Alice stepped lightly from one rock to another, her voluminous skirts tucked firmly in one hand with her other arm struck out to the side for balance. The Hatter had taken a roundabout path to the right, and so the trees and moss underfoot were of an invariably sloping nature. Sunlight tripped down through the leaves above to splay sharp angles on the floor, but the overall air was peaceful and pleasant rather than gloomy or unsafe in some way. She had never really been through these woods before: on the grounds near the true family estate everything was flat and centred around the coursing brook, but here things planed off into bits of mystery and potential in a rocky, unforgiving way.
She had not known in her youthful repose that the rabbit hole would take her somewhere else, but now she was choosing to follow in the path of madness manifest—which by the by, she thought with a sigh, she could now hear in the form of tangled talking points intermingled with a pause followed by his reactive laughter at the nonexistent joke therein. He was carrying on in quite a way with something or someone; Alice was loath to know who or what he had engaged on the topic of what turned out to be the ethics of hair growth on the Moon. Soon she caught a glimpse of orange running riot, obstructing the decency of a nearby glade, and came upon her unstable guide. The Hatter threw the rock in his hand across the clearing where it landed with a dry clunk and dusted his hands together.
“Decided to join us, I see, then?” He was sitting with his back to an odd tree looking up at her for all the world like he had been lost but not known it, and could not understand someone else’s irritated relief upon finding him. Alice, as it were, was not wholly sympathetic to his having left so quickly, and thought he looked a bit silly sitting with his arms around his knees, his hiked up eyebrows contrasting his shock of white hair, and a bland, wide smile across his face.
“I shan’t refuse the Duchess’s request for my presence,” replied Alice, releasing her skirts to modestly place and smooth them back around her for the proper effect.
“Oh, was that what that was?” he said, pushing and edging himself against the tree to awkwardly clamber to his feet, “I thought it was a laundry list—I did wonder why Duchess should put you in charge of mopping the curtains; you certainly aren’t tall enough.” He paused to assess her with an upturned eyebrow. Alice did not have a response to this and instead politely handed him his hat, which had become dislodged in the unsteady upward movement. He swept it onto his head with a pop three shades lighter than a champagne cork.
“Right, then,” happily continued the madman, who was now removing a large silver ring from one of his inner coat pockets. It was more of a small hoop, and had only a tiny sliver of metal hanging from the bottom. He jammed it into a knothole on the tree which had supported him previously, and pulled in a fluid motion that extended up to his shoulder and made him lean back on his heels. Slowly he seemed to drag a door out of thin air, one that creaked through every mashing fiber in the joists. It was an alternately satisfying and irritating sound that fluctuated as the door came ajar.
“I didn’t know this was here,” said Alice in soft wonder, peering into the darkness within and trying to discern what could be there. What surprised her, of course, was that it should be in the middle of the English countryside and not in that topsy-turvy world of endlessly illogical—or was it illogically endless?–tea parties and truculent courtiers.
“Well, it certainly wouldn’t be proper to bung you down a rabbit-hole, now would it?” said the Hatter, tilting his head off to one side and flashing his teeth charmingly. He tucked the large silver ring back into his coat and bent also to gaze into the portal. Alice looked down at her skirts—no, she would not have supported the idea of crawling down through slickly packed dirt and succulent roots all for a Duchess and quite possibly a fool’s errand—at this she frowned. She had few attachments to her gowns and the French lace at the bottom of her petticoat, but they were expensive and not worth ruining for the reenactment of a nearly forgotten childhood escapade. And then she remembered that although tree doors were reassuring enough, they were notably unpredictable in their ultimate destination. The fact that it was so dark within suggested that it either led anywhere or nowhere at all. Possibilities were becoming infinite, and with that grew Alice’s curiosity.
“How did it get here?”
“Because it needed to be here.”
“So it’s only here because of me?” she gestured lightly to the gaping maw before them. He flicked his hands in an upward circle and shrugged in reply.
“I don’t refuse requests from the Crown, either,” he said. This set something within him, and the Hatter stepped halfway into the door, nearly disappearing as the blackness there seemed to consume rather than shade him. He stepped backward again, his hands on either side of the outer jamb, and Alice watched him frown. He looked a bit odd like this, the freckles on his nose standing in their beige detail splattered in a friendly pattern—though it was unusual to qualify epidermal anomalies through the concept of personification—across his round nose and the faint laugh lines near his mouth cast into shadow by the sunlight from above.
“Isn’t there a room beyond?”
“No.” The Hatter was still staring into the tree and sounded surprised at his own discovery.
“What?” Alice too was surprised, but could not have explained why this feeling ran so deeply.
“While I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree,” said the Hatter, reaching into his coat once more to draw out and inspect the tiny chunk of metal, “This one has proven itself to be abominably rude—boorish, churlish, and dare I even say it, a stodgy codger. I expected better of you,” the Hatter finished at the tree, shaking his head.
Alice stared at him, her thoughts of reason gone kaput.
“What do we do?” she asked. A bird overhead was twittering in hysterical ire at something. The Hatter pulled a cup and saucer from his sleeve and slurped noisily before chucking them abruptly over his shoulder, where they crashed against a tree trunk and shocked the offending bird into bewildered stillness.
“We are going to plant ourselves here quite securely and give this blighter the opportunity to mash the old brain over what it’s done. Now: I’ll glare at it in fatherly disapproval whilst assuming a threatening stance; you stand akimbo and start listing reasons why it should be ashamed of itself in a shrieky voice.”
He proceeded quite accurately, apparently fully assured that she would follow in his wake. Alice pursed her lips with no intention of disciplining a tree with a giant hole in its side, and the two fell silent for a while, letting the sound of other overly buoyant birds above count out the seconds, minutes, and half hour.
“I shall not be able to sit here all afternoon, you know,” she finally said with a bit of loftiness, looking up from between her fingers where they were holding up her head.
The Hatter was now sitting on a rock near the tree as well, his fist pushing his cheek so that it squinched up into one eye. It was a look of enduring irritation but singularly faltering patience, and gave him the air of a six year old boy who has been denied a clockwork train or something. He gathered his mental faculties and began to glare with more pronounced determination. The tree was bravely stoic, however, and remained inert despite his best attempts at intimidation.
“This is becoming most trying, Mr. Hatter,” she said more loudly. Alice felt a curl begin behind her navel and realized she hadn’t eaten since early that morning. The pieces of light on the forest floor were shaded in sloping angles now.
He leaned his head forward and began to appear as like a sporting dog remarking upon a badly hidden quail. Concentrating. This was rather serious business. Serious business regarding a tree. And something about quails? The Hatter couldn’t remember now. Maybe a master painter would come along and see how gloriously concentrate he looked, pointing his round nose at something very important. He would paint in his masterly way, and both of them would make a ludicrous amount of money. He called it Apostatic Contemplation, which sounded rather good in an educated way, but also because the sound of the words together was crisp, yet soothing. Sort of like tea, really. The Hatter grinned briefly. Tea.
Conversely, and mere inches away, Alice was becoming rather put out by all of this. “I have absolutely no idea why you’ve come here, or even the point of this silly mission,” she continued.
“Brilliant,” he replied in self-adoration, and wondered if the Master would paint him holding his teapot. This would add an element of drama—because, who holds a teapot while glaring at a tree? It was a very clever consideration, he thought. But then, he was a very clever man. The Hatter stopped glaring for a moment to take up an expression of thoughtful happiness at this reassuring thought. Yes, he was awfully clever. That master painter would be along any minute and truly capture his victorious battle against a recalcitrant tree. But only if he won. Right, then, serious business. The Hatter repositioned his threatening stare, but forgot to remove the smile at that point and began to look like an iniquitous duck plotting the hunter’s gun-shaped demise.
Alice did not think so—she thought he looked more like a moron. “Staring at that tree for the rest of the afternoon does not help us, sir!” she finally cried in a most unladylike fashion. It was a reprehensible outburst from someone who knew better from the likes of M.E.W. Sherwood et cetera. The Hatter eventually turned his eyes on her and frowned oddly, as though he had recently discovered that the denied clockwork train was actually inside his head and its gears were beginning to churn.
“Well, what do you propose to do about it, then?” he said, a teasing tone creeping into his voice. “It’s not like you’ve been any great shakes of help in this, you know.” Alice was now veering dangerously close to full-on peckishness and incivility. She slapped her hands onto the rock beneath her and bloomed upward very suddenly.
“Fine,” she said, the word pinching between her lips with an emphasis on the F. Her accent took on a broad, insulting aspect. “If you want to waste a perfectly good afternoon and my time, I can just leave, you know. I shall go directly to the house, pack my things, and be on the evening train for Westgate, I assure you.”
His response was simply to look back at her, and this of course inspired Alice to a greater sense of indignation and subsequent rage. “Your precious Duchess should have figured out a decent way to get me back into that kingdom instead of putting you in charge of royally screwing up a simple plan!” Having thus ended this diatribe, Alice once more gathered her skirts and swung round at full force.
Only to smack into something straight before her. The forceful inertia of her heavy dress completed the circular upheaval, and she gasped in surprise and at having the wind knocked out of her as it pushed her further into the large brick wall which had suddenly, and somewhat improbably, materialized.
This was a rather surprising new thing, and Alice took a few moments to feel the hardened clay beneath her fingertips—it was certainly real, with rough white mortar separating the roan blocks, and even bits of dead plant growth clinging to both. This was nothing short of betrayal on the part of the forest, and Alice pressed her palms into the wall, her mouth slightly open in, well, shock.
“Ah, that clinched it,” said the Hatter from behind her. His voice was once more cheerful, and she turned her head without moving away from the blockade to see him gathering up his hat and looking about blithely. The Hatter stepped up the rocks toward Alice and the wall and put his hand out against it. “I’d forgotten that part,” he said, and smiled at her before sipping from a purple cup he slipped from his left pocket.
“I don’t understand; what happened?” The Hatter enjoyed the taste before he replied.
“You can’t want to be at home while you’re at home. If you’re knocking about the house at loose ends, surely you would want to be somewhere else?” He paused to sip his tea again and appeared to be waiting for her response.
” I …suppose… so,” she said in pieces, treading carefully lest the quiet brook turn to raging whitewater.
“Right, so if you’ve got off to that somewhere else, you aren’t at home, eh?”
“We therefore can reasonably conclude that the only way you can want to be at home is if you’re at another destination, and that the only way you can be at another destination, then, is if you’re feeling a bit homesick. Thus, etc.–” and he waved his hand in a little circle triumphantly. It was very odd logic indeed.
“So we’ve already arrived,” said Alice, looking around her for signs of change—she supposed she would have known the place by red trees and purple grass, but saw no difference between the woods beyond the house and wherever they were now. There were no wild colours or sounds apart from the man beside her and the orange coat announcing—no, screaming, his presence at the top of its lungs.
“You arrived before you left,” replied the Hatter, who was inspecting the gaping tree once more. “And you must go forward before you can go back, I daresay, because where you are is where you’ve gone yet and shan’t go for a time still.”
Alice thought about this and was of the opinion that it would be better to not respond. Her desire to maintain form, dignity, and at the very least, sanity, had not blunted in degree. That, and she was quite starving.
“I’m trapped,” was all she said.
“No, no you’re not!” replied the man in a sweepingly reassuring way, sloshing the tea about. Alice felt the situation seemed perfectly obvious.
“How am I supposed to get back to the house with a wall here?” The Hatter palmed his arms out to either side and began to inchingly balance his way across a set of larger rocks that hedged the wall. Alice could but follow. The proxy garden path he led her down eventually revealed a gap in the bricking in the form of a green garden gate too tall to peer over. It lacked hinges and a latch.
“Through there, you see?” said the Hatter, “You pass beyond the garden gate, and there you are again.” Alice pressed the gate and met with no small amount of resistance. She felt like pushing against any of the rest of the brick wall.
“I don’t understand,” she murmured to herself.
“What isn’t to understand? You’ve passed beyond the -gate and now we have only to seek out the -party. Garden- are the worst kind; I do prefer a tea- but unfortunately they don’t go well with brick walls, rather tasteless except for the mortar which surprisingly has a bit of unexpected sweetness,” his voice faded as he disappeared from her view. Alice took one last look at the green door and followed at a soft clip.
Who was she to question something when she had willingly gone along with him? Or was it her right and duty as an individual to hold out against the tide of change and disruption? Could she trust the Hatter in his charge? He had a very trying nature that grated away at large chunks of her patience, but he did seem to have things well in hand for the moment, at least. Perhaps he did have some redeeming quality. Surely the Duchess felt as much, otherwise he would not be… she glanced about her person to find him rapping one of his knuckles against another tree before pressing his ear up to it. He would not be larking about in such a fashion if the Duchess had not felt there were some measure of responsibility to be drawn from his likely shallow reserves, she thought dryly.
“Has the tree changed? Nothing else has; I should think we were in England but for that wall.” She trod near, shifting her skirts and looking high into the silent trees.
“It is a room. Now, anyway.” He sounded very far away of a sudden, though he had drawn his head out of the portal.
“What’s inside?” She could hear herself, but it was as if she were speaking through a long tube, for there was something else she could hear, better than either of their voices though it was far off yet. It was the kind of noise that was a cross between a distant beehive and the noise one makes when blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of milk. Of course she did not know the latter sound given her manners, but nevertheless would have categorized the combination of these as strange indeed.
“Come, then, let’s not be wasteful of the moment—I’m famished! Putting it splendidly, I declare: ‘What, and the soul alone deteriorates?’ Let us off to feasts and speeches, my good woman,” he cried, yanking her back into the clearing and the task before them.
“What–” was as far as she got before her question turned into a squeal of surprise as the Hatter pushed her into the tree and began to heave the door shut, slipping between the latch just as it closed of its own weight. It was very close inside, as Alice realized there was naught to the room but the circumference of the tree; she was pressed up against something that felt suspiciously like a garish velveteen coat blessedly missing its orange in the lack of light. Also there was something teapot-shaped making her left arm very uncomfortable. Lemon and cinnamon, she thought.
“What was that?”
“Hmm?” His voice was near but vague.
“That sound. What was it?” There was a clicking sound echoing around her like notches on a pair of circular bands twisting in opposite directions.
“Oh, all sorts of creatures live in these woods. Could be another animal,” he said.
“What sort, do you think?”
“I’m not the utmost authority on sounds and their sources; you’ll have to ask the Duchess, I’m sure she could find someone to… what’s-it-all, analyze and define it for you. Like a field book: The Official Aural Society’s Handbook to the Greater Noises of Eastern England and the Surrounding Underground. Frightful good title, if I may say so myself…”
“But what sort of—OW!” she screeched and began to jump up and down on one foot. This led to a loud and fierce altercation, hindered by their inability to see one another or actually move.
“Ow, you’re pushing me!” he hollered back.
“Well, you stomped on my toes!”
“Not my fault—your skirts are humongous!”
“So are your shoes!”
“My shoes are the apex of form and style; it’s that ostrich cage bolted to your backside that’s causing all the problems–” here there were squawking cries of outrage and indignation which he chose to ignore “it’s like another person in here, and these trees are only meant for two!”
“Well, if you wouldn’t stand so close to me maybe I could have some room to breathe!” He muttered something under his breath about women being filled with divine fire before extricating himself with a sigh of release followed by a loudly pointed gasp for air from between her bustle and the wall.
Alice squeezed her arm up close to her head and tried to fan herself, but got halfway there before she swatted his lapel. This would have prompted more exclamation points and dramatic accusations but for the fact that the Hatter was shifting purposefully, moving his arms around and apparently slapping at the walls in an effort to make something happen.
“I say, close to the Scroobious Road but not so far as the Lane, mind you,” called up the Hatter somewhere near her forehead.
“What are you doing?” she asked the air above her.
“Directional formalities,” it replied. “They haven’t got them so they interpret envisages yet, and you have to be quite clear otherwise they’re apt to just go slogging off anywhere they please.”
Alice blinked with her mouth open, again somewhat fish-like, but inhabiting a much darker part of the ocean. “Which would be fine otherwise,” said the Hatter in a strained voice (he was reaching upward to hit the walls some more for good measure) “Except for we need to be somewhere with due expediency.”
A long arc of light began to appear somewhere in front of her, and Alice felt the Hatter fall away as he leaned into the door and outer beyond. She blinked into the white there and stepped back onto grass and stones.
“Why, it looks just the same!” she cried, turning round to see him closing the portal for good. His shoulder straight-lanced against the tree, he paused from his leaning to glance around.
“No, we’re definitely close to the beloved table,” he called back. “Try walking forward a bit.”
She did so, stepping past a large tree, and there found a curving sidewalk in gentle esses painted blue and white. It continued in both directions, though she could not see where it led for the trees positioned at just the right curve. He was at her side, took her upper arm in hand and began walking her along.
“This is going to be a perfectly decent teatime, my girl,” he said blithely. They continued to careen back and forth across the bricking, weaving between trees with signs carelessly nailed to their bark. Find yourself over here, said one pointing to the left. No, you’re here, said the one next to it pointing to the ground. Quick, what’s that up there?! shrieked one pointing into the canopy of trees, where another sign waited with Made you look.
Bending at a low-hanging branch, Alice remembered how to stop as the Hatter pulled up short before a small box hedge. Craning her neck beyond she could see past the rectangular leaves another small path, painted dark purple, sketching its way further inward of the darkness. He swung the bush open like a picket fence gate, and Alice managed to squeeze through before he vaulted one leg and then the other over it.
The darker path itself led around another corner to open out onto a large lawn with a table spread out before a small house. The table itself was very large, but was without its customary myriad smoking teapots and saucers of jam—rather its creaking came from the severe oddity of having so many elbows placed upon it at the moment.
Clustered at one end were a group of people intently leaning toward the short side, engaged in deep conversation with the backs of their heads turned toward the path. Alice could not tell how many there were, for there were both ladies and gentlemen there, and where one woman’s skirts ended another man’s smoking jacket began. There was movement, and a break in the heads revealed a rabbit in a tailored coat with a bow tie standing on the flat top surface.
“HATTER!” he bellowed as a rabbit shouldn’t.
“HARE!” cried back the Hatter in amusement. The Hare put his paws behind his back and gave a few grave bounces forward to meet their steps. He gave Alice an up-down up-down glance and nodded.
“This the girl?” he said.
“Oh yes,” began the Hatter. He seemed poised to relate the entire account of what had transpired in hammock, glade, and lane, but the Hare cut him off at the knees with an articulate throat clearing and long-considered remark.
“Stand by to counsel and advise, my dear boy. The plot has thickened.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, thickened how? Thickened like gelatin or thickened like starch and water, except for that when you grab at the stuff it’s quite turgid but the instant you pause to ponder at life it turns back into water. I wonder if you could walk on it. The mind does boggle at a thing,” he said.
“Like gelatin,” said the Hare. “Setting quick and cold—and we’re mired in the middle of it.”
“Dear dear,” said the Hatter. The situation was gathering drama in a very dramatic fashion.
“What’s happened?” said Alice. The Hare gave her a quick glance.
“It’s quite bad,” said the Hare.
“How bad?” immediately countered the Hatter.
“Tensions are running high and words like mutiny and eggplant are being tossed about rather lightly in my opinion—I can’t hold these people for much longer.”
“My God, man, what is it?!” They leaned forward to hear what he had to say next.
“We’ve run out of cheese muffins.”