PodCastle 718: Memoirs of a Magic Mirror

Show Notes

Rated PG-13


Memoirs of a Magic Mirror

by Julia Knowles

It started when three magicians, two fairies, a couple of wizards, a witch, and one very drunken sage decided it was a good idea to give consciousness to a mirror that had to answer any question truthfully. Personally, I blame the alcohol.

The sage ended up keeping me. Maybe the others had worked out that something that can only speak the truth and is compelled to answer every question it hears might not be the best house guest. All things considered, the sage coped with my presence admirably. Perhaps he liked having someone who could also ramble about the metaphysical considerations inherent in being an insignificant speck in a vast and uncaring world from time to time.

It wasn’t so bad. Even if it was only one person, with the sage I always had company. After he died I was forgotten in storage for a few decades before one of his descendants sold me off. From there I was passed between the wealthy and privileged — who had varying levels of interest in the knowledge I offered — for generations.

But I suppose the long lineage of my possession isn’t terribly relevant to this tale. Suffice to say that eventually an ageing duke saw fit to pass me on to his great-niece as a wedding present. Which, with the benefit of hindsight, was a stellar example of the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who is the fairest one of all?”

I spent hours hanging on a wall staring at the same blood-red bed curtains and that was what I got to look forward to. Bad poetry with far too much assonance every single morning. For seven years.

Well, granted, the initial conversation went a little differently.

“Blanche of Danavia. Why are you asking?” I wanted to know.

The Queen, my current owner, appeared to be in an even worse mood than usual. Lips that matched her favoured décor were drawn so thin it looked like someone had cut her face open.

“You mean, I am not the fairest?” The new Queen demanded in a dangerous tone that threatened to rip my frame off the wall and dash me against the nearest hard surface.

I took in her appearance. The gleaming golden locks that I was forced to watch her brush for hours on end every morning fell like a rippling waterfall of molten gold down to the backs of her knees. The almost exactly symmetrical face — only a slight inconsistency in the thickness of her right eyelashes thwarted this. The smooth alabaster skin whose morning care routine I was (again) unwillingly exposed to. Well, morning was a bit generous. She had so many care routines that they tended to extend well into the afternoon. She was objectively beautiful; at least, I believe so. It is a little difficult for an enchanted piece of glass such as myself to really comprehend that on an emotional level.

“Well, your skin is quite fair,” I agreed. “But albinism bleaches the skin to near completely white in some cases so you can hardly expect —”

What?!” I was definitely going to get slammed into the floor.

“You cannot objectively be considered to have the fairest skin in the world,” I said. “Were you referring to the pigment of another feature?” Not that that would change the result: it wasn’t her.

As you can no doubt tell, my new mistress was very self involved. Once I’d given advice and intelligence on foreign policy, weather patterns, and a truly astounding number of love affairs. Now, I was apparently going to perform censuses of the world and draw out the most extreme case of whatever drew my mistress’s fancy.

And I was stuck in her bedroom. The enchantments that constrain my existence only allow me access to knowledge of the world when others ask for it. It seems any kind of understanding of the fundamental truths of the universe for my own satisfaction is unnecessary.

The Queen composed herself. “I was given to understand, when I received you, that you knew everything.”

“I must answer every question and I cannot tell a lie. It’s not precisely the same thing.” Technicalities were significant in my line of work.

“Then why could you not tell my question was regarding beauty, not skin tone?!” Her voice went unnervingly high at the end as she lost control of her temper.

“I’m a mirror, not a mind reader! You need to be specific. The definitions of fair encompass paleness of hue and equal distribution of resources and consequences among peers. It is only in the vernacular of a language used by a set of people possessing relatively low melanin levels, thus resulting in a naturally pale hue compared to the majority of humanity, that fairness has begun to also take on connotations of beauty. However —”

“Enough!” Ever since the Queen had gotten me I’d never gotten to finish my answers to complex questions either. “Fine.” She took another deep, calming breath.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who is the most beautiful of all?” 

“Well, to answer this kind of question I first need to make the caveat that beauty is a subjective construct developed by humanity and, as such, is open to widely different interpretations. While there are features that are generally considered to be universally aesthetically pleasing in the human form, cultural differences, combined with personal preference, make it extremely difficult to offer an objectively certain —”

“Just tell me who!”

I sighed. “Sundari of Vashiva.”

The Queen had gone stony as the floor tiles. Well, if you asked a stupid question you got a pointless answer. I hardly saw why that was my fault.

“Where is this Sundari of Vashiva?” she hissed.

“On the other side of the world,” I offered promptly. Couldn’t ask for much more succinct than that. I hadn’t even given her the directions the magic had imparted to me.

The Queen stared at me. “The other side of the world?!”

“Yes.”

“So I have no chance of even encountering her?!”

“Well, technically you could, should you take a sea voyage or if she did —”

“Stop that!”

“Then stop asking me questions,” I told her irritably. “And you don’t need to make up a sing-song verse for it.”

The Queen carefully massaged her face into an expressionless mask before turning to me once more. “Magic mirror, I wish to know who the most beautiful woman in the land we are currently in is,” she informed me with exaggerated calm.

There was an ensuing pause.

“You need to ask a question,” I reminded.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who is the most beautiful woman in this land?” 

“Establishing the prior caveats previously iterated . . .”

“Yes . . .” Her jaw was clenched and I thought it must have been a great strain on her to avoid grinding down her pristinely white teeth (they had their own care routine).

“You,” I informed her.

All the tension flowed out of her so rapidly that for a second I thought she was going to collapse into a pile of skirts like some sort of spectacularly deflating soufflé. “Magic mirror, from now on, I want you to answer my first question as if it were this latest one. Understand?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure if it works that way,” I protested.

“Try,” she ordered, and swept from the room in a huff.

As it turned out my personal understanding of the question did influence the magic. Perhaps that was why I was made sentient in the first place. It certainly wasn’t for my own pleasure — the indignities you see, left stuck to people’s bedroom and bathroom walls, I can’t begin to tell you . . . Either way, the success of the Queen’s order left me having to listen to her chanting bad poetry at me morning and night for years. I suspect she had spent hours on that verse and became attached to it. No amount of pointing out it was unnecessary dissuaded her. And she never had any other questions, so I just sat above her vanity every day, comprehensively bored. At least until that fateful day when she demanded:

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who is the fairest one of all?” 

And I answered, “Snow White, your stepdaughter.”

To this day I maintain the Queen fainting cannot be blamed upon me. The number of horrifying beauty regimens she put herself through could not have been healthy. And I couldn’t have lied even if I had actually been paying attention by that point. The exceptionally controlled temper tantrum when she woke up probably didn’t help her health much either.

“What’s the perfect murder?” was the first coherent question to emerge.

For the amount of information I was barraged with, the answer was remarkably succinct: “There isn’t one.”

The Queen ignored me, muttering to herself. “I could use poison. No, no, that won’t work.”

“Um, I think you should calm down. No need for violence . . . or whatever this is,” I interjected, more than a little concerned. I missed my owners who were paranoid and kept their dark schemes to themselves. For all the good it did them.

“Already used poison for the King and people were suspicious. Can’t risk more questions,” she was mumbling to herself.

“I . . . really wish I hadn’t just heard that.” The greatest frustration of my life has always been that I have no body and can do absolutely nothing about the things I know, even though the damned fools who made me saw fit to give me a conscience.

The Queen continued to pace, largely incoherent for some time more, before suddenly rounding on me and demanding to know, “Where can I find a hunter?!”

“A . . . number of places.” I wondered if the sensation I currently had, overwhelmed with locations, was what humans referred to as a headache.

“Who is the best hunter within a day’s ride of the castle?!” She might be vain but she wasn’t wholly air-headed.

“Well, that somewhat depends on what you want to hunt. There is an excellent archer who can bring down even birds of prey living in a thatched hut on the outskirts of town,” I hedged.

“Who is the best hunter at killing prey of his own size that are capable of fighting back within a day’s ride of this castle?” the Queen asked.

I told her. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s a bad idea. I must urge you to look to your better nature —”

The Queen had already left, ignoring me. I sighed.

Boredom is only made worse by feeling guilty. Particularly when you have no bright ideas about how to fix something. To all intents and purposes, after all, I am only a mirror. My only means of interacting with the world is my voice.

I tried to put that voice to use. Occasionally footsteps would sound outside the Queen’s chambers, even though servants tended to avoid the area and were forbidden from actually entering. I tried yelling and making the loudest racket I could, as if I could rattle myself off the wall. The first two times I was ignored or not heard, although the steps fled faster than ever. The third, a pale, freckled young man poked his head in.

“Is anyone here?” he asked tentatively. “I heard calls for help.”

“Yes! That was me. Listen, the Queen seems to have gone mad and is planning to kill the princess. I need you —”

The boy took one look at the talking mirror on the wall and fled screaming in terror. I swore so viciously I really feel that by all rights the bed curtains ought to have caught fire. My further attempts to fetch help for the princess met with a similar lack of success.

Then the Queen returned holding a bloody heart in her hand.

“Oh, dear lord.” It was half an oath, half a prayer for my own sanity. She was cradling the gory thing in her palms as if it were the most precious object in the world. I almost expected her to start cooing to it at any moment. If I had been human I would have thrown up.

“Behold! The heart of Snow White!” she announced proudly to the room at large, blood splattering everywhere from her expansive gesture.

“Do I have to?” I protested, wishing I could move away from the trickle of blood trailing over my glass towards my frame.

“It is the proof that she is now dead and cannot be the fairest in the land anymore!” The Queen thrust it up before me, flicking more gore onto my surface.

“That’s disgusting! Get it away, get it away! Ew . . .” I tried to writhe off the wall with all the success that could be expected considering I don’t have limbs.

The Queen drew in a breath for her dramatic declamation before me. Groaning, I settled into quietly reflective misery.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who is the fairest one of all?” 

“Snow White,” I announced. Then I remembered to be surprised.

WHAT?!”

“Snow White,” I repeated.

“That isn’t possible!”

“I just answer the questions,” I mumbled, more concerned with the blood getting into the seam around my frame.

“Is this heart in my hand not Snow White’s?!”

“Yes.”

“But you said she was the fairest!”

“She is.”

“But I hold her heart in my hand!”

I didn’t have to answer that, so I didn’t.

“Whose heart is this?!” the Queen shrieked.

“The heart of a stag. A rather large one too . . . that’s actually quite impressive,” I mused.

“WHAT?!”

“The heart of a stag. A rather —”

The Queen screamed, hands coming up as if to wrench her own heart out and flinging the extracted one up into the air. It hit the ceiling with a sad little splat and then fell back to the stained carpet as the Queen fled the room in a towering rage. Planning to strike terror into the servants by running mad through the castle, no doubt. I was left with the sad damp stain on the ceiling and my own series of drying blood marks.

The Queen returned in due time. She looked . . . haggard. Or rather, she looked like she was trying very hard not to look haggard and almost, but not quite, succeeding.

“Where is the huntsman?!” she demanded.

I tried to misunderstand the question but I knew which huntsman she meant. “On his way to the border,” I informed her.

She made a dangerous noise through her teeth. “Where is Snow White?”

“In a cottage of seven dwarves in the woods,” I told her. “Huh. Odd housing arrangements.” Were the dwarves related? Had they decided to purchase the house together for financial reasons? Why the centre of the woods? If only I could address questions to myself.

The Queen’s eyes had lit up with an evil light. “I shall find her. I shall find her and kill her myself. Then I will be the fairest in all the lands!”

I refrained from pointing out this was incorrect for fear she’d start tracking down and murdering beautiful women in other kingdoms.

If I hadn’t been so very concerned about her plans, the following few hours might have actually been entertaining. The Queen dashed about the room and in and out, concocting the most bizarre disguise of shredded finery, kitchen rags, and the over-application of face paints that I have ever seen. I gathered from her babbling that she intended to look like a pedlar woman. Thankfully she didn’t ask me if she did.

I watched her march out at last, somewhat reassured that the huntsman, at least, seemed to have gotten away and there was no way even the most naïve of princesses could mistake the Queen for an actual pedlar woman, looking as suspicious as she did. On the second count, I was proven wrong.

The Queen came back cackling about how she’d choked the princess to death with a corset. A cruel, unusual, and needlessly complex method of murder if I’ve ever heard one.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who’s the fairest one of all?” 

“Snow White,” I sighed. This was getting almost as dull as telling the Queen it was her for the past seven years.

“Not possible!”

“Look, could you just give up these mad murder plans? How about saying some positive things about yourself? I’ll help: ‘I am a strong, independent woman and I do not need to murder young women who have done nothing to me.’”

“How did she survive?!”

“You didn’t lace it tightly enough; she was still alive. The dwarves came back and cut the corset free again.”

Nooooo!

“Calm down. Would it make you feel any better if I said I thought you were pretty?”

The Queen ignored me and immediately darted out to devise a new scheme, muttering something about family cursed combs. I sighed.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who’s the fairest one of all?”

“Snow White.” I started out of my abstracted daze meditating on whether the stain on the ceiling looked more like a bean or a raindrop.

“It can’t be! I checked her pulse myself! The cursed comb was firmly stuck in her hair! I had to wrestle the girl to the ground to do it, too! The blasted child seemed afraid of me for some reason!”

I stared at her. “You . . . did dress as a different pedlar woman, right?”

“A different pedlar woman!”

I cursed my expressive glass.

“But how could she have survived?!”

“The dwarves took the comb out of her hair and the curse ended.”

The Queen gaped at me. It would have been funny if it hadn’t all been so horrifying. “Mirror, you must know killing curses!”

“I do not have personal knowledge of such.”

“What is a curse that will kill the person who consumes it as surely as poison?!”

Then why not just use poison? “There is a curse that can be laid upon fruit that will stop the heart of the one who ingests it . . .” I chose one at random from the slew of knowledge I didn’t want.

“Perfect! Tell me!”

I ignored her but she’d already hit a new snag. “Oh, but how do I convince her to eat it?” She began pacing madly.

Good luck, the poor girl probably had a deathly fear of pedlar women by this point. Unfortunately, she’d just asked a question. “Most people who are suspicious of food and drink desire proof from another that it is safe to ingest,” I provided, sulking at having this plan dragged out of me. “She might be more willing to eat it if you would do the same.”

“But then I would end up poisoned! Wait! No!” The Queen seemed to have struck upon a brilliant plan. From her point of view, anyway. I hoped for the worst. “I’ll just poison half the apple! It’s brilliant! Mirror, how do I create this curse?”

Brooding is really much the same as waiting when you can’t do anything. No servants even came pattering past for me to try to frighten into aid. I could only hope that Snow White had learned her lesson.

She hadn’t.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who’s the fairest one of all?” 

“You,” I groaned. “Are you happy now? You’ve murdered an innocent child who did nothing to you.”

Apparently the Queen was happy because she went through the following weeks in a blissful daze that only required checking with me that she was the most beautiful five times a day. At least until the day she asked:

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who is the fairest one of all?” 

And I answered, as much to my surprise as hers, “Snow White.”

HOOOOW?!” she howled, catching my frame and flinging me to the floor. I could hear screaming as she fled the room.

“She didn’t chew properly and the piece of apple was jolted out of her throat,” I told the floorboards, feeling inordinately pleased considering that someone had tried to smash me yet again. I would have been more so if I had been told that was the last I would ever see of the Queen.

It seemed a very long time before I next heard footsteps. “So, this was the old witch’s room, eh? Dear lord, what a mess.”

“Yes,” I automatically responded. Then, “Um, hello? Hello! Could someone right me, please?” I requested.

“Who said that?”

“The mirror on the floor. Don’t bother treading on me, I’m unbreakable.” A surprising amount of foresight from my absent-minded creators. “Little help?”

There was a pause and then I was flipped upright.

“Is this a joke?” the young man’s handsome face demanded.

“No.”

“What are you?”

“I’m a magical mirror that must truthfully answer all questions.”

“Truly?”

“Yes. It’s written on my frame, I believe.”

The man examined it briefly. “I see . . . and you were the Queen’s?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised by the added knowledge that she was now, in fact, deceased.

“So now you will be mine?”

“I will be Snow White’s according to the kingdom’s property laws,” I corrected.

“Ah, but I am marrying her!” He beamed. “Tell me mirror, is she not the most beautiful woman in all the world?”

“She is not,” I affirmed. God, I was getting sick of that damn question.

The man’s dreamy smile faltered. “I beg your pardon?”

“Snow White isn’t the most beautiful woman in the world.”

“Then who is?!”

“Sundari of Vashiva. Is that really all you people care about?!”

“Sundari!” The man tasted the name and licked his lips as if it made him hungry. “Pray tell, where can I find this maiden?”

“The kingdom of Vashiva.” Obviously.

“Tell me how to get there.”

The ensuing silence was deafening while I glared at him.

“Why aren’t you answering?”

“I only have to answer questions.”

“How strange.” The man chuckled. “How do I get to the beautiful Sundari?”

I sighed and started rattling off instructions. As soon as I was done the man dropped me and dashed out the door yelling something about going to rescue his one true love. At least this time I was on my back and could see, although I was getting really sick of that stain on the ceiling. I hoped the heart wasn’t still lying on the carpet somewhere.

Sobbing heralded the arrival of my next guest.

“Are you all right?!” I called.

“Who said that?” The sniffling was louder, entering the room.

“I did. The mirror abandoned on the floor,” I said grumpily.

“M . . . mirror?”

“Yes.”

After a moment, I was picked up and presented, at long last, with the face of Snow White. She really was very pretty. All contrasts of pale skin, dark hair, and warm lips. Although currently her eyes were also rather red with crying.

“You must be Snow White. What’s the matter?”

“M . . . my one true love has l . . . left,” the poor girl sobbed, sitting back on the bed and staring at me as helplessly as a child. “H . . . he said there was a more beautiful girl he was meant to be with.”

I sighed. “I know I’m a mirror and don’t really understand the whole romance thing, but I’d say you’re better off without him.”

“B . . . but I love him!” she sniffled. “And he loved me! Didn’t he?”

“He thought you were beautiful and was infatuated but he didn’t love you.”

“H . . . he didn’t?” Snow White asked, gleaming tears running down her cheeks.

“I’m afraid not. And he doesn’t seem very deserving of your love, so you’d best forget about him.”

“B . . . but I don’t have anyone else! Papa and Mama are dead and Stepmama did such horrid things and now she’s dead too and everyone wants me to rule the kingdom and I don’t know how and —” the poor girl dissolved into sobs.

“Now that’s not entirely true. You were living with those dwarves for a little while, weren’t you?” I pointed out.

“H . . . how do you know?”

“I get any knowledge I need to answer questions. But surely if they let you stay they must have liked you. What happened to them?”

“Th . . . they’re still in the woods.”

“Well, do you think they care about you?”

“I . . . I think so.”

“Well then, why don’t you invite them here and they can help you get settled? I’m sure between them and the many wise people eager to advise you, you’ll muddle through.”

“I . . . I suppose.” I was pleased to see Snow White dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve.

“Do you want to ask me if they truly care about you?”

Snow White hesitated. “N . . . no, I think maybe it would be best if I didn’t. I think it would be hard to have faith in people if I was always told exactly what they thought.”

“That’s . . . probably wise,” I said, with newfound respect for the young woman who was currently drying her eyes and trying to look determined.

“What do you want to happen to you now?”

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “I just answer questions. That’s my function. So I suppose I want to do that. Otherwise I get bored.”

“W . . . well, if you feel that way, I was thinking perhaps you could advise me.”

“You are my new owner.”

“R . . . really?”

“You inherited me with your stepmother’s other possessions.”

“W . . . well, actually, I was thinking there were rather a lot of people whose problems you might be able to help with, if you like answering questions.”

“What did you have in mind?”

Snow White gave me a watery smile. “I thought you could help me answer the questions of everyone in the kingdom.”

Which is how I came to be hung above the throne in the Great Hall, for all to ask their questions at any hour of the day or night. I’m surprised you actually listened to the entire story — most people interrupt me part way through. Did you have any other questions?

About the Author

Julia Knowles

Julia Knowles has lived in Auckland, New Zealand all her life. She loves her home apart from the fact that it is atop a dormant volcanic field and that the books are too expensive. Luckily she has a supportive family to help her cope with these horrors. She spends her free time writing stories about extraordinary worlds and the lives of the people who inhabit them – extraordinary or otherwise.

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About the Narrator

A.J. Fitzwater

AJ Fitzwater is a glittery lava lamp from Christchurch, New Zealand. Their books are the World War 2 land girls shapeshifter novella “No Man’s Land” and the lesbian capybara pirate collection “The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper”. They like bow ties and soft pillows, and they tweet @AJFitzwater.

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