What on Earth do you do with a magic mirror?
Ellie Jones turned the thing over and over in her hand, in some confusion. It was silver, and it had handle, but the size was like those stupid hand mirrors that women used to carry in their purses back when “I need to go powder my nose” was a thing.
The silver was tarnished and the elaborate scroll work on back and handle spoke of something very old. Not that Ellie was an expert. She was an accountant, not an art major. But it seemed to her this was older than most “antiques” she’d come across which were, at most, Victorian. And they looked subtly alien, like nothing she’d ever run across before.
At the very back, center, there was a clear space that might one day have held initials, but nothing but the vaguest tracery showed, and it was impossible to imagine what those initials might have been. For one, they didn’t fit in with the normal alphabet.
But possibly the most puzzling and strangest thing of all was the note with the mirror.
To begin with it was in Ellie’s mother’s hand. And Ellie’s mother was 65, and since dad died her handwriting had got spidery and odd. So mom didn’t write anything by hand if she could help it.
Ellie would have understood better if this had been a typed note with a signature at the bottom. Not that it made the contents any easier to make sense of. Not for the first time, Ellie thought she needed to make time to go see mom. But she’d been so slammed with work… Still, this letter spoke of some kind of brain issue, and the soonest she could evaluate her mom’s functioning the better.
Mom was all alone in nowheresvillle Ohio, and all her friends had moved away to warmer climates, and then dad had died, and mom was cleaning the house — she said — to put up for sale really soon. Only soon never came.
Her parents had been pack rats, and as far as she could tell so had every ancestor going back to Ira Jones who had built the house as a farmhouse in what was back then an advanced settlement in the wild west that Ohio was at the time.
And through Indian raids, and colonization moving way past them, the Jones had stayed in their old farmhouse, fixing and enlarging as times and need dictated, and selling their land parcel by parcel, until they were sitting on the main street of Janus, Ohio, one of those cities you could miss entirely by blinking. It had a drug store, two restaurants — a pizza house and a diner — a tiny grocery store that sold mostly local produce in season, a school where all grades went and where the graduating class was usually under fifty students, and a library. Oh, they also had a traffic light, right on the corner with the library, the school, and the two restaurants. People were right proud of that street light, even though it was rarely needed and the old ladies who constituted the highest demographic in Janus ignored it routinely.
It had, however, occurred to Ellie that given the family proclivities and how stuffed every place was, from unused rooms to the attics and what had once been the barn and had been converted into a garage and workshop with its own attic over those, cleaning the house to sell might be akin to the work of Hercules clearing the augian stables.
It had obviously started affecting mom, because the note read:
I found this in the attic. It is a magic mirror. I have a very vague memory of your dad telling me his grandmother told him it belonged to some ancestress in Europe who was royal, or perhaps a king’s mistress, and that the magic mirror accounted for how all his ancestresses were so successful and had such happy lives.
I am not absolutely sure what to do with it, and at any rate, it only works with women of the Jones line, which I, of course, am not. So I’m sending it to you, and I hope it works for you.
Ellie’s first impulse was to be mad at mom. Because Ellie was perfectly happy and successful, and didn’t need a magic mirror.
Oh, okay, so her career was not glamorous, but she’d never had the slightest interest in being glamorous, or in having some career in the movies, or dancing or whatever. Yes, she’d heard her ancestresses had done all that, on dad’s side, but ever since Ellie had been old enough to evaluate herself, she hadn’t needed a magic mirror to tell her she was plain. Not ugly. Ugly might have been better. In the few parties she’d attended, in the achingly awkward years of high school and college, she’d seen ugly women with hook noses, too large mouths, or just ugly looking, who’d held men spell bound because they acted as if they were gorgeous. There was power in being that ugly. The eye was attracted and stayed, despite itself. And if the woman then could say something entertaining, or display intelligence, men would fall over themselves to be near her.
But Ellie Jones was plain. She had a face in shape of a face, brown eyes in the shape of eyes, lips a little too straight and thin, but nothing out of the ordinary way. After her junior year in college, she’d stopped wearing makeup, because it did nothing for her. She had a plain, round, kindly face that some farmer in Janus in the nineteenth century might very well think he might as well take to wife, because she wasn’t hard to look at. But in the twenty first century men had more choices, and at any rate saw what real beauty looked like in commercials and movies and TV. And none of them had looked at her twice, unless they needed help with their homework, or something.
And so, having evaluate her assets and deciding her greatest one was her ability with numbers, though not for higher math, Ellie had charted a course for accountancy, graduated with top grades, and now worked for a large engineering firm in Denver Colorado, and had made enough to buy a little house in the suburbs. She had her house, her lawn, her tidy little kitchen.
Truly, she only felt unhappy when the snow was piling high outside, and she couldn’t go out to work, or out to dinner somewhere. She’d long ago found the answer to what you do when you go out to eat alone at a nice sit down restaurant: you take a book. She could sit through a candlelight meal with herself and enjoy the fact there were people around her without in the least needing to engage with them. And the couples having dinner in those restaurants might look deliriously happy, but she would bet they still had fights about whose turn it was to do the dishes.
She was perfectly happy. At twenty nine, the pictures of happy families in her erstwhile classmates Christmas cards didn’t make her question her path in life. She’d never thought she could have what they did, so she found no cause to repine. She was saving for retirement, and she would have a comfortable old age.
Indeed, the only thing making her unhappy was this strange mirror and the idea that her mom, maybe, thought she was unhappy.
She sat on the bed, where she’d sat to open the mail, and turned the mirror over and over in her hands. She raised it to look at herself. And yep, she looked as she had always done. Feeling stupid, in her strictly utilitarian bedroom lit by the light of the setting sun, she spoke to the mirror, “Mirror mirror… on my hand, who’s the fairest of the …. band?”
Nothing happened of course. Well, almost nothing, except that from the depths of the mirror it seemed to her she heard a snort of laugh. Which she was almost sure she’d imagined.
She put the mirror and the pile of bills and offers for retirement seminars — really, at what age did they think people retired — on top of her dresser to tidy up later, and went to the kitchen, to warm up the leftovers of the last restaurant meal.
And then she went to bed. And had the strangest dreams, in which she was a king’s mistress. Or perhaps his pre-mistress.
She was still herself, Ellie Jones, plain as bread and twice as wholesome, decked out in belle-epoque attire. But of all the women in the court, the king was fascinated with her. And all the women envied her and hated her. And there were rumors that he meant to defy the marriage arranged for him since he was three and marry her.
And every night, she brought out that same mirror and looked into it, and said, “Not by hook and not by crook, and not by a love spell, but bring me my perfect husband, and make him see my true beauty, so we might in love dwell.”
When Ellie woke up, her first thought was that it was execrable poetry. But there was a feeling that it was a translation, not even from one language but many, as languages had changed over the existence of the mirror. Which was silly. There hadn’t even been any glass mirrors until the seventeenth century. Or at least she was sure she had seen that in the Treasures of the Louvre exhibit in the Denver Art Museum last month.
She looked at the silver handle protruding from the colorful circulars on the dresser and grinned ruefully to herself. All right, then. Grabbing the mirror, she spoke the words to it, and just about managed not to giggle as she said them.
From deep within the mirror, this time she was sure, there was a sigh, like a gust of wind. She put it down and showered and dressed and went to work.
At the end of the day, more or less on a whim, she thought she’d go to the art museum and go through the exhibit again. At least it saved her going home and looking at the mirror again. It was a silly thing. She should call mom.
But instead she went to the museum, which was deserted in the last two hours before closing. And she did what she always did, walking solemnly through the exhibits, reading the cards. She was staring in some awe at the little chair completely covered in gold leaf, when someone said behind her, “Seems like it would be terribly uncomfortable, doesn’t it?”
She turned around and or a moment was confused because this man looked exactly like the king in her dream. Which actually meant he wasn’t precisely handsome. He had strong features and expressive eyes and unlike the king, he was older than Ellie. Probably forty or forty five, with a touch of grey at the temples. Also Ellie knew him. Or rather knew him by sight, though she’d never had any occasion to work with him. He was one of the chief engineers on the big aviation project. She looked over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t remember your name. And yes, the chair looks like it would hurt your back i you sit in it too long. But I think they were smaller people than we are.”
He grinned. “Undoubtedly. And not as spoiled. I like being spoiled. My name is Clay. Clay Wolf. And you are…. Helen? Jones.”
“Ellie. In the accounting department.”
He smiled, and just like the king in her dream, he had a thousand watt smile, “I thought it was something like that. I have a horrible memory for names, though.” His grin became self-conscious, “You come to museums often?”
She shrugged and felt herself blush as the admission seemed stupid. “I live alone,” she said.
“Yeah, me too. Well. My wife died years ago and I… It’s easier to be alone, you know. But sometimes I get bored.”
They went through the rest of the exhibit together. He had a subtle sense of humor, but mostly he was just comfortable to be around. When he asked Ellie to dinner it didn’t seem like he was on the make, or like he was hitting on her because she was plain so she must be easy. It just seemed like he wanted to go to dinner with her.
They went to a little steakhouse self-consciously styled as ye old tavern. The food was good, but more importantly, they’d fallen into talking about books. They were both mystery fans, who had cut their teeth on Agatha Christie.
“My mom said literally,” Clay said with a laugh. “I ruined her leather bound collection.”
It had been comfortable, and companionable, and not demanding. And Ellie really hadn’t expected to see or hear from him again, except for waving, by chance, in the hallways.
But that night, not sure what possessed her, she said the words while looking at the mirror again. And from its depths came a sigh.
Next morning, Clay stopped by her desk to bring her mystery he’d just finished and which he thought she’d like.
That weekend he asked her out to the natural history museum. She’d gone a million times, but she liked dinosaurs, so she said yes. Afterwards, they walked around the lake in City Park and talked about mysteries, and about completely mundane things, like lawn care, and how to build what looked like a traditional library from shelves from Ikea.
Turned out he lived a few streets from her, in the same development, in a slightly larger house.
At work, they fell into the habit of eating lunch together because they always had something to talk about. And they did things together on the weekend, and it was always fun.
And even though he kissed her one weekend, Ellie still expected nothing from this but a close friendship. Clay had told her about his wife, who had been his high school sweetheart, and shown her pictures. Jane Wolf had been a beautiful woman, and Clay said “After her, no one seemed right, and the idea of dating was dreary.” Ellie could see why, and she expected nothing.
But every night she said the words to the mirror. And she still hadn’t called her mom.
Three months later, when the snow was just starting to fall, and they sat on a bench in city park, letting it dust their coats and hats, Clay had asked Ellie to marry him.
It had been strangely romantic. He’d said “I’ve been looking for very long for someone to be the companion of my heart. But I didn’t even know how to get to know someone. Now I know you, Ellie, and I know you’re my perfect match, and if you’re willing to marry an old and stodgy man, you’ll make me very happy.”
For some reason Ellie still didn’t call her mom, until they’d got married, just the two of them and two — bewildered looking — co -workers as witnesses in a civil registry office a week later.
Ellie went into the house to pack her clothes, as they’d decided they’d live in his, larger house and sell hers, and saw the mirror. And realized how odd it was that she still hadn’t called her mom.
Mom sounded absolutely normal on the phone, and only slightly shocked at the news. She seemed however completely willing to forgive Ellie’s lapse, Ellie guessed because she could already hear the pitty-patter of little grandchildren feet. As she remembered her own grandmother saying, the grandmother clock was the most unforgiving clock of all because you couldn’t really do anything about it, not if you were a decent human.
It wasn’t until she mentioned the mirror that mom sounded startled. “Oh, no, Ellie. I didn’t write that. The letter was in the box with it when I found it, and I thought you’d like it, since you always like museums and stuff. Of course the magic thing is nonsense, but it’s an antique and I thought you might appreciate it.”
There was a long silence, because Ellie couldn’t think what to say. She finally said, “I appreciate it very much indeed.”
Months later, while pregnant with her first child, while they cleaned out her house to put on the market, she packed the mirror away carefully.
Who knew? Someday she might have a daughter or a grand daughter who would need the mirror to find the courage to look for a full life, even if she wasn’t the most beautiful of them all. Or of the band.
As she closed the box and put it in a box of keepsakes to go into the attic of their house, she thought she heard a distant giggle, as if from the depths of a magic mirror.