An Italian princess of Noble birth — her name now lost to Time — in the days before Napoleon, born blind but beautiful so bright and honest, loved by all and what a smile! Being blind, it never bothered her, so it was said; as sound and touch were good enough and so her life was happy until one day she woke to find a candle waiting for her, no longer blind. The first thing that caught her eye was a candle burning with a large flame on the stand, close by, and as she watched the strange dance of white and red and orange, her father spoke to her from the other side of the bed, and having never known what a person was supposed to look like, knowing only of their sound and smell and warmth, she looked at the flame and felt that it was speaking to her: ‘And your mother’s in the country…” Click to continue…
She screamed and her father turned round, facing her he took her by the shoulders: she looked upon her father’s face for the first time and through some strange magic knew who he was, and his face as well. When he spoke however, it was strange, as before she had spoken to by the dancing fire, the candle’s flame had said, ‘And your mother’s in the country…’ And she screamed, ran from the room, down the hall and kept on running. Each new corridor rose out of a mist, a blackness she didn’t understand as the limits of her newfound sense; as the guards and servants, butlers, chamber-maids and cooks all moved in and about the castle, the story of her fright and confusion made its way to just enough that she was ordered to be found; the horses were mounted, the torches lit, and so they set out to find the young lady.
Everything was frightening, the sun more so than anything; an evil character, she thought, it seemed to be a menace, threatening like a spirit made of fire, and fire, though she thought it beautiful, reminded her of that flame that spoke to her in her bedroom, “Your mother’s in the country…” Nothing shook the feeling that the world was wrong, the colors off, and she tried to squint and bring it into better focus, to change it, to subdue the light, to command it, control it, and shut it off. And then she came upon a mirror. She knew it was her by instinct, as she had known her father, but like everything else it was somehow wrong, the color of her eyes, a lovely brown, her dark hair still curly as she had not had it pressed. She began to think that maybe her eyes were lying to her; maybe … How strange a thought! “Your mother is in the country…”
She heard the distant murmur of approaching horses and saw her father among the retinue of men in strange costume on such strange creatures. Horses, how strange they seemed; a weird machine covered in hair and larger than she had imagined. Her father dismounted and ran up to her, and pulling her into his arms he saw the mirror she had seen and asked, “So what do you think? Aren’t you the prettiest little girl?” No, she said. She didn’t know what it was called, the mirror there, how would she? How could she have been told, and why tell the blind of such a device knowing they will never see themselves? And he told her what it was and she, intrigued, asked if there were other, ‘better’ mirrors. And he said yes and mounted the horse. A friendly man approached and helped her onto the horse. They rode back to the castle, scenery passing as they went, all disorienting to her. The sky, she’d often heard, was full of clouds and full of birds. And the sky was empty overhead, and troubling to her to see it so barren having so often heard of it spoken of as an ocean, so she thought, a larger ocean. And she could see the moon, a sort of thumbnail just above a group of trees, hanging like a Christmas ornament motionless. Her father took her to a gallery to show her every painting of her family; first his father, then his uncle, then some relative, and the rest, then to her. Among so many, how few with the same long hair like hers, no other true brunetta. She wondered which was her mother, but didn’t ask. And finally she saw herself: the painting was perfect! it was right, the mirror wrong; the glass was imperfect, or it lied, or moved to spite her, to say something as the flame had spoke. She said as much, asking her father, “Could you show me a better mirror?”
He took her by the hand, “Of course.”
He led her to a room familiar by its scent, the bagno. It wasn’t unpleasant, just bright, just strange. The mirror above the sink was wrong as well, and moving along to her father’s bed chamber for another, a vanity mirror also wrong; and so on, mirror after mirror lying to the princess, unlike the painting in the gallery. Seeing her frustration and her sadness, her father made her a promise: “There is someone I can see,” he said. “I will get the perfect mirror for you. I promise.”
She held onto this promise, as he always told the truth, unlike her mother.
“She’s in the country…”
She was silent at the dinner table, too long she thought. He sat so far away. Two men stood on opposite sides with kerchiefs draped over their wrists, on call. She finished her meal, they took it away, and her father finished, they took it away.
“Are you ready for bed?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she said. The night had crept in silently, bathing the candlelight in the dining hall. The candle light, those flames still seemed personal, alive more or less. And she liked to watch them as her father spoke and feel that strangeness over and over, as she had in the morning.
He had everything arranged and finally responded.
“What would you like, dear?”
“I want to see the stars.”
He walked to her and offered his hand. She smiled and took it, standing. They walked through winding torch-lit rooms, the shadows danced in elaborate patterns with each lantern. So endless in its rotations, the light and shadow’s dance, a perfect dance. And the castle doors came slowly down and creaked. The way such things sounded to her, having had nothing but for all her life, and the groaning doors had personality; it wasn’t just a consequence of movement, no, it had purpose, as all sound had. And soon she was lost under the canopy of distant lights. A ink-black ocean full of fire far away, of anglerfish with planets hypnotized entranced. She knew then that there was so much, so much in that ocean, she could never know, never hear, and silent she would learn that all of space was, but violent in its birth and death as most beings. She fell asleep there underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining that those distant fires like the candle spoke with the same voice, “And Ariete, and Leone, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours Bilancia …”
And that night for the first time she dreamed, in color, too: she was a fire, like the rest, uncontained by mirror’s honest or otherwise, always changing, never static. Breathing and stretching in such freedom in such strides she’d never imagined, and it went on. Black eons glowed and flashed and swelled orange at first and red then blue then white and blue again and bright white beyond compare and ebbed away, and more one after another flaring and billowing and with great might flaring then subsiding, each light, each point she had lay under, until there were only dozens left, then less, then one more and it seemed enough. She woke to the sound of talking.
She opened her eyes and saw the candle by her bed, a new candle somehow, but the same from the day before but smaller, with a woman’s voice, her mother’s voice, back from the country. Her father said, “I’ll give you whatever you ask,” and the voice responded. “You know the price.”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Fine. Let’s wake her up.”
The woman had an object with her, egg-shaped at one end and straight at the other. It was covered in a black velvet sheet and tied loosely at the hilt with a golden twine. Her father said what seemed like, “Only if it works.”
The woman hushed him. It wasn’t her mother at all, she noticed. Her face was older and older the closer she got.
She knelt by the bed and the princess sat up promptly, as expected. The woman spoke to her, untying the twine and sliding the fabric back.
“This,” said she, “is a very special mirror. Your father said you wanted one, a new one. Is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the princess said.
“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 into both. The glass was unusual and changed; the mirror moved. Changing shapes and changing colors on a whim, it seemed. She said, “This is a very special mirror,” she said. “This mirror tells only the truth; other mirrors only show what’s real, and boring. This will show you what your true face is, no matter what. It is a camaleonte, do you know that is?”
“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon?”
“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror, first and last of its kind. There are no others in the wide world.”
The young girl nodded.
“But,” she said, “pardon, ma’am. Could I see it work before I try it?”
“How clever!” the lady said. She smiled a toothy smile. “Yes, do you have a dolly?”
The little lady looked around her room. She hadn’t thought of toys, not since she woke. She didn’t know how to find them, not with her eyes. She closed her eyes and lay back, pretended to sleep for a moment, and then felt her way out of bed, across a blank space she only understood through touch, and a softness then, then a little switch, and she pulled a doll, a dairy-maid, she had never seen such a figure. The shirt was white, the dress was red, and her shoes were black, high socks. She walked across the room, uneasy, and sat on the bed again. The lady smiled again. She took the doll, saying, “My daughter has one of these!”
She placed the doll in front of the mirror and – the mirror moved! The mirror moves … it changes from an amorphous, blank shade of grey and then by bit becomes defined, sketchy at first and then color springs into the face, but there’s a difference. There’s more emotion in the face, in the composure, everything was different, sadder now, somehow, but it was there. Was it? She looked at the doll in the mirror, then to the real doll, and at a glance they seemed the same, but the mirror gave it personality; it told the truth by some strange voodoo.
“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. “The same one from the galley. It was beautiful, but wrong. It had no personality… It didn’t breathe. I don’t know. Everything was wrong. The eyes were wrong, like a dolls. Just like the milk-maid. 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.