Genevieve had carried her deepest secret close to her for more than three decades, clutching it tightly in the same way reluctant mothers hold their boys going off to war. A small wooden handled mirror, she often gazed into it wide-eyed, her sense of wonder edged with revulsion. Usually she stepped through this ritual in the quiet hours just after dawn when the house itself seemed still to be sleeping.
This morning was no different. She slipped out of bed and walked along the cold cherry planked floor to the side table against the opposite wall. Opening the center drawer, she removed the mirror and held her breath. She allowed her focus to move to the image in the mirror and she sighed, releasing her breath in a rush of moist air and lost hope.
When she was six, Genevieve had turned to her mother and asked "Mother, am I beautiful? Do you love me mother?"
This was because Genevieve had seen many faces on little girls and boys at school, but never her own. The world knew few mirrors at that time, and Genevieve had never seen one. So it was entirely natural that she should wonder after her appearance. In response, her mother had handed her the now familiar mirror.
"This is how I see you, inside and out. It is who you are. It is how God made you."
That was the day Genevieve learned about mirrors and ugliness. She had looked at and then into this shiny glass and all at once had seen how truly ugly she was. Her eyes contorted, her nose misshapen, her entire face seemingly disfigured when compared to the lovely faces of the other girls she'd seen at school.
Genevieve never asked anyone again if she was beautiful. Instead, she carried the hidden knowledge of her disfigurement quietly, shedding tears over her ugliness only when she was alone with her mirror. She could only look at her reflection in that tiny miserable mirror for moments before she would break into sobs that left her heaving and sick when they finally left her. Her worthlessness and ugliness were overwhelming when she focused on them, so she learned to distract herself with other pursuits. She was drawn to the beauty and bright spirit she saw in each person she became acquainted with and for reasons that did not entirely make sense to her, acquaintances seemed drawn to her as well. Often her friends would compliment her on her charm or her beauty and it angered Genevieve because she knew they spun lies with their sweet words. Her anger was not quick to last; it always softened when she remembered that they did this out of kindness and a love for her. They simply did not know that she was aware of her ugliness and that their words rang hollow.
Putting the mirror back into the drawer, Genevieve thought this morning's distraction should be a quick visit to see Elizabeth. A woman of intense soul and wisdom, Elizabeth been introduced to Genevieve many months ago at a dinner party held by a mutual friend. Since that time, the two had become close and spent increasing amounts of their time together. Genevieve adored Elizabeth's humor and wit and Elizabeth claimed that she was brightened by Genevieve's seemingly endless energy and kindness.
Genevieve showered and dressed and quickly walked the short distance to the cottage Elizabeth called home. As Genevieve approached the front gate and passed the lovely white rosebush that adorned the entrance, she could see Elizabeth sitting in the window, her long beautiful blonde hair resting on her delicate shoulders as her face was turned away from the window. The window was open and Elizabeth's quick and steady whimpering carried into the yard and pierced Genevieve's heart. Elizabeth was crying, her sobs intensifying as Genevieve came closer. What could be wrong? What could cause such pain for Elizabeth?
Without hesitation, Genevieve opened the cottage door and walked directly into the sitting room. Elizabeth lay crumbled on the window seat, trembling. The tears continued to stream down Elizabeth's face who had not yet noticed Genevieve had arrived.
"Elizabeth!" , Genevieve cried out to her. "Whatever is the matter?"
With horror, Elizabeth turned toward Genevieve and sharply drew in her breath. Genevieve waited for a sign of recognition, of explanation, of anything, in Elizabeth's beautiful eyes. Anything but the pain she saw registered there now. Elizabeth's brow furrowed and her sorrow turned to anger.
"What are you doing here? You cannot just breeze into my home like this! Get out! Get out now!"
Elizabeth snarled at Genevieve as though she were a wild animal. Genevieve had never seen anything like it before.
Genevieve noticed that Elizabeth seemed to be hiding something behind her back.
"What do you have there behind you Elizabeth?"
"Please just leave . Just go."
Elizabeth began to cry again. Genevieve approached and kneeled down before Elizabeth and took Elizabeth's hand, pulling it away from her body. In it, Elizabeth held a small wooden mirror similar to the one Genevieve had herself gazed into earlier that morning. Another mirror! The excitement at such a discovery was tempered by Genevieve's concern for Elizabeth. Standing up, Genevieve moved behind Elizabeth, sat down on the window seat beside her and embraced her.
"I do not know what is the matter Beth, but I want you to know I am here ."
"Don't pretend you don't know Genevieve. I know about the lies. I know. I've always known."
Elizabeth was crying so forcefully now that she began to cough.
"Not long before I turned to adulthood", Elizabeth began, "my father gave me this mirror. He was leaving on a long journey and he told me that he had always wanted to go but had stayed to watch over me until I could take care of myself. Then he handed me the mirror and left me standing in the hall. I had never seen a mirror before. I had heard of them, of course, from books and such, but never seen one myself. To see yourself as you truly are, as others see you, was the gift of honesty my father gave me. "
Genevieve listened intently as Elizabeth continued.
"I looked into the mirror and I could not understand at first what I saw. Such ugliness, such horrible ugliness. To think that my father had been forced to look at me every day in such condition. I couldn't bear it. I thought I might end my life. At times I realize I hate myself and I wish that I could give him back all those years he lost looking after me. "
Genevieve stood speechless before Elizabeth. Nothing she said was making any sense. Elizabeth was beautiful. Her eyes were seas of blue, her smile contagious.
"The worst part is that everyone pretends. All of you. Even you, you must feel so smug, thinking of your own graciousness in allowing me to believe I am beautiful. "
Elizabeth held the mirror up to her face and Genevieve peered into it to see Elizabeth as Elizabeth saw herself. She was shocked at what was before her. Genevieve's face revealed its ugliness as expected but Elizabeth's beautiful eyes were contorted into a slant, her nose bent and her entire face distorted in the mirror. Genevieve looked away from the mirror and directly at Elizabeth's face again. It was unchanged and as beautiful as always.
The mirror. It must be the mirror.
All at once the tragedy of Elizabeth's situation, as well as her own, hit her. Genevieve joined Elizabeth in tears. Joy welled up in Genevieve's heart and blended with sorrowful regret. How many years had Elizabeth gazed into that strange mirror which lied to her and hidden her beauty from her? How many years had she mistakenly believed in an ugliness that wasn't? And how many years had Genevieve possibly done the same using the mirror her mother gave her? Genevieve did not fully understand why or how the mirrors they had relied on could so distort truth and beauty (she did not understand that the cracked glass caused the distortion) or why their mothers and fathers would give them these mirrors. She did know that life would be different, very different, for Elizabeth and herself now that she had discovered the lie of the mirrors. What a gift to be able to give Elizabeth! She steadied herself and turned to Elizabeth to begin to explain her discovery.