So, maybe it was just a dream. I know that it can’t be real, right?
I think it started because everything was going wrong in life.
Lately the mirror had become an enemy. I looked into it and didn’t recognize the reflection: it was a person of faded hair, and loose skin. There were wrinkles on her forehead, and her eyes had lost the shine that had got me those contracts selling mascara.
I’d stopped putting makeup on, not only because it seemed to look funny — like a painted skull — but because I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror.
Peter laughed at me. “Relax!” he said. “You look fine,” he said. “You’re fifty and you look thirty. Stop behaving as if you’re a decaying crone.”
Mind you, he was older too, but men get more handsome as they age. They become distinguished and gain authority. Women on the other hand, as I told him “Are like summer roses, and as a chill sets in we just look faded and brown and ugly.”
“What?” he asked. “You’re taking up poetry, now?” And he kissed me, and when he kissed me it was all worth it.
“Perhaps the obsession with being old is because Liddy is away at college?” he asked. “Go visit her for the day.”
And I had. And that only made it worse.
You see, Liddy was my vindication. Liddy was my proof I’d been right all along.
Mother had been very upset, when I decided to quit modeling and get married at twenty. She said I was just at the beginning, just starting to make it out of local markets. That spread in Teen Chic was only the beginning. I was going to go all the way to the top and make millions for one sitting. And then maybe work in movies.
But I’d met Peter. And I loved him. We were going to get married and have a dozen children.
The dozen children never came. Only Liddy. But Liddy was…. perfect. Oh, not as beautiful as I’d been. Or at least beautiful in a less conventional way. Instead of my oval face, my blue eyes, the hair that had once been a bright gold, she had Peter’s round face, and very white skin. She had dark air, and dark eyes, and a mobile mouth always disposed to smile.
Mom sighed when she visited. “Pity she took after Peter,” she said. And, “Unfortunately her face will never be her fortune.”
So, instead of being dragged to beauty pageants as soon as she was out of diapers, my daughter had learned to read at four, and she’d learned to play piano — all by herself, with just some video for help — at six, and she sang like an angel, and she was brilliant, truly brilliant. She liked building things, and she wanted to study engineering.
At the end of highschool MIT had accepted her, and Georgia Tech had offered a scholarship.
She’d chosen the state college, instead, just an hour away, because her high school boyfriend, Mike, was going there. I’d bit my tongue really hard, but I figured she could always go somewhere better for graduate school.
And she seemed to be enjoying school. And making friends. Only it left me very lonely, I guess. Peter told me to just find something I liked to do, and asked if I wanted to go back into modeling, since I was still a very handsome woman.
But I looked in the mirror and frowned, and I knew I was no longer “the fairest of them all.”
So I drove out to spend the day with Liddy. We went to the zoo, where we used to take her when she was little and then we went for a walk in the park. And that’s when she told me.
When Peter came home, I was sitting in front of the mirror, tracing the indentations on my forehead that would become furrows soon.
He didn’t talk. He sat on the bed. And I told him.
“Liddy is pregnant,” I said. “She and Mike want to get married this month. And then she’ll drop out. He’s going to finish his degree, but she–” My aged face looked even worse while crying. “She says she can get some work in the evening, playing piano in restaurants and stuff, while he stays home with the baby, and then….” I was fully crying now. “She says she just wants to stay home, and raise her kids.”
Peter looked troubled, but didn’t say anything. He folded me in his arms, until I’d stopped crying, and then we went to bed.
It’s a thing, even after thirty years of marriage, that no matter how bad the day has been, when I hug Peter at night, under the covers, it’s like we’re in a paradise of our own. We drift to sleep as if we existed in a place with no time, as if this, just the two of us, warm, together were the best eternity.
Only that night I couldn’t drift off to sleep. So I put on my sweater, and my jeans, my boots and my heavy coat. I put my coat and gloves on.
Outside, it was snow and blowing wind, and it was near midnight. But our suburb is very safe. Just a dozen houses, in the middle of wooded land. And perhaps if I walked enough I could sleep after.
I walked out, into the sting of wind-driven snow, and I walked and walked. I felt as empty and barren as the landscape outside. I’d had so many dreams for Liddy. I’d given up so much for Liddy. And now instead of being my vindication, my proof I’d been right all along, she was just going to be a suburban wife and mom, like every other wife and mom.
What had the point of my entire life been? I wish I could go back, take it all back, start anew. And my heart was prey to a darkness darker than the night, to a fury greater than the wind that blew grains of ice into my face.
I’d just said that, in a low and vicious voice, “I wish I could take it all back and start again,” when I heard the wheels behind me.
You know those fairy tale illustrations, where the carriage looks like a pumpkin, only it’s all gold, and the tendrils that would be stem and leaves are golden ornament?
There was a carriage like that, coming up behind me, in our perfectly mundane suburban street. It was pulled by four horses so white that they seemed to give off light, and so perfect they didn’t seem to be flesh and blood.
The carriage slowed down — the dark caped man driving it said something I couldn’t understand — and then it stopped, and the door opened.
I stepped back, because pumpkin carriage or not, I, like every child of the twentieth century, knew not to get in a vehicle with strangers. Only the person inside was no stranger. She made that clear, as she leaned forward and said, “Isabelle, get in here right away.”
And it was mom. Only it was mom as I remembered her, when I was very small and she was young and always put together, make up and hair and clothes always perfect.
As I scrambled into the seat, I realized other things. She was wearing this amazing dress, all blue and silver, as though it had been woven of moonlight, and she wore a tiara made of the brightest silver, and covered in pearls.
The smell, in the carriage, too, was as I remembered when I was very young: the scent a mix of mom’s perfume and face powder. It was a fragrance of roses at their peak, all woven with dream. When I was little I’d thought that was the smell of adulthood and of being beautiful, and always put together perfectly.
Inside the carriage, it was very comfortable, like riding on a cloud and I wanted to ask mom how she’d got this pumpkin carriage, and where had the horses and coachman come from.
But instead she said, “So, are you done with your little adventure?”
I blinked at her. “Adventure?”
“This whole, I want to live in the mortal world, thing, daughter. The, I don’t mind if I die, I’ll live forever in my children?” She laughed, and the laughter too was as I remembered from childhood, the tinkle of crystal, the sparkle of ice. “Are you ready to come home?”
“Home?” I said.
“Oh, of course, the spell. You don’t remember.” She leaned forward and touched my forehead.
And then I remembered. Only it was weird, because I remembered my “real” life too, being a child model, and the pageants, and all that stuff. Only at the same time I remembered. Really remembered.
I’d been a princess of fairyland, daughter of immortal Titania, worshiped and loved by the whole court. I’d danced away every night, laughed away every morning. In the vast, dream-like landscape of fairyland, I’d seen my reflection in lakes and ponds, and it was always perfect of course.
I didn’t know how long I lived, or how many centuries, because every day was unchanging and perfect, every morning dew-washed, every night blue velvet with the diamond pin prick of stars, and no problem was bigger than what to wear for the ball that evening.
And then Peter had come. Strong and raw boned, with a round and ruddy face, sparkling black eyes, hair that wouldn’t lie down right, and a mouth disposed to smile.
“That ridiculous boy would fight every dragon to get to our inner keep,” Mother said. “And I’d still would have sent him away empty handed. Only you wanted to live in the mortal world. You said your children would live after you, and that this too was immortality.”
And I remembered. The argument had shaken the crystal columns and made the white ceilings tremble. And I’d left with Peter. On his steed. Well, okay, actually his mustang convertible. Or at least that’s what it was outside fairyland.
We’d kept it going too, for near thirty years, and Liddy still had it, though it was much the worse for the wear.
“So,” Mother said, leaning forward. “Are you ready to come home?”
I leaned back on the seat. Mother looked at me avidly. She was not used to not getting her way. In this my true memories and the spell both agreed.
And something tugged at me, something missgave in my heart, like when you’re about to jump, and you realize it’s too long a jump and you’ll fall. Not that this ever happened in fairyland, where every jump was perfectly timed.
“I can’t go back,” I said. “I”m not the same. I’m so old–“
“Not in fairyland,” she said. “You will be as you always were.” From beside her on the seat, she pulled a mirror, and she handed it to me. And there I was. No wrinkles. No loose skin. Just my face as I remembered it, my face as I always knew I was, somewhere, inside the aging body.
And it had all been a mistake, hadn’t it? Liddy was not going to be my vindication. She might be smart, and she was beautiful to me, and she’d been given so many gifts, but she was going to throw them all away and live a small life, in a small way. It had all been for nothing and I was aging, and would die. And I didn’t even know if there was an everafter for the likes of me.
“Do humans live after death, Mother?” I asked, suddenly.
She shrugged. “They think they do. It’s not for us to know.”
She laughed. “We do not die.”
And there it was. We do not die. So supposing I died as a human, would there be anything after? Even the humans didn’t know.
It had been yesterday, it seemed like, in my mind’s eye, that Peter and I had ridden away, on his steed. And I was already old. And what had I done with my life? I’d raised a daughter, who was going to do nothing with her life, but raise children and–
Mother knocked on the ceiling, and the carriage slowed. “I have to give them time,” she said. “To open the silver gates of fairyland.”
We’d go in. Past the guardian dragons. And the gates would close. And I’d dance away the nights, sing away the mornings–
Peter would wake and know himself abandoned. And what would Liddy’s son or daughter look like? And would she have more?
She and Mike weren’t going to have a lot of time. Perhaps we could take the kids, now and then, and go to the zoo, as we had with Liddy, when she was small.
And there would be a bit of fairyland in their laughter, the tinkle of merry bells, and they would laugh and dance, and then grow up and–
The carriage had slowed. “Stop, stop I must get out.”
But Mother knocked on the ceiling. The carriage picked up speed.
And I opened the door, and jumped out.
I hit the ground hard. Probably would have broken something except for the snow. And I rolled, and got up, feeling hurt and cold.
Why had I jumped? Why? What sense did it even make? Why trade perfect eternity for a few good moments, and then regret and failure?
I managed to pull myself up. My hip hurt, and my side felt bruised. But the carriage was nowhere in sight. Instead, I was at the end of the subdivision, a mile and a half from home. An easy walk which I often took in summer.
Across the street from me, the lights of the convenience store sparkled. I didn’t have a cell phone, and thought of going in, and asking them to call Peter to come and get me. But that was stupid. He’d be asleep. He didn’t deserve to be awakened.
And the walk back would give me time to think. I limped back, through the snow, and thought, and thought. You know, eternity of perfect everything was…. eternity. And I’d always be young there. But there was an intensity to the moments of happiness and triumph. And I had eternity whenever Peter held me.
But no. A temporary eternity made no sense.
I was about halfway home, and saw someone coming towards me, through the white blizzard. He was big and bulky. But our suburb was safe, so probably someone like me, walking to calm down.
Then he drew closer, and I recognized, Peter.”
He said “Belle” at the same time, but instead of rushing to me, he stood.
I went to him, gave him my hand. He took it. I felt his warmth through the snow. “I woke, and I was all alone,” he said. “And I thought you’d left, you’d gone back home to your mom.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “My mom?”
I felt a little shock. It must have shown. He smiled, “Of course I remember. It was only you who had to forget so you could leave.” He paused. “I saw a drawing of you, when I was twelve. In an illustration of fairyland. And then I had to go in. I had to win you. My own piece of immortality.”
I walked forward, then, and he held my hand. “I’m sorry about Liddy,” he said. “I knew you had great hopes for her.”
“I still have great hopes for her,” I said.
“Now, Belle,” he started. I remembered vaguely, in my earlier rage of crying, talking of abortion of adoption, of–
“No, not that,” I said, quickly. “I think that was the fairy. You don’t have much will of your own, you know. So you expect your children will be like you. You plot their courses and they’ll be exactly as you expect.” I paused. “And even then, you can be wrong. Some young man might come in and fight the guard dragons….”
He laughed and I said, “Yes, but you know, that’s part of it. I don’t get to choose her path. It’s not fairyland where every day is the same. This is what she chooses, the dragons she must slay.”
“But you had hopes–“
“Sure, and maybe she’ll do something absolutely wonderful, some day. Or maybe not. Maybe in time between childhood and death, she’ll just be happy. Maybe that’s all it is. Even if you don’t do much, really, but take the kids to the zoo, and read to them, and listen to them laugh, and feel happy.”
He looked at me worried, then, “Have you been happy?”
I laughed and kissed him. “Maybe we should sell the house and move closer to Liddy. Remember how tired we got when she was little? We can have the kids over now and then. We can take them to the zoo. We can read to them and play with them.”
Yes, Peter said, and smiled. “We can love them.”
Later, when we were in bed, after the passion had been spent and I was warm again, as he was half asleep, and I snuggled up to his warm, familiar form, I thought that, yes, maybe that was all it was.
Maybe there was no other life after decay and death for me. Maybe there wasn’t even one for humans. But here, together and warm, here was happiness. Here was the certainty of love that outlasted decay and death. Here was eternity.
I needed no other.
It occurs to me, I’m an idiot who always forgets to promote, and should tell you that if you like my short stories, you might enjoy my collections, like:
Or perhaps Wings
Or Dragon Blood
Or even Here Be Dragons