Fiction: “The Earth Falls to the Apple” by Saramanda Swigart

At word of Lord Thomas’s arrival, Ursula’s mother fanned herself with a napkin. Half-moons of sweat had gathered under her arms. Several weeks before, Lord Thomas had written that he’d be hunting in the area. Were Ursula’s fourteenth birthday feast to occur while he was there, he said, he’d make every effort to attend. He was a distant relation—the family’s only grand duke—and Ursula’s parents scrambled to arrange a party. 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 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.

She ordered a live peacock from the city. So dear a price was paid for its transport that Ursula’s mother 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. Ursula’s mother let out her breath. 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 leaves 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 the guests ate. The guests wondered if they’d ever seen a girl so exquisite.

Lord Thomas, entering with his retinue, was dressed for hunting. Before sitting, he took another guest’s glass and raised it to Ursula’s mother. “Cousin,” he nodded and drained it. He refilled the glass and drained it again.

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

He raised his hand and a hush fell over the crowd.

“I’m pleased to be at this 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 rare gift. You’ve not its like.”

He clapped again and two 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 is of a rare mercury alloy, which is why it reflects so faithfully. 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 quite like this. Each flaw was apparent in the glass, and some of the celebrants wondered whether the insult was deliberate. The mirror stripped away pretensions and titles, reflecting not lords and ladies, but revelers who looked as squalid as witches at a black mass. Here was a stained and untucked shirt, there a tooth and an earring missing. A near-bald ermine slid from a mottled shoulder; a hand, slick with grease, peeled meat from the bone.

At the same time that the uneasiness in the room grew, Ursula’s reaction was equal—and opposite. She noticed, for the first time, that she was beautiful—that she had transformed—into the very maiden her mother had prayed for that morning. She had 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. Look how her hair glimmered, so light it was almost colorless. She smiled at her reflection, and her reflection smiled back at her. Hello, Ursulam. She thought of her reflection as the Latin accusative of her own name. Ursula lifted a hand with slow grace to touch her hair. Ursulam did the same, her hand like a painted Madonna’s. Pride swelled in Ursula’s breast.

Lord Thomas 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 bowed toward Ursula’s mother. Her wooden teeth clacked in response. “And let the bonds of affection, in times to come, grow even more dear.” He winked at Ursulam.

Ursulam reddened. Ursula’s pleasure turned to alarm as Lord Thomas, rather than looking away, pinned her eyes to the mirror. The blush extended to Ursulam’s shoulder blades and down her arms. Ursula’s reflection, much to her own disapproval, gave Lord Thomas a coquettish smile.

* * *

Ursula’s parents kept the mirror in the reception hall, where it doubled the room’s size. A fortnight after the party, Lord Thomas visited, and the four of them 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 her hair glowed with a net of Oriental pearls. Lord Thomas nodded in approval.

“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, “do you know I collect tapestries?”

“I’ve heard, Your Grace,” Ursula answered in a modest voice.

“Call me Thomas.” He smiled. He had all his teeth but most were brown. A bit of brandy dribbled onto his mantle.

Her father said, “You might have heard, Your Grace: Ursula is a skilled weaver. We cannot repay the generosity of the mirror in kind, but please accept a gift: Ursula will weave a tapestry that we hope will be worthy of Your Grace’s collection.” He bowed his head.

“I would display it proudly, Ursula,” said Lord Thomas.

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

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

“Our heralds! United in a tapestry!” cried her mother. “You honor us, My Lord.” She bowed. 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 big back then—tall and slender, possessed of great confidence, cleverness, and wealth. Now she was stooped, thin-haired, and deferential—in every sense reduced.

Ursula tallied Lord Thomas’s conjugal attributes. It was plain he had vices. Then there were the rumors: young girls on his properties went missing; other parents had refused him their daughters. But mightn’t he allow her to hunt and read? Her parents’ monies and lands were dwindling. A male heir would save them. But Ursula’s birth, beauty, and virginity were their only assets. If her marriage was fruitless, they were doomed, and she could be used only once.

Ursulam showed no outward signs of distress. She and Lord Thomas seemed to have an understanding. Suddenly, in the mirror, Ursulam’s left hand lifted, exposing the palm. Ursula’s own hand remained cupping her knee.

Ursula suppressed a gasp.

* * *

She was installed in the tower room. She set up the vertical loom and ordered quantities of dyed wools and silks. She started and restarted the tapestry. Little by little she 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 fruit. 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.

But Ursula wasn’t working fast enough. Her father soon visited.

“You need to make progress,” he said.

The servants dragged the mirror in and leaned it against the wall. For the first time Ursula felt cold. The new room, artificially doubled, was all out of proportion.

“Take it away,” she said.

“His Grace recommended it,” said her father. “To give you some company.”

In time her alarm gave way to boredom. Ursulam was a hard worker. Ursula followed her rhythm. By the time they began the turf and birds of the millefleur background, the blossoms were burgeoning on the real plum trees outside the window. As they began the feet of the figures, the blossoms outside were falling. The summer ripened. The calves of the figures appeared. The plums’ smell was a dizzy wave. Ursula used to climb those trees. She’d glut on as many plums as she could eat and give the rest to Cook, who made preserves for cakes. Now who was picking them? Unpicked, they’d rot. They’d cover the ground with fetid slime.

Ursula learned to blank her mind for days at a time. By the time the plums lost their leaves, the unicorn and maiden were complete to the waist.

“Are you feeling ill?” she asked Ursulam.

Are you feeling ill? the voiceless Ursulam asked back.

Ursula’s memories flattened into a millefleur background. Had she ever had a yellow-haired mother who smelled like honey and rosewater? Did she ever place her palm against the rough, living bark of the plum trees? Had the skinny moon existed in a sky larger than a tower window? She watched Ursulam for cues. Ursulam was comfortable in the ugly space.

“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 Ursulam worked with her left hand. Sinistral people, she knew, were the devil’s agents. She stopped working but could have sworn that Ursulam continued to lead the shuttle through the warp. Had it always been so silent? Finally, too late, the image slowed 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, Ursulam dropped hers as well.

Ursula screamed, “Father! Father!”

She kept shouting until the key scraped in the lock. Her father stopped short when he saw her work, three-quarters finished.

“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, “give me another room.”

“His Grace will be pleased.”

“Let me work downstairs.”

“You’ll work in here until it’s complete,” he said. “His Grace was particular about your solitude. It’s a cocoon, he says. It makes a girl a woman.”

“Then take the mirror.”

He tsked. “Endure it, Ursula. Become a butterfly.”

“But there’s a devil in it,” Ursula whispered, glancing 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!” he roared.

Ursula recoiled. It took great effort to calm herself. “Father,” she said, contrite.

His shoulders relaxed. He brushed a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “My girl.” He held her by the chin and gently examined her. “Daughter, we’ve sold almost everything. We’re losing land by the acre. I know you’ll do what you have to because God blessed me with a good daughter, as good as any son. I’ve always been proud and now I’m proud in advance. Give me cause.”

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

As soon as he left, Ursulam was back. Ursula took a deep breath, steeling herself for the final months, the final battle with her reflection.

She picked up the shuttle. Ursulam followed suit. Dry-eyed, they wove. Ursula led with her left hand to force Ursulam to use her right, and slowly, over the course of weeks, then months, her left hand toughened. In frail sunlight she wove. In candlelight, while the moon glowed white as a fish belly, she wove. Her hair, once plaited daily, hung limp about her face. 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. A film covered Ursula’s memories, like the film over an old man’s eye.

Little by little, through hard work, Ursula turned the tables on Ursulam. It was now Ursulam, thin and ugly, who dragged while they worked. It gratified Ursula to see her mirror image so browbeaten. Her lips were chapped. The nails of her hands were broken and brown, the pads of her fingers swollen with calluses.

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. The two of them passed the shuttle through the warp for the last time. Ursula nodded to acknowledge a successful collaboration, to thank and to commend the lesser woman. Ursulam nodded her deference. The two shared a moment of concord.

Ursula’s conscious mind hadn’t registered the images on the loom in months, and she looked to the completed tapestry. Her heart lurched. It lurched again. The loom had two figures, as promised, a maiden and a unicorn. The unicorn reeled away from the maiden. The maiden had eyes of bald, white silk: Ursula had forgotten to weave irises. The maiden’s mouth was open in a scream. The scream was silent. With a sudden, sweating intuition, 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 laughing.

And then Ursula knew the truth. Panic choked her. She was trapped. The whole time they were weaving, Ursulam was weaving herself into the real world while Ursula wove herself into the mirror. Ursula touched the loom. Her hand met the wood but couldn’t feel its grain. She raked her fingers across the fabric to destroy the image. Her nails 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 out of it. Its dimensions confined her. She placed both hands on its surface. 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. Her childhood self was gone, given way to Ursulam and the laughing, sightless creature they’d made.

* * *

It was a spring wedding. It took place in Lord Thomas’s manor hall, where 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, reduplicating the nervous guests, who whispered, A spring wedding, a blessing. When the bride appeared, the room became still, and a sigh of approval or apprehension echoed in the windy hall. Ursula had plum blossoms woven into her colorless hair. She was so pale she almost glowed. 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 laughing 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.

As the bride reached her groom, and together the couple knelt before the vicar, Ursula’s mother turned to her father. “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 creeping gray.

“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.”

 

THE END

 


Saramanda Swigart completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short fiction has appeared in Caveat Lector, Fogged Clarity, The Literati Quarterly, OxMag, The Penmen Review, Ragazine, Superstition Review, and Thin Air; her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. Saramanda is working on translating some of the more salacious stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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