An Italian princess, noble born, some years before Napoleon, born blind but beautiful; cheerful and sweet and loved. She could not see but wasn’t bothered: as sound and touch were good enough. She had a happy childhood ideal; full of love. One day she woke to find a candle, with a rather large flame on her bedstand, too close; and she watched the dancing fire – a strange dance, almost alive: orange and red and blue and white. Her father was talking but it seemed as though the flame was speaking to her:
“She’s in the country…”
She finally realized she could see and panicked. She screamed. Her father turned round and looked, “Hey!”
She looked at her father’s face. For the first time and, somehow, she knew his voice by heart and habit. And yet each time he spoke, how strange! she could only think about the flame.
She leapt from her bed and fled the room. She didn’t know where she was going but kept on running. Each new corridor rose out of mist, a blackness she didn’t understand. Guards both young and old looked on confused, servants, butlers, cooks; they all moved in and in and out of long hallways through different paths. The story of her flight reached the groundskeepers and the horses were brought round. Her father and the yardworkers and gardeners set out to find her before dark. It got cold in the hills at night.
Everything was frightening to her new eyes, the sun more so than all; so terrific and overwhelming, a spirit made of force and fire, the largest, most beautiful of candlelights.
“She’s in the country…”
Nothing shook the feeling that the world was somehow wrong, the colors off; she tried to squint to take it in, subdue the light, to conquer it, to shut it off, hoping she could tame the sun, make it relent. And she came upon a mirror. It was her, she knew by instinct, as she had known her father’s face, despite never having seen it. But everything was wrong in the reflection: the eyes and hair and her complexion, chestnut colored eyes, a lovely brown, dark hair still curled – as her maid had no chance to have pressed it. She began to think – how strange! her eyes could lie, how strange a thought.
“She’s in the country…”
She heard the distant murmurs of approaching horses, her father calling out:
“Alissa!” he called. And others with him: “Signorina Alissa! Signorina!”
The retinue of men, in strange dress and manner, approached her, slowing down. The horses, what a sight! for new eyes beyond belief, such strange machines, covered in hair, larger than she’d have thought. Her father dismounted and ran up to her, pulled her into his arms and turned to walk away. He saw the mirror and turned around. He said: “So what did you think? Aren’t you the prettiest little girl in the world?”
No, she thought – she didn’t say it – she’d never thought of such a thing, a mirror that is – why would she, how? How could she have been told, and why tell the blind that such a device existed, knowing they’d never see themselves? He told her what it was, a mirror. She was intrigued and asked. “Papa,” she said, “Are there other mirrors? Better mirrors? I don’t believe it worked, the one I saw.”
Such a good man Robert was. “Of course,” he said. He ran his fingers through her hair, dismissed the other men, and he helped her back onto the horse. Settled firmly he hopped on in front of her.
“Hold on!” he said. She wrapped her arms around him as the horse hit its stride. The sky she’d often heard was full of clouds and birds, but it was empty then and barren, an ocean she had thought, an ocean without end. And the moon she knew somehow, hung like a thumbnail above some trees. They rode toward the castle and must have taken a more scenic route: she saw such things beyond belief: birds in flight, rolling hills and vineyards. It was magical though maddening, disorienting not unpleasant. Bright and strange, more than anything. Back in the castle she seemed lost, although she’d made her way around for many years without help. She held her fathers hand and he led her to a washroom and a wash basin, another mirror hung above it. It was wrong as well, and moving along to her father’s bed-chamber for another, a vanity mirror it was wrong and so on, mirror after mirror lying to the princess. They stopped for a moment in their tour to look through a well-appointed gallery in a spacious room, full of comfortable chairs and divans.
Each picture she thought was a mirror, mirrors that she loved. He introduced her to the family; his father then his uncle, distant relatives, the rest, and then her. Among so many, how few with that same hair and eyes, no other was a true brunetta. The painting, Alissa thought, was right, the mirror wrong; the glass imperfect, or it lied, or moved to spite her. She said as much, asking her father, “Could you show me a better mirror?”
“A better mirror?” he asked.
“Yes,” Alissa said. “The best! Only the best. One that is as accurate as this.” She indicated the painting, and she smiled, though something was off, she thought. Something, she couldn’t name it, no words for it. “You promise?” she entreated, walked toward him, took his hand. “Promise?” she smiled, truly friendly, truly loving.
“Yes dear,” he said. “There is someone I can see. I’ll get the best mirror, the best looking-glass in all creation. I promise.”
Roberto’s promises were golden, a promise you could count on, unlike her mother’s which meant little if a thing.
“She’s in the country…” spoke the flame.
They were quiet at the dinner table as they ate. IT was too long, she thought. Too lonely feeling, a new feeling that to feel at dinner, a feeling not felt before. Two men stood on opposite sides of the dining table with white kerchiefs draped over their wrists, on call. She finished her meal, they took it away, and her father finished, and the table was cleared.
“Are you ready for bed?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “Show me the prettiest thing there is to see!”
He smiled and walked toward her, extended his hand. “This,” he said. “You’ll love it.”
The night had crept up on them, bathing the now dim dining hall, its candles blown out and left smoking. That candle light, those flames still seemed so personal, like living things. And she liked to watch them as Roberto spoke, to relive that moment when she first awoke again, again, and again.
They walked hand-in-hand and smiled, happiness in every step. The winding corridors, the torch-lit halls, shadows in strange patterns in a strange dance with those lanterns on the walls. Endlessly rotating, the light and shadow’s danced, a perfect dance. The castle doors came slowly slowly down and moaned. The way such things sounded, or rather, as such things spoke, was no consequence of movement, not for her: the groaning doors had personality, and old they did their duty; they had purpose, all things did, all personable. Soon they were in the courtyard, and she was under the canopy of distant lights, an inkblack ocean full of fire, anglerfish with planets entranced, hypnotized and trapped by this spell.
So much, so, so, so very much! That ocean, endless, and she knew she’d never know, she never could know, never hear of all of them, and silent all of them, so far away like all of space was quiet, in its birth and death as all living things. She fell asleep underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining those distant fires as candle lights themselves, with the same voice:
“And that is Ariene, and Leone, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours…”
Alissa was fast asleep and dreamed, in color, too; she was a fire, like the rest; uncontained by any dishonest mirror or reflection otherwise, changing, evolving, never static-staying still. Breathing and stretching in such freedom with so relish and a longing he had never known as it went on. Sparks struck into flame and swelled orange at first then red, then white and finally blue and bright bright beyond compare it flashed and ebbed away. One after another flaring into flame and life just to subside as had the others, each subsiding, every light, each point she had just slept under in such peace. Each point followed in its fashion, some larger and some brighter yet none of them were lasting; finally they were far away, as far as they had been when she had listened to her father. She heard him speaking, voice of the last stars each fading, ever darker, ever gray. She woke in the comfort of her bed. She could hear father talking to someone, a familiar voice … she couldn’t place it.
“Whatever you ask,” he said. “I’m sure.”
“Very well,” said the woman’s voice.
“But only if it works!”
The woman walked into the room, familiar looking too. Roberto followed her, a forced but genuine excitement, an anxiousness she’d never seen. “I have something for you…”
The woman hushed Roberto. Alissa laughed, reminded of the sort of arguments she had heard so many times. Her face was older and older still as she came closer and closer. She noticed that in the woman’s hands was held an object, egg-shaped on one end, straight at the other; covered in black satin, tied loosely at the hilt with a golden string.
She knelt by the bed and the princess sat up straight and promptly, as expected. The woman unwound the golden string and slid the object from the satin cloth.
“This,” said she, “is a very special mirror. Your father said you wanted the best of mirrors, best in all the world. Is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the princess said, entranced completely.
“Well,” she said, “look at this!”
The velvet sheet fell to the floor as a glittering object, mostly silver, slid from it into one hand, then to both. The glass unusual and changed; the mirror moved—the mirror moved! Changing shapes and changing colors always shifting restless, so it seemed. She said, “This is a very special mirror. This mirror tells only the truth; other mirrors only show what’s real. This will show you what your true face is, no matter what, whether you wish to see it or not. It is a camaleonte, alive… Do you know that is?”
“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon.”
“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror.”
The young girl nodded.
“But,” she said, “Pardon, ma’am. Could I see it work before I try it?”
“How clever!” said the lady. She had a toothy smile. “Do you still have your dolly?”
The little lady looked around. She hadn’t thought of toys, not since she woke at least. She didn’t know how to find them, not with her eyes. She lay back, shutting her eyes, and pretended to sleep for a moment. She sat up with her eyes closed then felt her way around and out of bed, across the carpet and then wood to the corner where the old chest was, a soft wood with a cold switch. She pulled out a doll, a dairy-made she’d never seen. The shirt was white, the dress was red, and her shoes were black, high socks. She walked across the room and sat down again. The lady smiled again. She took the doll, and said: “My daughter had one of these!”
She placed the doll in front of the mirror and – the mirror moved! The mirror moves … it changed from an amorphous shade of grey and blank and bit by bit became defined; sketchy at first and then color sprang into the face, but it was different. There was more emotion in the face, in its composure sadder now, somehow but it was there. Was it? It was unreal, like a dream almost. She looked at the doll in the mirror, then to the real doll; at a glance they seemed the same, but the mirror gave it personality; it told the truth by some strange voodoo that the real doll for some reason could not manage, would not manage.
“Well?” the lady interrupted. “Would you like to see it work on you?”
The princess thought a moment, wondering truly, wondering what question she wanted answered; none, she thought, had troubled her before she woke up to the fire speaking to her. It had been much simpler then.
“I want you to look!”
The lady’s smile faltered but did not fail. She said, “Of course.”
The mirror shifted from a settled palette, undefined, bursting colors sprung from the surface and hurried into place, each more definitive, putting the face together bit by bit from scratch as she looked. And a lively woman, not as kind but not unkind, so much, began to come together color by color until the surface settled into the stern and wistful countenance. The face was younger, much younger; the eyes were much older, weary, sharp and acute but tired. She was beautiful through that same magic. And the princess took the handle, and the lady stopped her.
“Are you sure you want to see?” she asked. “If you look, you can’t take it back.”
And without thinking she said yes, compelled, egged on by that magic, by that transformative magic. She took the mirror into her hands and held it up to her face. Colors rushed from the lining silver toward the center, dark colors first, the outline forced and new colors, softer browns and beige and more subtle shades all marching towards a growing image. And the face with currents shifting settling, colors barging into one another and merging, settled and she looked into the eyes on the mirror’s face. It was … was it? Was it?
“Take it away!”
The princess pushed the mirror the side and covered her face, holding her eyes shut tightly. Her father sat beside her, the lady – she could tell through each small sound, still at strange heights – began to redress the delicate mirror. She couldn’t shake the image but tried in vain, for hours hoping that when she slept she’d lose the image, the whole thing would go away, like a memory from childhood of something of no importance, small moments no one notices, filling bird-seed, changing the hay for the horses, something routine, something ordinary.
Her father stayed with her until the sun went down sometime later and she calmed down. She felt her father’s heartbeat against her shoulder, tender and supportive. She felt silly and opened her eyes. His eyes were closed, but he seemed calm. Calm enough, at least. And he put his head on her shoulder, looking, she knew, for some sort of support from her.
And she said, “I’m sorry.”
He laughed and asked:
“What did you see?”
“The painting,” the princess said. “Everything was wrong. The eyes were wrong, like a dolls. Like dead eyes.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”
She’d find out later much to her shame that the cost for such a mirror, even if it granted just one look, had a shameful price, a price she wouldn’t have agreed to, and, perhaps, that was why she wasn’t told until much later, by someone else, as the moment with the mirror was swept away into other currents in an otherwise routine childhood. And when she found that the price for her to see was her father’s sight, she remembered that night with him, leading him outside, under the black blanket of the night full of stars. He got comfortable on his back and she took his hand into hers. She didn’t know what she could say, what she could do; maybe there was nothing. She put her finger on his chest and begin to trace shapes to mimic the constellations he’d described to her.
“I remember,” she pressed into his stomach, “here is Ariete,” she moved to the side, “and Leone here,” she continued drawing the constellation, “Pesci, your sign, Acquario that’s yours, and mother’s there, Gemelli…”
“Wait!” she said. “Where is mother?”
“She’s in the country,” he said. He repeated a few more times and was quiet. She understood and never asked again. She continued with the constellations on his stomach, on his chest. And when she stopped, he said: “You forgot yourself.”
He pulled her hand above his heart and said, “Right here.”
She felt his heartbeat, “There,” he said. His heart beat slowed, his muscles calmed. He murmured in his sleep: