Nothing in society exceeds the speed of gossip. By the time Lucille arrived to the council hall, its usually quiet chambers were buzzing like a beehive. All the ladies were there, a feat that hadn’t happened in decades, and the animated conversation subsided suspiciously upon Lucille’s arrival.
Rosemary and Giselle were already there too, of course, coagulating loose density centers in the crowd and generating spikes in the conversation volume with well placed comments. Rosemary noticed Lucille and proceeded towards her immediately, all smiles and parting the crowd with the inevitability of an ocean liner.
“Lucille, my poor dear! How are you coping, darling?” she asked with fake solicitude, in a tone loud enough to be heard across the room.
The room’s attention instantly focused on Lucille, drawn to the fresh scoop of embarrassment like ants to a puddle of syrup.
‘I’ve got to hand it to those two, it took them less than an hour to summon an entire village at the ready. At least next time we need a quorum, I know who to call.’ She smiled, showing a socially acceptable level of relief.
“Great news, my dear! Mary didn’t even know what I was trying to ask her! I felt so awkward trying to explain my concern, it is unfathomable that a innocent soul like hers could even be under suspicion. What kind of morally corrupt person would even consider flouting the rules of our society like that?” she stared Rosemary in the whites of the eyes, hoping to make the latter lower her gaze. Rosemary didn’t blink. “To think that someone would be so callous as to accuse a child!” Lucille doubled down. “She doesn’t even know what it means to seek her own reflection!”
“I don’t mean to pry,” Rosemary pried, trying to throw Lucille off her balance and hopefully squeeze out an unguarded comment, “but I have it on very good authority that the child knows she’s fair, how else could she have found out? We never talk about these things, you know it’s forbidden! I hope the nasty rumors that plagued our community in our youth aren’t coming back to bring mayhem to good people.” She got closer to Lucille, to whisper in her ear. “Rumor has it that some of the ladies in this room didn’t exercise enough discretion in their youth in regards to their reflection.” She moved away and continued out loud. “I pray that none of us provided the young girl with an excuse to misbehave.”
“I think you can put your mind at ease, dear, there is no reason for you to worry. As I said, who knows how this rumors spread, it is sad that some people are given to spiteful gossip, but we shouldn’t dwell on human weakness,” Lucille pushed back.
“Some of us have heard,” Mrs. Gentry rose her voice over the crowd, “that Mary went out into the desert at night. We are very concerned about this type of behavior, I don’t think you should abandon your parental obligations like that, before you get to the truth!” she concluded, in a very assured tone.
Mrs. Gentry was a self appointed challenger to Lucille’s authority and never missed an opportunity to point out how she could have managed the situation better, if it were her.
She was slightly older than Lucille, and like most of the ladies in the Circle’s leadership, had acquired an authoritative presence over time, beginning with the imposing stance, helped out by her tall stature, and ending with the stentorian voice, whose higher frequencies could break glass. She always wore black, despite the fact that her dear husband had passed more than fifty years ago, and insisted on not being called by her first name, a habit she found way too familiar.
Her veiled silhouette didn’t bring up mournful thoughts, though, because it was in high contrast to her stupendous amounts of energy. She could wear down an army of staff with her constant demands and always ended up redoing their work, just to emphasize that it hadn’t been done to her standards.
Mrs. Gentry had started many of the sub-committees of the Ladies’ Circle, and as a consequence she headed most of them, which gave her the chance to think up projects and tasks for the less assertive members. In her opinion, she was doing the ‘shy flowers’, as she called them, a favor, by encouraging them to become more involved in the life of the community. She liked to point out that the tasks were always matched to the person’s level of skill, so that they wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by responsibility, and made sure none involved any decision making, which, she wisely pointed out, was better left to the more experienced members, like herself.
She had tried repeatedly to involve Mary in one activity or another, because she felt it was her duty as a social leader to help the girl, whose misfortune was not of her doing, find some place in the village that was fitting her social status. Lucille had to work a few small miracles to keep poor Mary out of Mrs. Gentry’s eager talons, because every time the girl was assigned to one of her well meaning tasks she was driven within an inch of her life.
Mrs. Gentry, of course, considered her intervention to be socially responsible, and expressed this opinion very loudly, on many occasions, disparaging Lucille’s failed parenting and wondering rhetorically why Mary couldn’t exert herself in the slightest. She honestly believed the tasks she gave the girl were no-brainers, just as she thought about the tasks she assigned to everyone else. Every now and then she liked to demonstrate the proper way to sort beans, for instance, just to give her protegés an example of the right way to do it, and then left them with countless sacs to sort until well into the night, together with the pronouncement that it wasn’t that big of a deal, if one had goodwill in the slightest.
“You don’t honestly believe I would allow Mary to go to the desert alone at night, I hope?” Lucille challenged her.
“You don’t know how young girls are, she might have snuck out without your knowledge,” Mrs. Gentry insisted.
“Nothing happens in my house without my knowledge,” Lucille retorted.
“I wish I had your assurance about that,” Mrs. Gentry declared. “You must be among the few who don’t worry about Mary. It is the prophecy, you see,” she continued, in a softer voice.
“There is nothing wrong with Mary other than being the subject of backwards superstition!” Lucille’s cheeks were instantly flushed with irritation.
She had heard the story of the Fire Maiden one time too many. The room was instantly flooded by a wave of murmurs, doubts and protests. Many of the ladies were raised with that belief and they felt threatened when it was challenged.
“I wish you gave some credence to the wisdom of our ancestors, they must have had a reason to pass down this story,” Mrs. Gentry retorted bitterly, for she was one of those who believed the omen to be true.
“I don’t think you have to worry about being turned into a cursed creature, dear,” Lucille answered with just a hint of sarcasm. ‘And if you were, how would you notice the difference?’ she thought, but then decided it wasn’t nice and felt bad about it. “I can assure you I looked into Mary’s eyes many a time, and I’m still here to talk about it,” she declared.
“At dawn?” Mrs. Gentry clarified the terms of the curse.
Lucille didn’t answer, because despite her best intentions she never dared look in Mary’s eyes at dawn, to prove to herself that she wasn’t going to turn into a winged creature with snake skin, whose gaze sets things on fire.
Mrs. Gentry rested her case. She gave Lucille a patronizing look and left the scene, looking dignified and followed by a small entourage.
“What if I do that in front of you, right here, in the council hall?” Lucille presented her challenge.
“And put our safety at risk?” Mrs. Gentry turned around. “If you turn there is no telling of what you’ll do, I think I speak for everybody when I say that we don’t want to be around that when it happens!”
“I’ll do it at home, then,” Lucille counteracted.
“Sure you will, dear! I wonder what you wouldn’t do for your dear Mary!” Mrs. Gentry replied.
Lucille thought about the catch twenty two for a second: she couldn’t disprove the superstition publicly, for lack of volunteers, and if she did it alone, nobody would believe her. The situation bore an eerie resemblance to the truth of having seen her own reflection, only without any discernible benefits. She decided the whole issue wasn’t worth her effort and didn’t give it a second thought as she worked the room, discussing current events in the village, the proper way to raise children and the questionable mores of the younger generation.