She used to tell you fairy tales at night, remember? Once upon a time. When you were a sad, dreamy little girl. Each night you lay in your princess bed, surrounded by your glassy-eyed dolls, waiting for her like a wish. Tick, tick went the seconds on your Snow White clock. The moon rose whitely from the black clouds. And then…
“Knock, knock,” Mother whispered from your bedroom door.
“Come in,” you called in your child’s voice.
And she did. She came and sat right on the edge of your bed like a queen, didn’t she? Cigarette between her white fingers. Exuding her scent of violets and smoke.
“All right,” Mother said. “Which story do you want to hear tonight, Belle?”
Belle. French for “beautiful.” It’s what she called you, even though you were a beastly little thing. Not at all like Mother. She was fair, slim, and smooth, remember? Like something out of a fairy tale. Like the dolls that lined the walls of your room. It was Mother who’d bought you those dolls. Positioned them in every corner, every nook, so no matter where you looked, you saw their glossy hair, their fair skin, those lips of red that were always sort of smiling at you. Like they all had a secret between them.
“Well, Belle?” And she smiled at you just like the dolls, remember?
She was wearing the red silk robe, the one you loved best. Sometimes you tried it on when she wasn’t home, breathing in her violets and smoke. She had a pair of red shoes that matched. Satin, heeled, with puffs of red feathers on the toes—your favorites. You tried those on too, but it never went well. Two teetering steps and you were on the floor, weren’t you?
“Which story?” Mother prompted now. Beginning to get impatient with you, your dreaminess. How you were staring at her like a little psychopath.
“The one about the beautiful maiden,” you said.
Again? And she looked a little like she was sorry for you, like you were damned. Definitely. Because there were other stories, weren’t there? There was the one about the rabbit and the turtle, for instance. There was the one about three pigs and a wolf. There was one about a girl who turned into a seal, that was a sweet one. But you didn’t give a fuck about the other stories. You never did. You’d already chosen, hadn’t you?
You nodded. “The beautiful maiden,” you said. “Again.”
And Mother sighed. Or did she smile? She didn’t take the familiar book of the shelf with its very cracked spine. Didn’t need to. Thanks to you, Mother knew this story by heart.
“Once upon a time,” she began, “in a land far away, there lived a beautiful maiden in a castle by the sea…”
That’s how it always started. You sighed too. A land far away. A beautiful maiden. A castle, the sea. You closed your eyes the better to see it all shimmering in your mind.
“How beautiful?” you asked Mother, your eyes shut tight.
“So incredibly beautiful,” Mother said, “that all admired her from near and far.” She sounded bored. A familiar digression. You sought this embellishment every night, didn’t you?
“Yes.” You nodded. “From near and far.” Of course they would.
“From near and far,” Mother confirmed.
“And many envied her too,” she added in a low voice. The night it all began. Your once upon a time. Remember the wolf moon in the window? Two gray-bodied spiders dangling from webs on the pink walls. A red-haired doll with a crack in her face staring at you from a satin pillow.
“Envied her?” you repeated, opening your eyes. You saw Mother had moved away from your bed. She was now sitting at the little white vanity table she bought you last Christmas, the one with the three-way mirror. She was so pleased to give you this gift that you acted pleased too. But you didn’t like this mirror. It was enough to have to see yourself once, let alone three times, remember? It was enough to have to open your eyes and see yourself at all. But Mother loved this mirror. She was looking at her three selves right now, brushing her hair with your long-handled brush. The brush was painted gold to match the gold-trim of the vanity, another gift from Mother. The back was encrusted with bright-colored bits of plastic that you thought were precious stones. The bristles didn’t work on your kind of hair, so thick and coarse. But it worked wonderfully on Mother’s. Now you watched her brush her dark red hair with long, slow strokes.
“What’s ‘envy,’ Mother?” you asked her.
“Envy is when you hate someone because they have something you want,” she said simply.
You stared at her refection in the three-way glass.
“Like being pretty,” you said.
“Exactly,” she yawned. A glimpse of her red throat. “Like being pretty. Or young,” she added, looking back at you in the glass. Her glossy dark red hair tumbling over one white shoulder. Her red robe brought out the bright blue of her eyes. The robe was a gift from the faraway country where your father was born. He bought her one in nearly every color, each jewel-bright and threaded with gold. You never met your father, but you’d seen pictures. He reminded you a little of the ogres in your fairy-tale books. Swarthy and stout, like you. You could see your eyes in his eyes. Your skin in his skin. There was a time when you even feared you might be part ogre, remember?
When you told Mother this once, she’d laughed hysterically. She’d thrown her head back and laughed until she’d cried. And then you cried too, you couldn’t help it. So it was true. You were definitely part ogre, just as you’d feared. Stop it, she said, and then she slapped you. Right across the face. Tears instantly stung your eyes. Listen to me, she hissed. Listen. And the world grew very still while she assured you with the softest voice that of course your father was not an ogre, of course not. He was a lovely man, god rest his soul. Handsome, even, many women thought so. He was just from a place where there happened to be more sun, that was all. And people in that place were darker and they were hairier. So you were darker and you were hairier. You were lovely. You were lucky, she’d said, putting her white hands on your shoulders. Shaking them a little. Lucky, do you hear me? She wished she had your skin and your hair, absolutely. Definitely. And then she petted you like a dog. Smiled at you in the three-way glass. And you knew then that she was lying. Definitely. She didn’t wish that. Not at all.
Now you looked at her in the mirror until she looked away. Took a drag of her cigarette. Went back to brushing her hair with your gold toy brush.
“Anyway,” Mother said. “The beautiful maiden. She had this mirror. And the mirror talked to her.”
Yes, yes. This was your favorite part of the story. That the maiden talked to a mirror. That she had a friend in the glass who told her things. You were such a lonely little girl, weren’t you? Whispering to grass. Befriending sticks. Dreaming yourself into movies and books. Every screen, every page, like a door to another world, remember?
“What did it tell her?” you asked like you didn’t know. Like Mother hadn’t already told you this part a thousand times.
“That she was beautiful,” Mother said as if it was obvious. “The most beautiful in all the land.”
You nodded. An ache opened up inside you. Deep, deep. For what? Some other life, some other self, some other body. In a land far away. In a castle by the sea.
“But then one day,” Mother said, and her tone shifted. “One day, the mirror didn’t say that.” She was staring at her three selves in the glass when she said this.
And in the mirror, you saw a shimmer. A sparkling something that wasn’t there before.
“Mother?” you whispered, your eyes on the shimmer.
Not just a shimmer now, a shape. A darkly glimmering shape hovering in the mirror behind Mother’s refection. Mother shook her head at the mirror. She took another drag of her cigarette. She was staring at the shape too. Like she wasn’t at all surprised to see it there.
“It said something else,” Mother whispered, her eyes on the shape. What sort of shape? Something or someone?
A figure. Staring at Mother. You could feel it staring though it had no eyes you could see. Just a silhouette, remember?
“What did it say?”
“Something terrible,” Mother said, staring at the figure who stared back. “Something inevitable. Something true.”
Like what? Like what?
Mother shook her head again and again. She looked in the mirror like she was about to cry. The figure was looking at Mother sorrowfully. Fake sorrowfully, you felt, you didn’t know why. And that’s when it looked up. Lifted its eyes from Mother to you. Yes, it had eyes though you couldn’t see them. You could feel them on you. A coldness. It stared at you and smiled. You knew it was smiling, though it had no mouth you could see either. Just a man-shaped shadow. Just that shimmering silhouette.
You should’ve been afraid, definitely. You really should’ve been. But you weren’t, were you? When you felt his eyes on you, all of you was suddenly lit up. Like the glow-in-the dark stars on your bedroom ceiling. Like your grandmother’s chandelier. You were smiling now.
“And then what happened, Mother?” Your eyes were staring right into his eyes, you could sort of see them now. He had eyes that saw your soul, you knew this. It was a he, you knew that too, didn’t you?
Mother wasn’t looking at the figure anymore. She was looking at you.
“Mother?” you pressed, feeling the figure’s eyes on you. “What happened?”
But Mother just smiled at you darkly in the glass. “And then all hell broke loose.”
From Rouge by Mona Awad. Used with permission of the publisher, Marysue Rucci Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., on September 12, 2023. Copyright © 2023 by Mona Awad. All rights reserved.