“Stop lollygagging, Mary! The world is not going to wait for you to catch up, it’s almost sundown!” Mary’s great-aunt Lucille scolded her, as it was her habit.
Mary didn’t flinch, she knew how difficult it was for people to be around her, and how much gratitude she owed to the one person gracious enough to take her in. The shocked reaction everybody had when they laid eyes on Mary was a never ending source of pain for the young girl and a great inconvenience for her great-aunt, whose neighbors and acquaintances, people whom she’d known for decades, had started avoiding her because of her little charge. Lucille was a self-assured woman who had worked hard to assert her authority over the ladies’ circle, the charities group and the church committee, and this kind of snubbing constantly irritated her.
She tried not to show it, of course, it wasn’t the poor child’s fault she’d been born that way, and taking her in was definitely the right thing to do after Mary’s birth family decided that parting with an abnormal child like that was what faith and tradition demanded. Lucille was not in any way related to Mary by blood or family, a small detail the great-aunt had decided to keep to herself.
It was irksome enough that some of the villagers made unseemly assumptions about the origins of this unfortunate child, despite the fact that Lucille’s advanced age made it quite unlikely that she was trying to hide an indiscretion by pretending the girl was adopted. The plethora of cheek stinging gossip made it a bit harder for her to miss some of the people who left her circle, but the fact that nobody could look at her protégé without averting their eyes started grinding her nerves by repetition, and often she questioned whether doing the right thing did anybody any good. She sighed, then, looked up with a martyred look on her face, and told herself that even if people didn’t agree, this was definitely what God wanted, and consoled herself that she was suffering for a good cause.
Still, she never got quite used to the child’s odd appearance, and no matter how much she kept telling herself that the being in front of her was an innocent deserving of love, she surprised herself trying to find reasons to avoid Mary’s presence.
Lucille often praised the wisdom of her village elders, whose religion forbade the ownership of mirrors altogether. The community reviled these traps for vanity and self-centeredness which did nothing to advance the growth of the spirit. The absence of mirrors provided her meager comfort, and her spirit rested in the knowledge that her great-niece, whose lot in life was so unfair, would never get the chance to see herself as others saw her and be haunted by her own image for the rest of her life. The good lady was pleased that at least she managed to instill into the foundling the basic virtues of diligence, cleanliness and economy that would keep her life a little bit more tolerable.
In her advanced years Lucille was still an imposing woman, with thick and lustrous jet black hair framing her pale features, a very striking figure even in their village, where everybody looked more or less like her.
She had been considered a great beauty in her youth, when she had countless suitors, was the belle of the ball and had quite a few marriage proposals. At the time she was the envy of every girl in her circle of friends. After she got married, her status grew even more prominent, due to her husband’s privileged position in society. If she thought about it, Lucille couldn’t think of any way her life could have been more pampered.
Sadly, the Lord had taken her husband home a couple of decades ago, may he rest in peace, and after that she decided not to remarry. Her children went on to live their own lives, and she had grown fastidious with the passing of time, quite set in her ways, so adjusting to a new relationship and the societal expectation to submit to a new husband didn’t seem like something she was eager to take on. In time she had gotten used to being the authority figure in the village and run all sorts of societies and committees, run them, that is, until she chose to act out her faith and adopt Mary. Every expectation of normality fell through the cracks and vanished after that.
Lucille often contemplated how much better her life might have been if she remarried instead of adopting this one person social life wrecking ball, at least she would have consolidated her privileges and kept the deference of the people! Every time these thoughts crept up on her she blamed herself and sought strength in the knowledge that she was doing the right thing.
Lucille liked life neat and proper, things always in their place, dresses clean and modest, foods simple, and so she kept Mary’s hair always cut very short, to avoid it becoming a source of distraction for the girl.
Some of her closest friends decided to brave ostracism and stand by her in her misfortune, and didn’t miss the opportunity to offer a wealth of advice, some suggested that maybe it would be easier for Mary, and quite frankly, for Lucille, if the latter managed to dissimulate some of the girl’s striking attributes, but sadly, the girl’s eyes were so startling and impossible to avoid that they drew even more attention to the disguise.
Lucille dreaded the future, she didn’t know what she was going to do with Mary, who was approaching fourteen and started showing her age. She deplored the fate of the poor girl, who was never going to attract anybody and was doomed to a miserable life of loneliness and rejection. She never told Mary that, though, and tried to put a brave face on this whole situation, because after all she had been providentially guided to take care of the child, who was to say what destiny had in store for her?
“Walk faster, girl! Those grapes will turn to vinegar before we get home!”
Mary picked up the pace in silence, as she’d gotten used to over the years. Since she had started walking she noticed that people were repulsed by her, and even if she didn’t understand why, she was fully aware of the negative implications of her unusual appearance. Sometimes she wondered what exactly was it that people found so disquieting that they couldn’t be in her presence for more than a few minutes. She spent her childhood in solitude, but didn’t mind it, because she was an introspective type and didn’t know how to miss something she never had. As she grew older, she could feel her great-aunt’s growing discomfort over her life situation, and wished she could do something about it, but didn’t know what.
The basket of grapes was heavy, and carrying it on her head made her neck hurt. She stopped for a second to lay it down and rest. The basket weave got stuck in the short hairs on the back of her neck and pulled them painfully. She winced.
Lucille looked back, annoyed by the sudden interruption, sighed and stopped to wait for her, standing and stomping her foot to express that she didn’t appreciate this change in the established schedule.
Mary rested for a few seconds, and then picked up the basket quickly, to shorten the discomfort of buckling under her great-aunt’s disapproving stare. There was a little gleaming strand stuck in the basket weave, something that would have passed for hair, except for its color, which looked like that their mare’s Rosemary’s mane. Nobody she had ever known had hair like that, nobody! She shuddered, terrified by the countenance she presented to the world, and for the first time in her life she really wanted to know why everyone was avoiding her, what did all of those people see to make them avert their gaze.
All her other features, her body, her hands and feet, looked like everybody else’s, but her own face she had never seen, so she assumed that whatever it was had something to do with it or her hair. She made it her first priority to figure out a way to see her own reflection. This was easier said than done in a village with no mirrors, no open wells, and no lakes or ponds. One was hard pressed to find open waters in an arid climate like the one they lived in.
She tried every excuse in the book to dissuade her great-aunt from cutting her hair, but Lucille was relentless in the neat and proper management of her locks, which got even shorter than before.
Mary looked around for anything the least bit reflective, but there was nothing, really: the food bowls were matte porcelain, the silverware was dull metal, and the dark painted wood planks of the floors were always covered by overlapping wool carpets whose busy and colorful patterns made her dizzy. She figured if she stared in her great-aunt’s eyes she might be able to get a glimpse of her own reflection, but Lucille couldn’t bear to look straight at her, ever.
In time the preoccupation with her own appearance reached the point of obsession, which made her great-aunt more and more concerned about the poor girl, whose behavior was spinning completely out of control. Lucille deplored this newfound attitude that made her great niece even less socially acceptable, if such a thing were possible!
Mary spent the next year surreptitiously looking for reflective surfaces, under a barrage of criticism, resentment and complaints about being difficult and ungrateful. She wasn’t happy to see her great-aunt angry with her, but it didn’t matter: whatever it was that made her an outcast, she thought she had the right to know. Sometimes, when the pressure of Lucille’s disapproval surpassed the limits of her endurance, she snuck out to the desert to watch the giant moon cast gleams and shadows on the dunes and make them look soft and liquid, like waves of molten metal.
It was during one of these nights, when the moonlight bounced off of the dunes, that Mary caught a glimpse of her own face in the shimmering sand, polished like a silver mirror. She gaped at this complete stranger, whose large eyes shone in the most unusual shade of green, eyes so remarkable they overshadowed the rest of her features, the oval face surrounded by short wisps of hair the color of corn silk, the straight nose, the high cheekbones, the graceful arch of her eyebrows, the well contoured lips, tightly closed in defiant silence.
She stared for a while, incredulous, at the eerie reflection, her eyes growing wider to take in the unexpected image and then she smiled and thought:
“Oh, my God! I’m beautiful!”