Hima barely noticed the dwarf. She saw him now and then at dinner, crouched by Mother’s chair. He looked at no one and no one looked at him. He was a fixture, like old furniture. Had there been more than one dwarf, once? At first she wasn’t interested enough to ask. Later she was too frightened.
Mother organized an extra-big party for Hima’s fourteenth birthday, a cake with silver balls and pink roses, a magic show and fireworks, games and guests. For days the castle bustled with preparations. Horsemen galloped out bearing invitations and orders. Carts trundled in piled high with goods. Cooks baked. Maids polished.
Four seamstresses worked on Hima’s birthday gown, a delicious concoction of pink silk and silver ribbons. She wore a pearl necklace, Mother’s gift. “No earrings yet, darling. Don’t be in a hurry to grow up.”
Hima tried to raise an eyebrow, as Mother often did. “But, Mother, I will grow up.”
“Not for years, darling,” she answered, her voice soft as snowflakes. She dropped a kiss on Hima’s head. “I don’t want to lose you yet.”
Hima caught Mother’s hand. It was icy cold. “You’re not going to lose me. I’ll never leave you, ever!”
The party was the best Hima could remember. The cake melted in the mouth; the music made her feet itch to dance; the flowers in the ballroom created a world of scents; the lanterns in the garden glowed like stars.
Father watched for a while, then left, saying he had work. But it didn’t matter because Mother was there, arranging everything. They danced, Hima and Mother, skipping and swirling. They watched the fireworks side by side, golden flowers and silver dragons streaking across the night sky. After the last carriage departed, they went up the grand staircase holding hands.
The next day, the castle felt empty. Mother had gone to visit Grandmother’s tomb, a marble edifice set in its own garden in the royal forest. It was a ritual she carried out every morning after Hima’s birthday. “I want to tell her all about you,” she had told Hima. “I want her to know what a wonderful girl you are.” Grandmother had died during Mother’s wedding festivities. Hima thought she might have died of a broken heart at losing her daughter.
She didn’t look for Father. He would be behind a locked door, working. She could remember a time when she and Father would walk in the royal forests, or ride over the countryside, he on his white steed, she on her pony. Sometimes they would stop and he would let her play by a stream or pond. Afterwards she would scrub her hands — Mother didn’t like her playing with anything but dolls.
Hima wanted to explore the world on a white horse, as Father had, and see the places she read about in books. But as she grew older, Father had withdrawn. She could remember a formal dinner, soon after her tenth birthday. A visiting dowager-queen had complimented Hima, saying she would be a greater beauty than even Mother. Mother’s indrawn breath had been as sharp as a knife. Father had dropped his glass. The crystal goblet had made a sharp tinkling sound as it shattered; the wine had flowed over the marble floor like blood. Father had gone to his room, clutching his temples.
The change grew from there. It bewildered and hurt Hima.
“He has terrible headaches,” Mother explained. “You must stop troubling him.”
So Hima did. And Mother became Hima’s world. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she would answer, “Just what Mother has done.” A smile would flit across Mother’s face, a smile as opaque as a frosted-glass window.
After breakfast, Hima went to her room and opened her presents, hoping for a book or a paint set. Perhaps Mother had told the guests what to bring, because there were only dolls. Doll after doll in pastel or white, dripping with roses, ribbons, and curls, filling the room with silly smiles and vacant eyes.
She ran out to the garden for fresh air. It had a bare, used-up look. The flowers were gone, cut to decorate the ballroom for the party. A single torn lantern tumbled in the breeze.
Hima turned down a winding side path. She didn’t see the dwarf until she almost bumped into him. His salt-and-pepper head barely reached her chest. Mismatched and patched-up clothes hung on his thin frame. His smile reminded her of a winter wind laced with needle-sharp icicles.
She took a step back and tried to raise an eyebrow, like Mother did.
The dwarf shook his head. “You haven’t got that right.”
She frowned at his insolence, but remembered to be dignified. “Move aside please.”
The dwarf didn’t stir. “So you’re fourteen now.” He looked her over the way Father looked over horses. “You should be safe for a couple of years yet. Then you’ll have to run away.”
Hima glared at him. “Why would I have to run away?”
“Because otherwise she’ll have you killed.” His eyes held her still. “Your Mother.”
Hima ran all the way to her doll-filled room and slammed the door.
That evening, she perched on a cushioned stool, watching Mother dress for dinner. This was part of their daily ritual, this time spent together in the dressing room, telling each other about their day.
Mother talked about the visit to grandmother’s tomb. Hima talked about the presents she’d received and her walk in the garden.
She said nothing about the dwarf.
When she saw him at dinner, crouched by mother’s chair, she looked away.
The festivities to celebrate Mother’s birthday included a hunt, a picnic by the lake, and a magnificent ball.
Hima wasn’t old enough to attend the ball, Mother decreed, but she could come down to watch the dancing.
That night, Hima sat quivering with excitement on a straight-backed chair next to Father, while Mother moved across the dance floor like a ray of moonlight. The glow of the chandeliers turned her dress into molten silver. Hima watched, breathless and tense, wondering if she would ever be as beautiful as Mother.
She’d asked Father once. He had stared at her, then pulled her into an embrace, whispering, “Never.”
The clock struck midnight. A young man asked her to dance. He was as handsome as Prince Charming from her storybooks, and she longed to twirl around the ballroom in his arms. But she smiled and said no.
A sharp prickling feeling made her look round. Mother’s eyes flashed at her, then the movement of the dance carried her away.
Hima shivered, despite the warmth of the crowded ballroom. She thought of what the dwarf had told her. But no, he must be mad.
For Hima’s fifteenth birthday, Mother organized an even grander party, with games, dancing, and fireworks.
Once she was dressed, Hima gazed at her reflection. Taller, fuller, fewer sharp angles and more soft curves than last year.
Father left the party almost as soon as he saw her. But Mother was there, seeing to everything.
When the party was over they went up the stairs hand in hand, talking and laughing. At Hima’s bedroom, Mother kissed her goodnight.
“I’m almost as tall as you, Mother,” Hima cried in delight. “Do you think I’ll be taller than you next year?”
Mother laughed. But her eyes glinted like a butcher’s knife and her hands clutched Hima’s shoulders like talons.
The next morning, Hima went looking for the dwarf.
The garden lay bare, robbed of all its flowers. She stepped onto the old side path, and wandered to that strange corner of the garden where she had found him before. He was sitting on a fallen tree trunk.
They stared at each other. His eyes were like the sky at gloaming, dark grey and leaden with the promise of terrible things.
Hima wanted to run back to her mother’s arms. Instead she sat down next to him.
He smiled at her, the saddest smile she’d ever seen, and told her why she would have to run away.
The proof, he had said, was in Mother’s dressing room. But it was long before Hima could bring herself to look. Finally, one day when Mother was out she entered the dressing room. On the back wall was a heavy tapestry; she had seen it many times, but never really looked at it. She moved closer. There, woven small in one corner, a line of dwarves walked in the forest.
She could feel her heart beating. Her hand shook so hard she could barely push the heavy tapestry aside. Behind it was a mirror.
She went back to the dwarf. “So there’s a mirror. What of it?”
“Hide and watch,” he answered, his face dark like the night. “Early in the morning.”
Again, it was long before she could bring herself to look. Finally one morning she woke before dawn and slipped into Mother’s dressing room. She crouched, peeking out from behind the curtain covering the door to the bathing room, her heart drumming, trying to keep her breath silent.
She started at the swish of silk. Then there was perfume, the heady scent of roses.
Mother glided to the tapestry.
She pulled it back.
She stood before the silver-framed mirror.
Her blood red lips asked a question. She held her breath for the Mirror’s reply, her fingers balled into fists. The Mirror spoke Mother’s name, and she exhaled, hands relaxing, face lightening. She left with a spring in her step.
But Hima’s world crumbled.
From that day on, every moment with Mother was a test: to receive her kiss without cringing, to return her embrace without shuddering, to talk and laugh without bursting into tears.
Hima’s appetite left her. She spent hours staring sightlessly at her books. She trembled through sleepless nights. When she did sleep, she was chased by a shadowy figure across a dark, barren landscape.
She met with the dwarf often, in the same wild corner of the garden. They would sit on the same tree trunk. He told her about Mother and Grandmother. About irresistible destiny.
“Can’t Father save me?” she asked.
The dwarf pulled at his grizzly beard with misshapen fingers. “He can only watch. That is his destiny.”
“Maybe I could break the Mirror,” she said once.
His eyes were like whirlpools. “They tried,” he said, “the day you were born.”
“It will be soon,” he told her one day. “You’re beginning to look just as she did when I first saw her. Beautiful as a spring morning.”
His eyes were deep pools of grief.
The eve of her sixteenth birthday dawned. Hima hid behind the curtain, as she had many times before.
Mother entered, pulled back the tapestry, asked her question. The mirror answered — and not with Mother’s name.
Mother screamed “No!” like a soul in torment. Hima waited, frozen, a snow-girl, for Mother to refuse her fate.
But Mother crumpled into a heap on the carpet, crying as if her heart would break. At last she stood up. Hima couldn’t see her face, but the dragging steps as she left the room belonged to an old, old woman.
Hima wanted to run after her, tell her their story could have a different ending. But she was too frightened.
To wear a real ball gown and dance at a real ball: that had been one of Hima’s most cherished dreams. On her sixteenth birthday the dream she no longer cared about came true.
She could feel Mother watching as she moved round the ballroom in her white silk dress, in the arms of a string of eager young men. Mother didn’t dance that night. She sat next to Father, her face frozen in a smile.
The clock struck midnight. Hima was strolling in the garden with a handsome prince when she saw Mother, standing under an archway. The Master of the Hunt was listening to her, his eyes narrowed. He nodded. Mother smiled, horribly.
Hima packed food and clothes and left before dawn the next day.
The garden was still under the blanket of night, but a crescent moon lit the path to the dwarf.
“I’m not waiting for the huntsman,” she told him. “That will change things. That may break this curse.”
The dwarf just shook his head.
“Come with me,” she urged. “Why stay?”
“I belong to her, did from the evening I found her sleeping in my bed. That is my destiny.” His eyes bored into hers. “I remember. I understand.”
Hima found the cottage after three days of wandering in the cold woods. By that time her food was gone and she could barely stand. The small table was set for dinner, the seven little beds made. The cushioned chairs and the bowls of soup were inviting. She had outfoxed Mother. All she had to do was eat the soup, curl up on one of the beds, and wait for her prince.
It was destiny, the dwarf had said again and again, just as it had been her mother’s, and her grandmother’s, and her great grandmother’s, from the day a young queen discovered a glorious mirror in her new husband’s castle.
She stared at the neatly laid table. The soup was thick and creamy and smelled delicious. The beds looked warm and soft. She scooped up a spoonful of soup and brought it toward her mouth.
Her hand froze.
What about the rest of it? Inviting Mother to the wedding, ordering her death. Spending a lifetime visiting Mother’s tomb, asking for forgiveness, as Mother did with Grandmother. Destiny.
She put the spoon back in the bowl. No, not me. This is not destiny; it’s madness. I can just walk out. No monsters are stopping me. No walls, no armies.
She got up. She sank down again, weak from hunger and fatigue. She’d eat the soup, rest, leave before the dwarves came back. She picked up the spoon. And stopped.
Perhaps the first step counted. Perhaps each step made the next harder to turn away from. Until they brought her one day to what she would do to her own daughter. She dropped the spoon into the bowl and went out. There were roses growing by the door. She plucked seven and placed one beside each plate.
She faced the coming night. I will manage. Or I won’t. But better a ravenous beast eats me than I become one.
She headed into the deep forest.
“Why do you always paint a dwarf on the bowls you make, Grandma?”
Hima looked up from the potter’s wheel and smiled at the two upturned faces. Her granddaughter was lifting an eyebrow, perfectly, as Mother had. Her grandson smiled, his skin as white as snow, eyes as blue as summer sky, hair as black as a raven’s wing. Like her, like Mother. Sometimes when she looked at him she felt a flash of grief, a streak of longing.
Her granddaughter was brown as a nut, like her mother, Hima’s daughter. Like her grandfather, the woodcutter in whose hut she’d sought shelter on a frosty evening long ago. One night that had extended to the next, and the next, until they recognized a love, warm like a hearth fire, gentle like spring.
One day Mother had ridden by with a troop of soldiers. She’d never glanced at the woman nursing her baby at the hut’s doorstep. Did she spend a lifetime looking for Hima in royal palaces and picturesque cottages?
Hima wondered sometimes where the Mirror came from. The dwarf hadn’t known.
But she had beaten the Mirror. She had a good life. That was enough.
She picked up the completed bowl and put it with the others, to be fired when her daughter returned from gathering in the woods. And then came the time Hima liked best, when she and her daughter worked side by side, telling each other about their day.
And destiny never entered into it.
∼ End ∼