Four years have passed since the woman I knew as Mother enclosed me in my tower. Mother claimed the confinement was to protect me from the world’s cruelty.
“Zel, your oddness and ugliness grow each day, and men destroy the things they find hideous.”
Mother left me only one toy, a gilt-framed mirror, which helps keep the darkest questions at bay. The mirror gives me a reflection to pull faces at, the chance to dance light around the room, and a cool surface to rest my cheek against after nightfall. When I find myself asking where Mother is, why she no longer comes, and why no other humans visit either, my mirror friend aids me in devising distractions.
My mirror shows me my imperfection – my wide nose as dappled as a hooded crow’s egg rather than grandly hooked like Mother’s; my eyes large and dark, unlike Mother’s fine bloodshot glints.
My wild, long hair is almost a separate creature. I pretend it is a pet, one that purrs, neighs, and, on rare instances, bites. I bunch, braid and tint it sea-dragon green with the ivy and other plants that shimmy up the stonework to meet me.
Each morning Mother’s trained birds bring morsels of food – berries, seeds, bread, edible flowers and small pies stolen from windowsills.
As I’ve grown taller and softer, my clothes have fallen to rags.
None of this I mind. What burrows into my brain and prompts me to shriek occasionally is the monotony.
One day, the sunlight I reflect around my tower room escapes through a window. In a flash of gold, it dances over the forest and bounces from tree to tree until, I imagine, it splashes into the eye of a passing prince.
I know he is a prince because he shouts: “What ho!” Which is exactly what Mother warned me princes shout when they encounter a sight they’ve never seen before.
In this case, I suspect, it’s the phallic stretch of tower that has him excited.
After a moment’s fluster, I peek out and spy him far below. His outfit gleams with brocade, leather and satin, and his hair is a waft of dark silk, unlike my unruly green-stained tangle and barely-there rags.
Best of all, beside him stands a horse of such noble bearing that my heart pings.
“What do you think?” I ask my mirror friend as I tighten my coiled braid. “Mother said men ruin peculiar girls like me. But I could easily die of boredom before the season’s out.”
“Well, dear Zel, what do you have to lose?” asks my reflection, who has grown equally fed up.
“Come in!” I holler to the prince.
The prince looks startled to hear my fluting tones (I’ve been playing at mimicking bluebirds), but bows low in what I assume is acceptance of my invitation.
Minutes pass with him hidden from view, and then he barks: “The door appears to be locked, m’lady.”
Oh, drat. I’m not entirely sure how locks and doors work, after so many years in here.
I think of the yellow spiders that skitter up to tease me.
“Climb!” I bawl.
It’s soon disappointingly clear that the prince’s attempts lack my arachnids’ agility.
“Might you perchance have a rope,” he asks, “or a ladder?”
“Does he really think I’d still be here if I did?” I sniff to my mirror friend. I suspect some men are less dangerous than dim.
I pace, annoyed, until I trip over my own emerald-dyed braid.
“Oh! Here!” It plummets from the window with a snake-like slither.
The prince’s hard tug provokes me to yelp, but I swallow my pain. Was it Mother who claimed no pain, no gain? There’s no chance to ask my mirror friend as the prince begins to haul his substantial weight up the exterior wall.
By the time he reaches the tower window, my scalp has decided howling is the only sane response to such agony.
The prince regards my near nakedness with a smile that suggests he doesn’t find me entirely repugnant. He bows low once more. “Dear maiden, tell me what I can do to please you.”
I admire his jacket and jodhpurs, belt, boots and polished blade.
“I want to play every game possible,” I say. “First, let’s play mirror friends and make me resemble you.”
His laughter subsides at the hunger in my gaze.
Taking his blade in my hand, I saw off my hair until it is a cloud but an inch in depth. Together, the prince and I marvel at my altered reflection in the mirror, until his eyes stray to his own splendid jaw.
To myself, I look strange and wonderful.
“Next, let’s play dress up,” I say.
I try on his jacket and jodhpurs, belt and boots. The touch of them against my skin is such a warm caress that I almost purr.
Beside me, the prince stands in his underpants with hands on hips and muscles rippling.
“Now shall we play my favorite game?” he asks.
I smile. “Soon, but first I want to climb, as you did. That looked fun.”
I instruct him to hold my shorn braid to demonstrate his strength while I abseil down the exterior wall.
There the resplendent horse waits. “Hello, friend,” I say. It huffs gently, welcoming me onto its back.
Together we ride away. I thrill at the power of the horse beneath me, the rush of air in my lungs, and the dazzle of the landscape opening before me.
The tower is soon lost to the trees.
I wonder how long it will be before the prince, absorbed in befriending his reflection, understands that I’ve gone for good.
Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her second short story collection, Sky Light Rain, is out now. Find Judy at http://www.skylightrain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.