The Face in the Water – Basilike Pappa

I am a lake.

I lay myself in the heart of this land where the snow falls soft, the rain sings gray, and the dark is trimmed with the song of the nightingale. I am smooth in serenity or ripple in mirth. The world around is mirrored in me – the traveling clouds, the austerity of the woods, the hills, and on one of them a castle of gleaming stone. I am water, that out of which everything is born. I have a million memories.

 

She was a queen – tall and sinuous, with black eyes, opal skin and a voice sweet like deceit. She touched me and smiled at the way droplets hung from her fingertips like liquid diamonds. She looked into me, saw her face, and said: ‘How beautiful I am! Surely this lake hasn’t seen a face

like mine. Nor should it ever see.’

I rippled in laughter and distorted her image.

But she had the phases of the moon under her tongue and the night’s mist in her heart. She said the words. And once they were all out of her mouth I felt my body harden and shrink. The fishes, frogs and water snakes, the drifting leaves and broken twigs froze around me in an intricate frame. The next day the castle folk saw I was gone and prayed to every god they knew, because my disappearance was clearly the sign of some ending. But the children came to play in the space I left behind, and someone said that now they had more fields to plough and grow grains. Life went on and I was forgotten. Even I forgot myself. I fell into a deep sleep with no dreams or memories.

 

She became the only thing I knew and I’d show her she was the fairest in the land. But one day her stepdaughter stood beside her, eyes bright, cherries dangling from her ears. And the queen saw in me that the cherries outshone her diamond earrings and that there were tiny creases on the corners of her eyes. She went to stand at the window overlooking the woods, her back turned to the girl who kept looking at herself, chatting merrily.

She read, she searched, but nowhere did she find a spell to stop time and aging. And when she closed the last of her books, she asked to see one of her huntsmen. When he came to her chambers, she sighed and touched his hand. She blew out the candles and spoke to him of love. From then onwards they often exchanged sweet words. But one night, with eyes tearful and voice trembling, she told him that the princess had heard them talk. She’d tell the king and they’d both die. She begged him to take the princess into the woods and kill her.

He said: ‘Anything.’

 

She looked dramatic in black and admired her reflection even more. And I went on sleeping heavily, obliging her every time she looked at me and said: ‘How beautiful I am! Surely there hasn’t been another face like mine. Nor will there ever be.’

 

The snow gave its place to green leaves, which then turned yellow. One day, a gust of wind rushed in through the window. A raindrop rolled down me, then another. They told of a lake in a land where the snow falls soft and the rain sings gray; and of a witch wearing a crown, who turned the lake into her slave; of how the lake now slept deep, forgetting what it was, what it had seen, only telling the witch-queen what she wanted to hear.

One more raindrop rolled down me.

The world was young. The gods pulled me down from the sky. I stormed the earth. Ι penetrated its body. I ran through its veins, riveted its valleys. Primordial creatures hatched, grew, fought the battle of life and death inside me.

I swilled, whirled and turned the memories around in my solitude until a scheme seethed in my soul.

 

Waking up every part of me wasn’t easy after all those years in glassy stagnation. In human words, it felt like trying to walk again after being confined for years in a cage; like trying to speak after a long vow of silence. But one day, when she stood in front of me, she saw that image I had captured in ripples. She blinked and came closer, even wiped me with her sleeve. But all she could see was a crumbled, wrinkled face, almost ridiculous in distortion. She left and didn’t come near me again that day. 

But the next day, there she was again. This time she saw her face covered with scales, two rows of teeth growing between her lips. A mouth that wasn’t hers anymore opened to snap up little fish.

She watched speechless. When she trusted herself to move again, she drew a cloth over me and left me in the dark. It was a good thing, for in the dark I could remember better.

 

Every day she’d lift the cloth to take a peek.

She saw gills growing on her ears; the long proboscis of the goblin shark where her nose should be; her face turning into that of a fish with a frowning mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and a swinging lower jaw. She had the medusa hair of the drowned, corral colonies for fingers, sponges breathing on her breast. But I always kept her eyes unchanged – black, burning, taking her straight into a soul as ugly and inhuman as the faces I gave her.

Oh, the tricks I played on her! She’d put various objects in front of me to see how I’d reflect them, and I always sent their image back to her crystal clear. But when she dared stand in front of me, there was always mud, sand, and nightmares. She’d draw the cloth back over me and swear

never to look again. But she couldn’t stay away.

She lost her sleep and her appetite. Her skin yellowed, her hair thinned. Most of the time she stayed in her chambers in a savage silence. And when she did speak, it was to ask her handmaidens how she looked. They’d always reassure her that she was beautiful, better than ever, but she’d push

them away, crying out: ‘And the scales? The fangs?’

And when her sanity hung by the thinnest thread, I showed her a girl delightful as daylight, cherries dangling from her ears. The picture grew bigger, took up the whole of me and changed. The girl, her stepdaughter, in that fabled realm time and age can’t touch, dancing with nymphs, a favorite of sylphs, forever bright-eyed, evermore beautiful.

She howled with rage and despair. Scratching her own face, pulling her hair, she ran to the window and threw herself out of it.

 

When her body hit the ground, I roared my freedom. I flooded the room of my captivity. I smashed the door open and ran through corridors and down stairs. I broke things in my passage and drowned people who stood in my way, but that’s what I do when I’m free and I didn’t feel bad about it. I crashed the gates and ran down the hill all the way back to my place. There I settled and stretched, letting myself return to serenity. The hills embraced me, the clouds greeted me, the forest paid its respects, and the nightingale welcomed me with its most mellifluous song.

 

The castle remained an empty shell. Only recently a new king and queen came to live here. They brought new folk, new furniture, and their own mirrors. The queen is short and sweet. I once heard her say she loves apple pie. She doesn’t care much about me and I don’t care much about her. I don’t care who reigns as long as I can ripple.

 


 

Basilike Pappa is a bookmonger and a wordcubine. She believes that in poetry an image must montage the mind with false cognates, and that god is sun on a copper coffee pot. Her prose has appeared in Life & Art Magazine, Intrinsick and Timeless Tales, and her poetry in Rat’s Ass Review, Surreal Poetics, Bones – Journal for Contemporary Haiku, Visual Verse and in Nicholas Gagnier’s anthology All the Lonely People. Most of the time she can be found reading near a window in Greece. You can see more of her work on her blog Silent Hour.

25 thoughts on “The Face in the Water – Basilike Pappa

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