Prologue: Legend of the Chameleon Mirror (The Princess’ Painting)

1

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 an ideal childhood. One day she woke to find a candle, something she’d never seen, a candle with a rather large flame on the stand beside her bed, too close. 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 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, grabbing her trembling hands,, pulled her into his arms and with her turned to walk away. He saw the mirror – out of the corner of his eye- 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.”

“Of course,” he said. He dismissed the other men, helped her onto the horse. He made sure she was secured and hopped in front of her.

“Hold on!” he said. She wrapped her arms around him as the horse broke into a gallop. The sky she’d often heard was full of clouds and birds, that day was empty and barren, an ocean she thought, a blue ocean without end.. And the moon hung like a thumbnail above distant treetops. 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, bright and strange. Back in the castle she felt lost; She’d made her way around for many years without help. She held her fathers hand and he led her to a washroom. Another mirror, oblong with a gold frame above the wash-basin. Something was off; It was wrong as well. She looked away. In her father’s bed chamber she found another, a smaller vanity mirror, wrong again and so on: mirror after lying mirror; she didn’t trust the glass. They stopped for a moment in a gallery, a well-appointed, spacious room, comfortable chairs and divans. Each picture, each painting, she thought was an honest mirror, mirrors she could 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 brunette. The painting had it right, she thought, and each mirror had been wrong, imperfect glass that lied or changed 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 smiled.

“I will in the morning, sweetheart.”

“You promise?” she asked. She took his hand and swung it back and forth. “Do you promise? Do you? Do you?”

“Yes dear,” he said. He smiled. “There is someone I can see. I promise.”

He never lied to her, and a promise she could count on, unlike her mother.

“She’s in the country…”

They were quiet at the dinner table. It was too long, she thought. The table, feeling lonely, a new feeling for the dinner table, a feeling she had not felt before. Two men in uniform 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. “I want to see the prettiest thing you have.”

He took walked toward her, took her hand, and said, “It’s not in the castle. But I’ll show you. You’ll love it.”

Continue to Chapter 2 –> The Face in the Fire

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