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Memories of Mirrored Worlds
by Barbara A. Barnett
At midnight on her ninth birthday, Alison Marie was crowned Queen of the Nightlands; she decreed that flowers should glow in the dark and that bats should dine with her at supper. At midnight on her tenth birthday, she was named Keeper of the Secret Word, which she whispered to her trusted steed, a giant frog who galloped through the moors. On her eleventh birthday, Alison Marie was worshipped as Goddess of the Sky. She spread her dragon wings each night and breathed the stars to life with fire. But at midnight on her twelfth birthday, Alison Marie became the daughter of a widowed man, and she made no more visits to her other lives.
There is no memory in those worlds, she thought as she touched the cold, papery cheek of her mother’s body. And so I shall remain in this world and be a Servant of Death.
“Like all of the others who do not dwell in the mirrored worlds,” a strange voice said.
The voice had no source that Alison Marie could find, for the people around her did not talk of magical realms; they did not speak with the cadence of a butterfly’s flight. They filled the funeral parlor with floral-scented death and spoke of memories and such an unfortunate accident for one so young.
“I don’t expect you to stay,” another voice said to Alison Marie. This voice she knew. The Man She Was Told To Call Father.
He reached over her, into the casket, and fingered the mirrored broach at her mother’s neck. He turned the broach this way and that, casting plays of light across the wall, across the ceiling, across the corpse. The light tinkled with a music only Alison Marie could hear, and she realized now where that other fluttering voice had come from.
“I never should have pulled your mother from the mirror,” the Man She Was Told To Call Father said before skulking away.
There came a flash of motion in the mirrored broach, then a voice that billowed and floated, like wings made of clouds: “He has set you free, so make your decree: which world shall Her Majesty reign in first, Her Majesty Alison Marie?”
“This is the only world there is,” Alison Marie said, stroking a finger over her mother’s too-still hand, “for I would forget her in any world but this.”
At midnight on her sixteenth birthday, a stranger arrived at Alison Marie’s sleepover party, uninvited, in the bathroom mirror. Where Alison Marie’s reflection should have been, the stranger twirled, a rainbow-colored twist of phosphorescent braids and gossamer fairy wings. The mirrored world stretched for miles beyond her, showing no likeness to the bathroom’s monogrammed towels and knick-knack littered shelves, but rather a field of purple grass and mushrooms that batted their large, round eyes. For a moment that stretched as long as the mirror world was deep, Alison Marie stared, transfixed, and a little bit frightened at the way her heart beat in time with the stranger’s dancing. She had not summoned this vision. Sometimes the mirrored worlds whispered to her, as they had at her mother’s funeral, but they had never come unbidden. Not until now.
“You have to leave,” Alison Marie said to the stranger, quietly so that her friends in the other room would not hear. “You’re not invited.”
“And you’re not a Servant of Death.”
The stranger’s voice rang like crystal, too loud.
“Be quiet,” Alison Marie whispered, her eyes darting toward the door so quickly that she thought they might tear themselves from their sockets and continue on without her.
A burst of giggles, strangely leaden, sounded from the other room. Had they heard? Did they think she had retreated to the bathroom to hold court with her invisible friends? Alison Marie’s cheeks flashed hot.
In the mirror, the mushrooms burst into flames. Their eyes melted into white goo that drizzled down their charring stems. A scent like rubber bands and fire wafted from the mirror. The mushrooms screamed, and Alison Marie did too.
“Allie?” came a tittering voice from the other room.
“A bug,” Alison Marie said quickly, “a really big spider.” Yet no words or quickness could banish the unwanted remembrance, the memory of taunting that smothered her thoughts:
Allie Marie, who sings to herself
Allie Marie, who’s never quite there
Allie Marie, who talks with the mirrors
What world has she gone to this time?
The songs would start again, they would start singing the songs again and she would never belong where her mother had brought her.
The stranger stretched her hand through the mirror. The glass rippled and fell around her diaphanous wrist like the sleeve of a satin gown.
Return. The word buzzed through Allison Marie’s thoughts; it coursed through her body like electrified blood. Dance through the lands where all will be as you decree. Ride your trusted toad and live forever and be Queen of the Nightlands once more.
Alison Marie threw open the bathroom door; it struck the wall, crashed like her fear. All was quiet in the other room, but not because of her frenzied arrival. Her friends were staring at The Man She Was Told To Call Father, who in turn stared at Alison Marie, who in turn hated herself for drawing him here with her scream.
“Why do you stay?” he asked.
“Why should I go?” Alison Marie replied.
Each dared not answer the other’s question, for they knew their reasons all too well. His look was a battle that said “go” and “stay” and “I want to forget” all in one breath. But Alison Marie refused to let all memory of her mother fall into the oblivion of the mirrored worlds.
At midnight on her twenty-first birthday, Alison Marie spied a thousand strangers in the street-side puddles. Bulbous, misshapen dwarves, who drifted through a silken fog of dark, the stars twinkling in their hair.
Alison Marie hurried faster, her umbrella catching in the wind. She tried not to look, but the puddles were everywhere. They did not reflect the city lights, nor show the slightest pucker as the raindrops struck. Their mirrored world was one where the floating dwarves bounced off each other with a gentle ping.
“Come play with us,” the dwarves called in a chorus of childlike voices.
Ping, ping, ping, they went, leaving Alison Marie drenched in the tintinnabulous sound. The dwarves were louder than the rain, louder than the honking cars and the chatter in the clubs and the alley bars. Their pings rang in Alison Marie’s head until her teeth ached. She dared not step on the puddles lest she fall into their world.
“Play with us,” their calls continued. “We will bound through the night and collect the stars in our hair until at last the dawn arrives.”
For a moment, Alison Marie saw it: herself bulbous and misshapen, the stars tangled in her hair, her voice one of innocence and abandon. She was not as she had been earlier, a slim, sweaty body pressed among so many others, trying desperately to dance to the beat of cacophonous, synth-colored music, awkward because she did not feel the same pull, because the inevitability of death did not suffuse her every motion. Death would accept her service, reluctantly as it had her mother’s, but Death did not crave it.
Her foot hovered above a puddle, buoyed by indecision, close enough to feel the ping of a dwarf against her spike-tipped heel. The touch reverberated up her leg. Her body pulsed in response, wanting to twist and shift and morph if only she’d just let go. Thoughts cascaded from her mind, a waterfall of memory. More sensuous than any lover’s touch, this promise to burst into a new, forgetful form.
A lover, she remembered. Her mother had had one. A Servant of Death. The Man She Was Told To Call Father. He had pulled her mother from the mirror, and her mother in turn had pulled Alison Marie. Again and again and again she pulled so that Alison Marie was a queen by day, among death’s servants by supper. But there would be no one to pull her back this time. The Man She Was Told To Call Father had made that clear.
A yank of her foot and Alison Marie was stumbling backwards. A clatter of her umbrella, and then pain, blessed pain, as she fell upon the pavement. Her body soaked in the pain as her clothing soaked in the rain. She clapped her hands over her ears, as if to hold in the memories that her other lives threatened to drain from her. How could she forget the woman who had never once forgotten her?
At midnight on her thirtieth birthday, while Alison Marie sat writing in a mirrorless room, a new stranger appeared in her cup of tea. This stranger did not dance, but rippled on the tea’s surface, shimmering like a slick of rainbow-infused oil, staring up at Alison Marie with eyes that were round and owlish and an inhuman shade of pink.
“Fly with me,” he said. His words drifted up on the steam rising from the tea. Alison Marie could not help but inhale them. They smelled of sugar and feathered down. They caressed their way through her, stirring warmth and longing for the worlds beyond her reflection.
“Will you not fly with me?”
A tiny hand with a coat of pink and white feathers rose from the steaming liquid, untouched by the heat or the slightest trickle of dampness. As dry as Alison Marie’s mouth had gone.
“Leave me be,” she said. The words sounded weak–so like her death servant’s body, so unlike her memories. “Let me remember her.”
“And when you die, who will remember you?”
No one, she realized. Every day she flailed and she groped and she scraped her hands raw against the promise of love, but she had never learned to make her way in this world as her mother had.
The stranger in the tea chuckled. He knew. He knew her for what she was: a fleshy mortal bag of loneliness and grief, of desolation and unfilled yearnings. And he sang:
Allie Marie, who sings to herself
Allie Marie, who’s never quite there
Allie Marie, who talks with the mirrors
What world has she gone to this time?
Alison Marie shoved his winged hand back into the tea. She shook the mug hard, and his image drowned in a swirl of chamomile. But the memory of him, the lingering scent of sticky, sugar-sweetened words, trickled over the lip of the mug and down her hand.
Alison Marie returned to her writing without washing her hands.
As it neared midnight on her fiftieth birthday, Alison Marie removed the dust-bathed shroud from the only mirror she owned. For the first time in her mortal life, she recognized her reflection in all those strangers. All at once she was luminous and dancing, squat and bulbous, winged and owlish.
And she was not alone. A twelve-year-old girl sat at Alison Marie’s antiquated, roll top writing desk. Kara, the daughter of a son of the Man She Was Told to Call Father.
“My favorite is the one about riding the toad through the moors,” Kara said, chittering like a cricket as she flipped through the pages of Alison Marie’s book. Her stick-like fingers brushed against memory after memory. “All the other girls at school say they want a pony, but I want a frog steed.”
Kara had shown up on Alison Marie’s row house doorstep earlier that evening, wanting to meet the estranged aunt who wrote that book she loved oh-so-much. Alison Marie thought it strange that the girl was out so late, but it was no matter. Her time for telling Kara more about bats and moors and toads was almost at its end.
“Have your friends read the book?” Alison Marie asked.
Kara froze, the next page only half turned. Her expression darkened into one Alison Marie recognized all too well: loneliness. “I don’t really have friends. But yeah, people read it. It’s pretty popular.”
Alison Marie smiled. That was what she needed to hear: they read it. They knew how a little girl once forgot this world and sailed along rivers that flowed uphill, yet always returned to find memories of her mortal life waiting, ready to leap on her with the loyalty and over eagerness of the favorite family dog. They knew about her mother, and they knew about her.
They can remember what I cannot, Alison Marie thought, in Death or any other realm.
In the mirror, an impish, wrinkled woman smiled back at her. Paper-thin skin pulsed with a thousand possible forms. Alison Marie grabbed hold of the mirror’s gilded frame, ready to pull herself through. Her fingers stretched and plunged into the glass, lengthening their way into some new world to explore. What reason was there now to resist?
“My grandfather told my dad he shouldn’t let me read your book,” Kara said, finally turning the next page. “But it’s nice to escape, you know? And it’s not like my dad really cares what I read. He barely noticed when I walked out the door tonight.”
Alison Marie yanked her hands away from the mirror. Her fingers cramped at their abrupt return to human shape. Despite the pain, Alison Marie turned toward Kara. She had never heard so much despondency in a voice so young. “What about your mother?”
“What about her?” Kara’s gaze remained fixed on the book, her countenance so plaintive that Alison Marie suspected the girl was seeing far beyond the crinkled pages. “She took off when I was a kid.”
Alison Marie ached to hear those last words, spoken as if Kara were so very old at only twelve. For all of her own loneliness as a child, Alison Marie had at least found joy for a short time in her mirrored worlds and a mother with patience to match their magic.
Her mother–a Servant of Death, even at the end.
Alison Marie took Kara by the hand and led her toward the mirror. “Touch the glass.”
Kara regarded her with a skeptical quirk of her lips, but obliged nonetheless.
Nothing. Skin rested against a mirror as solid as any other, leaving only smudges and fingerprints. Alison Marie feared the chance had passed.
“Okay, so what’s–” Kara cut off with a gasp. The glass enveloped her fingers, pooling around them like silken water. Glitter-coated hands reached out for her. Kara gaped, awestruck. Her own skin began to glitter in response.
“Go ahead,” Alison Marie said, helping Kara climb into the mirror. “It’s time you road a frog steed of your own.”
And so at midnight on her fiftieth birthday, Alison Marie stayed behind as a Servant of Death, waiting to pull another from the mirrored worlds.
About the Author
Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area, where she lives with her husband and a pantsless stuffed monkey named Super Great. You can follow her online or on Twitter.
About the Narrator
S.B. Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ is a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Apex, Uncanny, and Tor.com. She co-edits the Hugo Award-nominated podcast, Escape Pod, with Mur Lafferty. You can find her on Twitter @divyastweets or the web at www.eff-words.com.