A girl named Elena and an old woman named Marta lived on a lonely windswept coast. Their cottage rested behind a grove of eucalyptus trees that sheltered it from the gust the sea cast onto the land. When Elena stared out her bedroom window at night, the trees danced madly, waving their hands at the stars. There was always a clutching at her heart as she watched. She feared that if one of the trees saw her face in the window she would be grabbed into its leafy arms, never to see Marta again.
One day the two of them sat on a grassy knoll that rose in front of the cottage, sunning themselves while Marta mended a hole in a fishing net. Elena watched Marta work and thought about how the trees looked as they stirred at night. For the first time, she wondered if Marta and she were all alone.
“Are there any others like us?”
Marta didn’t look up. “Not in this world.”
Elena’s face had freckled from spending most of her days outside. The sun had bleached her hair to a sandy white. She scratched her nose with dirty fingers. “Then how did we get here?”
Marta’s hair was the same shade as the girl’s. Lines traced her face, especially when she smiled, but Elena was thankful she was not very old, not yet.
Marta tied a knot in her string. “We were sent.”
“All of them. They all wanted us here. I found you one morning, sitting as calmly as you please, right here in this spot.”
Elena frowned as Marta continued working. “Were we bad?” ‘
“Heavens, no. We are here for good reasons. There’s much we have to do. The work is mine now, but someday it will be yours.” Marta yanked on the net and was satisfied her mending would hold. She stood up before the child could ask more questions and gathered it in her arms. “The tide is low. Go to the rocks, and bring back a pail of mussels for dinner. I’ll have a surprise when you return.”
After she filled her bucket, Elena studied the water. The surface appeared to be eye level, and she felt the sea breathe as it rose and sank. She climbed out of the low pools and up the sandy bank so that she could see the gray water meet the grayer sky. Did anything exist beyond that line?
Goosebumps crawled up Elena’s arm and her stomach felt queasy. She grabbed the bucket and hurried as fast as she could to home.
Elena ran into the cottage. “Where is the surprise?”
Marta took a frying pan from its hook and poured wine from a large green bottle into it.
“You’ll find out in a little while. Elena, do you ever wonder where we get the things we need? This pan, for example, the wine we cook with, or even this bottle that holds the wine?”
What a strange question. She put a cork in the wine bottle after Marta set it down. “Haven’t these things always been here?”
Marta didn’t answer, and Elena’s uneasiness grew. After dinner, she cleared the table and wiped it clean. As she worked, Marta went into her room. When she came out, she held a disc encased in ebony and supported by a thick handle of silver. A sapphire cord looped through a hole at the end. She laid the thing face down on the table.
A rosebud, its head slightly bent on a stalk with three delicate leaves and three thorns had been engraved in the round back of the object. Elena traced the pattern with her fingertip.
Marta watched her for a moment. “Do you feel anything?
What was Marta up to? “No. Should I?”
Marta turned the object over. Elena peered into it. Her face reflected back to her. She gasped and pushed it away. “That’s me?”
Marta smiled. “Of course, that’s you. This is a tool called a looking glass. I use this to create all we need. I made the sea, the trees, and the birds that fly above us by gazing into it. I even made the frying pan because we needed something to cook with. I could have created another world, but I have memories of the sea, and so here we are.”
Elena folded her hands on the table grateful for how real and secure it felt beneath them. How could things not be? Why did they need to be created? Then a more troubling thought entered her mind. “How did we get here?”
Marta moved the mirror to the side and reached across the table to place her palm on the little tent that Elena’s hands had formed. “As other worlds began to die, they dreamed of this place. They dreamed you, and they dreamed me, other Martas and Elenas before us, and even the looking glass. We were made from the desire for life.”
Elena bent her head and looked down at their hands. “To die? Like the mussels I pulled from the rocks?”
“All things die, but you and I, we are here to help life itself to continue.” Marta reached for the looking glass and held it in front of Elena again. “Don’t be afraid. What you see is your reflection, just like when you look into a window or a puddle of rain water.”
Elena cocked her head, and the image did the same. Her dirty fingers that afternoon had smudged her nose. She blinked. A young woman looked at her, the smudge no longer there.
She covered her eyes. “Marta, someone is in there.”
Marta turned the glass over and held it to heart. “You saw yourself, that’s all. Your power has now been linked. And now I must ask you to do something very hard. You must promise me to never look into it again until after my death. The power it holds will be yours, but only then.”
Elena gripped the table edge. “But, Marta, you’re not going to die, ever.”
“Not for a long, long time.”
“That means that someday you will.” Elena squeezed the table harder. “What do you do with that thing?”
“While you sleep, I remake worlds, and always this one first.”
Elena’s body suddenly felt heavy. She squeezed her eyebrows together and covered her eyes again. “My head hurts. I can’t fit your words into it.”
“Look at me, Elena.
Elena lowered her hands.
“You must take what I am telling you seriously. A part of your readiness, the test of your power, will be to resist the glass. When I am away, you are not to touch it. Do you understand?”
Elena yawned. “No.”
“Will you promise me anyway?”
As Marta tucked her in a few minutes later, Elena looked at the trees beyond her window. “I wish you made the eucalyptus less scary.”
Marta sat on the bed. “I had no idea that they bothered you. They are another memory I seem to have. Their leaves would be used when people caught colds.”
“What are colds?”
“Something I chose not to bring into this world.”
Elena woke in the middle of the night and found Marta in her rocking chair holding the mirror before her face. She stood with cold feet in her doorway and stared at the back of the chair, afraid to lift her eyes in case she might catch sight of what shown in the glass.
Marta lowered it to her lap. “Come here.”
Elena couldn’t move. “I don’t want to create the world, night after night. How could I think of everything in the world?”
Marta pushed herself from the rocker and placed the looking glass by its dark blue cord on a peg next to where her thick shawl hung.
Where had she kept the glass before? Elena put one foot on top of the other. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
Marta reached for the shawl and wrapped it around her. “I no longer need to. I’ve been here for what would be lifetimes in the other worlds. Once something has been created and put in its place, the sea, for instance, all it needs is a little attention and I can move on to new things. Put your slippers on and come with me.”
Elena followed Marta to the back of the cottage. The sea had sent only a breeze that night and the eucalyptus waved gently above their heads. They walked under the shaggy branches through the bark that lay in piles on the ground.
Marta finally stopped. “I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.”
“What was that?”
“I didn’t trust what the one who was here before you told me.” She picked up a leaf and broke it in half. “Smell this.”
Elena took a whiff. “It’s musty.”
“But underneath that?”
Elena sniffed the leaf again. “Something strong.”
Marta knelt and took Elena’s hands, pulling them to her heart. “And healing. There is nothing in the world I have made here for you to fear.”
But the craving to peer into the looking glass grew stronger inside Elena each day. When Marta left the house, she often stood transfixed before the rosebud, wanting to trace its delicate lines again. What would she bring into her world? Would the glass show her animals and plants and objects that she’d never think of by herself?
One day when Marta had gone on a ramble, the desire to touch the glass became a deep hunger. She’d gotten taller so that now her eyes were level with the rosebud carving. She stood close enough to the glass to almost press her lips against it. Her fingers flexed at her side. She tapped a foot to keep from grabbing the silver handle.
Then, her breath unfurled the bud into a full white blossom. The stem supporting it turned dark green, the leaves and thorns pressed up from the wood. The newborn flower’s scent drifted to her nostrils.
Did the looking glass speak? “Can you hear me?”
Dew appeared on the ivory petals.
“I would like someone to talk to who’s my own age. Could you do that?”
The perfume of the flower increased.
“And I would want more sweet things to eat. And a soft baby animal that isn’t wild that could be all mine.”
Turn me over, Elena.
She put a hand on the wall to brace herself.
Turn me over.
Her fingers on her free hand quivered above the flower. “I can’t.”
Of course, you can. Touch me. My petals feel like velvet.
Her index finger brushed the rose. A searing pain shot across it as though she’d touched a hot stove. She pulled her hand back and put her finger in her mouth.
The next time won’t hurt. I promise. That’s the worst of it. Turn me over. You can have anything you want.
Elena bolted from the house and down to the sea. She shoved her hands into the water. The salt burned her finger even more. She matched her breath with the waves to slow her heart and lifted her eyes to the horizon.
Nothing lay beyond the intersection of sea and sky. The realization hit her as though a wave had enveloped her. Only emptiness lay beyond the beach and the house, the trails Marta and she explored, and the hills to the east.
She felt sick with fear.
When Elena walked into the cottage, Marta was scrubbing some wild carrots. “I forgot all about making these.”
She didn’t sense what had happened? Elena wanted to be warned again, do not touch the looking glass. But the old woman hummed a tune and continued her chore.
“Why do you keep the looking glass on the wall? Why not hide it from me?”
Marta straightened and put her hands on her back. “I can’t do that. The greater it compels you, and the more you hold back, the stronger your power will be.”
Elena ran to her room. Marta did not try to comfort her.
Time passed slowly the way it had always done for the two of them. Nothing seemed urgent. The looking glass remained silent and the rosebud only an etching in wood. Yet, as long as Elena stayed inside the cabin, she felt the glass’s presence. Her fingertip stung continually unless she rambled outside in the world Marta had created.
One spring morning, Elena took a walk through the yellow grass that grew on the plateau that looked over the sea. She wandered farther than she’d ever gone toward the hills. A rabbit scurried from a bramble. She made a mental note so that she could find the spot again in the summer to pick berries and then followed the rabbit through a jumble of rocks that loomed ahead.
The rabbit disappeared into them. Elena climbed to the top. She sat and dangled her feet over the edge but then pulled them up suddenly.
A void lay below her. No black like night, no constant gray when the fog and the sea seemed to become one. Not even an endless pool of white light. There simply was nothing. Beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. If she fell, she would vanish like the rabbit.
Though her legs could barely carry her, Elena found her way home. Elena entered the cottage, wanting to throw herself into the old woman’s arms, but Marta wasn’t there. She couldn’t stay in the cottage alone. She had to find Marta, but before she could take a step, the looking glass called to her.
Elena, one glimpse and you will no longer be afraid. You will understand everything.
The glass pulled her to the wall.
You don’t want to be scared anymore, do you?
The rosebud came alive. The first delicate petals had just loosened when Marta stepped through the door carrying a basket of apples.
Elena jerked herself from the wall.
“Did you touch it?”
Elena stood mute.
Marta’s face turned pale. “Did you touch it?”
Not this time.
“No, but I wanted to.”
Elena’s words tumbled out as she told Marta what had happened at the rocks and how she’d touched the looking glass once long ago and her fingertip still burned.
Marta exhaled. “You have resisted, or you would have looked into it long before now.”
The next morning Elena picked a basket of strawberries for breakfast and prepared them while Marta sipped a cup of nettle tea. She carried two bowls of strawberries to the table along with a pitcher of cream.
“There must be something on the other side of the rocks.”
Marta poured the thick cream into her bowl. “Nothing is there.” She took a bite and wiped the cream from her mouth. “I haven’t been able to create anything beyond that point. Maybe someday you will.”
Elena glanced at the looking glass on the wall. “I hate that thing. And I’m sure I have no talent for creating worlds.”
After that day, Marta sat with Elena on the beach and explained how she gazed into the glass. All that was around, the gulls and crabs, the eucalyptus and cedars, the rains that kept their cistern filled would appear and then materialize. And she would see what the other worlds needed or mend broken things in the fabric of their existences.
“You talk and talk,” Elena complained one day after Marta pointed to a spout of water blowing from a whale’s back, one of her recent creations. “But I still don’t understand.”
It was a familiar complaint. Marta answered in the same way she always did. “When the time comes, you will know. The pictures will come.”
Marta stood slowly. She walked back to the cottage, bracing each step with her walking stick. Elena watched the bank of fog that had been resting on the water all afternoon flow inland. She stayed until the sun disappeared, and only then did she go home.
The next morning, Marta could not get out of bed. She took Elena’s hand. “Go outside and tell me what you see.”
Elena rushed from the house and down the path to the beach. The sun came out behind the fog bank. She stepped back. Nothing lay before her, no swells of water, no gulls singing in the air. There was no longer the smell of salt in the wind. She turned to run home. The tops of the eucalyptus trees were gone as though an invisible hand had rubbed them out. The hills to the east disappeared one by one. Only a small patch of blue hovered overhead, the rest of the sky erased.
Marta’s eyes were closed when Elena found her. Light had gone from the window.
The looking glass beckoned. I am the only hope you have.
There was a candle on the bedstand. Elena lit it and strode to the glass. She took it from the wall, expecting her hand to be seared. But the handle was only warm, the last warmth left in the room. Sitting down on Marta’s bed, she stared at the back as the rose unfurled.
Look into me. Marta does not have to die. Look into me and make it so.
Elena wanted nothing more than to have things the way they used to be and for Marta to be well again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she turned the looking glass over. As she was about to open them, she heard Marta’s voice from an evening long in the past.
“You must resist the glass. I could not and worlds died. This one was almost lost. If you look, everything will end.”
Elena turned her face away and pointed the glass toward Marta. Time stopped. She remembered Marta being not so old. She remembered feeling safe. Bonfires made with driftwood on the beach. Walks where they would pick blackberries as they strolled. She remembered a time she did not know anything about the looking glass. The longing for the past tore at her heart. The glass felt like an anchor in her hand.
How could it be so heavy?
If you only look at me, you can make the past live again.
She barely breathed.
“Look at me.”
Elena didn’t move, afraid the glass played another trick.
Marta’s voice. “Look at me, Elena.”
She opened her eyes. The peace in Marta’s face reflected back to her, no looking glass needed for Elena to be filled with her love. The glass felt light as a cloud now. Marta grasped it with a shaky hand and turned it so that Elena could see herself. The young woman who appeared so many turnings of the years ago met her eyes.
Elena took the glass as Marta’s hand dropped from it and became the creator of worlds.
The next morning, the sun was warm and lit Elena’s skin, striking it like a match. She had remade the sea, not really knowing how. She walked to the water. The waves splashed gently over her feet.
She raised the looking glass and peered into it. “What would have happened if I had looked into you before Marta died?”
She saw herself by Marta’s side, her eyes fixed in horror as she clutched the silver handle. The bed floated like a raft in the nothingness. One moment Elena held Marta’s hand, in the next Marta was gone. The void swallowed suns flung far out in space. Elena watched other worlds blink out and galaxies collapse upon themselves. And then she no longer existed.
The looking glass whispered. You were the last hope.
Elena fell to the sand and filled her fist with the course gains. Did Marta make each one by one?
After a long while, she sighed. “I have worlds to create.”
But first there was the most difficult task. She carried Marta’s body, so light now, to the beach and made a bed of driftwood and dried eucalyptus bark. She held the looking glass so that it caught the rays of the sun. The wood smoldered, and the flames soared.
Elena sensed that someone in another world beyond the horizon gazed into a looking glass, remembering Marta, pulling out possibilities like bright fish from the sea.
The Looking Glass, Alethea Eason (copyright 2000, 2020; all rights reserved.) Previously published in Strange Worlds, edited by Bruce Coville, Avon Camelot Books, 2000