deep hunger. She’d gotten taller so that now
her eyes were level with the rosebud carving. She stood close enough to the
glass to almost press her lips against it. Her fingers flexed at her side. She
tapped a foot to keep from grabbing the silver handle.
her breath unfurled the bud into a full white blossom. The stem supporting it
turned dark green, the leaves and thorns pressed up from the wood. The newborn
flower’s scent drifted to her nostrils.
Did the looking glass speak? “Can you hear me?”
Dew appeared on the ivory petals.
would like someone to talk to who’s my own age. Could you do that?”
perfume of the flower increased.
I would want more sweet things to eat. And a soft baby animal that isn’t wild
that could be all mine.”
me over, Elena.
She put a hand on the wall to brace herself.
Her fingers on her free hand quivered above the
flower. “I can’t.”
course, you can. Touch
me. My petals feel like velvet.
index finger brushed the rose. A searing pain shot across it as though she’d
touched a hot stove. She pulled her hand back and put her finger in her mouth.
next time won’t hurt. I promise. That’s the worst of it. Turn me over. You can have
anything you want.
Elena bolted from the house and down to the sea.
She shoved her hands into the water. The salt burned her finger even more. She
matched her breath with the
waves to slow her heart and lifted her eyes to the horizon.
Nothing lay beyond the intersection of sea and
sky. The realization hit her as though a wave had enveloped her. Only emptiness
lay beyond the beach and the house, the trails Marta and she explored, and the
hills to the east.
She felt sick with fear.
When Elena walked into the cottage, Marta was
scrubbing some wild carrots. “I
forgot all about making these.”
She didn’t sense what had happened? Elena wanted to be warned again, do
not touch the looking glass. But the old woman hummed a tune and continued her
do you keep the looking glass on the wall. Why not hide it from me?”
Marta straightened and put her hands on her back.
“I can’t do that. The
greater it compels you and the more you hold back, the stronger your power will
ran to her room. Marta did not try to comfort her.
Time passed slowly the way it had always done
for the two of them. Nothing seemed urgent. The looking glass remained silent
and the rosebud only an etching in wood. Yet, as long as Elena stayed inside
the cabin, she felt the glass’s presence. Her fingertip stung continually
unless she rambled outside in the world Marta had created.
One spring morning, Elena took a walk through
the yellow grass that grew on the plateau that looked over the sea. She wandered farther than she’d
ever gone toward the hills. A rabbit scurried from a bramble. She made a mental
note so that she could find the spot again in the summer to pick berries and
then followed the rabbit through a jumble of rocks that loomed ahead.
rabbit disappeared into them. Elena climbed to the top. She sat and dangled her
feet over the edge but then pulled them up suddenly.
void lay below her. No black like night, no constant gray when the fog and the
sea seemed to become one. Not even an endless pool of white light. There simply
was nothing. Beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. If she fell, she would
vanish like the rabbit.
Though her legs could barely carry her, Elena
found her way home. Elena entered the cottage, wanting to throw herself into the
old woman’s arms, but Marta wasn’t there. She couldn’t stay in the cottage
alone. She had to find Marta, but before she could take a step, the looking
glass called to her.
one glimpse and you will no longer be afraid. You will understand everything.
The glass pulled her to the wall.
You don’t want to be scared anymore, do you?
rosebud came alive. The first delicate petals had just loosened when Marta stepped
through the door carrying a basket of apples.
jerked herself from the wall.
you touch it?”
Marta’s face turned pale. “Did you touch it?”
Not this time.
but I wanted to.”
words tumbled out as she told Marta what had happened at the rocks, her terror
of becoming nothing, and she’d touched the looking glass once long ago and how her
fingertip still burned.
exhaled. “You have resisted, or you would have looked into it long before now.”
next morning Elena picked a basket of strawberries for breakfast and prepared
them while Marta sipped nettle tea. She carried two bowls of strawberries to the
table along with a pitcher of cream.
must be something on the other side of the rocks.”
Marta poured the thick cream into her bowl. “Nothing is there.” She took a bite
and wiped the cream from her mouth. “I haven’t been able to create anything beyond
that point. Maybe someday you will.”
Elena glanced at the looking glass on the wall. “I hate that thing. And I’m sure I
have no talent for creating worlds.”
After that day, Marta sat with Elena on the
beach and explained how she gazed into the glass. All that was around them, the gulls and crabs, the
eucalyptus and cedars, the rains that kept their cistern filled would appear
and then materialize. And she would see what the other worlds needed or mend
broken things in the fabric of their existences.
talk and talk,” Elena complained one day after Marta pointed to a spout of
water blowing from a whale’s back, one of her recent creations. “But I still
It was a familiar complaint. Marta answered in the same way she always
did. “When the time comes, you will know. The pictures will come.”
stood slowly. She walked back to the cottage, bracing each step with her
walking stick. Elena watched the bank of fog that had been resting on the water
all afternoon flow inland. She stayed until the sun disappeared, and only then
did she go home.
The next morning, Marta could not get out of bed.
She took Elena’s hand.
“Go outside and tell me what you see.”
rushed from the house and down the path to the beach. The
sun came out behind the fog bank. She
stepped back. Nothing lay before her, no swells of water, no gulls singing in
the air. There was no longer the smell of salt in the wind. She turned to run
home. The tops of the eucalyptus trees were gone as though an invisible hand had
rubbed them out. The hills to the east disappeared one by one. Only a small patch of blue hovered
overhead, the rest of the sky erased.
Marta’s eyes were closed when Elena
found her. Light had gone from the window.
The looking glass beckoned. I am the only hope you have.
was a candle on the bedstand. Elena lit it and strode to the glass. She took it
from the wall, expecting her hand to be seared. But the handle was only warm,
the last warmth left in the room. Sitting down on Marta’s bed, she stared at
the back as the rose unfurled.
into me. Marta does not have to die. Look into me and make it so.
Elena wanted nothing more than to have things
the way they used to be and for Marta to be well again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she turned
the looking glass over. As she was about to open them, she heard Marta’s voice
from an evening long in the past.
must resist the glass. I could not and worlds died. This one was almost lost.
If you look, everything will end.”
Elena turned her face away and pointed the glass
toward Marta. Time stopped. She remembered Marta being not so old. She
remembered feeling safe. Bonfires made with driftwood on the beach. Walks where
they would pick blackberries as they strolled. She remembered a time she did
not know anything about the looking glass. The longing for the past tore at her
heart. The glass felt like an anchor in her hand.
How could it be so heavy?
If you only look at me, you can make the past
move, afraid the glass played another trick.
Marta’s voice. “Look at me, Elena.”
opened her eyes. The peace in Marta’s face reflected back to her, no looking
glass needed for Elena to be filled with her love. The glass felt light as a
cloud now. Marta grasped it with a shaky hand and turned it so that Elena could
see herself. The young woman who appeared so many turnings of the years ago met
took the glass as Marta’s hand dropped from it and became the creator of
The next morning, the sun was warm and lit Elena’s skin,
striking it like a match. She had remade the sea, not really knowing how. She
walked to the water. The waves splashed gently over her feet.
She raised the looking glass and peered into it.
“What would have
happened if I had looked into you before Marta died?”
She saw herself by Marta’s side, her eyes fixed in horror
as she clutched the silver handle. The bed floated like a raft in the
nothingness. One moment Elena held Marta’s hand, in the next Marta was gone.
The void swallowed suns flung far out in space. Elena watched other worlds blink
out and galaxies collapse upon themselves. And then she no longer existed
looking glass whispered. You were the last hope.
Elena fell to the sand and filled
her fist with the course gains. Did Marta make each one by one?
After a long while, she sighed. “I have world to create.”
But first there was the most difficult task. She carried Marta’s body, so light
now, to the beach and made a bed of driftwood and dried eucalyptus bark. She
held the looking glass so that it caught the rays of the sun. The wood
smoldered, and the flames soared.
sensed that someone in another world beyond the horizon gazed into a looking glass,
remembering Marta, pulling out possibilities like bright fish from the sea.
* * * * *
Alethea Eason's poetry has recently been published in El Palacio,
the Magazine of the Museum of New Mexico. She released the novel Whispers
of the Old Ones (young-adult magical realism) in April. She is
currently working on the Opened Earth Poetry Series. The
Mermaid Lucia and Rainmaker, the first two chapbooks in the series,
are available on Amazon.