Monday, November 14, 2022

The Princess and the Mirror

Here’s one of the fairy tales from The Rat Queen. This was one of the first things I wrote, even before I knew what the book was about. It’s a story told to Annike by her Aunt Ozols, a cautionary tale about accepting gifts from strange rats.


Once upon a time, a princess was born into the world with a full head of bouncing golden curls, rosy pink lips, and bright blue sparkling eyes. Her name was Princess Raisa. Her father, the king, proclaimed her to be the most beautiful child in all the land, and no one dared to disagree.

Remarkably, the princess became even more beautiful as she grew into a young woman. Princes and princelings came from far and wide in hopes of gaining her favor. The princess knew how beautiful she was, and she used her beauty to charm and befuddle her suitors. Many young men came and went, but not one of them did she deem worthy.

Alas, she was a rather foolish girl. Because her beauty was so great, she had no need for her wits, and therefore had little practice at using them. This is true of many beautiful people.

Time passed, and the queen, who was wise with years, saw changes in her daughter that others overlooked: a slight crease at the left corner of her lips, a hint of dryness at the tips of her golden tresses, a tiny mole just above her collarbone.

“Soon, you must choose amongst your many suitors,” she advised the princess. “The day will come when your beauty fades. You will want the love of a man who remembers you as you are at this moment.”

The princess shook her golden curls and laughed.

“I need no man,” she proclaimed. “As for growing old, I refuse to do so.”

The queen sighed. “Would that it were so simple.”

That night, when the princess retired to her rooms, her maidservant brought her a silver tray with two slices of toasted bread, a small ramekin of juneberry jam, and a flask of sweet rosewater, as was her custom. The princess ate the toast and jam, leaving the crusts on the tray, as always. In the morning they would be gone; she had never thought to wonder why.

She drank the rosewater, then examined herself in her full-length mirror. The mirror was framed with gold filigree, and had once belonged to her great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was as perfect as ever. She picked up her hand mirror, also bordered with gold filigree, and smiled at her reflection. Her teeth were white and even, her lips were plump, her skin was flawless . . . except . . . was that a tiny wrinkle at the corner of her eye? And where had that mole on her collarbone come from?

The princess threw the hand mirror across the room, crying out, “I refuse!” The mirror shattered against the stone wall. “I will not grow old!”

With that, she threw herself onto her feather bed, pulled the covers up over her head, and after many long minutes of tossing and turning, she slept.

Sometime later, the princess was awakened by the sound of gnawing. The princess was not afraid, as nothing bad had ever happened to her. She sat up. At the foot of her bed, illuminated by moonlight, sat a creature larger than a rabbit but smaller than a goose. It had shiny black eyes, long white whiskers, and a glossy sable pelt. It was eating the crust of toast the princess had left.

“It is true, as they say, you are quite lovely,” said the creature in a voice that sounded like paper tearing. “Despite your lack of a tail.” It twitched the tip of its long pink naked tail. “Would you like a tail?”

“No, thank you, Your Majesty,” the princess said politely. She did not know what sort of creature this was, but she recognized royalty when she saw it, a useful talent shared by all of royal blood.

“Are you sure? I can give you a tail. You should consider it.”

The princess considered it for only the briefest of moments, then said, “I fear my dresses would not accommodate such an appurtenance.”

The creature shrugged. “As you wish. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Er . . . what are you?” the princess asked.

“I am the Queen of the Rats,” said the Rat Queen.

The princess accepted this immediately, although she had never seen a rat, and had always assumed they were somewhat smaller.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Your Majesty.”

“As you should be. I come to offer you a boon.” The Rat Queen smiled. Now, a smile on a rat looks nothing like the smile on a person. It is more of a wrinkling of the nose and a flash of pink tongue, but the princess grasped the queen’s intent, and smiled back at her.

The Rat Queen frowned. In rats, frowning is a rapid blinking of the eyes. She said, “When you contort your face in that manner, you cause your skin to stretch and wrinkle.”

“I do not wrinkle,” said the princess.

“Ah, but you will! You will grow old and lined and your lips will narrow and your golden curls will grow thin and limp and gray. Your belly will sag, your ankles will thicken, and your back will curve. Brown age spots will speckle the backs of your hands.”

The princess stared at the Rat Queen in shock. Even her mother, the queen, had never spoken to her so harshly.

“Why are you saying these horrible things to me?” she asked.

“Because they are true . . . but perhaps not unavoidable! Would you like to remain as you are—young and beautiful?”

“I would like that,” said the princess.

“I can help,” said the Rat Queen. “As I said, I come to offer you a boon.”

“Why?” asked the princess.

The Rat Queen shrugged. “I could say it is because you are the firstborn daughter of a firstborn daughter of a firstborn daughter, but that is not an uncommon thing amongst royalty. Or I could tell you it is because our families have shared these walls and crevices for a hundred generations—

“Is that true?”

“A hundred rat generations. It would be seven generations for you.”

“Oh, I see.”

“The truth is, you made a wish as you broke the mirror that belonged to your great-great-great-great-grandmother, who made a pact with my great-great-great . . . I will not bore you with all the greats. Your family and mine have lived in harmony ever since. For our part, we eat only such scraps of food as will not be missed—such as this delicious crust. For your part, you permit us to live in your walls and secret spaces, so long as we remain out of sight. Every night while you sleep, my subjects emerge silently from their cracks and holes and devour every last crumb of food or splash of grease left on the floor, on the counters, on the dining tables, in the garbage bins, and on your nightstand.” The Rat Queen ate the last bit of crust, as if to demonstrate. “This is why every morning your silver tray is empty, and your cooks wake up to a perfectly clean kitchen.”

“That sounds like an excellent arrangement! But what does it have to do with mirrors and wishes?”

“I don’t know,” said the Rat Queen. “There is probably more to it. For example, every month at the full moon, we rats all leave the castle and gather around the moat holding paws, and the queen—your mother—stands upon the drawbridge and hurls handfuls of buckwheat into the water. A waste of buckwheat, in my opinion, but it is what we do, and no one knows why. Not even the queen.

“In any case, because of the mirror, I am compelled to grant your wish. Henceforth, you will not age, and your beauty will remain intact.”

“Thank you!” said the princess.

“There is a price, however. There is always a price.”

“I have gold,” said the princess.

The Rat Queen shook her head. “Gold is of no use to me. It must be a part of you. A finger, a toe, an ear . . .”

“But then I would not be beautiful!”

“Yes, that is a conundrum. But you have things to offer that will not make you less beautiful. A bit of your intelligence, perhaps?”

The princess was not terribly smart, as has been mentioned, but she was smart enough to know that intelligence was not a thing she possessed in excess.

“I am afraid I need what wits I have,” she said.

“How about joy? I would not need it all at once—say, a tenth of a tenth for each year that passes.”

The princess considered. The mathematics were beyond her, but a tenth of a tenth did not sound like a lot. Still, she was not overflowing with joy.

“No?” said the Rat Queen. “Is there nothing you have in excess?”

“My mother says I am too foolish.”

“I have no use for foolishness.”

“She also says I am too stubborn, too vain, and too proud.”

“I do not want your stubbornness, and vanity is something you will need if you wish to remain beautiful, for if you are not vain you will let yourself go. But pride? That I can accept.”

“A tenth of a tenth of my pride?”

“That should be sufficient.”

And so the princess remained young and beautiful to the end of her days.


Ozols stopped speaking, but continued to read for a few seconds, then lowered the book to her lap.

“That’s it?” Annie said.

Ozols roused herself. “Is that not enough?”

“How long did she live?”

“A long time.”

“But what about her pride?” Annie asked.

“I imagine she became less and less proud as the years passed.”

“A tenth of a tenth. That’s not so much.”

“At first, but with each passing year she grew less and less proud, and after a hundred and seventeen years her pride was mostly gone.”

“Then what?”

“I will read you the end, but first you must tell me about the crying.”

“I’m not crying.”

“When I first arrived yesterday you were crying. Why?”

Annie was too startled to say anything but the truth. “My best friend in the whole world doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”

Ozols nodded. “That is deserving of your tears. But you are both young, and things change.” She lifted the book and continued to read.

“On the last day of her one hundred seventeenth year, the princess Raisa was as beautiful as ever, but when she beheld herself in her full-length mirror, she took no pleasure in it. Her pride had deserted her. She thought herself as plain as any peasant woman.

“She took up the silver tray by her bed and hurled it at her reflection. The mirror broke into a thousand shards, and as the glass shattered, so did the princess. The next morning, when her handmaid brought the princess her morning tea, she found nothing but a sea of broken glass and an empty nightgown.”

Annie thought for a moment.

“You are right,” she said. “I do not like it.”

Ozols shrugged. “One ought not expect a Litvanian tale to end happily, but there is always a lesson.”

“What’s the lesson?”

Ozols pursed her thin lips and gave her head a little shake. “It is different for every reader. It may be that pride is an essential part of us all, but pride in excess is unseemly. When I first read that story, I was no older than you, and I thought the lesson was to never give away one’s pride. Reading it now, I learned that everything has a price. What did you learn?”

“To never trust a talking rat?”

Ozols laughed. “You are incorrigible!”

“I don’t know what that means!”

“Do you know how to look things up in a dictionary?”

“Usually I just ask.”

Ozols tsked and stood up. She went to the bookshelf, lifted the heavy dictionary, and set it on Annie’s lap.

“Look up incorrigible,” she said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think there are a lot of "incorrigible" people. And the numbers seem to be growing. I don't think a dictionary is going to help.