There was nothing here but swirling grey fog, and me. The laces around my waist were cinched so tight I could hardly breathe. A comb threaded through my hair, and in my hands I held an apple.
For the longest time I sat in the haze, listening to silence.
Then, footsteps. Your face swam into view, all golden hair and emerald eyes. You spoke:
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?”
And because you were the first person I’d ever seen, I said, “You, my lady.”
You were scarcely more than a girl then, all laughter and dreams, your words an ever-flowing stream. You spoke of your maids, Gerda and Aili, how they always laced your dress too tight but made up for it with their endless servings of gossip. You spoke of festooned trees strung up in the new year, and how you feared the candles decorating their branches would set them alight. You spoke of hunting trips to the Wild Forest, and how your arrow brought down a boar that had evaded even your father.
I couldn’t see any of this. My only window to your world was that small oval of glass, through which I could see your golden tresses and carefree smile—and sometimes, when the light was perfect, faint shapes of your bedchamber. Your canopy bed, coloured a light purple, and the bookshelf filled top to bottom.
“Will you read to me?” I asked one day.
You giggled. “A mirror, asking me to read? Father would never believe me if I told him. Not even Gerda and Aili will.”
“Then don’t tell them,” I said, because even then, that felt important. “Will you read to me? Please?”
You sat down, and opened a book. Your voice was almost a song, as you read about knightly adventures and festive weddings.
I pressed my hands as hard as I could against the glass separating us, but it wouldn’t give. I hammered my fists against it, raked my nails across its surface. Bent over your book, you didn’t see me, and didn’t seem to hear me either.
You never knew how hard I’d tried to reach you.
“What do I look like?” I asked you once, tugging at the comb in my hair.
You giggled, and said, “My reflection?”
I dropped my hand and sighed. You seemed to understand my disappointment, for you added, “Well, if I stare really closely, I can see a cloud of grey smoke. And . . . yes, you have eyes. Beautiful red eyes.”
“Ah, I see.” I wondered if my only possessions—the laces, the comb, the apple—were mere illusions. Maybe I, too, was fog.
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?”
At the sound of your voice, I lifted myself from the fog. “You.” The answer was automatic now.
Once I drew closer to the glass, I realized you weren’t wearing your usual smile. Your eyes were red, as if you’d been crying.
“I guess that’s why that king chose me,” you muttered. “Father said he really liked my portrait.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I must marry the King of Argaull. And I must leave in a fortnight.”
“That’s great,” I said. Because in all the stories you’d read to me, marrying a king was a happy ending.
But you only shook your head, more tears gathering behind your eyes. “But his lands are so far away, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to come home again. He is almost my father’s age, and has a daughter by his past wife already. Do you think she’ll like me, Mirror?”
“Of course she’ll like you. Everyone likes you.”
“That’s not true.” But you smiled through your tears. “I’m glad you think so, though.”
A slow horror dawned on me. “If you are to leave for a faraway land, does that mean you’re leaving me?”
You leapt to your feet and threw your arms around me—or rather, around the glass that separated us. “No, never! I’ll take you with me, even if that means leaving everything else behind.”
It was the closest we’d come to an embrace. I leaned against the glass, and would’ve cried with you if I had any tears.
Fog. Smoke. Grey.
My empty world, which was all I had during your journey. I had little sense of time, wrapped in satin and wool as I was, unable to see you or your world.
I imagined myself in one of your stories: fighting as a knight, travelling as a tinker, or attending a state dinner as a princess. I wished I could travel as you did, gazing out the curtains of the carriage into towns and villages, at swaying trees with their leaves turning fire-orange in the autumn.
But always, always, my thoughts would trail off and I’d realize I was alone. I could only ever gaze upon your world from the outside. I was helpless without you, lacking even that small oval window when you didn’t unwrap my glass and speak to me.
Days of loneliness. Nights of ennui. Not that my world even had days or nights—I’d simply adopted your language because it was all I had. I tied and untied the laces, combed my hair over and over. Pressed my lips to the white half of the apple, but never ate. That, too, felt important.
I couldn’t stay like this forever. An outsider, eternally at your mercy. One day, I would cross the barrier into your world, no matter what the cost.
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?”
I didn’t answer, only dragged myself wearily to the oval where you stood.
“I thought you’d forgotten about me,” I said.
“Never. The journey took so long, and oh Mirror, I have so much to tell you. It’s so cold here in Argaull, and in winter the snow buries the castle for moons on end. The young princess—”
“You could’ve talked to me at least once,” I said, unable to keep the accusation from my voice. “I almost went mad, staying in this fog alone.”
You laughed. “How could a mirror go mad?”
“So that’s what you think of me,” I said.
You looked down. Something I hoped was guilt crossed your face. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t find a moment of privacy on that journey. You did tell me not to let anyone know about you.”
I did, didn’t I?
You pressed both palms against the glass. I did the same, placing my hands exactly where yours were. Except . . .
The apple was still in my right hand. I’d been turning it over and over, as I waited in the fog with nothing to do. When I pressed my hand to the exact spot on the glass where yours was, the apple fell through into your palm. From my empty world, to your bustling one.
You drew back, perplexed, staring at the apple. “Mirror, this . . . ”
I shook my head, then realized you might not be able to understand the motion coming from a cloud of smoke. “It’s from my side. It was here with me when I woke.”
“But you said there was nothing there.”
“Well, almost nothing. Just that apple, my comb, and my laces.”
You turned the apple over. “I’ve never seen such a strange apple. Half white and half red.”
“Are apples in your world not like that?”
“Not so perfectly split down the middle as this.” You glanced back at me. “And not so long-lasting, if you say this apple has been with you since you woke.”
We had known each other for years at this point, or that would be how you measured the time. I knew fruits in your world did not stay so fresh and so perfect for so long.
I pressed my hands against the glass again. Excitement quickened within me. “Can you pull me through too? Like you did with the apple?”
But you could not. Your nails scrabbled against the glass but our hands remained separated by the barrier. Disappointment, but not surprise, flashed through me. It couldn’t have been that easy, or else you would’ve pulled me through ages ago, during all those times we’d tried to embrace through the glass.
I removed the comb from my hair, untied the laces. “Place your hands on the glass again,” I said.
Your eyes wavered, but you did as I commanded. I pressed the items to where your hands were, and sure enough, they fell through.
Your jaw dropped as more pieces of my world slipped through. “This . . . Mirror, you’re scaring me now.”
“Why? Isn’t this a good thing? Maybe I can finally go through to visit you one day.”
You picked up the items. “I don’t know. And it seems like I still can’t pull you through.”
There was something in your voice close to relief. Because . . . you wanted me to be your disembodied friend, an ear for all your troubles and a ready compliment for your beauty. That I might have desires or even a body of my own—that frightened you.
“Here, you probably want these back,” you said. And pressed them against the glass.
They fell through as my hands covered yours from the other side. I was relieved to have them back, as they were my only companions in the fog. I wasn’t sure how I felt about having you back, now that I’d seen you gazing upon me with fear instead of hope.
“Mirror, Mirror, will you tell me,
Am I fair as a princess should be?”
They were nearly your words, but not from your voice. I crept through the fog and stared through the glass.
A girl stood behind it. She looked around the same age as you’d been when you’d first spoken to me all those years ago. Skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair was black as ebony. No one else in all the kingdom looked as she did, and I recognized her as Snow White: the princess, and your stepdaughter.
“Why do you ask?” I said to Snow White.
“Father tells me I’m beautiful, just the way Mother wished. But the Queen’s maids, Gerda and Aili, tell me I’m ugly. I want to know the truth. And who else should I ask but a mirror?”
I smiled, and because I was still angry at you for keeping me wrapped up for all those moons, I said, “Princess, you are the fairest of them all. A thousand times fairer than even the Queen.”
Snow White stepped back, and hung her head.
“You seem displeased,” I said. You always smiled in delight when I spoke of your beauty, or at least you used to.
“The Queen says beauty is a curse. If she weren’t so beautiful, she wouldn’t be stuck in this cold, distant land, away from her family and the country she knows.”
At least she isn’t stuck where I am, in this endless fog until one of you royals call me over.
“She is wrong,” I said. “She only says so because she is jealous of your beauty, and how you have surpassed her.”
You threw your head back and laughed. Not the delighted laughter of your childhood, but a mocking one. “Snow White, a thousand times fairer than me? Mirror, I never fancied you for a jester. You might even put the King’s fool out of a job.”
I bowed. “She seemed like she could use the compliment, what with your maids insulting her all the time.”
“I will speak with Gerda and Aili. I understand they are protective of me, but the princess has done nothing to deserve their scorn.”
My laughter echoed yours. “You are too kind, My Queen. I only wish . . . ” I allowed my voice to trail off.
You glanced at me sharply. “Wish what?”
“I only wish you’d extend that kindness to me, your oldest friend. Will you not try again, to pull me out of this mirror and into your world?”
I could tell you still didn’t believe me to be more than the mirror itself, but you rested a hand on the edge of the glass. “How do you propose to do that?”
I’d been pondering this question, and had come up with an idea. Something to try, at least. The items would only slip to the other side when our hands were joined through the glass. So my path to your world . . . was you.
“Tie the laces around your waist,” I said. “Thread the comb through your hair. And . . . eat of the apple. Then, maybe then, I can come to you.”
You bit your lip, but spread your hands flat against the glass. I slipped the items to you and you rested them reverently on your bed.
“I’m not sure this will work,” you said.
“I’m not sure either. But why not try?”
You lifted the laces and tightened them over your waist. You looped your golden hair through the comb, knotting it in place. On the other side, my breath hitched. My Queen . . . ignorant as I was all those years ago, I did not speak a lie. You were truly, truly beautiful.
Then the glass disappeared from beneath my palm. The fog cleared. I stood beside a lavender canopy bed, staring down at a red-and-white apple.
Your scream split through my head, and suddenly I was jerked back into the fog. Then I stood by your bed again. Then back to the fog.
It took long moments for me to realize what was going on. For brief heartbeats, I inhabited your body, stood in your world. I could see your bookshelf clearly for the first time, tome after neat tome, though you’d confessed that you couldn’t bring even half of what you’d had back home. I stared out your window, and saw a courtyard of blooming flowers, and leafy hedges cut to resemble stags, bears, and all the animals you’d hunted. I could taste freedom on my tongue—on your tongue. Your world, at my fingertips.
I was thrown, violently, back into the fog. I choked on it, the grey swirls seeming to snake up my nose and mouth. Crawling back to the glass, I saw you ripping the comb from your hair. You loosened the laces, struggling to untie them with shaking fingers. The apple remained on the bed—the final piece of the exchange, still untouched.
I understood then. While I was in your body and your world, you were in mine, in the fog and emptiness.
You didn’t speak for a long time. Just took deep, shuddering breaths, your bosom heaving. I pressed my cheek against the glass, waiting.
“Was this your plan all along?” you asked.
I flinched. “What do you mean? Am I not your friend?”
“You stole my body! I was tossed into some horrible place, with fog all around me. All I could see was your glass, and there was my body on the other side. Except my eyes didn’t look right. It was like . . . it was like being dead, and seeing my body used as a costume by someone else.”
“So now you understand what it’s like in that place.” I gestured at the fog around me. “You couldn’t even bear it for a few seconds. I’ve been stuck here, gazing at your world from the outside, for years!”
You stared, wide-eyed and silent.
“Why can’t we exchange places for a while?” I said. “Let me live your exciting life, instead of just hearing it from stories?”
Your glance flitted momentarily to the apple. Your mouth hardened, as if you knew as well as I did what would’ve happened if you’d eaten it.
“No,” you said. “If we do this exchange, what guarantee do I have that you’ll ever give my body back?”
“Don’t you trust me? Am I not your friend?”
But you weren’t listening. You picked up the lace, comb, and apple, and shoved them back at the centre of the mirror. I was too startled to draw back in time, so they fell through where they touched my cheek. Then you stalked out the door, refusing to glance back no matter how I called to you.
But, My Queen, you weren’t all I had. Not anymore.
Snow White gazed at me from the other side of the glass with her large, doleful eyes. “Is it true, Mirror? Does my stepmother hate me?”
“What do you think?”
“She used to allow me into her rooms, but now refuses no matter how I beg. I had to sneak in to see you today, Mirror. She scarcely talks to me anymore, and commands her maids to do the same.”
I smiled. “Her hatred stems from jealousy, because you are prettier than she ever was.”
Snow White dug her nails against her cheeks, leaving two small trails of red indentations. “Then what shall I do? I do not want my stepmother to hate me. Oh, Mirror, beauty truly is a curse.”
I drew close to the glass, preparing to pass through the items. “You must—”
The door flew open. You stormed into the room, still dressed in your hunting gear, your hair a tight knot on the crown of your head. You took one look at Snow White standing before me and immediately dragged her away.
“Get out!” you yelled, pushing the girl toward the door. “Didn’t I tell you to never come here?”
“But why? I only—”
You paced before me, your hunting daggers still strapped to your thighs. “I should shatter you. You dared go after my stepdaughter. And here I thought you were my friend.”
“I am your friend. But I cannot stay here forever, when I know your world is out there.”
“So you’d sacrifice Snow White, and imprison her there instead?”
“Why would you choose her over me?” I yelled, frustrated. “Why not have me by your side, instead of her?”
“Because you’re not human. That you’d ask such a question proves it.”
Before I could retort, you pulled your fist back, then swung it forward. Intending to smash the link between us—to smash me, if I were indeed just the mirror itself. I scuttled back, but your fist swerved at the last second.
“Damn it,” you muttered. You leaned to the side, your fist pressed presumably against the wall beside me. “I can’t do it. You’re right, you were my friend.”
You drew yourself up. “I should destroy you. But fool that I am, I’ll show you one moment of mercy. Mark my words, I will keep Snow White away from you, at least until she is old enough to not fall for your tricks. In the meantime, you should think about what you tried to do, and repent. If you do not . . . well, it won’t be too late to destroy you then.”
You sent the girl away to foster with the forest dwellers, who you’d grown close to in your years in this kingdom. Persuading the king would’ve been quite the challenge, but you were cunning and charming. No doubt you told him about how wise the forest dwellers were, and how much Snow White could learn from them.
I didn’t doubt that Snow White fought her banishment every step along the way. And she became even more convinced that you hated her. I’d dangled a solution in front of her perfectly sloped nose, just before you’d torn it away.
You were charming and persuasive, yes, but so was your stepdaughter. Within a year of her fosterage with them, the forest dwellers were more on her side than yours.
That was why they stole me from you.
I didn’t know what was going on at first, as seven shadows slipped into your bedroom at night. You were gone, surveying the lands of the kingdom and visiting the scattered towns, because the old king could no longer do so. I saw the world of your bedroom shake and tilt, before once again a heavy cloth was thrown over me.
The forest dwellers were smaller in stature than your kind, so they had some trouble carrying me. I was jostled, bounced, almost dropped. I wonder, what would have happened if they’d dropped me? Would that destroy me, or would that simply destroy my portal to your world? Either would be death.
When they finally removed the veil, I met the eyes of your stepdaughter. Snowy skin, blood-red lips, hair like ebony. She was little changed since her fosterage, though dressed in plain clothes rather than her palace finery. She said:
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?”
“You are,” I replied, and she pressed her hands to her face.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Why can’t you say it’s the Queen? Then she would shed her envy, and no longer hate me.”
“I speak only the truth, Princess.”
She lifted her head, and tears shone in her eyes. Of sorrow, but also hope. “You said you have a way to make her not hate me? Please, Mirror, tell me.”
“Indeed, I have a way. But . . . where are the forest dwellers, Princess? Should they not be with you?”
“My mentors are out hunting,” she replied, all innocence and trust. “They will not be home until sunset.”
“Then, Princess . . . Press your hands against the glass.”
She did so. I pushed the laces, comb, and apple through the barrier, and was delighted when it worked. Snow White stumbled back, staring down at the items. “Mirror, these . . . ”
“My gifts to you. Now: tighten the laces, wear the comb, and eat of the apple. Then, and only then, will your stepmother love you.”
She tightened the laces without hesitation, and wound the comb through her hair. Her hair was straighter than yours, so it was harder for the comb to stay in place, but she managed with a few pins.
I remained in the fog for one heartbeat, two heartbeats. Then I was standing in the hut of the seven forest dwellers, bending over an oval mirror. The heat of the crackling fireplace washed over my skin, which was also Snow White’s perfect, milky skin.
The Princess cried out. “Mirror, what is happening? I’m in some kind of fog, and it’s so dark here.”
Her terror seemed to have some effect, as I was thrown back into the mirror. Her face, now controlled by her again, was contorted in fear.
“Not to worry,” I said. “This is normal. I am changing you into someone the Queen will love, so you may be pulled from your body for a few moments. Now, eat of the apple.”
Snow White picked up the fruit with trembling fingers. “Father told me to never eat something from anyone I cannot trust completely.”
“Don’t you trust me, Snow White? I am your stepmother’s oldest friend, and only I can make her love you.”
Our positions swapped again. I stood in the hut, gripping the apple. Snow White’s gasp rang out in the back of my head. In her body, I leaned closer to the apple.
The hut melted away, and I returned to the fog. She barely seemed to notice I’d moved her body. Maybe she thought she’d done it herself, subconsciously.
“Eat,” I commanded.
Still she hesitated. “Father always used a food taster.”
The fog. The hut. Snow White wearing the laces and comb seemed to pull me halfway into her body, but not fully, so I kept returning to the fog. My mind ached and spun, then birthed a sudden idea. “Push half the apple through the mirror. Let us both eat, together. I promise you it is not poison.”
She leaned closer. The red half of the apple shone as beautiful as her lips. “All—all right.” And she did as I instructed, pushing the white half through the glass and into my waiting hand.
I bit into the apple’s flesh. A moment later, she bit into the other half. A surge of wholeness, of finality shot through me. Yes, this was how to complete the exchange. The apple bound us.
I heard Snow White’s scream for one brief moment before it cut off. Then I was standing in the hut, my vision no longer flickering back to the fog. I brushed a hand against the wooden wall and found it solid. The laces, the comb, and the apple were gone.
I glanced back at the mirror. Within it I saw my reflection, which was also Snow White’s reflection. I raised a hand, and the reflection did too. I smiled, and so did the reflection, revealing rows of gleaming teeth. Only the eyes were different, flashing red in certain angles of the light.
Behind the reflection, I glimpsed a faint, smoky figure. The former owner of this body, or another of my kind? I didn’t know, and would never call out to ask.
I glanced outside the window. The sun was not yet near the horizon. I still had plenty of time to explore the woods before the forest dwellers returned. Plenty of time to plan what to do next, for I wanted to go back to that beautiful castle.
I lay on the floor, a half-eaten apple which I’d grabbed from the pantry in my hand. I left the door unlocked and slightly ajar.
The forest dwellers rushed in at sunset, and milled around in a panic when they saw Snow White on the floor. They shook me and patted me with wet towels and stuck fingers down my throat, until I finally vomited up the piece of apple I—or rather, Snow White—had eaten.
“What happened?” they asked.
“A . . . a woman came by, and knocked on the door.” My head lolled to the side, as if I hadn’t the strength to raise it. “She was selling the most wonderful-looking apples, so I . . . ”
“Didn’t we tell you never to open the door?” one of the forest dwellers said, annoyance and worry vying for supremacy.
“I . . . I’m sorry.”
“But who would poison our Princess?” another forest dweller asked. “She is loved in all the lands.”
I shook my head and sniffed, as if fighting back tears. “The woman . . . her face was covered in a veil. But when I bit into the apple and fell, she leaned over me . . . and I saw . . . ”
“Who?” the forest dwellers asked. “Who was she?”
I buried my face in my hands, as I’d seen Snow White do. “Perhaps you will not believe me . . . perhaps I merely dreamed it. Oh, I hope that is so! But before darkness took me, I saw the Queen.”
Ah . . . My Queen, my oldest friend, my only friend in all the world. You shouldn’t have spared me. Sometimes you only have one chance to destroy your enemies.
If only I could’ve spared you too. But you were the one person who knew who I was—and how I wasn’t Snow White. If you hadn’t guessed what would happen the moment the mirror was stolen, you would know when I returned, by the red glint in Snow White’s eyes.
Let it not be said that I didn’t try. Or at least pretend to try, because that was what Snow White would have done.
The King shrugged off my hand and ordered the iron shoes to be removed from the coals. They glowed red-hot as they were laid out before you. “Step into them,” the King said, “and show us how the fairest woman in the world dances.”
You finally learned what it meant to have no choice at all.
I fell to my knees, tugged at the King’s arm, and begged. He turned his glare on me. “This woman tried to kill you,” he said. “She deserves no mercy.”
Your dance was frantic, and you lunged me at every chance.
Your voice pierced me like I was one of the boars you hunted.
“If only I’d killed you then! If only . . . if only I’d never spoken to you. You lying, treacherous . . . ”
My tears, in the end, were not lies.