... as contextually, the beast had no known natural environment, nor do Nightmare Anthropologists have the benefit of understanding the horrific monster's motivations, as no one had come close to staring into the gaping maw of the stomach-churning double fangs and blood-red eyesockets, within which the black seas of infinity eructed gray anticlockwise cyclones of abject misery, that is until came a young man with a destructive instrument we colloquially know as a--
Alice set the book down again with a sigh. She had read the same story over and over, and every book went back to the poem about the boy who slew the Jabberwock, snicker-snack. There was an undetailed relief in the general consensus that the damnable thing was long dead, and yet she could not get off the subject. Every geographic tome, every single volume of the History of the Wonderland and a Taxonomical Survey Thingummy mentioned it, but never by name, only mythical metaphor. A writhing, creeping horror. The gray leathered shriek of death assured. The ichor-dripping lurker, the fever-dream weirding expelled from the blackness of beginning. It was a bit overdramatic, really. She picked up another book from the stack and opened it to the middle.
And in the twenty-seventh year of the reign of His Imperial Highness The Argot, He did split the northern plains from the southern capital, exclaiming upon the announcement of His proclamation, Well, 'pon my Sam, it's a bit hard! I can't go a day without you people whingin' at me over this or that, so we'll just split the whole bloody thing, right, and--
Alice made a noise rife with exasperation and zipped her thumb through the remaining pages before tossing it carelessly between a silver cow-shaped creamer and a stack of cruller. There was very little to be had in the way of decent information that she could glean; her aim was to have a better understanding of this place, but there seemed to be blockades almost purposely put up at every turn of her path. She had been in the Hare's library again searching through the books, which had irritated him, at least according to the way his ears had begun to crease in the middle. He was somewhere off in the dense grass along the shady treeline, talking to the dragonflies that were apparently preparing for an autumn holiday to sunnier climes.
On the other hand, the Hatter was once again sitting with his oversized green oxfords propped up amongst the china, implausibly leaning into the back two legs of the large red wingback chair at the head of the tea table. He had a carriage clock in one hand, a brass screwdriver with a brushed handle in the other, and a host of cogs, gears, springs, screws, and a small spinny looking thing on the table.
What are you doing? said Alice out of boredom. He looked up at her momentarily.
I have a deuce of a time understanding this impertinent line of questioning you engage in at times, you know, he said not unkindly. What are you doing, is the better question, I am sure.
Trying to figure out this forest business, said Alice. All these books, and none of them have anything reliable to say.
About what? he said vaguely, and slipping his legs down, bumped the chair onto the grass and began cramming bits of brass hardware back into the clockbox. She breathed in deeply and was about to say it, when the Hatter held up a gloved finger without looking at her. Don't say it, he warned.
Why not? It's dead; at least these... thirty books think so. The poem certainly lends credence.
Ah, yes. 'Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum, I slew him, tum-tum tum!' Something like that. He finished screwing the back onto the clock before appraising it from different angles.
Was it broken?
It was trying to run backwardsFather Time must have got wind of your hanging about here all the time and decided your traitorous nature was too much. It should run, at least forwards, now. I fixed it so it does both, too.
It was all tock-tock-tock and no tick-tick-tick, so it should have more ticks than tocks now, but they'll never be even, you know, it simply doesn't want to do that, it's not in its nature. He pushed the clock toward her and Alice set it next to her butter knife to remember to take it home again sometime. Having nothing amusing before him, the Hatter set about nosing through the books she had stacked upon the table. He found a small novel or hornbook crammed between the cover and endpage of a larger textbook and began to read aloud from the thin folio.
...da mi basia mille, deinde centum, dein mille altera, dein secunda centum, deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum... It sounded suspiciously like a Latin grammarian's exercises in declension, and Alice sat listening to the low hum of his mouth as the words sank back into an indecipherable buzz. When he was finished, he looked up over the book.
What is that?
Well, what does it say?
What do you mean, 'what does it say?'
It's been an awfully long while since I've studied Latin, she said hintingly. He tilted back his chin to look up into the sky, and there was a slight pause. The chair springs creaked beneath him, settling, and she fiddled with the cow-creamer, turning it to face a teapot painted like a field of poppies so it would have something nice to look at. Finally he spoke.
There's a corking good translation, and if I remember correctly, that one part goes--
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin to tell
A Thousand, and a Hundred, score
An Hundred, and a Thousand more,
Till another Thousand smother
That, and that wipe off another...
I can never quite keep the numbers straightthose old counting styles positively... bruise the grey matter. He dropped his gaze and flipped the pages in his hands quietly.
Alice did not speak, but stared at the horns on the cow-creamer and reached for the geographical treatise again. She would return it to the library and leave the room aside for another day. The sun was almost at the tops of the trees, and she had an appointment to keep. As she reached the house, she heard the Hatter say,
...tam te basia multa basiare uesano satis et super Catullo est...
It didn't help that the paintings on the wall across from where she was sitting on the chintz fainting couchthe arts hung four in a row above an oddly-placed green baize doorseemed to be as fascinated with her as she with them. Alice had tried at first to simply appreciate the beauty of the bold, unhesitant lines in the female forms, but had begun to realize after careful study that the women therein were smiling. At her. Or at least three of them were, which was to be expected. Spring, Summer, and Autumn all had pretty red lips curved into pursed variations: pleased, sweet, and sly. Winter, who had her thin cloak-hood pulled near her face, simply stared with her pellucid blue eyes, tentatively reaching for a cold knuckled twig in the barren white landscape.
If they were trying to be reassuring, the effect was nil, for Alice had a cold numb feeling along the ankles where her boots met her hose, and a fearful tingling upon her fingertips.
There had been another yellow telegram, and as she sat in the long unending palace hall, Alice tried to push guilty thoughts out of her mind. If the Duchess knew that her hand had dipped into the ruination of stained glass, Alice was prepared in her mind to throw the chips on the table and lie. The trouble was that she was rather bad at it. The admission stung a bit. Her eyes returned to the art at hand, and she came up and wandered near.
Spring in her bounty was crowned in the usual sense with a pretty well-stuffed halo of tender green and pink things, stepping lightly and delicately across the canvas to inspect a shy little bud poking up out of the melting snow. Her eyes were filled with sky and leaf and every good new thing, and she gestured to her viewer with a thin line Alice guessed to be a pencil. She squinted; there was a small cozy bundle wrapped in a gauzy fabric at Spring's breast that could have been the form of a childher smile well and proud with the outcome of things.
Alice turned her head this way and that, but no servants came, and so she moved on to a closer inspection of Summer, whose legs dipped low over a bank to skim the waters of a dark rippling brook. If Spring had the ring of flowers, Summer was triumphant with glistening red poppies round her brow, bright and shiny above her dark curls. Summer was sweet against the fair clear skies, her colors brighter in the midday sun. High in one hand she held a ceramic pot of color; with the other she bent to paint stripes on the lines of tulips bobbing toward her, basking in her artistic glory.
And then of course there was Autumn, with all the blazing colors of the height of ripeness. She was ready to be picked, her body bent into and against gravity in a twirling dance but clear and bright and flaming red and orange, her movements captured in a single moment but she was smiling, for nothing could stop her. On her outstretched finger was balanced a brown bird with its eyes closed. Autumn practically burst grinning at Alice, and Alice had the distinct feeling that Autumn in her turn knew something she didn't, some magnitude of wisdom about life that Alice hadn't quite found yet.
Last on the end was Winter, and not much of her but frosty clear February eyes, half a pale cheek, and a faintly pink mouth. Her icy pale cloak was a thin whisper, bare protection against Boreas's anger, and as Alice stepped just a bit closer, she could see that the white was not ice and snow, but pages, all as if torn from a bookall tumbling down, and she was slipping into them and with them and against them; she wasn't grasping for a twig, she was pointing at something.
There were footsteps, and then Alice turned to see a junior valet in claret velvet at her shoulder.
Alice did not know what to think of the Duchess. It was not that the woman was unfeeling, or uncaring, or sinister in any ominous fashion. It was not so much an presence of absence in the Duchess, but the absence of presence. Alice could not complain herefor she had had ill-advised relationships with aristocrats in these parts beforebut the woman was aloof, lacking in the distinctly colorful riotous nature of every other denizen of these parts, and this gave her pause and a good reason to view the woman's manners with a more distinct analysis than what was usually warranted. And the woman had in turn gazed deeply at the twin pools in Alice's open face and seen, perhaps, something she had not yet articulated to the girl. At any rate, the sensation of a singular fear eclipsed the blue in Alice's eyes, and she wondered what retributive counterpoint the Duchess might present as to the round of golfing that had been rather pointedly asserted the week before.
The woman was sitting at an ornate pier table with gold leafed lion's paws shining at the base, busied hands working over its surface.
You may approach, said the Duchess rather breezily. She did not look up, and Alice was glad, for she had been thinking of the hole in the stained glass through the monocular's eye and her cheeks had tightened in guilt. Guilt, and the embodiment of the Crown spoke with a light tone. The girl concentrated her gaze on the slim signet ring round the woman's finger. Alice wondered what thoughts circulated in the Duchess's head; what series of girls and then women she had once been comprised of.
The Duchess was making excellent use of her precious royal time, matching and aligning the last few pieces of a dark... Alice turned her head to view the object on the table cursorily. It was a jigsaw puzzle. There were a few disjointed gaps toward the middle of the thing, which seemed to be a painted scene of a gentleman and a lady standing rather near one another.
Your Grace wished to see me? said Alice after a moment.
Yes... was the murmured reply. Alice waited, but the Duchess seemed more intent on the scene at hand. After a moment, the Duchess lifted her graceful head to stare into Alice's eyes. Come sit with us on the bench, she said quietly. There was a soft watery slick swish of skirts, and Alice tried very hard not to stare at the monarch's profile and to keep her back straight. She had been taught well, but then, she was Alice and she could not help that in the least, and so it took a great deal of restraint not to ask the Duchess what on earth she could possibly want.
This is going rather well, said the Duchess in her opening remark, clicking two pieces together and giving them a gently satisfied look. Alice was imagining what her vantage point would be from a set of stocks in the city squarevery probably of her white stockings, what with her head locked down. Perhaps everyone in the capital would throw flowers at her instead of moulded endives or egg grease.
Your Grace? Alice said when she remembered to answer. The older woman turned very slowly to face her on the bench, rotating with ease like a gray swan on a glassy pond.
This is very important, she said slowly. I want you to pay attention. Alice searched the woman's serious face for a hint of what was to come, but the Duchess had the expression of someone who has already laid out the key element. The last tessellating pieces are in here somewhere, she added by way of vague addition.
Oh. Alice stared at the handful of remaining shapes and took her shoulders down from their high-backed arches. That was what the woman called her all the way to the palace for; help with a jigsaw puzzle? A grown woman, and a royal no less? Surely there was more to palace life than puzzles and games, and yet it was a perfectly conceivable notion in a place like this. Alice turned and slipped the last odd ones together, ran her fingers across the board, for there was one more hole, and could not find the completion check. The Duchess made a strange gesture and produced the last from within her palm. Alice received it from her silently, snapped the final chip and saw the whole picture.
The couple therein were standing on two sides of an iron gate, reluctant to step away, Alice thought, judging their expressions. He was leaning in close at the posts to gaze at the lady openly; she coyly raising her other hand to finger at a single twist of hair near her nape, shy and sweet and full of a longing the girl did not even realize. The space Alice had completed was now the gentleman's ungloved hand reaching through the gate for the lady's delicate fingers, both quietly reveling in the thrill, the touch of the other. He had a firm, but somehow propitious grip on her handfor the peek of her inner forearm from within the lady's delicately laced sleeve merely suggested, nothing more.
She framed them loosely between her hands, studying their apparel, so dark and normal, not at all like what people got away with round these parts. Bright bold clashing colors; even her gifted hat was a study in opposites. Alice thought of that black and white picture hat nestled yet within the gently placed papers, sitting in the blue and cream striped round box on the top shelf of the cupboard alongside the kitchen door, where she had stowed it before. She wondered vaguely if the Hatter were upset that his gift was hid out of the sunlight; she certainly did not mean to set it to waste, only to keep it hidden so it would not spoil.
Coming through the corridor past that particular cupboard early one morning, Alice had been tying the black ribbon through her hair and was just stopped before the hall mirror to inspect herself when she heard a noise. Now, noises do not usually bother people who live in the middle of strange forests full of odd creatures, but this was a... sort of splashy-splashy sound, and not a foresty-foresty sound, and so Alice turned her ear out and listened carefully. The floorboards creaked slightly under her, there was a windchime somewhere in the distance, but--
There it was again, and closer this time. She turned very slowly and began to place her feet carefully one in front of the other, just leaning into the weight to pad silently around the corner. She listened, and the splashy-splashy sound became a splooshy-splooshy one. There was a low voice muttering, and the whites of Alice's eyes suddenly grew, and then disappeared altogether as she turned and glared with full force at the bathroom door, which felt this vitriol was entirely undeserved but remained stoic regardless.
She was going to hurt him somehow. She did not quite have a plan formulated, but Alice knew very well that he was going to wind up with bruises and also possibly a black eye, depending on how much bathwater he had gotten on the floor. She imagined the tub filled past the drainhole, plugged with the ribbon from her dressing gownoh God, the dressing gown. Had he stretched it out? Was the Japanese patterned silk shaped like a gorilla now? She cringed deeply and did not want to think of the the poor thing's fate, cloaking a man who was twice her size and oh, she didn't want to think about it. Alice had moved past the black eye and was striding meaningfully in her mind toward something along the lines of repeated slaps to the face. She clenched her fists, closed her eyes, and threw open the door.
Just what do you think you're--
There was a pregnant pause, and Alice realized through her cautious squint that she had been rather premature regarding the situation at hand. There was no one reclining in her bath, having poured out all her colored salts to leave a crusted rainbow on the porcelain. There was no dressing gown collecting waterspots on the floor, and certainly no indecorous nudity. Unless one counted rolled up shirtsleeves as indecent.
The Hatter was not paying attention to Alice in her frozen state of effigy. Instead, he was rather smoothly allowing her to recover, holding up a small yellow rubber thing in the shape of a smiling duck to his ear, nodding and listening carefully to its silent peroration as he stared up into the ceiling.
Ohhh, Monsieur Canard, tu as beaucoup de cadeaux! he exclaimed half-chidingly to the tiny fowl before setting it gently back on the water in the clawfoot bathtub. Hello, he said cheerfully to the Alice standing in the doorway from where he was sitting with his elbows folded on the long edge. She tilted her head to the side and let her mouth hang open very ungracefully, trying to think of something to say. Your duck says he doesn't get enough exercise. You really ought to keep him out in the open and not in that cupboard. It's too dark; ducks like water. He has a lot of opinions about that.
Does he, now? she said in a strain.
He does miss you, you know, he said in genuine tones, water dripping from his sopped gloves.
That's better, don't you think? The monarch had tilted her chin slightly to look at Alice, a gently approving sort of look about her. Alice bit back the amused smile that had come over her, came out of the fog of recollection and smoothed her thumb over the last piece featuring the two hands to press the chipboard securely.
Yes, Your Grace.
You may go, replied the older one, Do have a nice afternoon, dear.
Alice rose carefully, her back straight and her steps smooth and small, and when she got to the door again, the Duchess said,
Oh, you might find the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. You do remember where they bivouac, yes? On the shore.
Yes, Your Grace, said Alice, and quit the room.
As she trod down the endless hall lined with gilt-edged portraits, Alice felt as if her feet were moving through invisible molasses. Any moment, the Duchess would send guards after her in arrest, to off her head or... whatever it was the Duchess usually ordered as punishment. But then Alice reached the green baize door, and looking up at Winter's secretive gesture, she turned to follow the girl's gaze and saw the portrait just over the couch she had sat upon earlier. There was a rendition of the Duchess, gray silk, signet ring, aloof inscrutable gaze and all. Had she seen it before? Had it even been there?
These places are always like that, aren't they? said Alice to the Four Seasons.
And the fear vacated her. Whether the picture was meant to frighten or warn her off, Alice did not feel any chilling effects. She smiled and wondered whether the Duchess had ever visited half the rooms in the palace at any time during her reignal residency.
Back at the tea table, she found Messrs. Hatter and Hare with their heads together over something clearly fascinatingonly the key point was that it was clear, for it was a great anomaly, this thing sitting on the table. The Hatter had moved the large red wingback chair halfway down the runnerboard and was staring into the clear glass with a look somewhere between suspicion and pending wild absurd joy, his pale blue eye magnified through the water within.
It was a glass teapot, and they were staring at some kind of brown stone that was inside of it.
What on earth is that? said Alice approaching the table. The books were gone, and she rightly suspected that no rabbit had moved them.
Tea, said the March Hare in a tone as though he were both curious and surprised by this.
How is that tea, it's not--
Shhh! cried the Hatter, It's starting!Alice approached and put her nose next to the pot in question, the three of them breathing on the already steamed up cylinder. The stone was no stone, for it had begun to blossom and show pink and yellow and white spiked petals, and the water was slowly turning the Hatter's blue eyes slightly green as the tannins stained the water a slow amber.
Ohhhh, said the Hare after the requisite three minutes had passed and there was a large flower undulating gently under the tea.
In moments, there were three distinct smacking sounds as they collectively tasted the roofs of their mouths, and there were three distinct reactions. Alice politely set her cup down, folded her hands, and kept her face smooth and neutral, trying to think of something vague to say. The Hare stared into his, looking deeply worried. The Hatter, meanwhile, was resting his chin on his open palm as he lifted the glass teapot in the air, held it out wide over the grass, and poured out every last drop, smiling blithely at Alice as he did so. She felt much better after that, and they each drank three cups of oolong to rid themselves of the taste.
But the oolong's cleansing did not last long.
We had a dormouse?
How do you even spell that?
What's a dormouse? The two before her spoke all this in an overlap.
Y-y-e-es, you rather hated him, I think. As I recall, you tried stuffing him into a teapot--
Good Lord! The Hare looked dramatically offended, clutching a checkerboard patterned pot to his tiny rabbit bosom in outraged protection. The Hatter meanwhile was trying out what he apparently believed to be a contemplative expression, but instead looking as though he were trying to outstare his own slyly raised eyebrow.
A dormouse, he said carefully.
A dormouse, replied Alice with measure. He was very sleepy and kept dozing off and then waking, only to sing made-up verses of nursery rhymes. Whatever happene--
Wait wait wait wait wait, said the Hare unnecessarily. You're telling me that we had, in our company, when you visited as a smaller version of yourself, a talking mouse? Alice nodded in earnest. A talking, said the Hare very loudly with great disbelief, mouse!
A talking mouse, said the Hatter.
A talking! mouse! A talking animal! An animal that talks! said the talking rabbit who was wearing a corduroy jacket and bow tie. To think! cried the March Hare, and he held up his paws in exasperated gesture before bouncing off into the house, stringing together loud opinions about fertile imaginations. The Hatter turned to look at Alice with a perfectly straight face.
I do remember the little chaphad a whole house in one of the teapots, a tiny little kitchen and a roomful of miniature ivory reproductions. Went off after we were experimenting with a particularly potent and not entirely potable blend of French tea. Accidentally took a hard pull of the concentrate stuffbit sludgy like molasses, but he was rather swimming in it--his fur rose on end, and the old bean took an extended sojourn to southern parts. Probably still out there somewhere, he said with a bit of nostalgia, gazing off into the distance, Running about like a greased weasel.
I find it all very strange, of course, but in a way I wonder at the crown's surprise, Alice was saying later. She told me to go and find the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon as if she knew something had gone wrong, but why send me? If someone had gone missing, what am I to do about it?
Hmm, said the Hatter, worrying the straightline pipe between his teeth and letting loose a volley of iridescent spheres into the forest, I think you better had go and see them, you know. They are rather close, and I do wonder if that thing in the forest stays in the forest.
They are like the Tweedles, said Alice with a sigh. She could not shake the guilt.
Well, I'm certainly glad to not be a part of all this nonsense, said the Hare as he returned.
You aren't afraid? He shook his head. Why not?
I'm off on holiday in a few weeks.
But summer is over, said Alice, No one holidays in autumn.
It's not so much a holiday, said the Hatter, chiding. Go on, confess. This was directed at the peevish looking rabbit.
I'm going to a probate, he said finally.
Rabbits have wills? Alice was of course astonished, but managed to check most of the tone in her voice.
Well, the family I come from does, he remarked, reaching for a petit four so far across the table that his large foot began to thump in the chair.
Are you getting an inheritance? she asked, which would have been insulting directed at anyone else, but she felt perhaps he might not mind. And true to form, he did not.
Yes, some uncle or something, something about family lineage, something else about money or a house or lead warren or I don't know what all. Alice saw the opening he had created, and looked at the Hatter, who seemed to be only half-listening. She was amazed; did he not see it, and what with his history of doing it? She looked back at the Hare, who was eyeing the petit fours again, and moved her voice into an innocent tone.
So, if you turned out to be the first taker, she said, proceeding slowly, That would make you the-- and here Alice paused so that they both looked up at her in anticipation, and kept her face perfectly straight. Hare apparent.
There was a thump so loud onto the table that the teapots jumped and began to scatter. The Hatter had slammed down his teacup with the force of one who slams down a victoriously empty beer stein, and he stared at her, the whites of his eyes visible. She felt quite satisfied at his reaction.
Hell's bells, said the Hare in amazement finally. She's doing it too, she's got the brain fever!
No, said the Hatter in a voice of deep and pure awe that dropped into a harsh whisper. She's making puns. And then Alice knew by his very pleased grin that they were great friends indeed.