Serendipity - Time of the Witch by Alison J Littlewood
Time of the Witch
by Alison J Littlewood
I applied more lip-gloss, pouted, then added black eyeshadow. I was trying to paint on some mystery, but I looked young, much too young: he surely wouldn't go for someone who looked so young.
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . . "
I set down my white wine, spilling some, and tried to see my face and body in the reflection. The mirror was too small, and its ring of superstar bulbs didn't actually light up. It was a cheap, plastic thing, but it was cute, and it talked. That was the main thing.
I hit the button on the top.
"You are the fairest of them all," the tinny voice said. "In fact, you're gorgeous."
I grinned and straightened the spaghetti straps of my white top. But it hadn't finished. "Knock him dead, baby," it said as I headed for the door.
I stared at the mirror now, just plastic tat from my childhood. I almost threw it onto the heap of clothes that was waiting for Jonathan to collect. And then I remembered that night, going out in hope of snaring my prince. Prince Charming, I thought, and a laugh rose in my throat. I dusted off the mirror and found the 'on' switch beneath.
Nothing happened. I looked at my reflection. I was still lost in memory, and so the mousy hair came as a surprise; I'd half expected to see long sleek blondeness. The style I'd had back in those days of wine, parties and fun.
Then I remembered the button on the top. I pushed it, thinking the battery must be dead.
"Uuuuurghhello," it said, slowly gathering life. There was a pause.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I thought.
"Oh, it's you. God, you've let yourself go." It was the old, thin voice. But I must have pressed something, changed the program, except I couldn't see how.
"Jesus. Look at those lines on your forehead. Been worrying, have you? And you've put on weight."
I threw it down and walked out of the room, the voice following me. "Seed. Gone to seed," it said.
I carried on sorting Jonathan's things. I was still finding his socks, thrown behind the washing basket or at the back of the wardrobe. Jonathan. My prince. My happily ever after.
He had been curt on the telephone. I asked for her name, again, but he insisted there was no one else. No one to blame, no one to take my place.
I tidied the room, trying to make myself feel like an adult rather than a lost child, and saw the mirror again.
"Oh God, it's you. Loser."
"No need to be nasty," I said, not expecting an answer.
"I'm only saying what I see. That's what mirrors do."
"What's he up to, do you think?"
And then, instead of boxes and piles of old clothes, the mirror showed only greenery, flashing by as though seen from a car window.
"What the . . . ?"
"What's the problem? Don't you want to see your beloved?"
"No. Yes. No."
"Well, make your mind up. I know. We'll have a look at those friends of yours, Mary and Sandra." There was a pause, then a raspy, metallic laugh.
The image cleared, blurred, resolved itself into a house standing in an overgrown lane. It was Mary's house.
" . . . not so much that she's not a nice person. She's just so—well, nothing. Nondescript." Mary's voice drew into focus, growing louder.
"No, she's not much fun any more," someone answered. "But she's still getting over it. And we're her friends, aren't we?"
It was Sandra.
"Besides, we can't ask Annalise if we invite her."
"Oh—I forgot she still doesn't know. Well, I suppose you're right."
"Annalise?" I said, voice tremulous. For God's sake, she must be ten years younger, a bottle blonde I used to see at Jonathan's office. One of the secretaries. Surely Jonathan could never be such a cliché.
"Were they talking about me?" I asked.
The mirror didn't answer.
I was dressed for the ball, and people fell silent as I walked towards the stairs. Jonathan was waiting, I recognised his broad shoulders and short-cropped hair even though his back was turned. He swung around, as though he knew I was there.
He held out his hand to help me up the broad stairway, making sure I didn't trip in my silver shoes. My dress swung just so, flaring out without getting under my feet. Perfect.
"My love," he whispered in my ear. "It's you."
Footmen drew back the doors to the ballroom and I heard the first strains of music. Inside, I saw . . .
"Wake up," said the now-familiar voice.
I did, and saw the mirror on my bedside table, emitting a faint glow. I couldn't remember putting it there.
"You were dreaming about him again, weren't you?"
I ignored it, turned over, and slept again.
The band played a waltz, but we were back outside. One footman raised his lip, as though bored at having to open the door.
It swung wide, and I saw a room, but not what I expected. It was a ballroom but it fell silent as we entered, and people turned to stare. Mary was looking at my dress and shaking her head. Sandra was there too. She looked pitying, but didn't speak.
There were piles of boxes, the detritus of our years together. "God, this place is a mess," said Jonathan. He shook his arm free of mine. I looked at him and he changed, hair greying around the temples, face broadening, wearing a contemptuous look that wasn't there before.
"Would you look at yourself," he said, and his tone was like that of the mirror.
I looked down and found I was wearing my old joggers. They were stained with something dark, wine maybe. My t-shirt said 'home is where the heart is.' Jonathan bought it for me one holiday and we had laughed. Now it was baggy and misshapen.
Jonathan walked away, and I called after him but he didn't look around. His gaze was fixed on someone at the other side of the room. It was her, Annalise, all dressed in white with golden hair piled on top of her head. They reached out for each other.
I latched onto his arm. He turned and pushed me away, hard. I fell to the floor and as he left I caught a glimpse of hatred, of sharp teeth bared.
"Who's the princess now?"
It was Mary. The others took up the chant and the words rang in my ears as I watched the Prince greeting his love.
"Got the message yet?" The voice cut into my sleep.
"It was just a dream. That's all. Just a dream."
"So why are you crying?"
"It was a bad dream."
"He's her's now. Give it up. Besides, he's not such a great catch, is he? The way he pushed you . . . "
"It was a dream."
And I remembered when Jonathan left, the last time he had touched me. I had fallen, hard, against the door. I watched him go with blood trickling from my forehead. He hadn't looked back.
"He's mine," I whispered.
"The witch, the witch, the witch is coming." An explosion of harsh delight followed.
I applied shadow, eyeliner, blush. My hair was a riot of golden curls, newly styled. My shoulders were bare, only the top of white spaghetti straps showing in the small reflection.
"Whoever heard of the witch going to the ball?"
I painted on lip-gloss.
"Talk about mutton and lamb."
I stopped pouting and stared at my reflection. "Why are you doing this?" I said. There was no answer, and I wondered for a moment if I was losing my mind.
"I'm not doing anything." The tinny voice was petulant. "I'm a mirror. All I do is tell the truth."
But "the witch, the witch, the witch is coming" ran through my mind as I prepared, swinging my long dress around my ankles, fastening my silver shoes. After a while, it didn't seem so bad.
Jonathan stood on the stair and turned. He saw me and his eyes widened.
I knew Jonathan and Annalise would be at the charity ball. Jonathan's firm always had a table and he wasn't one to go alone. In the past I had gone with him, wearing some plain black dress designed to blend in. Not tonight.
He saw the golden haired woman across the room and could not tear his gaze away.
I would enter alone, the announcer calling out my name. Maybe he would be with her, talking to her, holding her hand. Maybe he would be kissing her.
Mary saw me and looked away. Then she looked back, realising who I was. She looked up, down, up, and smiled.
The taxi driver was on time. He looked me up and down when I opened the door, his eyebrow raised. A leer touched his mouth. Then he held out his arm, theatrical, to escort me to the car. Tonight. Tonight, I was the fairest of them all.
The ballroom was lit with a thousand lights. I looked neither to right nor left, my head held high as I walked up the stairs. There were crowds of people, but I didn't look at them. The wall was lined with mirrors and I admired my bearing, my dress. I peered in through the great double doors. More crowds, more dresses, mostly black. I scanned the faces but didn't see him anywhere. I didn't see her.
When I turned, Mary was there. She was talking loudly with the man at her side, waving a glass of champagne.
She stopped, looked puzzled, then looked again. She fell still, as though trying to find words.
"How are you, Mary?"
"Good. Good! Yes, lovely to see you." she looked around, as though searching for the man I had come with.
"I came alone."
"Oh! Aren't you brave. I never knew you were so—independent." She touched my arm. "And your dress. It's so dramatic."
She swept away, her plain black gown brushing my feet.
I went back to the stair. Maybe it was better this way, for him to see me standing up above him, regal like a—
witch. Like a witch.
The mirror's voice rang in my ears. Maybe, I thought, I don't need to hear that voice, any more. I should throw it away. Independent. I'm independent.
Then, I saw him.
He stood in the entrance. There was a group of them, men in black and white, women in sleek black or crimson. I recognised the managing director from his firm. Then I saw Annalise. Her hair was cut into a plain bob, her dress straight and dark. I almost laughed out loud.
She went to Jonathan and pulled on his arm. He turned and I recognised the look of irritation that crossed his face. He didn't like to be interrupted: I knew that. He tried to turn but she hung on and gestured up the stairs. He turned and looked into my eyes.
His brow creased into a frown. He said something to the others, gathered himself and headed towards me, step by step.
Then he caught my arm and dragged me through the doors. I tried to speak but he pulled me into a corner. "What the hell are you doing?" he said.
"I'm here. I'm here, Jonathan. I wanted to see you."
"Oh, for . . . " he looked skyward. "What the hell do you think you're doing? This is my job. My job."
I stared back, disbelieving. He was supposed to melt, eyes softening, realising what he had so nearly thrown away. I willed it to happen. The fairest, I thought. The fairest of them all.
"Go home," he said. "You're making a fool of yourself. And me." He gave me a little push, as though he could make me vanish. "And you look fucking ridiculous."
Then he was gone.
I stared after him, and saw only strangers, staring back. Tears came and I fled, looking for somewhere to hide.
"The kitchen. That's what you need. That's where you belong."
It was the mirror's voice. I allowed it to take over, needing a guide. I started opening doors, one after the next, until I found what I sought.
The men took my arms, one on one side, one on the other.
He stood there, on the stairs, next to his princess. He just stood, knowing I was there, seeing my full white dress from the corner of his eye. The dress I wore when he pledged to love, to hold, to cherish. Ignoring me.
I took a step down, slipped and almost fell. One of the men braced me with his shoulder.
As I went towards him, he couldn't ignore me any longer. He looked up. His eyes widened.
I stood still and surveyed the room. There were pale faces, shocked faces staring back. And silence. Mostly there was silence.
He readied himself, lifted his arm in defence. There were shouts. He leaned away from the blow, but it caught him on the side of his face. It slashed, easily, pouring through his cheek and someone, somewhere, shrieked.
The prince tried to snatch the knife, but it twisted and pushed upward this time, into his soft gut. He made a small 'oomph' sound, as though it hurt less than he expected.
I placed it against his heart, the giving place, the loving place. I wrapped two hands around the blade and pushed, hard, as he began to fall away down the stairs. Then I followed.
People drew back. They let me pass.
He lay there, pulling in gasps of air, fighting, as though he could prevent his soul rushing away. He tried to hold it back as it fled into the ever after.
Then I turned to her.
One of the men pulled on my arm. "Come on, now," he said, as though speaking to a small child. I turned and looked at him, saw fresh pink cheeks, a slight nick in his chin from shaving too close.
"Come on, now."
I took the next step, and the next. As I did, people moved aside, leaving a clear path to the door. There were bright flashing lights down there, turning, turning.
Then I saw Annalise, hands pressed to her face. Blood seeped between her fingers as a paramedic tried to prise them away.
Step after step my reflection moved with me, down the grand stairway lined with mirrors. Mirror, mirror, I breathed. Mirror, mirror.
No voice answered. But as I moved, I turned to see.
She was there, the princess. But she wasn't fair. She wasn't even wearing white any longer.
The dress was limp now, red, soaked in his blood. Her face was red, too, eyes gleaming. The golden curls were loose, clumped together and matted with splashes and spray.
The fairest of them all, I thought. The fairest of them all, and I saw how the dress didn't even fit. And I started to laugh.
Beware, I thought. The witch is coming.
She's in her true form now. And she's taking back what's hers.