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The Subtle Glass

The Subtle Glass
by Bindia Persaud

Our town’s founder came across the subtle glass when he was on a trade mission to the east. In those days, the town was nothing more than a muddy outpost, and the founder was not yet the patriarchal figure he would one day become, but an ambitious young merchant, newly married. All the goods that he hoped would make his fortune (silk and damask, pepper and saffron) were already packed away in bales and boxes, but he decided to make one last visit to the market square. He wasn’t in search of anything in particular, and he ignored the quavering entreaties of the hawkers until he heard a pitch that intrigued him. The vendor claimed to possess something that could cure unhappiness in women. The founder half-expected to be shown some lewd toy, but the object turned out to be a mirror. It was a commonplace thing; the glass wasn’t polished to a high shine, nor was it set in a filigree frame. The founder was sure he was being taken for a fool, and he was about to turn away when the vendor’s voice arrested him. “Have your wife stand before it, and ask her to smile. The smile will stay on her face, I wager you.”

“Can you give me a guarantee? And what makes you think my wife is unhappy?”

“No guarantee, you’ll have to take me at my word. That hangdog look on your face tells me all I need to know of your wife’s disposition, my friend.”

The seller was right; the founder’s wife was unhappy, and had been since her marriage. The founder was neither old nor ill-favored. Nor was he cruel or stingy. He allowed his bride to come and go as she pleased and showered her with gifts, and yet sadness clung to her like a second skin. Perhaps the mirror would succeed where fine clothes and trinkets had not. The founder bargained the seller down to a price they both found acceptable, and left with his prize.

The journey home took longer than expected. Every jolt and sudden stop of the pack animals had the founder scrambling down from his mount to inspect the mirror. He, and it, arrived on his doorstep a month past schedule.

While the servants were busy unloading the wares, the founder set up the mirror in his wife’s dressing room and asked her to approach it. She did so with no great enthusiasm. She wasn’t the sort of woman who spends hours preening before her looking-glass, for, in truth, she was a wan little thing. Her brow creased in puzzlement when her husband told her to smile, but she obeyed. When she did, something extraordinary happened. A delicate bloom stole over her pallid features, so that her face took on a tender, primrose beauty. Her smile deepened and then she laughed, as children do when they see something that pleases them. When she turned to her husband, the smile remained on her face, just as the merchant predicted it would.

The founder’s fortunes, both monetary and marital, were on the ascent from that moment onwards. The goods he had brought back made him a wealthy man, and his wife’s heart softened towards him. When she died several decades later, she was a revered matriarch and the first lady of the town. Before she was laid to rest beside her spouse, she bequeathed her jewelry to her daughters and the mirror to her eldest son’s wife.

And so a tradition was born. It was deemed lucky to marry into the founder’s family, not only for the guaranteed wealth and position, but for the opportunity to own the mirror. Whether a woman’s inner wellspring of joy ran deep or shallow, one glance into the glass was sure to replenish it.

Let me make one thing clear: the mirror did not lie. It did not mask flaws, so much as bring out hidden virtues. Those who were robust of build were rendered imposing; those who were scrawny became sylphlike. Crooked noses added character, as did prominent moles or irregular teeth. A woman had to do just one thing to bring about this subtle magic: smile. A hostile or even a neutral expression would result in a plain, unvarnished reflection. As for men, the glass did nothing for them at all, grin as they might.

The mirror fell into the hands of a succession of women and found favor with all of them, even those prone to shrewishness or melancholy. It had been that way for an untold number of years and might have continued like that forever, if August had not married Meghna.

August was my boyhood companion. He is a direct descendent of the founder, and was named after him. I myself am descended from one of the founder’s retainers. My many-times great grandfather was promoted from manservant to majordomo when the founder’s luck swung upwards, and I occupy the same position. Like August, I was named after my ancestor, but that is of no consequence.

August and I were inseparable until early manhood, notwithstanding the difference in our positions. At eighteen, he went away to university and I took over the running of the house. He returned at twenty-two, with a new bride in tow.

We weren’t quite sure what to make of Meghna at first. She was city-bred and was said to be clever. We servants expected our new mistress to be haughty and remote, but she proved to be the opposite. When August first introduced us, she arrested me mid-bow and took my hand. That simple gesture of fellowship touched me more than it should have. August’s late mother hadn’t been unkind, but she regarded her home as a sort of beehive, over which she presided as queen. The staff made up her army of faithful worker drones. It was a welcome change to be looked in the eye like a man.

I followed at a discreet distance as August led his new wife into the house. Everything seemed to please her: the airy rooms with their vaulted windows, the curtains that bellied out at the slightest gust of wind, the gracious sweep of the staircase. August pleased her too, judging by the way her eye wandered from whatever he was pointing at to rest upon his face.

I didn’t follow them into the dressing room where the glass was kept. To do so would have been only slightly less of a transgression than spying on their lovemaking. Even so, I was fiercely curious about what the mirror held. As charming as I found Meghna, I couldn’t deem her pretty, much less beautiful. She could be called handsome, perhaps. Her face was all planes and angles, with thick eyebrows and a nose that was a shade too large. Clearly she lacked nothing in August’s eyes, but when he gazed upon her image in the subtle glass, might he not fall even more deeply in love?

From my vantage point outside the door, I heard them scuffling towards the mirror. I was sure that August’s hands were over Meghna’s eyes. When he commanded her to smile I expected to hear a gasp of delight in reply, but instead there was a long, pregnant silence. August’s voice broke it. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was readily discernable – first quizzical, then pleading, then almost angry. Meghna’s reply was firm. “But August, it isn’t me.”

If Meghna’s rejection of the mirror caused a breach between them, it wasn’t a deep or long-lasting one. Over the next few months Meghna settled into her role as lady of the house. I must admit she didn’t take a great deal of interest in the day-to-day running of the household. Majordomo and chatelaine are supposed to be collaborators, but when I tried to show her daily menus or duty rosters, she waved them away, assuring me that I knew best. She spent much of her time buried in the library. August’s work took him from home for days on end, but whenever he returned she would emerge, ready to greet him with a kiss.

The mirror remained covered in the dressing room. To my knowledge, she bared it only once. I was in the closet, taking out summer dresses to be aired. It wasn’t fit work for a man and I shouldn’t have been in there, but the chambermaid had fallen ill and everyone else had more pressing tasks to occupy them. I should have coughed to announce my presence when I heard Meghna’s light tread on the threshold, but I did not. Instead, I pulled the door in and set my eye against the crack. She entered furtively, looking this way and that, like a child up to some mischief. When she was sure she was alone she approached the mirror on tiptoe, almost as if she was afraid of it. She stood for a moment; then she reached out and ripped the cloth away. The smile she offered the glass was tremulous, no more than a ripple passing over her face, but its effect was astonishing. The mirror directly faced me and I could see her reflection over her shoulder. She wasn’t pretty, but what was mere prettiness compared to what she was? I could have gazed on her forever, but evidently Meghna didn’t feel the same. She sighed, shrouded the mirror with the cloth, and exited the room.

I stood bewildered, for I couldn’t understand what troubled her. My grandfather had once told me that too much education spoiled women, made them wayward and prone to dissatisfaction. At the time I had scoffed, but I was beginning to see the truth in what he said.

That night at dinner, that perverse spirit was nowhere in evidence. Meghna laughed indulgently at August’s jokes and laced her fingers into his on the tabletop. When he told her, “The painter is coming tomorrow, my love. And this time, you must smile,” she didn’t demur.

Within a year, every bride that enters the founder’s house sits for her portrait, along with her husband. The painter doesn’t look upon his subjects directly; the lady arranges herself before the mirror, her spouse behind her, and it is their reflection that is transferred to canvas. When the time came for Meghna to pose, she refused to smile in spite of her implicit promise. The painter was skilled, and too proud to tell untruths with his brush, so he accurately captured her hooded eyes, her sallow complexion. He also captured August’s rage – the gritted teeth, the white knuckles of the hand gripping his wife’s shoulder.

Halfway through the sitting, I mustered up the courage to approach Meghna. “Why don’t you just smile, madam? It would be so easy to smile.”

“You don’t understand. It lies. The mirror lies.”

“On the contrary, madam. It tells the truth. It shows you your best self.”

She wouldn’t listen. She turned away, dismissing me with a peremptory motion. When August tried to reason with her, she did the same.

When the portrait was complete, I expected him to burn it or throw it on the midden, but he paid the painter his full fee and gave it pride of place in the dining room. Dinners became a tense affair, with none of the teasing and flirting that had gone on before. At the climax of one particularly fraught evening, August, with no advance warning, cocked his arm back and lobbed his glass at the painting. As his wife bent over her poached fish, red wine dripped over her likeness on the wall behind her. When it became clear that she wouldn’t raise her eyes to meet August’s, he stormed upstairs.

Meghna lingered over her meal and dabbed her mouth with a napkin when she was done. As she waved away the dessert tray and made to ascend the stairs, I almost put out a hand to detain her. “Don’t go to your husband,” I wanted to say. “Find a spare bedroom and lock yourself in.” Instead I did nothing. What could I have done? I was a servant.

The next day was even worse. As I prepared to enter the kitchen to oversee breakfast preparations, I heard a commotion above. I took the stairs two at a time, and when I reached the landing I saw August dragging his wife towards the dressing room. Her eyes were wild but she didn’t make a sound as he thrust her through the door. By the time I entered the room, he had her pinned against the mirror, her face pressed so tight to the glass that her mouth was distended in a rictus. “Smile, damn you, smile!” August shouted.

I crossed the floor before August even had time to register my presence and pulled him off Meghna. We scuffled. There was no contest; August is not a weakling, but I am built like an ox. Wisely, Meghna took advantage of the tumult to make her escape. Without her there, August redoubled his efforts and hurled himself at me. I pushed back with greater force than I intended, so that August ricocheted off the mirror and broke it.

There was no dramatic crash, and the glass didn’t shatter into a thousand pieces. We didn’t even notice at first. While we were grappling, August raised his head and let his hands fall away. When my eyes followed his, I saw that a jagged crack ran along the mirror’s surface. The sight seemed to sober him. He disengaged from me and made for the door. I followed on his heels, for I sensed that he would seek out Meghna, and I feared he would do her further harm.

She was in their bedroom, her suitcase open in front of her. August paused in the doorway. His bluster had left him and he waited diffidently. If Meghna had called to him I’m sure he would have flown into her arms, but she didn’t, and he shuffled away.

I helped Meghna finish packing and took her to the train station. Before she boarded, she gave me a chaste, sisterly kiss. “Take care of August for me,” she said, and with that, she was gone.

August accepted his abandonment better than I thought he would. To be sure, he drank too much and sometimes I concealed the key to the liquor cabinet on my person, just so he couldn’t get at it. He said bitter things, sometimes directed at Meghna, sometimes in self-recrimination. And yet he went to bed on time and didn’t slack in his duties. He did ask for one thing that puzzled me, although I was only too happy to carry out his request. He wanted both the broken mirror and the portrait installed in his room.

I didn’t understand until I saw it for myself. He arranged the painting and the mirror so that they were facing each other. The fissure in the glass introduced a subtle distortion to Meghna’s image.

It made her look, for all the world, as if she was smiling.

* * *

Bindia Persaud was born in Georgetown, Guyana, grew up in the north of England, and now resides in Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in Zetetic: a Record of Unusual Inquiry, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Gone Lawn, the Bloody Key Society Periodical, the Colored Lens, and is forthcoming in Humanagerie.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Read everything you can get your hands on, including non-fiction and academic work. Ignore the oft-given advice to write what you know; instead, write what you can imagine.