Kate in Wonderland
Many things began with silence, in the same way that the world had surely begun, once upon a very distant time. This, too, began as such. There was no sound in the cavern but for the dripping of water from stalactite to stalagmite, a sound that reminded all that something still lived even in the stillness of such a place. The stillness stirred as soft taps of running feet broke the silence. The footfalls were close together and light as though that of small child.
The owner of the feet eventually appeared from a dark tunnel, entering the cavern breathlessly. It was a little girl, beautiful long brown hair somewhat messily surrounding her face. Her eyes were wide with panic, and her breathing was ragged with fear and fatigue. She stopped for a moment, leaning against the side of the cave for support, and looked around hopelessly. There was an air of desperation about her movements as her eyes scanned the walls seeking daylight. What light managed to find its way into the dimly-lit caves came from cracks far too high to reach and far too narrow to escape through. The poor thing was completely lost.
The little girl let go of the wall and headed slowly to the center of the cavern, where there was a large hollow rock filled with seemingly fresh water that had dripped from the ceiling. She slowly edged closer, as though wondering if she should risk it. Every now and then another drop of water dripped from the ceiling and disturbed the smooth surface with shimmering ripples. Most children were not wise enough to consider the danger, but she seemed to at least think about it, even if she dismissed her concerns in thirst. The little girl tentatively raised herself to her tiptoes to reach the rock and scooped up some water in her hands. Her chapped lips trembled as she lowered her head and slurped it up eagerly. To her relief, it tasted clean, though it left a somewhat metallic taste in her mouth.
She stopped after a few greedy sips, wiped her hands on her dress, and turned back as she dragged her sleeve across her dripping mouth. She hopped down from her perch and stared ahead miserably. The cavern ahead split into three directions. The girl’s eyes scanned the ways before her from one side to the other, but it was hopeless. At the moment, she felt that there was only one thing she could do, and it was not choosing a path at risk of death.
The girl sat down and began to cry. Large tears rolled down her face and her nose ran most unbecomingly. Her plaintive sobs smothered the gentle echo of dripping water.
Then there was another barely audible sound, like silk swishing against stone. It was there one moment and gone the next, a ghost of sound. The girl’s head snapped to attention, eyes wide in fright, her breath catching her throat. Surely there was some sort of wild animal in the darkness, lying in wait for her. There would be no escape. Without warning the girl’s sobs returned, though they had intensified to become wails. She hid her face in her sleeves, shaking her head in denial and praying that whatever it was would go away and leave her be.
“Little girl…” said a whispering voice. The girl shrieked, her entire body going stiff as a hand appeared from the darkness behind her and gently settled on her shoulder. The girl scrambled to her feet, turning and taking hasty steps back, but there was nothing there. She looked around quickly, tears filling her eyes once more but no sounds coming from her throat.
“Why do you cry? It makes your face so ugly,” continued the voice. It sounded like a human voice, young and male, with a calm lilt to it. The voice echoed throughout the cavern as though he had been shouting his whispers. The voice was not unfriendly. The girl, more than a tad distraught by now, turned back and forth in an attempt to find the source of the noise or at least figure out an escape route, but she couldn’t make anything out.
“If it makes any difference, left is always right,” the voice continued thoughtfully. The girl froze, eyes moving curiously to the path to her left. She dared to allow hopefulness into her expression. “Little girl,” the voice repeated. It was such a… pretty voice, the girl thought. So… comforting. There was a pause, and then an innocent question was posed. “How… old are you?”
The girl’s eyes narrowed slightly, but she ventured a response after a moment of consideration, “Eight,” she said matter-of-factly, trying to look mature despite the fact her face was still streaked with mucus and tears. There was a moment of silence, then…
“Mm,” the voice murmured. There was another brief pause. “What do people call you?”
This question puzzled the little girl. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and her expression hesitantly turned thoughtful. The voice wasn’t really scary at all, now that she thought of it. It had just… surprised her. “You…” she began, her voice breaking. She shook her head and tried again, her voice gaining power once more. “You mean… my name?”
“If you have one,” the voice said agreeably. “A title would suit fairly, if not.”
“Katie Dawson,” the girl replied promptly. “But... my mom calls me Kate.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” The voice fell silent.
“Mr. Voice?” Kate ventured. There was silence. “Mr. Voice?” Kate called, a little louder this time. There was a sound like apologetic chuckling.
“I’m sorry,” the voice said. “It has been a long time since I talked to someone such as you. Did you know that it has been four hundred and seventy-three years since I talked to the last Kate? She was a young woman, but a bit older than you so far as human years go, I believe. Her hair was not as beautiful as yours.”
“You must be really old then,” Kate said, nodding seriously. She beamed from the compliment, and continued quite fearlessly, completely turned around from how she had been only moments before. “Do you have fake teeth like grandpa? He always has trouble with hard foods and stuff, so he has to be careful. But is there any food in here? If so, do you just eat oatmeal and applesauce and pudding and soft foods like that? I would quite like to be able to eat pudding all the time.”
The voice chuckled softly.
“I do not age,” it replied. It seemed to Kate that it said this somehow sadly, although to the little girl, not being able to age seemed like a good thing. It opened up a world of possibilities, did it not? Endless birthday parties, for one. Cake and presents for an incredible amount of years. The voice continued, interrupting her train of thought. “Now go, little Kate, take the left road and return home. Maybe someday you will come and see me again, but until then, I bid you farewell.”
“Can you play with me?” Kate asked eagerly, with all thoughts of leaving gone from her head. There was another short break that spanned a few silent seconds.
“No,” it said at last. “You would not want to play with me. I cannot play.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Voice? Anybody can play,” Kate said, her little face shining with excitement. “I know! Let’s play Tiddlywinks!”
“Doctor? How is she? Will she wake up?”
“The fall only added to her age and poor health… at the rate she’s deteriorating, she doesn’t have much longer than a week. I’m sorry. You should say your goodbyes.”
“They say there’s a ghost in there.”
“Are you serious?! D’aw, now I’ve got to get in there.”
“No one’s been in there for a really long time. They say it’s haunted.”
“You said that already, you hopeless idiot.”
Above the hushed whispers and rustling of movement, there was a sound like footsteps, and all three boys went rigid behind their bush, ducking their heads simultaneously. A light appeared above them, illuminating an imposing figure, and the boys held their breaths. An old woman appeared, holding a lit lamp above their heads. The soft golden glow from the lamp illuminated the gentle wrinkles in her face and her stern expression.
“Is there someone down there?” she called disbelievingly.
“It’s the Cave Witch!” the boys screamed as one, falling over each other in an attempt to get away. The old woman sighed, shaking her head.
“It’s just me,” she said crossly, dropping the lantern to waist-height. One of the boys relaxed visibly as he realized who she was. His eyebrows furrowed.
“Aw, it’s just Old Katie,” he said disappointedly, turning back to his friends. The other boys breathed sighs of relief.
“Your parents must be worried sick,” the old woman scolded, slapping the first boy gently on his arm. “Come quickly before you catch a cold. Look how dark it is! If you had slipped and broken your hip, well, I wouldn’t be there to sympathize for you!”
“My mom said that you went in that cave and met the ghost,” the boy said bravely, rubbing his arm where her slap had stung him. Kate smiled slightly and then nodded, a slight smile coming over her face as she reminisced.
“She’s going into storyteller mode,” one of the boys whispered to the others.
“Once, when I was a little girl,” she began gently as her thoughts were collected.
“So what then, 300 B.C.?” one of the boys guessed. The boys laughed as Kate pursed her lips sternly, her eyebrows coming together.
“Well, I was going to tell you, but you can be sure I shan’t now,” she said grumpily. “Now come on out of there.” One by one, the boys crawled out from behind the bush. Kate shook her head in disbelief. “Haven’t you boys ever heard of a curfew?”
“Is that a kind of fish?” one of the boys asked curiously. Kate shook her head once more as she muttered to herself, sending a short prayer up to heaven for the younger generations. She started walking, the boys having no choice but to follow after her.
“Now listen,” Kate said firmly, glancing back to be sure they were right behind. “Nearly the whole town has been out looking for you since dinnertime. I don’t know what possessed you, but you should know better than to go out into the forest after nightfall. I wouldn’t be so surprised if you were trying to impress a girl or something, heaven knows that causes people to do the strangest of things, but you three on your own… goodness, there are no words.”
“We were going to poke the ghost with a stick,” one of the boys said proudly, holding up a stick. Kate glared disapprovingly. The boy tried to look small and furtively tossed the stick into the bushes as they passed by on their way down the path.
“There’s no ghost in there,” Kate said after a moment of walking in silence. The boys looked up at her eagerly, expecting a continuation of the interrupted story from before.
“About fifty years ago, long before you three were born,” Kate began, “I got lost in that cave. I was a little girl then, and I thought I was done for until I heard a voice asking me to stop crying. It told me the way out and asked me my name, and I asked him to play with me.”
“That was stupid,” one of the boys said, scoffing. “Ghosts play kick-the-can with people’s skulls. You would’ve died an awful and horrible death.”
“On the contrary,” Kate snapped, her tone instantly shutting up the know-it-all. She continued casually, as if nothing had happened. “He and I sat down and we played Tiddlywinks for two hours. By the time I finally got home, the village had almost given up searching for me.”
“What did he look like?” another boy asked eagerly. “Did he have oozing stuff in his mouth and a spider web in an empty eye socket while his one eyeball hung by a thread in his other socket? Did his voice make milk curdle and creepy-crawlies scurry away in terror? Did he steal young innocent virgins to make them bear his creepy half-demon children?”
Kate brought her arm down on the boy’s head.
“No!” she exclaimed. The three boys cringed. “What idiot told you that rubbish?! Especially that last, I’ve never heard anything quite so ridiculous in all my years!”
Fingers were pointed and the blame was evenly distributed.
“He looked… human,” Kate said nostalgically, sighing softly. She ignored the boys’ sniggering amongst themselves. “He looked… like a lonely young man, maybe in his twenties, certainly not yet middle-aged. He was very handsome and wore a cape made of dark feathers. It wasn’t very bright, mind you, but I could still make out some features.”
“Somebody stop her; she’s scaring me,” one of the boys said jokingly.
“Well, romance means a lot to an eight-year-old,” Kate said grumpily. “At that age, you’re still told that you’re a little princess and expect to fall in love with a prince and have the cutest babies without considering anything important and substantial at all, such as a good steady job and the state of the government. That was then, this is now. Anyway, there’s no ghost. End of story.”
“Did you kiss?” another boy asked, making kissy faces. The other two boys joined in.
“No,” Kate said, sounding thoroughly disgusted, which might have been considered insulting to the poor voice. “After we played Tiddlywinks, he thanked me for the game, sent me on my way, and waved as I left the cavern. That was it; I haven’t seen him, nor heard from him, since.”
“But you want to see him again, right?” one of the boys prompted. This Kate had no answer to. The truth was that she really hadn’t seen him since, as much as she wished to go back. It had been forgotten by the time she became a teenager. Telling the story brought back strange feelings.
“Here we are,” Kate said gratefully, thankful for the distraction. They had reached civilization once more. “Go on then, get,” she ordered, pushing the boys forward. They reluctantly split up and headed home, each going their different ways. For a moment Old Katie stood there, staring down at her feet, the lamp floating unmoving at waist height.
Then she turned and headed for home, jaw set in determination.
Kate stood still before the entrance to the cave, her face wearing an expression of determination that only an old woman could conjure. In one hand she held a basket filled with fresh bread and cheese for her old friend. She had prepared herself mentally for the journey, or at least prepared herself as well as she could, and yet she couldn’t seem to bring herself to step foot inside the cave.
“Come now, Katie,” she muttered crossly to herself. “Your years are slipping away one by one, and not a single adventure! It has to be changed! There is simply no way that you can live the rest of your life without at least… I don’t know, going around the world or something. If only I had decided to become somebody famous at fifteen, it would have saved me such strife… goodness, that was so long ago…”
Kate fell silent and set herself to glaring into the blackness as though she could bully it into being less threatening, but it was no good. She could not do it.
She had turned to go, already cursing her lack of courage, when she heard a strange sound. She paused, her expression changing from disappointment to confusion. She turned slightly, cocking her head. Yes, she wasn’t mistaken – there was the sound of a ticking clock. How very curious.
She turned slightly, back towards the cave, and a very strange sight met her eyes. There, standing on a rock in front of the cave, was a white rabbit standing on its hind legs like a human gentleman, a pocket watch in his hand. The strangest thing yet was the fact that, quite unlike most rabbits, he wore a waistcoat over his soft white fur. How utterly peculiar, Kate thought. She blinked to make sure she was seeing this correctly, because it was very possible that her eyes were going at her age. However, when her eyes opened again the rabbit was still there, and this time he was looking somewhat upset, shaking the watch back and forth in his hand.
“I’m late!” he exclaimed. Kate was taken aback. The rabbit had spoken!
Without another word, the rabbit hopped off the rock and disappeared into the blackness of the cave. Kate stared after it for a moment, and then slowly shook her head.
“Goodness gracious, Katie dear,” she said to herself, her voice shaking somewhat. “You must be very tired indeed! It would be best to turn around, go home, and make yourself a nice cup of chamomile tea. Yes, that sounds marvelous. Forget an adventure; your body couldn’t take it at this age anyhow. Better start putting dinner on the stove.”
Nodding blissfully to herself, she turned to go.
“Er… Miss Kate?” asked a voice from behind her. Kate turned slowly and there was the rabbit, looking rather flustered, standing awkwardly at the entrance to the cave.
“You see, er… you’re supposed to follow me,” the rabbit said, sounding quite embarrassed.
“Why, whatever for?” Kate wondered aloud. “You yourself said you were late, so please don’t let me keep you! Go ahead and run along, little rabbit, before I decide to stew you for dinner.” By the look on her face, the rabbit could tell that she meant it, too.
The rabbit nearly fainted. Its knees wobbled.
“But… but…” it tried, failing to give a good explanation as to why.
“Little Kate,” said a soft voice. Kate’s eyes widened, slowly at first, then all the way all at once. There was a figure just inside the cave, behind the rabbit. Feathers fluttered softly to the ground, and the figure’s pale face had a welcoming smile. “Little Kate,” he repeated. “Everyone is entitled to an adventure, no matter their age. You must have yours, or what sort of friend would I be? You taught me how to play. It is time for me to return the favor. I have set up the most wonderful adventure just for you.”
“Mr. Voice,” Kate said, her voice coming out as no more than a squeak. The young man smiled, his dark eyes sparkling mischievously from underneath his hood.
“Are you frightened, little Kate?” he asked. “I am sorry to surprise you like this. You did not visit for so long that I thought I might have done something to upset you. You look different now, but your hair is still so beautiful.”
Kate blushed slightly, dropping her gaze. The flatterer… surely he could see that she was barely the same person she had been all those years ago? The honeyed words were quite unnecessary, not to mention not the slightest bit believable.
“You don’t believe me?” the man in the cave said, cocking his head as though he could read Kate’s thoughts. Her blush deepened, dying her ears scarlet. He continued, seemingly unperturbed. “I enjoyed our game last time so much that I simply had to play another, but I’m afraid I could not find Tiddlywinks, so I had to make do with what I had on hand. Please, little Kate? Will you play with me?”
Kate looked up at him, tilting her head slightly.
“If you haven’t noticed yet, I’ll tell you,” she said gruffly. “I’m an old woman now, Mr. Voice, well past my prime, and I don’t think my joints can stand an adventure, to be plainly honest with you. Thank you for going to the trouble, though. I do very much appreciate it.”
Kate turned to leave, her expression unreadable, but then she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, startled, into the most gorgeous blue eyes she had ever seen. The young man’s face under the cloak was beautiful, with his flawless skin and chin-length glossy hair the color of raven feathers underneath his hood of actual raven feathers. His smile was so glorious that it nearly made Kate’s heart stop. Kate was still a woman after all, and that part of her was left breathless.
And at his touch, Kate felt new warmth spread through her body. For a single moment, she felt young again, and it was almost as glorious as his smile.
“Please?” the man pleaded. There was simply no way a person could say no to that smile.
“Just follow the little bunny over there?” she asked hesitantly, just to be sure. The man nodded, his smile growing. Kate stared at the entrance to the cave, where the rabbit was still waiting. Then she sighed. “Well, any adventure, even if your knees gives out halfway through, is better than living some uneventful, normal, boring old life to a great age,” she murmured reluctantly.
Kate left her basket at the cave entrance, hitched her skirts over her leathery ankles, and headed determinedly into the cave. The white rabbit, obviously immensely relieved that she had agreed to go along with it, headed eagerly into the darkness. Kate set her jaw and scrambled after the rabbit. The animal moved very quickly, though Kate supposed she should not have expected anything different, and was forced to stop every now and again to let Kate catch up. At other times it was quite talkative, for a rabbit. It was saying something about market rates in Belgium, but Kate wasn’t really paying attention. They had really only traveled a little ways into the cave when the rabbit suddenly stopped. Kate nearly bumped into the little creature.
“Right down there, if you please, Miss Kate,” the rabbit said cheerily, pointing. Kate looked over the rabbit’s shoulder, but all she saw was a gaping hole.
“Oh, I’ll be killed if I try to go down there!” she exclaimed, quite disappointed by the turn of events. She had truly gotten her hopes up over this adventure.
“No worries, I’ve done this a thousand times,” the rabbit said brightly. “Just jump and you’ll float right down to the bottom. It’s quite harmless. I’ll go ahead then, shall I?”
The rabbit disappeared into the blackness, and Kate was left alone in the dark, standing before a hole that seemed to have no bottom. She looked around for the man, but he was nowhere to be seen. Kate pursed her lips. What now? Why, all that was left was to turn back and give up. For heaven’s sake, it was so irritating! Before it had even begun, it was over!
“The nerve,” she said disbelievingly, shaking her head. “To leave me here all alone in the dark and expect me to jump right into some ho—” she felt a light tap from behind, and then she was falling. There was no warning, and no going back. For Kate, it was the start of her adventure.
“Orange marmalade!” spluttered Kate, for, as she fell, she caught sight of the jar bearing those very words. It was the strangest of falls! The hole must have been extraordinarily deep, or otherwise Kate was falling very slowly (which completely defied any laws of science), because there still seemed to be no end in sight. All about her there were little cases, trinkets, jewelry boxes and a number of jars, cans, and bottles all neatly labeled and set on shelves. Tchotchkes, knickknacks, baubles, toys, and every other odd sort of object had its place.
“How very strange,” Kate said to herself. “Yes, how curious indeed; and yet somehow this all seems familiar. Wherever have I heard of this adventure before? If my memory serves me, and I can’t guarantee it, this is a very overused plot… what’s the word I’m looking for? Ah, yes. Cliché; this is a very cliché adventure, to say the least. Typical of adventures, the way one falls into it. But how very odd that I’m still falling! What a fall! Perhaps the rabbit was right about not dying, or he certainly would be if I never even stopped falling, which wouldn’t be much of an adventure. Speaking of which, where has that rabbit got to?”
Kate looked all around her, but other than the items on shelves, there was no sign to even suggest that the rabbit may have fallen down the same hole.
“Perhaps he fell down a different hole,” Kate ventured rather nervously. “Perhaps the entrance splits into two ways and I fell down one and the rabbit tumbled down another. Oh, how horrid! I suppose I shall have to climb all the way back up. Then again, how am I to manage that when even falling seems strange enough? For all I know, the walls are alive, and they’ll dump me right back on my bum if I try to climb it. I shan’t risk it. If I don’t stop falling by suppertime, I shall certainly have to call Mr. Voice to get me back out. I wonder if he could. He had better be around somewhere.”
Kate went silent for a moment, wondering how she’d be able to tell when it was suppertime, but the sound of wind whistling through her hair threw her off. She shook her head and kept talking.
“And anyway,” she said rather grumpily, “Mr. Voice can’t be his real name, you know. Probably Bob or Larry, Steve, Joe; couldn’t be Troy or something disgustingly modern like that. Probably has some strange elfish name or something-or-other. Could it be that he’s a wizard? Well, very possible, making me an adventure like this one. How odd though; he does remind me quite of that nice wizard boy from a book I read once. There were lots of feathers on him half the time, too, although really he was just some young man who kept stealing people’s hearts.
“Goodness, I’ve forgotten his name. It was something like Bark, I think. Yes, I’m certain that it was some onomatopoeia, like Bark or Growl or something of the sort. What an odd name for a young wizard. Well, I’m sure his parents must have been quite insane to name their only child after a sound a wild animal makes! Perhaps they were hoping to scare off goblins. I’ve heard of those kinds of stories, but really a name wouldn’t do much at all. Certainly not ‘Kate,’ anyway; rather respectable name, if you ask me. Not like Bark in the slightest.”
Kate glanced up as something white fluttered by her ear. At first she thought it was some sort of bird, but then she realized that it was a paper airplane. She caught it out of the air rather easily and stared at it for a moment before unfolding it.
“‘Miss Kate,’” she read aloud, flattening the paper in her hands in order to read the scrawled characters. “‘About now, you should be wondering if you are going to fall all the way to the center of the world, or through the center of the world to where people stand upside down. Sincerely signed; the White Rabbit.’ What rubbish! Poppycock! Never in my life has anyone handed me a script while I’m falling down a big hole to heaven knows where,” Kate grumbled to herself. “Then again… they do say there’s a first for everything…”
“Well, this is supposed to be an adventure,” said a cheerful voice to her right. Kate turned in surprise and saw that she had stopped falling without even noticing it, since she had been so absorbed in the letter and her landing had been so soft. She had actually landed in a pile of feathers; raven feathers, to be exact.
“Mr. Voice,” Kate said in surprise.
“Welcome to Wonderland,” the young man said, bowing deeply. He was standing beside a glass table, upon which sat a small bottle and a key. Kate stared at the bottle for a moment, squinting as she read the small slip of paper attached to its neck. The tag said ‘Drink Me’. It was quite an authoritative tone to take, Kate thought, for an inanimate object.
“Only an idiot would drink some bottle that says nothing but ‘drink me’,” Kate thought to herself, not realizing that she was speaking aloud. “It’s most likely some sort of trick. If it’s not drugged, it’s at least poisoned by my archenemy. Every adventure’s got to have a bad guy, you know; makes the going tough so the tough get going, or something of that sort. Or, worse, it could belong to someone else and be full of little germs…”
“Ah, little Kate,” the man said with a mournful sigh. Kate blushed slightly as she realized that he had heard her ramblings. “You are supposed to drink it, you see. This is how the adventure begins. It is smart of you to be wary, but I assure you, there is no danger. Now please, trust me and drink up, little Kate.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Kate said with a sigh. “But, you see, already I’ve met a talking rabbit with a waistcoat, ventured into a cave, and fallen down an hole the decorations of which quite resemble my attic. That alone has been nearly more exciting than the excitement I’ve had in all my years, and I’ve gone camping, you know, back in my younger days. It was such a long fall, though, and now I’ve no sense of where I am, which can be very disconcerting. In fact, I do wonder if I’ve fallen down to the center of the earth yet… it certainly wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Perhaps I’ve even fallen through the center, and now I’m standing upside—”
Remembering the letter, Kate winced.
“Less than 15 sentences behind,” Mr. Voice said cheerfully, pulling a pocket watch out of his glossy cape. “That’s very good. Not amazing, but close, and all on your own, too. The rabbit, you see, is late for his meeting with the poor, lonely Duchess. You wouldn’t want to be late for that; she can be such a nasty character.”
“Aha!” Kate exclaimed, raising her hand in triumph. “So there is a bad guy?”
The man paused in thought and shrugged. “Not necessarily bad,” he pointed out. “Not in your sense of the word, anyhow. More like an… irritable young woman. Well, middle-aged woman, I suppose. If it makes any difference, it all depends on from where you look at it. Now if we should like to continue, little Kate, you may start by drinking from this bottle. That will set into motion the proper course of events. You need not drink it all; just enough to fit through the door.”
“What door?” Kate asked immediately, but the man had already disappeared in a swirl of feathers. Kate stared at the bottle for a moment, and then her gaze fell on the key. Now that she had a chance to look around, she was in a big round room with doors all around her. The table stood in the middle of the floor; quite artistically placed, if she was honest. Certainly the key must fit one of the locks? It seemed like the most logical course of action, though somehow Kate suspected that logic would be less of an aid and more of a hindrance on this supposed adventure. Taking the key in hand, Kate crossed the room to try the key in the first door.
The first, second, and third doors were far too big. The fourth and fifth were too small, number six had no doorknob or lock (which seemed very impractical and certainly made Kate wonder), and when she reached what she assumed was the seventh, she didn’t recognize it at first. There was a just a slip of curtain there, which Kate impatiently brushed aside. Upon seeing blank wall, she looked down. There was a little door, under a foot high, with a lock that seemed disproportionately large for the door. Grumbling to herself, Kate got down on her knees and tried the key in the lock.
Of course it fit perfectly. The little door swung open. Kate sat back, relieved, but there was one more problem. There was simply no method in existence that would allow her to fit through that door. Why, it was barely even tall enough to accommodate one of her shoes, and they were sensible flat shoes, too, without useless space-devouring decorative prongs or anything of the like.
This was when an idea came to mind. She looked back at the table, where the authoritative bottle sat, seeming rather smug if it was at all possible. She hadn’t considered it before, but the familiarity of the story had grown more than comfortably familiar. However strange it seemed to drink something like that, Mr. Voice had said something along those lines, and somehow it felt like that was the right thing to do in this situation (which Kate knew was absurd even as she thought it).
Kate sighed as she got to her feet and headed for the table. She dropped the key onto the table and took up the bottle. Holding the bottle up to the light to examine the liquid inside only told her that it was clear and odorless. Despite her concerns, Kate delicately tipped a drop onto one finger and tasted it. At first, nothing happened, and Kate felt slightly disappointed, but then she paused, looking down at her hands. Her sleeves went just past her wrist usually, but now they seemed longer. Was it her imagination? Curious, Kate sipped just a bit from the bottle.
Yes, she was sure of it now. She was shrinking. She was now about head-height to the table, her sleeves and skirt rippling to the floor, and the little door was looking much more manageable. Glancing back at the door to compare heights, she saw that it had closed again and probably locked itself. Kate stood on her tippy toes to reclaim the key, realizing that she had left it on the table. She could’ve sworn she heard an audible wince from nearby, although that would be impossible.
She took great care in how much of the strange liquid she drank until she was the perfect height to fit though the door. The main issue then was that she was swimming in her clothes, which was quite an issue. Pulling her skirt up to cover her chest, she looked around for something she could use. Without a needle and thread, the search seemed fruitless. Most conveniently, however, she spotted a pile of fabric that she hadn’t noticed before on the floor by the little door. Upon examination, she found that it was a full set of miniature clothing, just about as long as her forearm had been, which was about as tall as she was now. She changed quickly and seemed rather cheerful as she crossed the room this time, hefting the key, which was now the size of a snow shovel, under one arm. She was completely ignoring the little box under the table, not curious about it in the slightest.
“I didn’t expect to be this short until I reached at least a good three hundred years of age,” Kate said aloud to herself. “I’ve fallen down a hole and shrunk to less than half my normal size, all in one day! Heavens, if anyone had asked me yesterday what I would be doing today, it would have been something far from this. Won’t this be a story to tell the children someday! Oh, now I’ve got to keep on it, for their sake. Not that they’d believe the ramblings of an old woman…”
Kate fit the key into the lock and turned it, and the door swung open as it had before.
“Argh!” whispered a voice behind her frantically. “She completely bypassed the Dodo and the Mouse, which means she’ll never make it to Rabbit’s! She’s ruining the story, right she is!”
“Keep your voice down,” another voice whispered angrily. “She’s just skipped through a bit, is all… she’ll be back on track in no time, just you wait. The Caterpillar will set her right, and if that doesn’t work, the Hare and the Hatter will.”
“How do you figure that, then?” the first voice demanded. “At this rate, she could race right through to the Queen and be done with us! I can’t believe the master didn’t consider that.”
“Oh, he did, rightly enough,” the second voice replied. “He must have! Why, now that I think of it, we’ve got a plan for if she reaches the Queen sooner than she ought—”
“Excuse me?” Kate asked in a rather loud tone of voice. Both voices hushed immediately, as if they had never been there. Kate waited a moment, but there was no answer. She shrugged, considering them hardly odd after what else she’d seen thus far, and crossed the threshold before her. The door shut smoothly behind her.
Kate found herself facing rolling green hills. They seemed a sort of artificial green, like a golf course, but was comfortably populated by little spindly trees that seemed unlike any tree Kate was used to seeing. These trees were silver and bore fruits of every color known to man and more, which as one can imagine caused Kate a fair amount of confusion.
“Goodness me!” she exclaimed. “I’ve gone ahead and stepped into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! What’s next, Sense and Sensibility? I certainly hope not – that kind of lovey-dovey adventure just isn’t cut out for me! I’m an old woman now, and I expect to be treated as such, and with the kindness and respect I deserve as an elder!”
“Who are you?” asked a very sudden but rather languid voice beside her ear. Startled, Kate whipped around. To her horror, the door was nowhere to be seen, putting her in the middle of this odd, colorful forest. There was no one in sight until Kate looked down. There was a mushroom about waist height, upon which with a huge blue caterpillar lounged calmly smoking a hookah.
“A hookah!” exclaimed Kate disbelievingly. “Why, that has to be outdated, not to mention simply horrid for your lungs! You take that thing out of your mouth right this moment, or you’ll get lung cancer before you reach a respectable age!”
When the Caterpillar made no move to acquiesce, Kate snatched the pipe from the startled insect’s mouth and stamped it underfoot. The Caterpillar’s expression changed from surprise to outrage, his flesh flushing a quaint shade of lavender.
“That was my best hookah!” he exclaimed. “Who the hell are you, woman?! Surely you can’t be the master’s guest? You’re twice as high as I was told! Weren’t you supposed to drink the entire thing?”
“There’s no way I’d guzzle some mysterious drink while I have some sense in me,” Kate exclaimed. “I only took about half of what was there, it’s not like I didn’t suspect it at all.”
“And ignored the cake completely, I see,” the Caterpillar fumed, crossing its little arms in a way that Kate found somewhat amusing. “I wasn’t expecting you yet, to be sure, but to ruin my best hookah! This calls for war, madam! But first you have to tell me that you hardly know who you are, and I ask what you mean, and you say you aren’t yourself. That’s how it’s gone, and therefore it must go, but I won’t be so charitable once you’ve finished!”
“Finished what?” Kate asked, annoyed.
“Talking, of course!” the Caterpillar exclaimed.
“But I haven’t so much as started!” Kate fumed. They stared each other down for a moment. Finally, Kate felt she had to break the silence.
“Don’t you dare say a thing about my height,” the Caterpillar warned, just as Kate opened her mouth.
“Well, I wasn’t going to, but now that you mention it, you’re quite a little thing, aren’t you?” Kate responded crossly. The Caterpillar angrily stamped one of its feet.
“I hardly know who you are, and you should, by all rights, hardly know yourself,” the Caterpillar exclaimed, “and already you’ve ruined my best hookah and insulted me! I must tell the Queen immediately. You shan’t be allowed to make it past the Hatter! For once, I’m in agreement! Send in the Jabberwocky to take your head clean off your shoulders!”
“I apologize,” Kate said meekly, her manners finally returning. She had no clue what a Jabberwocky was, but she vaguely realized that she was being very rude, which was most unlike her. Fidgeting slightly, she ventured a query. “May I ask who you are?”
“Who are you?” the Caterpillar repeated with a little more force, waving a finger in her face. “That’s my line, you know,” he reminded her quite frostily.
Kate thought for a moment.
“‘I hardly know at present, sir,’” she recited. “‘Because, you see, I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’”
“Very good,” the Caterpillar said grumpily.
“Thank you,” Kate said, nodding. “But really I just read off what it said on that tree over there.” Sure enough, she nodded gratefully towards a tree that stood behind the Caterpillar, with the words carved neatly into its trunk. The Caterpillar made a face and cleared his throat.
“Now what do you mean by that?” he recited sternly. “Explain yourself!”
Kate’s gaze lingered on the tree. More lines had appeared.
“‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,’” she read aloud. “‘Because I’m not myself, you see.’” She frowned slightly, squinting as the words moved on.
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar obstinately, crossing his arms.
“Politely, colon, ‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly, for I can’t understand it myself, to begin with, and being so many different sizes in one day is very confusing,’ but surely not? I was only my normal size and then I shrunk a bit, so to say ‘so many’ would be rather improper…”
“No improvising,” the Caterpillar snapped. “It isn’t, anyway. Confusing, that is.”
Kate sighed and continued helplessly. “‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet, but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will someday, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’”
“Not a bit,” replied the Caterpillar matter-of-factly.
“‘Well, perhaps your feelings may be different—’ I’m sorry, but I simply can’t keep this up. This isn’t adventurous in the slightest, reading off a script,” Kate said finally. “I asked who you are because I wanted to know your name, not start a play. I’m Kate, but feel free to call me Grandma if you like… but never Old Katie as most people do nowadays, I’m really not that old, you know.”
“Well, I suppose I shall feel free then, should the need arise,” the Caterpillar said frostily. “Now I quite gladly say goodbye, Miss Kate. Please get out of my sight.”
“Goodbye, then,” Kate said, equally as coldly. She turned to go.
“Oh, and my contract requires this,” the Caterpillar continued from behind her. “I’m supposed to say I have something to tell you, and then I say, ‘Keep your temper,’ and then you ask if that’s all and I say ‘no,’ because it isn’t, you see. One side will make you grow taller, and one side will make you grow smaller. That’s that!”
The Caterpillar began to pack up his shattered hookah, muttering grumpily to himself. Gears turned in Kate’s head, but she could not fathom what he could be talking about.
“One side of what? The other side of what?” she asked after a moment’s curiosity.
“Very good,” the Caterpillar said begrudgingly, nodding to himself. “For once, I hear the correct line. Put a little more emphasis on the ‘what,’ if you please, Miss Kate.”
“One side of what, dammit?” revised Kate, rather upset by now.
“Much better,” the Caterpillar said as he dropped off the mushroom. He headed down the lane at a caterpillar’s pace, giving no answer. As he was about to disappear into the trees and Kate opened her mouth to ask once more before her chance to ask went with him, the Caterpillar gave his answer.
“Of the mushroom, of course,” he said, and then he was gone. Kate’s gaze fell on the mushroom he had been standing on only moments before. It seemed like a rather normal mushroom, if a little big and the wrong color, but it was large only because Kate herself was unusually small. Nevertheless, she shook her head, shoving her hands deeply into her pockets.
“I’m quite happy with this size at the moment, thank you,” she said aloud, and walked right past the mushroom and into the woods. The Caterpillar, who had been watching, stomped his little feet and cursed from the trees as Kate headed to her next adventure.