This is the third installment of Duessa, a 12,000-word allegory (of sorts). I’m posting a new installment on each of the twelve days of Christmas, wrapping up on January 5th. The previous two are here and here.
The air was much colder, and the flame of the candle shrank. She kept her hand on the cold, damp curve of the wall. She lost track of the turns and barely remembered to count the landings. As she descended, she lost all sense of time.
The cold numbed her feet. The roughness of the stones hurt them. The glow of light from his room came back to he, poor imitations of his face, the echoes of his words. The meeting was shrouded in a sweetness she could not express, and she could not find her way back into her first impressions. The memories help her, barely, but they seemed less and less real, the mysteries, surely terrifying and dangerous, more and more. On one landing there was a window without glass, and she saw no stars or moon or landscape through it–just darkness–and ran onward, stumbling, to escape the freezing wind blowing from it. The correct door, on the tenth landing down, was not marked in any way, and she would have missed it if she had lost track.
The air in the corridor outside the stairwell was warmer – at first it even felt warm — though the space was musty and just as dark. On each wall, stretching up, forward, and backward as far as she could see in the candle’s brightest flares were paintings, prints, and photographs, arranged according to a pattern she could sense but could not understand.
She often stopped walking to glance at a massive painting of a city glimmering with lights or a photograph of a dog and a boy, but she kept on, afraid of losing time, until she reached a painting of Psyche reaching up gracefully to winged Cupid. The colors were so rich, the shapes so round, she could not tear herself away. She began to believe that if she touched it she would enter it. She tried to pull away and found she couldn’t. That frightened her so much she squeezed her eyes shut and walked past it feeling her way, afraid she had been staring into it for hours and hours, and reached the turning immediately.
A low stone arch beckoned her into a dark, twisting, arch-ceilinged hallway. At its end, though, firelight showed her how feeble her candle was. She stepped through another arch into a room full of vases of lilies and tall candelabras.
For a moment she thought she had stepped into another corridor, but the wall to the right of the door she had entered and the corresponding portion of the opposite wall were mirrors, and what appeared to be a corridor was reflections and reflections of reflections as far as she could see.
She stepped between the mirrors: the person looking back at her, or away, thousands of times was fine-boned, delicate, and smooth-skinned except for a streak of healing burn on her cheek. It was his kind of face; it grabbed at her the same way.
“What the hell — ” she said aloud. The line of breakably beautiful shades echoed the words. She reached out to a mirror, touched it shyly, but left no fingerprint.
She didn’t know what she was supposed to look like. She didn’t even know who she was.
No, that was wrong, whatever she had told him. She had a past, a family. A husband who could not help her. A daughter, toward whom she could feel little but obligation. A knot of guilt and rage she did not dare touch, though an insistent something called her to reassume that past. Vaguer images even came to her of a face — an unremarkable face the years had taught her to hate unreasoningly — her own.
That past, that face felt irrelevant — like centuries had passed between them and her waking up in the house.
Centuries, the knot scoffed. More like minutes. You’re dreaming, idiot. I dare you to wake up. Go back to the only real life you’ll ever know. That not good enough for you? Try having real problems. Try getting cancer. Try starving to death.
The voice was tinny and weak, though, and she shoved it aside.
Between the mirrors was a table of wrought iron, and in the center of it sat not a globe but a jagged fragment of one with a gold lining. Leaning against the table on the floor was a painting of a knight fighting a dragon as a lady looked on, in shrill blues and greens and reds, with no perspective.
She reached for the fragment of the globe — could barely fit her hand around it — and looked more closely. The landscape was laid out in such detail of green and brown enamel she felt sure that if she took a magnifying glass to it or a microscope she would find individual mountains, individual trees, individual blades of grass. The oceans were a brilliant blue, like the blue in the dragon painting.
Entrancing, but what broke it? “He’ll think I did it,” she wailed. But as she looked into the mirror she saw something else — “What?”
The pieces of globe the reflections depicted were not all of the same size.
She set hers down, got out of the way and looked down the corridor of reflections. After a bit of staring, she ascertained that there were three different pieces of globe. Hers was the smallest. To make sure her eyes weren’t tricking her, she looked at the edges of the largest, maneuvered that reflection’s hands underneath it, while hers cupped thin air, and lifted. Several of the series of pieces were raised. She “set” it down, walked to the mirror, and pressed against it. She shut her eyes, continued leaning in, and felt a moment of tingling confusion where she could not tell which direction was which.
More will become clear about the mirrors, candles, painting, and lilies as the story progresses. If you liked Narnia as much as I do, you might detect an echo of Polly and Digory’s almost forgetting to mark their own pool in the Wood Between Worlds when the main character almost forgets to count landings.