Mirror of Misery
Pretty in pink, but it’s not what you think. Lena Ng reflects on beauty standards in her curious short story…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
It was a lazy Saturday, and as it was our weekend habit to explore, we were wandering in some far corner of the city. The neighbourhood, called Pestdale which we had never visited before, could politely be called gentrifying, but it was more on the seedy side with its weedy yards and junky antique stores. We had passed by a marijuana dispensary, an instant cash place, and a convenience store with bars across its windows before I halted with mouth agape. I tugged on my boyfriend’s draping sleeve. “Look. At. That. Store. ‘Cursed Objects and Other Curiosities.’ We have got to go there.”
My boyfriend, Jeff, in full beard regalia, looked less than appreciative. In fact, he became rather pained. “Wouldn’t you rather go to that store instead?” He pointed to a store filled with red and purple Mylar balloons in the window. “That one? The one called ‘Happy Things that Make You Happy’?”
I waved my hand. “Pffftt. What’s the fun in that?” Instead, I hurried to the store that was festooned in gigantic cobwebs and upside-down dead crows. The door released a crashing chord from an organ as we opened it and the outside air disturbed a big cloud of dust. The store was dripping with stuff, mostly yellowed, brittle, mangy, or with teeth. The cadaverous, looming proprietor honed in on our presence like a shark. “Welcome,” he drawled, gliding his way across the floor. “How may I help you?”
“Well…” I said, tapping my pudgy fingers on my chin. I wasn’t really up with what was trending in the cursed object market nowadays. “I’m interested in cursed objects and curiosities. Very interested. What would you suggest?”
He arched a razor-sharp brow and gestured with his skeletal hands. “This,” he swivelled dramatically, holding up a sharpened thin stick of wood, “is a cursed pencil. It once belonged to the heiress—”
The other black line of a brow raised as well. “I can see the mademoiselle is most discerning. How about the baby rattle of doom?” He shook it so I could hear its chilling death rattle.
I shrugged, sizing up a taxidermy three-headed wombat. “Had one, but ended up reselling. I just wasn’t reaching for it.”
He flailed his arms like he was conducting a demonic orchestra. “Can I interest you in a tricky tuna? A deceptive doorknob? An evil eggplant?”
“No, no, no.” I thought he was spouting nonsense since eggplants can’t be evil. So purple and round-bodied, they could only be delightful vegetables. Cucumbers, however, ominous and veiny green, were another story.
“What about”—he held up a chipped piece of crystal as though it contained a precious poison—”a fatal fingerbowl? You know you aren’t supposed to drink from it.”
I sniffed. “I wasn’t brought up in a barn.” Jeff rolled his eyes.
The proprietor tapped his long, bony fingers together. He desperately needed a manicure what with those curved talons of his. “I know what a young woman like you would like.” He reached behind the china cabinet and pulled out a beautiful gilt mirror, bedazzled in pink crystals.
My eyes went round and I felt my mouth go slack, instantly hypnotized by its reflective allure. “Yes…that’s perfect.”
“Now I must warn you—”
“Don’t you want to hear about the original owner’s awful fate?”
“I’ll give you five dollars.”
“Would you prefer paper or plastic?”
I could hardly wait to get home to try to figure it out. Jeff took off since he wasn’t very supportive of my ‘playing with cursed objects’ hobby. His nose had healed fairly straight and they had managed to salvage an eye so I don’t know what all his fussing was about. Hey, I supported him when he took up ping pong, then ferret obedience, and when he went broke dabbling in day-trading, but I burn down one cathedral, and suddenly it’s not a good idea to play with fire. Ever since I was kicked out of the witch’s coven—I couldn’t help laughing at seeing all those saggy witches in the nude—I’ve needed a new hobby. Because my spider breeding program was a colossal failure—I have to admit they were too tasty to live—I’ve had no choice but to turn to cursed objectology. I’ve fooled myself into thinking one day I would compile my experiences into a book, but really it was purely for fun.
I took down the mirror in the bedroom and hung up the dazzling crystal mirror. I stared deep into my image’s eyes. I looked carefully at my ears and messed up my hair. So far nothing. I waggled my eyebrows and grimaced. I tapped on the glass. Nope, still nothing.
After a while I grew bored so I pulled the headphones out of the bag and plugged them into my cell phone. I flopped onto my bed. I scrolled through my song list: Psycho but Sweet by Max Ava; Money Hag by Cardigan B; He! by Sailor Shift. I started the song list and hummed along to the lyrics of I Do Care.
I lay on my bed, delicious chills running down my spine as I anticipated the curse. What could it be? A portal into another dimension? Bugs crawling out of the mirror into my brain? Trapped in the mirror with vampiric rappers? Zombie rappers? An evil transformation such as mutating into a princess? A two-headed one? I was so excited that after the fifth song I fell asleep.
Bleary-eyed, I sprawled out of bed. Bright sunlight pierced through the gaps in the curtains and I squinted at the clock. Two o’clock. At least I didn’t sleep the entire day. As I stumbled towards the bathroom, the bedazzled pink crystals of the mirror flashed at me. I took one look and—
“Whoa…hello gorgeous,” I muttered in awe. I couldn’t believe what I saw reflected in my new mirror. Instead of my usual bedhead of mousy brown, rat’s nest of tangles, there I was, divinely coiffed with a whipped cream tousle of hair swirling in an updo on the top of my head. My skin a glowing expanse, cheeks a rosy bloom with perfectly made-up sparkling eyes bordered by thick, black lashes and glittery pink eye-shadow.
As I gaped in awed wonder at my new-improved self, my mirror image, with a coquettish nod of the head, winked at me. “You’re not bad looking either,” she replied. “If you took better care of yourself.”
Mirror Me patted her updo. “I’m not really you. I’m the new and better you. Your idealized self.”
“Ok…” I said, a little disappointed. I was hoping the mirror would mean I could get up and go. “Can you show me my real self now? I need to get ready.”
The background of the image darkened. Swirls of fog obscured my image, only two glowing eyes staring at me from the mirror remained. When the smoke dissipated, I let out a big yelp.
I looked like a train wreck. Like I was literally run over by a train. I tried to wipe the track marks off my face. “Come on,” I said, smudging the dirt. “Let’s have some honesty.”
The mirror darkened again. What looked like lightning flashed across the reflective surface. “Are you prepared to see your true self?” Mirror Me cackled. “Others have been driven mad at the horror.” My image disappeared and a new creature appeared, with doughy cheeks, a turkey neck, and two swivelling antennae.
“Yeah,” I said, scratching my wattle, “I don’t think that’s me. Try again.”
This time an octo-monster flashed on the glass, with writhing tentacles and staring black eyes.
I crossed my arms and snorted. “Come on.”
“Does a glimpse into the other dimensions not strike you with fear?”
I shrugged my well-padded shoulders. “Kinda. Not really.”
“What about” —a lady with a stick-straight black hair and a beak-like face popped up in the mirror — “Momo, the evil chicken lady?”
I cringed since I wasn’t a fan of jump-scares. “Yeah, that’s pretty frightening. What else do you have?”
The bird lady disappeared and my image reflected back at me. “I’m not here for your amusement, you know. You’re supposed to be disturbed.”
“Like the time a giant moustache centipede got into the house?”
“More than that.”
“Oh, you mean by the big questions. Like the purpose of life and what lies after.”
“Sure,” Mirror Me said.
“I try not to think about those things. I’m just trying to make it to work on time.”
“Kids these days think they know everything. In my day, we had to focus on the big problems. Whether the crops would fail, how to detect witches, how to avoid the plague…nowadays it’s a big deal if the internet connection conks out.”
“Don’t forget the water heater. I hate cold showers.”
Mirror Me wiggled her fingers. “I know what will frighten you…You kids think you’ll live forever.” My image turned into a wizened old lady, hunched with dentures falling out of her mouth. Mirror Me cackled. “This is you at ninety years old.”
A broad smile crossed my face. “I look pretty sweet. I hope I have a lot of grandkids.”
Mirror Me started wailing. “Why, why…what’s with all the self-love and tolerance? Why can’t you conform to the standards put forth by the beauty industry as back in my day?”
“Come now, you look really good.”
“Do I?” Mirror Me morphed into the image of a lady with a Marie Antoinette wig wearing chalk-white makeup, as though she were from a movie about the French Revolution.
“Yes, we’re all about body acceptance and self-esteem now.”
The discordant music of the organ announced our presence as Jeff and I returned to the cursed objects store. The skeletal proprietor welcomed us with a macabre grin. “So I see you have survived the Mirror of Misery,” he said. Fitting name, I thought. He held out his claw-like hands. “Congratulations. Unfortunately, there are no returns although I would consider buy-backs.”
“No, no,” I said. “We’re best friends now although I do need to supply her with pep talks once in a while. I dropped in to find out why she’s so dour.”
The proprietor gestured with a dramatic flair. “The mirror is steeped in misery. It was first owned by an aristocrat who used the face powder of the day. It was a new fashion, produced with arsenic, and she died in agony. Her spirit is said to infuse the mirror.”
“How horrible,” I said. “No wonder she’s so bitter.” I inspected the taxidermy boxing squirrel. “Anyway, since we’re here, I wanted to check out your new inventory.”
The proprietor’s gaunt face brightened to the level of a sky on a cloudy day. “Could I interest you in a squidipal glass? It’s from the 18th century.” He held up a snow globe filled with churning tentacles.
I hesitated but only for a second. “I’ll take it.”
Lena Ng skulks around Toronto, Ontario, and is a zombie member of the Horror Writers Association. “Under an Autumn Moon” is her short story collection. She is currently seeking a publisher for her novel, Darkness Beckons, a Gothic romance.