The old woman gave me a large smile and as she did so her face widened, cheeks forming into deep valleys of wrinkles. Her eyes, also smiling, were twinkling blue orbs bracketed by laugh lines atop a face punctuated with constellations of liver spots. “Please warm up” she offered kindly, pouring me a cup of tea and directing me to a comfy armchair by the fire. “It must have been a cold journey from the city. I know my home is not easy to get to.”
As she slowly moved about the cabin, the waddle of her neck jiggled and the puff of grey dandelion that was her hair swayed humorously back and forth. I cracked a slight smile in amusement.
“Yes, it is a bit of a ways away.” I chuckled. “But your place is wonderfully cozy, I can see why you live out here.” I took a sip of my tea. The taste was bitter in my mouth, but the warmth seemed to seep deep into my bones, making me question whether she might have added a bit of whisky to the brew.
The old woman took a seat in a rocking chair beside me and placed a blanket atop her lap.
“So, tell me why you are here today.” She spoke slowly and clearly as she rocked in her chair.
“I’ve been studying the old ways for a while now.” I paused to take another sip of the warming tea. “The high priestess of my coven mentioned you might be able to teach me something about the vale”
“Hmmmm.” she murmured softly and stared into the fire a moment as she rocked back and forth in her chair.
The crone turned to face me, “One cannot be taught about the vale.”
“Why can one not be taught? I’m sorry, I’m not sure I fully understand.”
“Most don’t I’m afraid.” She had a forlorn expression on her face as she spoke and her cheeks sagged towards her thin lips.
She stared towards the fire for a few more seconds then seemed to jerk out of her morose meditation and turned to give me a mischievous smile.
“Luckily us witches need not worry for we can experience such things in person.” She glanced towards my left wrist and gave a slight nod.
I followed her gaze and saw a thick black line creeping out from the tip of my sleeve. My heartbeat jumped to my head as sudden confusion and alarm pounded through my veins.
Grabbing my sleeve and pushing it up my arm revealed strange groupings of thick lines snaking up to my elbow. The shapes seemed to morph and change as the lines lengthened and retreated beneath my skin.
“What is this? What’s going on?” I gasped, jumping from my chair.
It was like she didn't hear me or was refusing to answer as she just continued to stare into the flames of the fire.
Noticing the cup of tea to my left, I remembered the strange warmth I felt upon first drinking it and the fear of realization hit me.
“You poisoned me, didn’t you.” Glancing back at my arm, the lines were still morphing and were now beginning to grow, moving down past my wrist and blackening the tips of my fingers. Drops of sweat began to crawl like bugs across my forehead.
“I’m hallucinating, I must be. The forms of black shapes snaking beneath my skin mesmerized me.
“What’s going on!” My shout ricocheted throughout the small room, filling each corner with my fearful urgency. Yet, the crone still sat motionless staring into the fire.
“Tell me what’s happening to me,” I pleaded, bending down till we were eye to eye. She finally turned from the fire to face me.
“Don’t worry, that symbol will protect you.” The Crone said this nonchalantly as if strange markings appearing on your body were an everyday occurrence.
“Protect me from what?”
“Time” She said this slowly and gently as if caressing a note through her mouth. And as she spoke the floor seemed to shake, books fell from their shelves and utensils rattled in their kitchen drawers. Once again she turned from me and towards the hearth. But the fire was no longer there. In the hearth, there was now a large mirror contained within a golden brocade frame. The edges were tinged with soot and bright embers of coal simmered at it’s base.
Staring into the mirror I could see the crones reflection. Yet I could not see my own despite standing right in front of it.
The reflection of the crone stared back not at herself as it should have done, but instead stared directly at me. I was terrified but for some reason I could not look away. The crone’s reflection stared at me for a moment, then the reflection began to change: the lines in her face lessoned and smoothed. Her hair grew out from the root and changed from mothball grey to a deep black. Her frame lengthened and slimmed so that there was no longer an old crone before me but a beautiful maiden.
The maiden looked like a heavenly statue brought to life: long flowing hair, porcelain skin, and eyes of clear blue like slivers of ice. Yet, her beauty was made uncanny in its lack of imperfections.
“Do not be afraid.” The reflection said to me. “The change is temporary.”
A prickly feeling raised the hair on my neck and glancing to the right I saw that I was now alone. The crone no longer sat next to me in her chair. All that remained was the reflection in the mirror of her younger self.
The realization that I was now alone in the room caused my body to jolt with fear. There was a momentary stillness as my stomach dropped, and then a sickening feeling of bile rose in my throat followed by an incessant pounding in my head. I tried to turn away and go towards the door, but something in my body seemed to mutiny against departure. All my body seemed to be able to do was to stare ahead at her. The uncanny maiden in the mirror mesmerized me.
“Where did you, or the old version of you, go?” I asked her. I was shaking and the quake of my lips slowed my speaking so that it was in rhythm with the pounding of my heart.
“You did want to learn of the Vale, did you not?” She asked in a hypnotizing soothing voice. Her hair framed her face and swayed as if there was a quiet tempest beginning to form behind the mirror.
“Yes, but not this way. I thought I was maybe going to be lent a few books or something, not start hallucinating.”
“You are not hallucinating, you are experiencing knowledge first hand and it’s too late to turn back now I’m afraid.” The lullaby cadence of her voice contrasted with the dark implications of her words.
‘What do you mean it’s too late to turn back’ I thought. Before I could speak my fears I began to see a second shadowy figure in the mirror next to the maiden. It was hazy at first but seemed to become clearer as the seconds past.
I was afraid of what I would see if I continued to look at the figures in the mirror so I looked away and that’s when I noticed my hands.
The lines in my knuckles were deepening by the second and my skin was becoming thinner and paler. Taking a lock of hair in hand, I watched it turn from gold to a white sliver in mere moments. My clothes became heavier as I felt my frame shorten and thin.
“What’s happening?” I cried, “Make it stop. Make it stop”
I put my hands over my eyes to catch the tears. I didn’t want to see my face in the mirror, I was afraid of what I would see, ashamed of the hideous appearance that was sure to greet me.