Reflections in the Looking Glass

by Joseph Grant

In the early morning hours, when the air outsider was still cool and sweetly scented from the errant kumiai that grew in the rain-soaked courtyard, Marta would sit in the chair and dry her hair with a towel. She would observe bemusedly every morning as the cats of the neighborhood traipsed along the wet and drying cobblestones to get the milk that Lupe, the kitchen servant, would always leave them.

But this morning, the cats did not come and it struck Marta as odd, as maybe a portent of some future event. She had become accustomed to the daily routines that greeted her. Perhaps they had gone as cats are wont to do or even worse, she shuddered, maybe a large animal such as a coyote had gotten to them. She told herself not think such harsh things. It was bad for a person 's health and digestion.

Marta raised the nickel-backed looking-glass to study her youthful face. She gazed upon her reflection at every possible angle, looking for any transgression of youth that may have occurred overnight. Sleeping had always been her personal sanctuary until her Tia Lucinda had awoken overnight with a fright of gray hair. At the time, it had traumatized poor, young and impressionable Marta to the point that she still she examined her face, neck and hands every morning for any visible lines or wrinkles.

Marta had little reason to worry, as she was still a young woman. Only eight years had passed since that day when she was fourteen and had heard the story of her tia aging prematurely overnight. To others, it was a preposterous story, but with Marta, the tale stayed true.

Marta arranged her hair to one side and then ran her fingers through the cool wet strands to straighten their curl. The coolness felt good against her fingers as she slowly patted at her hanging hair in concert with her free hand.

She was a beauty of mysterious origin for she looked like no other in the small town. There was talk of her ancestry being mixed, that she wasn 't completely Coastanoan. Some thought of her look as exotic, as if some gypsy or Middle-Eastern blood had been mixed or possibly her grandfather had been of Russian-Jewish ancestry, such was her dark and stunning visage.

It was no coincidence that Marta was aware of this, but she did not allow it to become a noticeable character flaw. It had been brought to her attention almost to a self-conscious shattering and annoying degree from puberty onward by men and women alike. Young or old, she remembered the men staring at her, until she felt as if she were a freak and she remembered the awful comments that the women made; young or old, it didn 't seem to matter. She had learned since then to accept her unique look, even if sometimes it made her feel hideous and not the true beauty into which she was born.

Marta pulled the soft cloth of the towel through her hair in a nonchalant manner and watched the sunlight dapple the drying cobblestones below her window. Her eyes blinked slowly and followed the uneven stones, across the wagon wheel tracks that had been embedded into the stone surface over several hundred years of continual use, and she peered up and followed the green, twisting ivy that climbed infinitesimally each year up around the red, wooden slats of the window to her husband 's study and reached towards the sunburst color of the Spanish-tiled roof that rose to the endless and clear, powder blue sky.

Her husband had not used that study in a very long time, having been called away to the militia and then to the war. She had not seen her husband, Francisco, for many months and she had ached for him many nights after he had gone away, but now it was as if her body had forgotten him.

It had been something of a minor village scandal when she married him, the barrister of her father, a good many years her senior. Many tongues wagged on the barbed gossip of the town, but Marta paid little mind to any of it. As with her beauty, she had grown accustomed to impertinent talk so it was of little consequence to her.

Francisco had made his fortune in the silver and nickel mines of the region and for Marta, there was no luxury he would not afford, no expense he would not lavish upon his young bride. Again, in this respect, Marta was different than most. While it was pleasant to have possessions, what Marta really wanted was a husband to take care of her.

With her head still damp from her morning bath, Marta ran eucalyptus oil through her cascading mane until it gave off the appearance of wet slate. She gently massaged the oil into her scalp and throughout the rest of her luxurious hanging hair. Her locks had always been lush and healthy and equally as renowned as the beauty of her face, which it framed in stormy and almost furtive abandon. Countless women expressed jealousy over a woman having both beauty and a lovely head of hair to go with it.

Owning such tempestuous tresses required patience and no matter how many times she tried to straighten it out, in the first humidity of the early morning, her hair would frizz and curl in lovely copper and burnt umber hues. She recalled many a teenaged night when she or one of her servants would literally flatten her locks with an iron only to have her hair find its natural familiar path back to tousled and undulating waves at the first rain.

Marta gave herself a hard look in the hand-held mirror. Many men had told her of her lovely pout, but to her, men were ridiculous in what they desired in a woman, as it was always entirely different from man to man. Some men liked a healthy bosom on a woman and Marta looked down at her cleavage and gave herself a knowing smile; she would always be able to keep a man warm at night and his child well-nourished, she thought proudly. Some men desired to a woman with little or no bosom and some men preferred their woman to have a small round end, while others liked a woman with much more than Marta herself had to offer.

She knew some men liked their women to be shapely and curvy, while others looked for a sleeker and skinnier frame, like a horse ready to be put out to pasture, she considered with a winsome smile. Some favored their women to be stout, like a prized bull, while other men chose a woman neither weighty nor lithe or their women to have hair long and flowing like Marta 's or shorn to the collar like a boy 's. All that women wanted in a man was that he was not a drunk and if he was, that he was not a mean drunk and perhaps, if she was not fortunate and had neither of these, that he worked.

Men were such silly creatures she repeated as she ran a brush through her knots in a vain attempt to untangle what was her birthright. Men had told her from the time when it was no longer immoral but still uncomfortable that she had a sensual pout. As Marta eyed her full lips, it proved how silly they were. Who would want a woman who glowered all the time?

Marta ran her horse-hair brush down her long flowing locks slowly and languidly, careful not to yank any roots from her scalp. In this, she was not always successful, but the slower and more fluently she moved her hand, the less painful it was and the more she massaged her healthy tresses and her scalp. She first did fifty strokes down the one side and then fifty down the other as she slightly leaned her head towards the sunlight, her hair ever-so-slightly caressing her upper thigh as she did so. She would sit forward and brush forwards over her head and face to give her hair the bounce and fullness that made many a woman an instant enemy. She would then repeat this in a lesser fashion from the front, finally giving her the flowing shape that defined her beautiful face to one and all. She loved the way her healthy hair shined in the morning sunlight.

She laughed to herself capriciously. Indeed, men were asinine and ridiculous-looking creatures, with or without the fine or not-so-fine garments they wore, but why did she undertake such a prolonged and deliberate approach in the way she presented herself? Much of it was due to her late mother, explaining that a woman must always look her best, but it was also her own ego. She tried to tell herself it was actually for other women that she took such time, but in reality it was to her own devices in which she was imprisoned; to the men, for whom she primped and preened, was it not? Surely, she wanted the women to notice her, but it was for the men to notice first, like a bee drawn to a beautiful honey-filled flower, and afterward for the women to see and be stung by the beauty of that person whom they wished to be. Women were as much an enemy as men, if not more, she reasoned.

She missed Francisco in the way a good and astute wife did in her position but it bewildered her how she would not want him in the similar manner when he was here. It would take only a few short days when he would be back from battle, his mud-caked boots dirtying the main drawing room and upon the dining table as he sat back and regaled his friends with drunken tales of grand battlefield victories that became more embellished with each telling, as she remained yet another silent casualty of his war. She would soon wish he were back at the front, maybe he would be killed as bravely as he boasted himself to be in his stories of battlefield braggadocio and she could collect his captain 's pension for the rest of her days. She was painfully aware that it was morally wrong to think so and may God Almighty forgive her but she could no longer allay the resentment she kept hidden inside.

She would search her beautiful brown almond-shaped eyes for a hint of humanity for thinking such awful thoughts as she applied the last of her blush and lip color. Even though she knew herself to be exotic-looking, not beautiful like the others had said, she felt ugly inside. Her lips were too large and full, but then again, the men in their infinite and immature stupidity liked that and she could please the men with her kisses and her tongue when she spoke and most of all, when she did not, she smiled lasciviously but she knew the men could never touch her heart the way that first boy did. She caught herself absent-mindedly smiling in the hand-held mirror as she thought of him. Not even Francisco, with all of his finery and protocol and manners, ever come close to that dirt-poor pueblo boy.

Much to Marta 's derision and guilty relief, Francisco would return yet again unscathed from his conflict, bringing home gifts, the clap and front line trophies and pompous stories of his valor. He would garner more medals this time, but no honor from his wife.

In the spring, a handsome, young lance corporal would call on their hacienda and bring orders for Francisco to report for the latest skirmish along the border. One morning, Marta would see them both ride off into the dawn. Come the first snowflakes of winter, Marta would bear Francisco a child, but not his own.

BIO: Joseph Grant is originally from New York City and his short stories have been published in 80 literary reviews and e-zines, such as Byline, New Authors Journal, Nite-Writer's International Literary Arts Journal,Howling Moon Press, Hack Writers, New Online Review, Literary Tonic, six sentences and most recently in NexGenPulp, the UK literary review, Bottom of the World and another UK review, Cupboard Gloom. He has written for The New York Bar Guide (as a reviewer) and has contributed various newspaper articles to The Pasadena Star, Whittier News and The San Gabriel Tribune. He has also published a work of verse, Indigo, with Alpha Beat Press and has completed his first novel. He currently resides in Los Angeles. Six stories of his have been recently featured in 6S Volume 1, a collection of short stories by various writers available at Amazon. He also had a story appear in the November 2008 issue of Grim Graffiti.