2 Midnight in the Looking Glass
Katerina Cortez waited by the windowsill, seated on a rocking chair with her fingers laced on her lap. She and her mother expected the doctor this afternoon, he'd promised that last week. He'd also promised that his family's cottage would ease Katerina of her pains and cure her of her illness, whatever it might be as the illness's name had never been mentioned to her, always just between mama and the doctor; and the arrangement to live in the doctor's cottage, away from the city was also just between mama and the doctor.
The grandfather clock across the room read 3:17PM, and Katerina had enough of mama click-clacking her knitting needles, while asking minute after minute if she saw the doctor's carriage outside the window. "Is he coming?" Mama asked for the nth time, and Katerina, with cheeks flushed, sighed.
"Young ladies do not sigh," her mother tersely said.
Katerina hung her head low and muttered, "Yes, mama."
Outside, a billow of dust hung high in the air and horses's hooves drummed. Katerina need not say whose carriage was drawing near, Mama sang its owner's name, "It's Doctor Leandro!"
Mama threw her knitting aside, stood, and patted her skirt of dust. She ran a hand through her hair, which was tied into a tight bun, and asked Katerina with eyes glittering, "How do I look?"
Her mother's porcelain-white skin was enough to attract any man, Spaniard or indio, but it was her smile which bewitched Katerina's late father. "Beautiful," Katerina said.
Horses neighed outside, and a maid promptly led Doctor Leandro into the sala. Mama prettily smiled at the young doctor, whose eyes instantly went to Katerina's direction.
"Doctor," mama said, and she shook hands with him. "Please take a seat. I'll prepare you some tea." She went straight to the kitchen, and the doctor sat on the windowsill.
It was a hot afternoon, and the breeze from the window was a blessing. Doctor Leandro shut the window, muttering about Katerina getting a cold. He smiled, and the green in his eyes seemed lighter than the usual, Katerina thought.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Fine," she said, "but I'd give you a better description if you'd tell me what my illness is."
The doctor laughed and took his stethoscope out of his black bag. The cold metal touched an inch below Katerina's collar bone without warning, and she glared at the doctor, who stared at some part of her torso. "Your heartbeat is normal," he said. He hung his stethoscope around his neck, and gently he touched her wrist, looked into her eyes, into her ears. "I think you are getting better," he whispered.
"Yes, your examination would elevate my happiness if I knew what I was suffering from," Katerina bitterly said. A month ago she'd only had the flu, but the doctor insisted it was something worse.
Doctor Leandro knelt beside her and tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. He'd casually touch her like this ever since she and Mama moved into his family's home. Today was different though, Katerina saw it in his eyes, and when he held her hands in a firm hold, she was too dumbstruck to react. He was handsome, she'd admit, but no man, no matter how handsome or eligible, should touch a woman so nonchalantly as if she were his possession.
She pulled her hands away, but the doctor leaned close to her until his nose touched hers; and on that hot afternoon, Katerina received her very first kiss. It wasn't sweet nor tender; it was rough with expectations and wanting. His breath was warm on her cheek as he panted long and hard, and looked into her eyes as though he were a hungry beast.
From one of his fingers, he took a ring and slid it into one of Katerina's. He kissed her hand, and said in rough tones, "I am to ask your mother for your hand in marriage."
"M-marriage…?" Katerina squeaked.
From behind them cups and a teapot crashed on the floor, and Mama grew pale with the sudden pronouncement of marriage from the doctor. "M-marriage," she swallowed, and Mama's eyes darted back-and-forth to the doctor, to Katerina, then back to the doctor.
"Señora," the doctor exclaimed; he stood erect and bowed his head low. "I ask for your blessing."
Mama said not a word and left the sala.
The doctor didn't stay long as he had another patient to visit. His smile was wide as he parted and said, "We shall set the date of our wedding tomorrow. I'll come here again in the morning."
Left in the sala alone, Katerina wondered how she'd acquired a fiance while sitting in a rocking chair. Shakily she stood and opened the window shutters. She was to become a doctor's wife; and the thought made her weep. What was a sick lady to do with a husband such as Doctor Leandro?
The couch beside her chair thumped, and Katerina's mother sat with a hard, unwavering look in her eyes. She grabbed for her knitting needles, and she knitted while chewing on her bottom lip. "Aren't you happy, child? He asked you to be his wife. You!" she spat as if it made her mouth foam.
Katerina knelt before her mama, all the while crying. "I-I do not love him."
Mama's slap across the face was like a thunderclap. It stung and Katerina wondered if her cheek would swell. "Go to your room! Your dinner will be served there."
Katerina refused to eat dinner, Mama didn't mind. She sat frozen while old Maring, her yaya, brushed her hair. "T-tell me something, about love," Katerina hoarsely said.
Old Maring said in her tired voice, "Do you know about this superstition, about how you can find your true love at midnight?" The young lady shook her head. "Once there was a girl, not as old as you, who wanted to see the face of her true love. At midnight, when everyone was asleep, she lit a candle and told the mirror to show her her true love's face."
"Did she--did she see his face?"
"Yes, and she was very pleased. Her true love was handsome, just like your doctor, but during her youth her true love didn't show, though she waited day and night for him. In the end, she married a merchant and had a daughter, and her true love became nothing more than a dream."
"Who was this girl, Maring? Was it you?"
The old woman shook her head. "No, it was your mother."
Old Maring left Katerina's room hours ago, and the grandfather clock in the sala rang; it was midnight. She lit a candle and tiptoed to the sala, where a looking-glass hung beside the clock. She was curious; was Doctor Leandro her true love, just like Mama's?
On the looking-glass, her skin against the candlelight glowed gold; in a faint whisper, she said, "Show me my true love." The flame on the glass danced wildly, and slowly it wavered, forming into the shape of a chiseled jaw, then a mouth, and the window shutters crashed open.
Katerina turned around, clamped her mouth, and watched in horror as a silhouette of a giant struggled on the windowsill. It groaned, sat on the rocking chair, and fell fast asleep. She ran back to her room, blew out the candle, and prayed hard until the sun came up and Mama's shrieking filled the whole house.
Katerina ran to the sala, where a huge gentleman in rough, worn clothing sat on the rocking chair, clamping his ears with both hands. "Stop! Stop!"
"W-who are you?" Mama fumed.
The man opened one eye and lazily stared at the women. Sluggishly he said, "I'm the owner of this house. For goodness's sake! I had to climb a window just to get into my own house. Give me something for this headache, you house grabbers!"
"House grabbers?" Mama exclaimed. "How dare you! Get out! Get out of this house!"
The man stood and stared down at Mama and Katerina. "Do as I say!" his voice was a thunderclap. Mama ran while clutching her chest, and Katerina stared at the man, her eyes going wide.
He had green eyes, just like the doctor's, but he wasn't as handsome. "Y-you--do you know Doctor Leandro?" Katerina asked.
"Know him? He's my baby brother." The ground shook under Katerina's feet, and the man gave her another long perusal. "And who might you be? His wife? Was that shrieking lady my brother's mother-in-law? Had I been sailing too long that my whole family left this house to you? Shouldn't married women wear more appropriately, especially when in front of their in-laws?"
Katerina gasped and scampered back to her room, while the man hooted and laughed in great amusement.
When she'd finished dressing herself, Mama and the man were in the dining area, having tea, bread, and cheese. The man gave his cup a derisive look, searched his coat pockets, fished out a flask of what Katerina guessed as liquor, took a sip, and smacked his lips in satisfaction. Mama wrinkled her nose in disapproval. Katerina giggled behind her hand and sat beside Mama.
The man gave each lady a hard shake of the hand, and said, "Seems we started on the wrong foot. I am Alejandro Villaverde, older brother of the fine Doctor Leandro. Been going back-and-forth to Manila and Madrid for some ten years now, haven't seen the family real proper for a time, not too aware of what's going on really. Sorry if I surprised you. Last I heard, and truly this was three years back, that my family still owns this neat house."
"It still is," Katerina happily chirped, and Mama stomped on her foot.
"Yes, it still is your family's house, sir, your brother lent it to us because my daughter needed to stay somewhere quiet where she can recuperate." She quickly stood and bowed her head. "If you excuse me, sir, I have letters to write."
Alejandro raised his flask in salute. "You are excused," he said with a grin, and Katerina smiled at his silliness.
Once they were alone, Alejandro took a swig of his drink and raised a brow. "That's a pretty trinket you got there on your finger. Did my brother give it to you? Let me see." He held her hand firmly and smiled. "Yes, very pretty, I bought it somewhere in Bombay; I misplaced it years ago, and the little monkey must have found it and thought of some other use for it."
"Yours?" Katerina exclaimed. She took the ring off quickly, saying, "I shouldn't wear it then."
"Keep it. It looks good on your finger," he said with a wink, and Katerina's face flushed with embarrassment and put the ring back. "So tell me, sister-in-law, what ails you that you must move to this quaint little corner of the colony?"
"Oh--I-I am not your sister-in-law, yet, the doctor and I still have to set a date. M-my illness hasn't been disclosed to me."
"My brother's a fine doctor, I'll admit, but you're better off without him."
"I'd bet an arm that you haven't been outside of this house since you arrived. If you're done breaking your fast, you should come with me."
Katerina bit her bread, drank her tea, and stood. "Done," she said, and Alejandro barked a laugh, something Katerina thought to be lovely.
Alejandro had a horse, and he let Katerina ride on it, while he held onto the reigns. They visited the church, where they met a priest, who recognized Alejandro right away and told Katerina to beware of him. "He's broken too many hearts," he said with a wink. Neighbors came and greeted Alejandro, asking who the pretty lady was, to which he'd answer, "Why, she's the girl I saw in the looking-glass." Katerina wondered what he meant, but shrugged the thought off.
It was time for luncheon when they returned to the house. Waiting outside was Mama and Doctor Leandro, who looked venomously at Alejandro.
"Doctor," Katerina happily chirped, but was taken aback at how quickly the doctor grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her down the horse. "That was too rough," she whispered.
"Baby brother," Alejandro greeted, but the jovial greeting wasn't returned.
"How dare you," Leandro fumed. "She is my betrothed, and she is sickly! Didn't you even think that her condition might worsen?"
"Condition? The girl looks fine. And it's time for luncheon."
The meal was tense, no one spoke a word. When the servants cleared the table, Alejandro said, "I've come to collect what is mine."
"Fine, collect whatever it is, then leave--for good," Leandro snapped.
"Alright," Alejandro sighed. He took Katerina's hand and pulled her from her seat. "Pack your things, child. You're coming with me. There's a ship headed to Hong Kong; we might make it if we leave now."
"What are you doing?" Leandro yelled. "She is my betrothed and my patient!"
"She's wearing my ring, and she isn't sick."
"Not sick," Mama gasped. "What silliness are you spouting? She has stomach cancer, the doctor said so."
Katerina's hand grew limp in Alejandro's hold, and he squeezed it. "Stomach cancer--bah! This foolish brother of mine did the same trick three years back: convinced the girl's family she had some deadly sickness and moved her into this house. Fortunately I stopped the wedding, and paid a good amount of hush money. Leandro is a romantic, the crazy sort no woman should be wed to."
"P-please, t-take me away," Katerina whispered.
Leandro stepped in front of Alejandro, and threatened him with a dark look. "Don't you dare take her anywhere, you brute! I love her!"
With one powerful punch to the jaw, Alejandro knocked Leandro out without letting go of Katerina's hand. "I did that to him three years ago, too," he grinned. "I'll send my man to you for the hush money," he said to Katerina's mama.
Katerina and Alejandro took Leandro's carriage, heading to Manila. She dug her face deep in her hands. "W-what I am to do now?" she cried.
"Well, seeing as this might be considered as an elopement in the eyes of society and your reputation might be ruined once you're seen with me, I am a cad, I admit, might as well we get married," he coolly said with eyes smiling.
"What?" Katerina glared at him. "Do not jest, sir. Did you ask the girl three years back, too?"
"No. I've never asked anyone to marry me until now, of course. I left the girl to nurse my unconscious brother back to health."
"How can you ask me to marry you? We've only just met."
"But marrying you seems to make more sense than you marrying Leandro; also, you're wearing my ring."
"Then take it back!"
Once in Manila, realizing the ship to Hong Kong had left, they went to a hotel, booked two rooms, and replenished with an early dinner. Over the meal Alejandro discussed of possible persons who'd take Katerina in, marriage wasn't mentioned. "I would like to ask though," Alejandro said, "what were you doing last night in front of the mirror?"
Katerina's cheeks turned red. "Old Maring said you'd see the face of your true love at midnight if you hold a candle while looking at a mirror."
"What a coincidence! Did the same thing when I was about ten, thought it as a test of bravery. I saw a face similar to yours."
A quietness came over them as they looked at one another; and Katerina realized the face she saw in the looking-glass last night was Alejandro's.
Alejandro took her hand in a possessive hold. "I won't ask again. Will you marry me?"
Katerina grinned and faintly said, "Yes, but only to save my hand from being crushed."