The Earth Falls to the Apple

Saramanda Swigart

 

Ursula’s mother ordered a live peacock from the city. So dear a price was paid for its transport that she almost wept when the bird arrived, limp and hardly breathing. She watched as cook killed it, baked it, and used a fine brush to paint in the faded color on its rattier feathers before sticking them back into its body. The result looked lavish, if a little lopsided. Ursula’s mother let out her breath. She placed it in the center of the table, where it got cold and tatty because she wouldn’t let anyone carve it. The table was heaped with other fine and costly foods. There was mutton in aspic and all manner of savory pastries, and pheasant soaked in almond milk, and cheese baked with pears. Everything that could be candied had been candied. Late-winter flowers were strewn on every flat surface of the hall. Garlands twisted around the ceiling beams, trailed down the columns at either side of the table. A group of musicians played a volta, while young girls scattered petals at the feet of the entering guests.

Ursula, arranged behind the sagging peacock, was the table’s true centerpiece. Unlike the bird, she sparkled with youth and vigor. She sat between her mother and father with her head angled slightly to the side, as she’d been taught to sit, hardly moving while everyone else ate. She was resplendent in blue silk. The guests wondered if they’d ever seen a girl so exquisite.

A stable boy wound through the crowd to whisper of Lord Thomas’ immanent arrival. Ursula’s mother fanned herself with a napkin, where half-moons of sweat had gathered under her arms. When His Grace had written that he’d be hunting in the area, and planned to attend Ursula’s fourteenth birthday celebration, Ursula’s parents scrambled to arrange a party. His Grace was a distant relation—the family’s only grand duke—and certain necessary repairs to home and village had to be put on indefinite hold. Masonry continued to crumble at the church, raining down on Sunday parishioners, to the consternation of the vicar; a doctor had yet to be summoned to attend to an escalating outbreak of sweating fever in the town; and a well turned up bad water. But repairs would have to wait. “Drink beer,” Ursula’s mother urged when the townspeople complained. Much of the manor’s livestock and most of the north wing’s furniture and tapestries had to be sold. “It’s for the good,” Ursula’s mother whistled through her wooden teeth as the last of the furniture was carted away.

The crowd quieted as Lord Thomas entered with his retinue. He was dressed for hunting, and smelled like blood and the outdoors. Before sitting, His Grace took another guest’s glass and raised it to Ursula’s mother. “Cousin,” he nodded, and drained the wine. He refilled the glass and drained it again.

“Your Grace,” said Ursula’s mother eagerly. “We’re so—”

He stopped her with his hand. He clapped twice, and a hush fell over the crowd.

“I’m pleased to be here at this fine feast,” he said. “This is a great day in the life of a girl—the day she flowers into a woman.” He snapped his fingers above his glass and a servant refilled it. “To honor Ursula’s metamorphosis, I’d like to make her a gift. A rare gift. You’ve never seen its like.”

He clapped again, and two of his servants appeared, dragging an oblong shape across the banquet hall. It was eight feet high and twelve feet wide, and covered with tasseled damask. At a nod from their master, the servants swept off the drapery. Underneath was an enormous mirror with a smooth, unwarped surface. It reflected the hall in perfect detail. A murmur ran down the length of the room.

Behind Ursula’s back, her father took her mother’s hand.

“You’ve never seen yourselves like this,” said His Grace. “The mirror’s reverse side is of a rare mercury alloy, which is why it reflects so faithfully. You’d have to be at court to see this mirror’s equal. Look. This is how the queen views herself. Look at yourselves—your true selves.”

A profound silence followed the initial murmur. Servants stood frozen, trays in hand. Even the dogs were still. The grand duke’s words were true: no one had seen himself or herself quite like this. The warped images they had seen in cheaper mirrors or polished metal plates didn’t compare with the colorful, detailed rendering they now saw, each hair of the ermine distinct, each line in the face faithfully reproduced. The room, doubled, appeared both familiar and unfamiliar, and the guests sought one another’s eyes, eyes they recognized but did not recognize. They were themselves, but not themselves. No one could stop watching the mirror, which swelled the number of revelers to a huge, grand number, so that they almost felt they were at court.

Ursula, too, felt the mirror’s pull. She noticed, for the first time, that she was beautiful. She looked fresh and noble—a flower, a swan—with pale skin, sloping shoulders, and an oval face of rare symmetry. She hadn’t eaten since morning, so her hands and face were free of fat and crumbs. Oh! Look how her hair glimmered, so light it was almost colorless. Her mirror image looked to her like a person other than herself, exterior to herself. Where she, in her mind, was wayward—boyish, bookish, never wanting to be beautiful or feminine—this creature in the mirror looked every bit the obedient, unspoiled maiden her mother had prayed to God for just that morning. She smiled at her reflection, and her reflection smiled back at her. Ursula lifted a hand with slow grace to touch her hair. Her reflection did the same. She raised the other hand and touched her collar. Her reflection’s hand touched her own collar, her hand like that of a painted Madonna. Pride swelled in Ursula’s breast.

Lord Thomas, still standing, addressed Ursula’s mother: “Let this gift reflect the amity between our family’s two branches,” he said, a little drunkenly. He took a few steps toward the mirror and faced himself in it. His tread was heavy with gout. He rested a hand on the hemisphere of his stomach and thrust out a stockinged leg. Posing thus, as though the forwardmost figure in a portrait, he bowed toward Ursula’s mother. Her wooden teeth clacked in response. Lord Thomas raised his glass once more. “And let the bonds of affection, in times to come, grow even more dear.” He winked at her reflection.

She reddened in the mirror. The blush suffused her whole face. Ursula’s pleasure turned to alarm as Lord Thomas, rather than looking away, held her gaze. The blush extended to her shoulder blades and down her arms. Despite herself, fascination and disgust surged inside her. Her reflection, much to her own disapproval, gave Lord Thomas an immodest half smile.

Ursula looked away from the mirror. Claudia, who sat at the other end of the hall among her nun chaperones, sought her true face, and Ursula mouthed, Wait. She gazed at her hands until the mirror was covered and removed from the room, and nervous voices rose around her. Servants once more wound through the party with their trays and ewers. Ursula sensed that her father was trembling, but when she turned, she saw that he was trembling with pleasure.

When the tables were pulled back for the dance, Ursula hurried to Claudia and pulled her away from the nuns to an empty corner. Claudia cupped Ursula’s elbows. She leaned in close. Ursula blushed again, this time with joy. Claudia was shapely and sweet-smelling as an apple, and had white eyelashes and glassy green eyes. Now that she had moved to the abbey and married God, Ursula only saw her a few times a year.

“Claudia,” Ursula whispered, “what do you think of the mirror?”

Ursula felt her father’s eyes on her. She was expected to lead the dance.

“It’s an extravagant wooing gift,” Claudia replied. “Does His Grace seek vanitas in a wife? Certainly he has no cause for the sins of Narcissus!”

The girls laughed. When they were young, they’d shared Ursula’s gentle, gray-haired tutor. Along with the feminine arts—weaving, courtly etiquette, and basic medicine—the tutor taught them Latin, logic, and natural philosophy. They’d learned about the humors, falling bodies, and the retrograde motion of errant stars. On summer nights, after riding and archery, Ursula and Claudia tracked the movement of these stars from the hillside near the stables. They lay on the grass, holding hands, pointing. “The blue one is you,” said Claudia.

“And the red one is you,” Ursula whispered, burying her face in her friend’s hair.

When Claudia asked, her parents let her go to the abbey to complete her education, and the two girls rarely saw each other.

“What about His Grace?” Ursula whispered to Claudia now. “What do you think of His Grace?”

Claudia’s expression darkened. “Beware, Ursula. He’s a poisoned well.”

“Why?” Ursula cried aloud. Her father glanced at them sharply. He pointed at the dance floor. She whispered urgently, “What have you heard?” Claudia and the other nuns knew all the local gossip, and they doled it out like Delphic oracles.

“That His Grace is hounded by some devils of the body,” said Claudia. “The young women in his household fall ill. Sometimes they disappear. The village girls go missing. They say his lands are barren and he can’t pay his debts. He’s no match for you, Ursula.”

A spasm of fear wracked Ursula. “Come again next week,” she said. “We’ll go hunting. We’ll watch the stars. Come again.”

“I’ll try,” Claudia said.

They both knew she wouldn’t be coming. Claudia kissed her finger and laid it to Ursula’s lips. “Definitely on your birthday next,” she said. “Meantime, I’ll write to you. Go now and dance.”

§

After the party, Ursula’s parents kept the mirror in the reception hall. It doubled the size of the room. When Lord Thomas came for a visit a fortnight later, the four of them sat and took their brandy and plum cakes in front of it. Ursula’s headpiece and dress had been arranged for the good part of an hour prior to his visit, and the edges of the skirt fanned out around her feet. A net of oriental pearls glowed in her hair. Her face was powdered moon-pale. Her fur-collared coat stifled her, and this time her reflection’s comeliness filled her with unease.

When he arrived, Lord Thomas gave her an approving glance before nodding to her parents in the mirror.

“Ursula gathered the plums herself, Your Grace, last summer,” her mother said through her noisy teeth. “She’s very industrious and…”

Lord Thomas interrupted: “Ursula,” he said, “did you know I collected tapestries?”

“I’ve heard it, Your Grace,” Ursula answered in a modest voice. “Your collection is the pride of the family.”

“Call me Thomas, Ursula. Please.” He smiled. He had all his teeth, but they were stained brown. A bit of brandy dribbled onto his mantle. He brushed the fluid with the back of his hand.

Her father said quickly, “You might have heard, Your Grace: Ursula is extraordinarily skilled at weaving. Among her many…many… Well, we cannot repay the generosity of the mirror in kind, but please accept a gift from us: Ursula will weave a tapestry that we hope will be worthy of Your Grace’s collection.” He bowed his head.

Lord Thomas cleared his throat and said, with tenderness, “I would display it proudly, Ursula. I would be honored to have your work in my collection.”

“What does Your Grace prefer as a subject?” said her father. “Perhaps something classical? Ursula has been educated in—”

“Unicorn. Unicorn and maiden,” Lord Thomas replied. “With rams and olive trees around the rim.”

“Our heralds! United in a tapestry!” cried her mother. “You honor us. Thank you, My Lord.” She bowed toward Lord Thomas’s reflection. Wisps of fine, thin hair escaped the plaits on top of her head. Her scalp showed pink between them. Ursula longed suddenly for the mother of her childhood. Ursula’s mother used to braid her thick hair, color of summer dandelions, in front of the fire, singing an old folk song about a child lost in the wheat. She had seemed so big back then—tall and slender, possessed of great confidence, cleverness, and wealth. Now she was stooped and thin-haired—submissive, sycophantic, anxious—in every sense reduced.

Ursula’s father waved a trembling hand behind him. The servants hurried to Lord Thomas with more brandy and plum cakes. The cups were too small for His Grace’s large hands. In despair, Ursula tallied his conjugal attributes. It was plain that Lord Thomas had vices, but mightn’t he allow her to hunt and read? Wouldn’t that be enough? Her parents’ monies and lands were dwindling, and a male heir would tie their fortune to the duke’s, elevating them from their poor standing. Her birth, beauty, and virginity were their only assets. If they mortgaged her on a fruitless marriage, their line was doomed. They should be more prudent—she could only be used once.

Ursula felt herself a spectator, but her reflection betrayed no outward signs of despair. She and Lord Thomas seemed to have an understanding. Suddenly, in the mirror, her left hand, which had been cupping her knee, flipped over, exposing the pink palm. Ursula’s own right hand remained palm down on the knee.

Ursula suppressed a gasp.

§

A whole tapestry lay between the present and the time of her next meeting with Lord Thomas. Ursula was installed in the tower room. For weeks she worked indolently. She set up the vertical loom, and ordered quantities of dyed wools and silks. She started the project and restarted it. She drew up plans and little by little built the bottommost border, which she populated with rams’ heads facing opposite directions. Between the rams’ heads she wove olive trees dense with clusters of black fruit. She soon fell into a relaxed and easy rhythm. The tower room overlooked the gardens. In moonlight it was very beautiful, even when the weather chilled. The moon, huge, paternal, hung suspended over orchard and wood, dusting them with pale light like hoarfrost. There was the blue star, alive, wandering the sky. “And there is the red one,” Ursula said aloud.

In the mornings Ursula spent a few hours reading and writing in front of the fire, reading Claudia’s letters and responding without haste. Claudia, she wrote, right now I hear the winter sound of dogs in the stable. Do you remember the hunt? Do you remember the pied hound that never left your side on that day you were thrown? He stayed with you until I came back with the doctor. I think I hear him: Clau! Clau! he says. But to your question: Yes, when I finish the tapestry for His Grace, I think we’ll be wed. I hope that means I’ll see you at the wedding? Tears formed in Ursula’s eyes at the thought. She squeezed a tear onto her signet ring and sealed the letter with it. But then, excited by the romance of the act, she tore the letter open to write a postscript: Claudia, I sealed the letter with tears! After she’d repoured the wax, she couldn’t make herself cry again, and she had to lick the ring so it wouldn’t stick.

Her father entered. Several servants trailed after him, dragging the mirror behind them. They propped it against the south wall. The tower was suddenly vast and full of shadows.

“Take her desk and papers,” he told the servants.

“No!” cried Ursula.

“Ursula,” her father said in his gentlest voice, the kind of voice he might use to calm a sick animal, “you have a commitment to His Grace, and right now you’re working too slowly. I’m clearing the room of distractions. Just remember that when you’re duchess, you’ll have all the pens and desks you might need.”

Ursula was breathing hard. “Just let me send this one letter, Papa.”

He softened. “This letter, Ursula. After this you may receive them but not send them.”

Ursula’s tears came again.

Her father looked sad as well. He said, “My girl,” and touched her hair.

When he left, Ursula sat in front of the mirror. For the first time she felt cold. Her teeth chattered. The new room, artificially doubled by the mirror, was all out of proportion, and it frightened her.

For a few distraught days, she hardly touched her work. But soon boredom overtook her, and she started to weave again. Slowly, she grew appreciative of her reflection’s company. How regal that girl looked weaving: graceful, assiduous, energetic. The only problem with her presence was that Ursula never felt alone. Claudia—her entire childhood—pulled her to the space where the writing desk used to be, but her reflection seemed resentful that she wasn’t working.

Ursula christened her reflection, so external to herself had the girl become. You, she thought, are Ursulam, the Latin accusative of my name.

By the time Ursula and Ursulam had begun the turf and birds of the millefleur background, the blossoms were burgeoning on the real plum trees outside the window. As she began the feet of the figures, the blossoms were falling from the orchard trees. The summer ripened as the calves of the figures appeared. Ursula could smell the plums. A wave of dizziness washed over her. She and Claudia used to climb the trees and pick those plums. They glutted on as many as they could eat, and gave the rest to cook, who made preserves so that they could have cakes all year. Now who was picking them? Unpicked, they’d rot. The ground below them would be covered with fetid slime.

Ursula learned to blank her mind as she worked. By the time the plums lost their leaves, the unicorn and maiden were complete to the waist. Ursula could remember the world beyond the window only with great effort.

“Are you feeling ill?” she asked Ursulam.

Are you feeling ill? the voiceless Ursulam asked back.

Ursula’s memories grew indistinct, and then flattened into a millefleur background of her own. Had she ever had a mother with yellow hair who smelled like honey and rosewater? Was there a time she walked among the trees and placed her palm against rough, living bark? Had the stars ever wandered above her and Claudia, alone together on a hillside? Had the skinny moon ever existed in a sky larger than a tower window? More and more often she looked to Ursulam for cues. Ursulam was comfortable in the ugly space, and she worked with diligence, and seemingly without fatigue.

“Thank you for the company,” said Ursula.

Thank you for the company, mouthed Ursulam.

All at once, with a prickling at her neck, Ursula realized that something was wrong with her reflection. Ursulam worked with her left hand. Why hadn’t Ursula noticed Ursulam’s sinistrality? Left-handed people, she knew, were the devil’s agents. (Claudia had insisted that this superstition was silly—but clerics of higher rank insisted it was so.) Ursula stilled her hands, but she could have sworn that Ursulam kept on working, leading the shuttle with her left hand for a second longer. The room was utterly silent. Had it always been this quiet? She couldn’t even hear the shuttle move through the warp. Ursula felt drained and bloodless. At the same time, Ursulam’s face went fiery. Her eyes glowed with what looked like inner light. Finally, too late, she slowed her pace and stopped. Reflected and reflection matched up again.

Outside, crows filled the sky with sudden shrieks. Ursula dropped her shuttle. A full second later, with great deliberation, squarely meeting her eye, Ursulam dropped hers as well.

Ursula screamed, “Father! Father!”

She kept shouting until the key scraped in the lock. Her father entered. He stopped short when he saw her work, three-quarters finished. He hardly glanced at the spot near the fire where his daughter squatted.

“Ursula!” he said. “I’m so pleased! You’ll have this completed before next year’s thaw. A spring wedding is a blessing from heaven!”

“Papa,” she said desperately, “move me to another room.”

“His Grace will be very pleased with your weaving.”

“Let me work downstairs.”

“Why, no,” he said slowly. “You’ll work in here until it’s complete. His Grace was very particular about your solitude. He says this is what makes a girl a woman: it’s a cocoon.”

“Then take the mirror away.”

He clucked his tongue. “His Grace specified this as well. Be alone with yourself. Emerge a butterfly. Anyway, why would you want to—?”

“Because…” Ursula lowered her voice. “Because there’s a devil in it.” She glanced at the mirror, but haughty Ursulam was gone: her reflection, small and frightened, was a faithful copy of herself.

Her father reared to his full height. “Do not speak of devils! There will be no talk of devils in this house!”

Ursula recoiled. It took great effort to calm herself. “Father,” she said without hope, “perhaps if I went to the abbey for absolution…”

He peered at her more closely. His shoulders relaxed. He reached out and brushed a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “My girl,” he said. He held her head by the chin, and gently examined her. “Daughter, we’ve sold almost everything. We’re losing land by the acre. You know what you have to do. And I know that you’ll do it, because God gave me a good daughter. He did me the blessing of a good daughter, a smart daughter, good as any son. I’ve always been proud of you. Now I’m proud in advance. Give me cause.”

Ursula breathed. She closed her eyes and nuzzled his hand. “Yes, father. You’ll have cause.”

As soon as her father left, Ursulam was there, insolent in the mirror. Ursula waved to see what she’d do. Ursulam waved back. Ursula took a deep breath, steeling herself for the final months.

She picked up the shuttle and began to weave. Ursulam followed suit. Dry-eyed, they wove. Ursula tried to lead with her left hand, so that Ursulam would use her right, and slowly, over the course of weeks, then months, her left hand toughened. In frail sunlight, she wove. Into the night, in candlelight, while the moon glowed white as the belly of a fish, she wove. Her hair, once plaited daily, hung limp about her face. Instead of a silk dress she wore a rough woolen tunic. The two Ursulas slept on twin pallets. They ate in their weaving chairs, facing one another, like old friends who no longer need to speak. Ursula ate with her left hand. The plum trees went foggy in her mind. A film covered her memories, like the film over an old man’s eye.

A letter came from Claudia. Ursula tucked herself into the corner of the room that Ursulam couldn’t see, next to the fire. Are you all right? Claudia wrote. Your letters have gotten so strange. I pray for you.

Reading, Ursula rocked in agitation in the light of the cold white moon.

It was the last of Claudia’s letters that she read. She let the rest pile in the corner near the chamber pot. The servants crept in and out, leaving food and removing waste. They never spoke, or maybe they did speak and Ursula didn’t hear them. Inside the tower the tables had turned. Little by little, through hard work, Ursula was besting Ursulam. It was now Ursulam who dragged while they worked. That girl was getting thin and ugly. It gratified Ursula to see her mirror image so browbeaten. Ursulam’s tunic hung loosely from her bony shoulders. She was so weak her body could move only with great effort. Her lips were chapped. The nails of her hands were broken and brown, the pads of her fingers swollen with calluses. Her body had slowed and stooped, while her hands had become quick and agile as spider legs.

Ursula was strong. She didn’t need food, or even warmth. Her hands flew, sure and strong. By the time she finished the tapestry, Ursulam was a husk. She’d been brought completely to heel. The two of them passed the shuttle through the warp for the last time. Ursulam gave Ursula a nod of respect and deference. At the same time, Ursula gave Ursulam a similar nod, to acknowledge a successful collaboration, to thank and to commend the lesser woman. The two of them shared a moment of perfect concord.

Ursula’s conscious mind hadn’t registered the images on the loom in months, and she looked to the completed tapestry with relish. The moment she did, her heart lurched. Then it lurched again. The loom had two images, as promised, the figures of a maiden and a unicorn. The unicorn seemed to be reeling away from the maiden. The maiden was dressed in a maroon gown. She carried a long staff. Her eyes were bald white silk: Ursula had forgotten to weave irises into them. The woman’s mouth was open, open in a scream. The scream was silent. With a sudden sweating intuition, with piercing dread, Ursula turned the loom to face the mirror, and looked at the reflected tapestry. She saw that the woman’s reflection, too, had blank eyes and an open mouth. But the reflected figure’s mouth was not screaming—it was evil and it was laughing.

And then Ursula knew the truth, and panic choked her. She was trapped in the mirror. The whole time they were weaving, Ursulam was weaving herself into the real world while Ursula wove herself out of it. Ursula reached out her left hand to touch the loom. The hand met the wood, but couldn’t feel its grain. She raked her fingers across the fabric to destroy the image. Her fingernails had no effect. The unicorn still staggered away from the woman. The woman’s eyes glowed white and sickening. Ursula ran to the mirror. She peered into it. Out of it. Its dimensions confined her. She placed both hands on its surface. She knew it should feel cold, but her hands felt nothing. She shuddered. A ghost in a ghost room. Her flesh was transparent. Vast, unbreachable silences raged around her, thundering up the length of the room. This, her childhood self, was gone, given way to Ursulam and the laughing, sightless creature they’d made. As Ursula screamed, Ursulam walked to the chamber pot, took up the pile of Claudia’s letters, and one by one fed them to the fire.

§

It was a spring wedding. It took place in the vast hall of Lord Thomas’s manor, a hall in which whispers and moans echoed all the time, even when the room was empty. A gilded calf’s head sat on the feast table, surrounded by marzipan figures of Zeus and his lovers: Io, Callisto, and Metis, in the act of transformation—the first into a white cow, the second into a bear, and the third into an insect. Rows of mirrors lined the walls. The guests moved among them, ill at ease with such a surfeit of reduplicated selves. They whispered, nervous, A spring wedding, a real blessing. Their reflections whispered too. When the bride appeared, the room became still, and a sigh of approval or apprehension echoed out from the crowd, and faded in the windy hall. Ursula had pearls and plum blossoms woven into her sleek, colorless hair. She was thin and so pale she almost glowed. Did she look less innocent than she used to—more knowing? Sly, even? It could be her age. After all, sixteen was a little off-bloom. Perhaps she anticipated, inappropriately, the duties of her wedding night? None of the guests noticed that she adjusted the chalcedony necklace at her throat with her left hand instead of her right. She walked slowly toward the vicar and Lord Thomas at the end of the hall. Behind the altar hung a tapestry. It featured a unicorn and a maiden. It was widely rumored that she had completed the piece in under two years, and few faulted her for its defects. There was definitely something indecent about the image. The eyes, for instance. It looked as though they had been inked in.

Several members of the local abbey were present. One in particular, a round, red-cheeked girl, raised a hand as Ursula passed her down the aisle. Ursula didn’t look at her. The bride reached her groom, and together the couple knelt before the vicar. The vicar began the service.

Ursula’s mother and father were seated in the front row. “She’s so pale!” her mother whispered with approval. “I thought we’d have to bleed her!” She herself was always bled before banquets, to maintain her snowy complexion. She dyed her hair with saffron to defend against the gray creeping into it.

“But her hips are too thin,” said her father. “It might be a problem.”

“My hips were thin,” she reminded him.

“And look what happened!” he whispered back. “A single daughter!”

They both laughed under their breath.

As the musicians took up the wedding song, he said, “I was worried.”

“As was I,” said his wife.

“But our girl,” he said. “She brought us back from ruin.”

“From the very jaws of defeat,” she said.

“Our girl.”

“It ended up all right,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “It ended up very well indeed.”

 


Interview with Saramanda Swigart
by fiction editors Mary McMyne, Katherine Del Rose, and Daisy Fentiman

 

Border Crossing: The title of your story, “The Earth Falls to the Apple,” turns a familiar image on its head, much like the story itself. What motivated you to tell this story?

Saramanda Swigart: The story was inspired by a mishmash of classes I was taking in grad school. First, I was in a course called “The Double in Literature,” which examined 400 years of stories and novels about doppelgangers, for which we had to write our own story at the end. I started to research how mirror technology changed in the 16th century. Suddenly, human beings could see themselves in great detail, and I began to wonder if the relationship toward the self changed as a result—if ideas about being human changed—leading to, or contributing to, a greater emphasis on individualism. I was also, in another class, reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, in which he argues that Shakespeare was the first to explore human beings’ inner lives, and these two ideas became linked in my mind: mirror technology and a new preoccupation with complex self-reflection. At the time, I was struggling with 4th year Latin, translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This informed the story in a number of ways. First, struggling with Latin declensions, I conceived of a character who comes to refer to herself in the accusative case, creating, essentially, a second character (and offering a neat way for me to distinguish the original from the double for the reader). Second, I had just translated Arachne. In Ovid, Arachne creates a more beautiful tapestry than Pallas, but it’s dangerous subversiveness—its mockery and indictment of the gods—leads to her punishment. This uppity woman made me think of Eve’s presumptuous curiosity in the garden, and I knew this would be a feminist tale. Latin came into play here too: the fruit in the garden of Eden is only an apple because the Latin word for apple, “malus,” looks the same as the word for “evil” (in Hebrew the word is generic for “fruit”). That led to the title. That and something I learned in physics: that two bodies, no matter their difference in mass, exert the exact same force on one another. The example the textbook gave (likely a reference to Newton) was the falling apple exerting the same force on the earth as the earth exerts on the apple: the bodies “fall” toward one another. For some reason, this pleased me, fit into the themes of doubling, of unrecognized power (the force of apples and women against the force of the earth and the patriarchy), and of reversal, which is of course what happens: the reflection switches places with the original. I had some resistance to the story’s title in workshops, but I couldn’t let it go, for better or worse.

BC: It’s evocative. We’re glad you kept it. One of the things we love about this story is its impossibility to categorize as a single genre. It’s not realism per se, though it certainly has realistic elements. Nor can it be categorized purely as fantasy or fairy tale. Rather, it seems to draw inspiration from many sources, including history, fairy tales, and literary fiction. What works or events would you say have influenced or informed your writing and why?

SS: This is a really interesting question to think about. Thank you for asking it. After I wrote the first draft, which was much more fairy tale than anything else—flat, archetypal characters, no particular markers of a specific time period or place—it was summer and I devoured Wolf Hall. I love how real Hilary Mantel makes her characters feel within the confines of the historical context and vastly different worldview: though they live in this foreign time, they feel so lifelike—they feel like friends. I revised the story considerably in response. I haven’t pulled off Mantel’s verisimilitude in my story—not even close—but the realism is in part inspired by that novel. Maybe someday I’ll be that good! I fell into the research hole, too, after reading her, and one draft was almost 30 pages long, full of elaborate detail about the 16th century. I had to kill those darlings, though, just leaving a few fragments in the frame at the beginning and end. The story is a bit of a Frankenstein of sources, because in a class concurrent to the “doubles” class I read Ben Okri, an unlikely source of inspiration, but his mastery of a certain kind of duality nevertheless became a challenge I made for myself. His stories, for the most part, exist in both real time and mythical time, by which I mean there is both a supernatural and a logical/scientific explanation for events. I tried to write this story so that the mirror’s magic and Ursula’s isolation-induced madness are equally plausible explanations for what happens, and to my delight I found that readers were split down the middle as to which they believed. So, obviously perhaps, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman also lent itself in no small part to the story. Both the feminist message and the insanity-inducing effects of forced seclusion. Finally, Ursula K. Le Guin was a key influence. I read her Lavinia around the time I read Wolf Hall. It’s a retelling of The Aeneid from the point of view of, obviously, Lavinia. I remembered, reading it, how much I appreciate Le Guin for her willingness to challenge the boy’s club that is the fantasy/sci-fi genre (my father writes science fiction and exposed us to a lot of it growing up: women were woefully underrepresented) as well as other, “loftier” genres such as literary fiction and, here, the classics. I named Ursula after Le Guin (though—sorry Le Guin!—I wouldn’t have if her name hadn’t had an obvious Latin accusative). And I borrowed liberally from fantasy tropes as well as historical and literary ones….

BC: The setting of this piece is also very unique and well-developed. What made you choose this particular setting?

SS: The setting took shape in my mind half-consciously. The home that Ursula never leaves (until, arguably, the end) is based in large part on an illustration in an old fairy-tale book from childhood; Snow White’s mother sewing at a pretty Tudor window in a stone castle, her blood dripping into the snow out the ebony window-frame. “Snow White” inspired this story because of the conscious and somewhat malevolent (or “honest,” depending on your read) mirror. A. S. Byatt wrote a short essay entitled “Ice, Snow, Glass,” that discusses at length the aesthetics of that arresting color combination in the Snow White story, and I guess Byatt’s essay and the illustration fused to form the castle, or manor home, that I use as the setting. I think I could draw a fairly accurate floor-plan—that’s how alive it became for me as I wrote it…

Most of the first draft took place in winter, and many of the flashbacks had plums and plum blossoms in them. Spring/summer represented childhood, and winter adulthood in early drafts, though I dropped that binary from the narrative over time. Plums represent childhood for me: growing up I wasn’t that interested in “girl things.” I was an agile tree climber. We had a fecund plum tree in our yard, and I picked plums, gorged on plums, harvested them all summer until I was too old, at which time I lost interest in climbing trees, and “girl things” started to appeal. I still look to that time and the plums with a sense of loss, and feel that writing is one of the few ways back to that kind of adventurous play. Claudia, too, has an antecedent from my childhood (though the physical description is nothing like her), a remarkably erudite and bookish friend of mine with whom I was in love, in that androgynous, prepubescent way intense friendships between girls can be. I tried to render that relationship in the story—not sure if it came off. (We’re still friends. She’s a writer too, and, like mine, her writing is preoccupied with childhood’s loss). As for the historical setting, it moved firmly into the 16th century from a more amorphous “fairy-tale time” because of Wolf Hall, Shakespeare, and research into changing mirror technology, as I mentioned earlier.

BC: We found Ursula to be a very engaging and empathetic main character. How did Ursula, as a character, come about? Who or what made her speak to you as the protagonist?

SS: Almost always, my protagonists fall flat at first, and the characters in the story’s initial set-up were flat—as flat as one expects in a fairy-tale, and perhaps even flatter. I generally have to work very hard to give my characters life and dimension, and I constantly worry that I haven’t sufficiently. Here, since this was more a story of ideas, I didn’t worry about it as much (maybe that’s the secret?). I can’t say exactly how Ursula started to take shape. Perhaps it was Ursulam who took shape first, and Ursula developed in response to her antagonist. In early drafts the story started in medias res, in the tower, and I devoted pages, which I knew I’d eventually cut, to distinguishing the two Ursulas. Ursulam is both a villain and Ursula’s subconscious—bolder than her, savvy and cynical, but also representative of her hidden fears and desires. Therefore, Ursula had to be someone with a bit more depth than the standard fairy-tale fare; someone with opposing forces working within her—a longing to grow up and claim her sexual power, but also a reluctance to sell herself into a world where a woman’s only power is sexual/reproductive. Some of—or most of, depending on your reading—the story’s tension exists in this inner conflict. There’s a little bit of me in Ursula, as I mentioned in response to the previous question, and quite a bit of my mom, who had a wild, outdoorsy childhood, but felt strangled by the familial pressure to become, as a woman, merely decorative and entertaining. She became a pretty active feminist in the 1960s and 70s. She’s someone I admire greatly. Some of Ursula is me imagining the pressure she experienced to become the mid-century ideal of womanhood. She spared me that pressure, and I’m grateful.

BC: How did you develop the idea for the ending? Could you talk about your process for writing it? Were there other drafts of the story that ended differently?

SS: If you mean the reflections switching places, yes, that was a later addition. Earlier drafts had the story’s “revelation” the creepy eyeless image in the weaving. The switch was due to a workshop critique, in which my cohort felt that the ending was too ambiguous: that the mirror’s power was left largely unexplained (a problem I’ve had here from start to finish). They suggested I adopt a bit more of a horror trope that made the villainy of the mirror more concrete. The switching places was my solution to that problem. It might not have done the trick, but I hope it has.

If you’re referring to the wedding at the end, when we jump out of Ursula’s point of view, that, too, was a later addition. The story’s first iteration was almost nonsensical in the way it flung itself around in time. It started in the tower, jumped back to the birthday party, and at one point jumped forward to the wedding, then ended again in the tower. There was a lot of exposition and summary. My first drafts that include a lot of world-building have insufferable amounts of exposition. I needed to add scenes and organize better. I added the frame story both because I thought the two celebrations would provide symmetry and contrast within the narrative, and because I hoped it would “bookend” the narrative in an interesting way (I hope it has). I wanted a cinematic effect: first swooping in from the point of view of the parents to Ursula’s point to view, spending the bulk of the story there, and then swooping out from her point of view to the wedding guests’ to illustrate, I hope, how insignificant her will—her drama—is in the face of this huge societal machine that dictates the lives and fates of young girls.

 


Saramanda+SwigartSaramanda Swigart is thrilled to be writing fiction (almost) full time after years of writing ad copy and corporate literature. She has lived and worked in Italy, New York, San Francisco and Dubai. She has an MFA from Columbia University, with a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short work has appeared in Oxford Magazine, Superstition Review, Euphony, Diverse Arts Project, Fogged Clarity, Caveat Lector, The Literati Quarterly, Ragazine, The Penmen Review and Thin Air, and she’s received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train. She is working on a collection of interlocking stories; a novel, Meaning Machine, about a family’s incompatible coping strategies in the face of loss; and a modern translation of the more salacious stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at City College of San Francisco.