A Very Small Woman & A Silver Looking Glass / Anuja Varghese
CONTENT WARNING: body horror.
In a very small cottage in the very deep woods, a very small woman stared at her reflection in a silver looking glass. The face she saw was wrinkled and misshapen, with sagging skin and droopy eyes. The lips were thin and cracked, the hair wispy and white. When she ran her fingers through it, she came away with so many spider web strands clinging to the bird-like bones holding her hands together.
“When did I become so ugly?” she asked her reflection. But the mirror gleamed in silence, and every day, the woman would wake and hurry to its side to stare and ask and wonder and weep.
One day, while watching the woman in the mirror wither a little more, a knock at the cottage door startled the woman out of her staring. “Come in,” the woman called, and a lovely little girl wandered in. She carried with her a basket full of books and knives, an apple, a rose, and a bloody, still-beating heart. “Who are you?” the woman demanded, both wary of the child’s wildness, and resentful of her beauty, the way her brightness illuminated every cobweb in the very small space.
“Don’t you know me?” the girl asked. “We used to be one.”
“No, you are mistaken,” the woman replied churlishly. “I don’t know you at all and I am only one with her.” She pointed at the crone in the glass.
“Oh, a mirror!” the girl exclaimed, instantly fascinated by her own cherubic face. “How wonderful!” She set down her basket and stood next to the woman, and because the woman was so very small and the child was only a child still, there was room enough for two reflections floating in the silver frame.
They passed the afternoon that way, the woman bemoaning all that she saw and the girl laughing as she tilted and twirled, her features more perfect with every new angle the mirror revealed. Of course, the apple in her basket grew soft and brown, and her rose wilted with no water or sun. But she no longer cared for these things she had carried so long and so far into the very deep woods. They passed days and weeks and months that way, and the girl’s books became dusty and her knives became dull, but at the bottom of the basket, her heart remained, its beat ever weaker, its blood running dry.
They passed years that way, the girl and the woman, sharing the glass. The child grew bigger and the woman grew smaller, and the lines between their reflections blurred. The laughing and the weeping became the same formless sound and eventually, everything in the basket turned to rot or rust. Spiders descended and spun their webs around the beating heart, blackening it with their venom, then devouring it, piece by poisoned piece.
It was a very long time in the very deep woods, before another little girl came knocking at the cottage door. A voice did bid her enter and she obeyed, wary though she was of the very small woman with the red-rimmed eyes she found within. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Don’t you know me, child?” the woman rasped in a voice as brittle as buttercups strangled by an early frost. “We used to be one.”
“No, no, you must be mistaken,” the girl replied, shrinking back in horror at the thought. “I don’t know you at all and I am only one with… why, with her!” She pointed at her own reflection smiling, so beguiling, in the looking glass.
She set down her basket and came to stand next to the woman who only wept and wailed and asked questions of the mirror as if she expected it to answer her one day. They passed the years together, they two, and the mirror made three, and the spiders made many, and they lost count of all the little girls who came knocking at the cottage door; who came and never left.
After a very long time, on a very dark night, a child woke the very small woman in the cottage in the woods. So insistent was her knocking, that the woman had no choice but to call out, “Come in!” The girl entered with her basket and her torch and stared at the woman in wonder and disgust. “Who are you?” the woman demanded.
“Don’t you know me?” the girl asked. “We used to be one.”
“No, no I think you are mistaken,” the woman said, although she felt less sure of her answer now. “I don’t remember you and in any case, I am only one with her.” She pointed at where her reflection ought to have been, but the girl’s light didn’t extend so far and in the glass, there moved only shadows.
The girl set down her basket and raised her torch to follow where the woman’s finger lead, and the woman knew she had only a moment to make her plea. “Burn it,” she whispered. All the voices within her repeated, “Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!” and the girl’s grip on the torch faltered. Just before she let it fall, the mirror mustered its strength and called a shaft of moonlight to its service.
“Oh look, a mirror!” the girl cried in delight, as her reflection came into focus and the woman knew all was lost once again.
It became very cold in the very deep woods and the very small woman shivered as she kept her lonely watch. The children who came to the cottage door no longer had mothers to fill their baskets with flowers and fruit, no longer learned to kill goblins and trolls, could no longer read aloud. Those who still saw the woman there, asked her only as a courtesy, “Who are you?” and those of whom she asked the same, never recognized that she and they had always been one. The woman asked nothing of the mirror now and her stone heart slowly filled with fury.
At long last, another little girl came upon the cottage, but she thought not to knock at all. She had been warned about witches and the woods in which they dwelt, had been taught to avoid spinning wheels, wolves, and magic spells at all costs. And yet, her basket of relics weighed heavy on her little arm and the cottage had the air of somewhere she had been before.
When the very small woman heard the very soft knocking, she stayed very still and said not a word. Again, the child knocked, again and again, but the woman bit her blackened tongue and willed the girl to go away. The mirror rippled with rage and finally whispered into the girl’s open ears, “Come in, sweet girl, come in, come in.”
The girl wandered in, no longer wild, no longer brave or bright, but weary and frightened, wielding her beauty as a shield before her. Because the woman was so very small and the child had but a child’s eyes yet, she did not see the woman standing at the mirror’s side. She saw a heap of bloody baskets and a few spiders scuttling past. She saw a looking glass in a silver frame, but there were mirrors now on every wall, in every space, big and small, and her face reflected back at her everywhere she went.
“Oh. A mirror,” she said, already bored, and peered into the bit of glass. The face she saw was a hideous mess, barely held together by protruding bones and putrid flesh. Deformed and decaying, twisted in misery and woe, it opened its cavernous mouth and screamed, “Come in, sweet girl, come in, come in!”
The very small woman raised her very small voice and said to the girl, “On the other side of these very deep woods, there are gardens to tend and fields to harvest, battles to fight and stories to tell. I beg you, find the world beyond these woods and offer it your beating heart.”
“Who are you?” the child asked her reflection.
“Don’t you know me?” the woman cried. “Don’t you see that we are one?”
But the girl saw only what the mirror showed. “When did I become so ugly?” she moaned, touching small hands to cheeks that felt like silk against her fingers, but looked like stone within the glass. She passed the years this way, weeping and wailing and rearranging her features in hopes of finding once more the face she once knew.
“Why do you do this?” the woman asked the mirror, as they watched the child wither, while the snow began to fall and the spiders ate their fill.
The mirror turned its shining face to the woman it knew well and replied, “I am so very hungry. And you are so very small. You will never be enough.”
What else could the woman say? She never raised her voice again. Sometimes she scared a child away, but more always came, the call of the mirror an irresistible song. So send your daughters forth with care and fill their baskets to the brim, for even when they walk alone through deepest woods and open doors, they are always still within the grasp of a very small woman and a silver looking glass.
Anuja Varghese is an emerging writer based in Ontario, Canada. She holds a BA in English Literature from McGill University and is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate at the University of Toronto. Her work was previously longlisted for the PRISM International Short Fiction Prize and is currently a finalist in the Pigeon Pages 2019 Fiction Contest. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.