Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Her mother called her ‘beauty queen’, ‘the prettiest girl of all’. When they were done with the day’s work, they went on walks and sang songs. The girl said to her mother, “When I’m queen, you’ll have a house full of servants. Your only job will be to play with me.”
“Yes your majesty,” said the mother and smiled.
On their walks, she saw the royal huntsman. She laughed at him, for she hadn’t seen him harm a creature.
Her favourite game was dress-up. Whether she was a mermaid or fairy or tramp, when she asked ‘How do I look?’, her mother looked her in the eye and said ‘The prettiest of them all’. The little girl was happy. Life was perfect.
Until her mother had another baby. Now all of her mother’s time went into feeding, burping, bathing and sleeping with the baby. The little girl was left alone. She begged her mother to go for a walk.
“But I have to take care of the child,” mother replied.
“When I’m queen, I’ll have all children killed!”
She went for a walk by herself. She saw the royal huntsman picking a thorn from a deer’s hoof. He watched her watching him. This time she didn’t laugh.
When she returned home, she heard her mother talk to the baby.
“My beauty queen, the prettiest girl of all,” she was saying.
Confused, the girl asked, “But I was the prettiest of all.”
“But look at your baby sister, isn’t she the prettiest too?”
The baby had a wrinkled face, its eyes were scrunched, saliva drooled out of its mouth and it fussed for no reason.
“Say I’m the prettiest,” she ordered amidst angry tears. “I command you,”
“Yes, your majesty,” her mother said but didn’t look her in the eye.
She played by herself in the woods. The huntsman was always by the river, surrounded by animals.
“What kind of huntsman are you?” she asked.
“Not a very good one, I’m afraid. They give me sick animals to kill. I bring them here and make them better.”
“Can you do that?”
“Only those that want to be healed.”
“When I’m queen, I’ll make sure you do your job.”
“Yes, your majesty,” he said with a bow.
She draped a curtain around herself, put on a crown of flowers and walked tall to the huntsman.
“How do I look?”
He took her hand gently and walked her to the river. A face stared back at her from the water. It had a wide forehead and large questioning eyes that twinkled when she smiled. But then she remembered the unsightly baby her mother found pretty. Either her mother had lied or her reflection was. She couldn’t tell.
“Does it speak the truth?”
“Look deep enough and you’ll know.”
Her mother had five more babies, each one ‘the prettiest’. Each time the girl consulted her reflection in the river. A chiselled face looked at her from the water. Her cheeks shrunk, all that walking and wondering traced a line that went down from the sides of her nose and framed her lips. Ice cold eyes pierced through heavy lashes. The reflection of a branch perched on her head like a crown. The girl in the water owned the river. She owned the woods and the animals and the slobbering toddlers who were eating away her mother bit by toothless bit, and her mother who was showering on them love that was not hers to give away.
Her mother died giving birth to the eighth child.
“Promise to look after your sisters and brothers,” she said on her deathbed.
“On one condition,” the girl said. “Look me in the eye and tell me I’m the prettiest of them all.”
Look her in the eye she did, but no words came out.
The queen was dying. The young woman became the queen’s attendant. She pretended the queen was none other than herself and carried out her every need to perfection even before the queen could ask. The queen came to rely on her completely and insisted she spend all her time with her. The young woman complied, except for the times the queen played with her daughter. The princess was a plain-looking girl with pale skin and big, guileless eyes. The entire kingdom was besotted with her and scurried to fulfil her every wish. Only, the princess didn’t have any, other than being near her sick mother. The queen called her ‘the prettiest of them all’, the young woman recoiled.
As the queen neared her end, the kingdom was flung into throes of mourning. The king stopped eating and the princess sat in the garden, singing to sparrows and squirrels, not taking her eyes off her mother’s window for a single moment. Her song was vaguely familiar. The queen held the young woman’s hand as both of them stared out of the window, looking at the princess.
“Promise me you’ll look after her when I’m gone,” the queen said.
“On one condition. If I’m queen.”
Dressed in her royal wedding gown, she went to bid goodbye to the huntsman. He pressed a present in her hands, a mirror.
“I’ll have the whole kingdom to ask. Why will I need this?”
“This will tell you the truth.”
The king retreated deep into his sorrow. The princess played in the garden, surrounded by her animal friends, servants hovering around her. The new queen found herself alone in the sprawling palace. She had the mirror hung on her wall.
Often, she peered at the princess from behind the curtain. Often, the princess looked up at her stepmother’s window. Something about the girl’s lonely, expectant eyes troubled her. She had once known those eyes, but not anymore. All the squinting for answers had shrunk her eyes. Anger cemented the lines around her mouth, she couldn’t smile anymore.
“Who is the prettiest of them all?” she asked the mirror.
The mirror paused to consider and looked in the direction of the garden. The silence of the mirror descended into an abyss, bounced back up and fell again, and again, quavering, amplifying, consuming everything in its wake. She summoned the royal huntsman and ordered him to kill the princess. The huntsman looked into her eyes and bowed.
The face in the mirror darkened. She asked again. This time the pause was longer and all she could hear was a wispy sigh.
She dressed up as an old woman and went to the woods. She followed the happy sounds of singing and chirping and found herself back at her mother’s home. Her feet hurt from all the walking. Her sisters and brothers danced around the princess as she sang songs the queen had once sung with her mother.
She turned back. Her shoe bit her above the heel. The huntsman was by the river, bandaging a panther’s leg.
Back at the palace, she smothered apples with poison. She’d kill them all herself. Limping back to the woods, she knocked on the door. With all the merriment inside, no one heard. She screamed, only to have her screams drown in their songs. She kicked the door, it yielded. They welcomed her warmly and offered her milk. She in turn offered them her apples. She watched as they bit into them and choked. She watched their faces as joy gave way to confusion, disbelief to horror. She watched till the last one dropped and the singing ceased. Inside her head, though, the song went on. She covered her ears, stamped her bleeding feet, but it wouldn’t stop.
She walked to the river leaving a trail of blood. A hateful face she did not recognize stared at her from the water, jealous and murderous, humming her mother’s song. She touched the reflection to hush it. The face dissolved into shimmering ripples and rearranged itself as a lonely girl, a ghost no one saw, singing a song no one heard. Except her. She stepped into the water. The cold water burnt her bleeding heels. Tiny ripples circled around the little girl’s ghost, her siblings, dancing in circles, drowning her in their song. She walked deeper, to silence them again. They dissolved to her touch, but the song swelled. Up ahead was the princess, walking with the little girl’s mother. She couldn’t hear, yet she knew well what her mother said to the little girl with guileless eyes. They walked faster. Her feet no longer touched the ground, water came up to her chin. She turned around to see how far deep she had come and saw the huntsman at the bank, holding a bandage, watching her.
Nidhi Arora was born and raised in India, spent a decade in Singapore, now calls London home, but far prefers to inhabit the world of fiction. Her work has been published in journals internationally, including Funicular, Popshot, Litro, QLRS, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muse India and Pluto to name a few and has been anthologized in short story collections. Her two children’s books are forthcoming later this year. More at www.nidhi-arora.com
Artwork: Frank Cadogan Cowper, Vanity, 1907, public domain.