She approaches the mirror: I’m there to meet her. We study each other through identical brown eyes. The spray of freckles across our noses. The incisor that’s slightly askew—hers on the left side of her mouth, mine on the right. We blink simultaneously.
Her mother’s voice, calling: “Have you brushed your hair?” She looks over her shoulder and I do the same, where no mother is calling for me, where no one cares how many snarls I have.
“Yes,” she says, and I feel the lie on my own lips.
She turns back to me and picks up a brush. Mine is made of pine needles, the handle a broken stick, my hair tangled with leaves and crusted with mud, but she can’t see any of that. She sees what she expects to see.
After a few cursory strokes, we set down our brushes. Her mother calls again, sterner now, and we turn away from each other. Her footsteps recede, leaving silence behind. I glance back toward her empty room. My fingers reach for the edge of the mirror.
No, whispers the sky. The dark clouds release an icy spray of rain. Sit.
I squat on the ground and pick at a scab on my knee. If it were me, I would brush my hair until it shone like still water. I’d never make my mother call for me twice.
• • •
When she was little, I’d lurk just beyond the frame and listen in when her mother put her to sleep.
“Tell me again about the fairies,” she said, her voice smelling of milk and toothpaste.
“When you were just a baby, they tried to steal you away,” her mother began, her words as gentle as a lullaby. “They made another baby girl to leave in your place, one that looked just like you, only this baby was made of mud and moss and spider webs and dew. And even though it wasn’t real, it cried and cooed and sneezed just like you did.”
“Why did they want me?”
“You were a beautiful and perfect little baby, clean and fresh and sweet-smelling. The changeling was covered in grass stains, with dirt under its fingernails and hair that had never been washed. Of course, they wanted you. But I turned on the lights and I caught them! They hissed and bared their fangs, but I held on to you and wouldn’t let go. And in the end, they took their changeling and disappeared…”
“Right into that mirror,” she said, and I knew without looking that she was pointing at the gilded frame on the wall, behind which I cowered. “But where are they now?”
“Gone away,” said her mother. “Gone away forever.”
Gone away forever, echoed a voice like wind through trees, like water over rocks. She doesn’t want you.
“Shh!” I hissed. I heard the curious sadness underneath her mother’s words. Day by day, the girl stretched and bulged and lengthened. Every day she became someone new. I, on the other hand, remain just as I am. The one behind the mirror. The one made to take her place.
• • •
Her mother enters the room without knocking, takes in the dirty clothes smothering the soft bedcovers, the carpet made gritty with crumbs and clutter. The unicorn figurine lying near the edge of her dresser, toppled on its side, horn snapped off.
“What are you doing in my room?” Our faces twist.
Her mother points at the figurine. Once it stood proudly in front of the mirror, cream and blue and gold, smooth as an evening lake. Once I wanted desperately to take it. Not to keep. Just to hold, for one shining moment.
“This room is a disaster,” her mother says. “You’re ruining all of your pretty things.”
The girl grabs the figurine with careless fingers and tosses it into the basket she keeps under her desk, the one where she throws things to be taken away—things she once cared for, that she no longer wants. My own limbs follow her movement. Her mother flinches when the unicorn thuds at the bottom of the basket, and she looks into the mirror, searching for the daughter she once knew.
“See me,” I whisper with tight lips.
The skies above my head darken and rumble with thunder. Don’t, growls the voice. You cannot.
I grind my teeth together. But it doesn’t matter; the girl screams “Get out!” and I have no choice but to mouth it with her. Her mother’s cheeks blotch autumn-red, and she turns and is gone.
• • •
Later, when the girl is downstairs, her mother sneaks back into the room to pluck the unicorn from the basket. Her fingers run over the chipped flank, the jagged lack of a horn, and once again her eyes find the mirror. She shouldn’t be able to see me, but the force of my longing is as loud as a shriek.
A fierce wind blows into the wood, watering my eyes and pelting my head with leaves.
Not yours. Come away.
I grimace and grit. I was never meant to be more than currency, and the forest will not give me up for nothing. A changeling for a baby; that was always the bargain. But instead of a baby behind the glass, there’s a girl who hates everything she once loved: her mother, her room, herself. She’ll do.
If the forest demands a trade, I will bring it one.
I place my fingers against the glass. I send a thought that only a mother will hear: “Mud and moss and spider webs and dew.”
A tear draws a single black line down her cheek. “Grass stains and dirt under fingernails and hair that’s never been washed,” she answers.
Behind me, the wind quiets, becomes thoughtful. I bristle and breathe.
“Mother,” I whisper.
Her hands meet mine on the other side of the mirror. I wait for the glass to dissolve.