The Long March
They're both so cruel, and the Hatter tells the Hare, "It's days like these when blood would taste sweetest from the vein."
Dear Hare smiles his ravenous smile, his fur matted with mud and shit from his wild-eyed wallowing. It is wet Sangatsu outside and the rain is a torrent of floods and of tears from the upper world where the Orchids and the Daisies weep from their twisted hungry roots.
On this rainy day Hatter and Hare play chess in the tree hollow, smashing alabaster against porcelain in a battle royale of shards and dust.
They have enough flour for a few more weeks of cakes and cookies, but Hatter feeds those to Hare. Once the flour is gone, they will be out of food for the next six and a half weeks until the March rains drain and the babbling river finds its babbling beds again.
"Hare, Hare," Hatter murmurs and strokes his ears. "Hare, Hare the season is here again."
Hare shivers, wet and flighty, but somehow he forces out the hissing, "Y-yesss."
Hare goes out to play in the rain sometimes, swimming and diving like a duck. He always comes back cold and sodden and caked with mud and filth. He always comes back to find the Mad Hatter waiting there for him.
Some days, Alice sends them letters by frogmail, her curling girlish script asking why they don't just order supplies from town. The silly girl just doesn't understand the way things are done.
On Wednesdays, Hatter draws water from the gutters and heats it on the stove. He fills the tub and bathes the Hare in oils and they splash and joke like fools. They battle bubble armadas on the high seas, but Hatter finds himself gazing closely and whispering, "Oh, but Hare, I love you so."
They are so cruel and the Hatter tells the chocolate brown Hare, "Days like these, friend, remind me of blood upon the shores."
Hare fidgets and makes the high terrified noise of the hunted. He rips viciously at the cake skewered on his claws, chewing and swallowing in a clumsy fervor.
"Careful," Hatter chides and pours another cup of oolong-mint-chai tea. Their stores are running low and the teapots are tired and weak and bastardized. Some afternoons, Hatter must distract them by teaching them new songs to sing.
The rains are three weeks in when the sopping White Rabbit swims to their doorway, a tin of treacle held high above his head. He is waterlogged and half-dead upon the doormat, Hatter and Hare none the wiser because dear Dormouse goes into the country this time of year, and he is not there to announce their guest.
"His…" White Rabbit manages to shout, clawing his way over the threshold when the door opens. He lays his burden on the coffee table and collapses across Hatter's feet. "His majesty, the Jack… Jack of T-tr… Spades is in need of your service…"
Hare startles at his words, falling headlong to a wordless frenzy. When he kicks out with his strong back legs, the teapot is shattered against the far wall. Hatter tramples the White Rabbit to be at Hare's side, his claws scratch down Hatter's cheek. The rain outside is thunderous and the Rabbit on the floor is choking and Hatter holds Hare by the throat.
Hare's amber eyes crackle with lightning fury and then soften, pleading. Hatter smiles comfortingly, feeling his teeth breaking as he tenses his jaw.
"His majesty knows I cannot leave the hollow during the long March," he whispers, fingers still secured to Hare's velveteen throat. He strokes the Hare's ears with his free hand and ignores the rejected White Rabbit, who hobbles away across the floor, headed back to the Court of Hearts, alone.
When the Hare has calmed, his trembling stilled, he sinks back down into the brocade cushions. Hatter opens the small tin of treacle and lovingly selects one for Hare.
The biscuits and jar of raspberry jam Alice sends affords them three more days of card games and indoor polo.
And on the third and final night, the Hare washes all the mud from his fur and cleans beneath his claws and in his ears. He brushes his sharp front teeth and then pads to the Hatter's bedroom on his wide brown feet.
Hatter is still awake, a small cup of tea (pekoe-chamomile-jasmine) steaming at the bedside and a precious cigar smoldering sickly at his lips as he reads. Hare clambers silently onto the bed and curls up at Hatter's side, soft and warm, his breathing even. Without needing to be asked, Hatter begins to read from his book aloud.
By midnight, Hatter's tea is gone, his cigar is a tiny roach to be finished tomorrow, and Hare is asleep beside him like a child.
His bed is cold in the morning and Hatter is roused by the sound of the rain at the windows.
This morning, he takes his time changing from his dressing gown to his slacks and shirt sleeves. He barely looks at himself in the mirror as he deftly shaves the chocolate brown bristle from his sharp chin. He meets his own amber eyes for perhaps a second and then he is gone from the looking glass without bothering to comb his hair.
He rolls his sleeves to the elbows as he descends the tree by way of the stairs, headed down to the trunk's hollow where he and the Hare keep the house proper. As he passes the calendar, the Mad Hatter marks off another day of the long March.
Hare is waiting for him in the kitchen, Hatter knows. He knows and his stomach tenses and he pauses, hand but ghosting the swinging door. Bravery may never have been his, but madness always has. The door arcs open and he sees candlelight gleam on the knife balanced between the March Hare's claws.
"Good morning, Hare," Hatter murmurs, giving the knife wide berth by heading for the kettle. "Would you like a cup of—"
"Are you prepared for the long March, Hatter?" Hare's voice is a molasses whisper.
They do not meet each other's eyes and Hatter's hand drops from the kettle to his side.
"Yes, I suppose I am."
Oh, but they are cruel.
He strokes the Hare's ears as he cuts in at the ankles, slicing and yanking the fur. When there is enough to grip, Hare's pelt pulls free easily, rolling up over his head like a wrapping, leaving him smooth and soft and naked and pink.
Hare's flesh is sleek and perfect, Hatter thinks, as he turns his dear friend to his side on the table, leaving his head lolling off the edge, over the floor and the bucket Hatter places beneath him.
"It's days like these," Hatter says to himself as he lovingly slits the Hare's throat, catching the sudden burst of crimson in the bucket below, "that I think of veins of melodies, dappled as they are with the blood and violence of my thoughts."
Without wiping down his hands, he finally returns to the kettle and prepares the water to boil. He waits by the window, watching the furious March rain while the kettle spits steam and the Hare's throat spits blood.
The tetsubin squeals like the hunted and Hatter gathers together the last of all the teas. The blend is horrible and bitter but he drinks it as he waits for Hare to finish bleeding. He cannot bear to meet the Hare's dead eyes, gleaming like syrup in his naked and wounded face.
"I…" Hatter laughs. "I am prepared for the long March."
Still laughing, he closes his eyes.
There are three more weeks of rain to come.
Each morning, Hatter washes the blood from his teacup and cleans his plate and knife and fork. Alice sends more cookies, which he wordlessly stores in the cupboard and when the White Rabbit returns, flayed and desperate, Hatter lets him inside. Though he offers the Rabbit nothing more than a fireplace to dry himself by.
This time Jack has sent a tin of tarts, which Hatter refuses to keep in the house.
The harried White Rabbit stutters, "His m-majesty d-demands y-your services."
Hatter shakes his head and straightens his bloody shirt. He won't have a new one until the rains end.
"His majesty," Hatter repeats carefully, "knows I cannot leave the hollow during the long March."
The water is almost up to the windows now, but it never spills into the hollow. He and Hare have put up far too much Meadowsweet for that.
Hatter gives the Rabbit one of his coats before throwing him out into the water and beginning a letter to the Dormouse.
Hatter spends his days suffering from a cloying, restless, madness; talking to shadows, smoking his heady black cigars, and sleeping for days at a time in Hare's cold bed.
When he runs out of firewood, he burns the books one at a time and listens to their stories again. It kills some time, at least.
The Dormouse's package comes just in time; the full moon is tomorrow and Hatter has gone stir-crazy besides.
The squat delivery-frog eyes the soggy, brown, paper wrapping suspiciously. "Plannin' a party for de end a de long March is ye, Hatter?"
Hatter takes the weight of it in his hands and smiles. The frog backs away from his expression, so cruel.
"It's days like these, croaker, that I think a party might well be in order."
He dreams of the Hare on the night of the full moon. His sleep is uneasy without the sound of rain smashing the windows, but he will get used to quiet again soon enough.
For now, he dreams of the Hare, his fur jet black and his amber eyes a molten gold as he streaks across the wet sky like a shadow. His claws glint steel in the moonlight and the Hatter can feel him throbbing in tandem with his carotid. It is so hard to breathe with his blood rushing in that way and he traces the lines of his own throat as he watches the Hare swimming and diving through the dark rain clouds.
All around is darkness and the Hatter sinks deep into the mud as his fingers claw home, blood bursting from the destruction of tegument.
The Sunday after the full moon, the Hatter dresses and leaves the hollow without eating. The water comes up to his calves but is receding and the sun is shining hesitantly. The road he intends to follow is obscured by the flood, but the Hatter knows where he is going. The path he would take leads from the forest to the foot of a smoggy mountain and upwards beyond sight.
As he walks, the Dormouse's gift is a burden in his jacket pocket and it clanks against whatever else is there amongst the fabric. Hatter encounters no one on the road up the mountain, which is well enough. Alone is good enough for now, and he walks.
Halfway up the climb, the standing water turns to filthy gray snow and Hatter finds it difficult to breath. He presses on, rising above the treetops even with his bursting lungs. He climbs, alone, and does not stop until nightfall; his body frigid with cold and his unprotected hands bleeding.
He feels his way through the dark to an unfamiliar cliff, a flat place to rest, and collapses there with no other shelter. His numb hands fumble for the Dormouse's gift sent from the country. The glass bottle is painfully cold and smooth in his raw palm. His joints resist and crackle as he removes the stopper.
It is a lucky thing this liquid is not the kind to freeze and he drinks the pale gold concoction in one swallow. It tastes bitter, and faintly of almonds, and Hatter feels it begin to take effect immediately. His vision is bleeding an intrusive black at the edges.
Hurried, he takes the knife from his coat pocket and rips its serrated edge down the soft flesh of his forearms. He does so more than once, just to be sure—his hands are shaking tremendously.
Cold, it's so cold, even the blood running down his arms is like gelid ice. Oh, but this cold is cruel, the Hatter thinks as he begins to fade.
He wakes up to the warmth of the chocolate brown Hare nestled against him. His arms and neck itch and he scratches carefully along the thick black threads of his stitches. As he stirs, the Hare stirs, and they huddle together against the cold for a little while longer.
"A very merry birthday, Hare," the Hatter whispers.
"A very merry Easter, Hatter," the Hare replies.
Hatter strokes each of the Hare's velveteen ears and the Hare helps him to his feet. As they stand there on the pure white snow, in that spot where they had slept, the Hatter pities the way his beloved Hare's fur hangs from his bones.
"Come," Hatter smiles, "Alice sent cakes."
They descend the cold mountain, arm in arm.
Alice comes to the hollow as soon as the ground-level is the ground-level once more. The Hare is still abed being indulged on tea and cakes and Alice dirties her pristine white stockings in the residual mud.
But, delightful as always, she's brought sweets and books and her prudish little frown, which makes her nose wrinkle like a kitten.
"I will not leave until I have seen the Hare better," she states and the Hatter smiles at her, cruelly.
"Days like these, dear Alice, he could better use your care than mine."
He packs for the capital that very night and Hare comes to his room.
With his pleading eyes he asks, "So soon?"
The Hatter nods, keeping his back carefully turned to say, "Alice will keep you company. She can stay in my room while I'm gone."
The March Hare bares his teeth and snarls, "I will stay in your room, Alice will stay in mine."
Hatter smiles cruelly, fondly, and approaches to stroke the tufts of white fur at Hare's cheeks.
"I won't be gone long. I'll answer Jack's summons for some coin and be back with tea and cakes. We can begin planning the summer parties then, for as soon as the mud dries up."
The Hare's amber eyes shine like cruel stars and he scratches rabidly at a flea, grinning.
They give Alice his bed that very night, for he and Hatter share.
They wake early, Hatter to dress and Hare to clean the kitchen of its copper stench before Alice takes up residence there. Their chores don't take them long and when Alice comes down the stairs in her lacy white dress, they eat breakfast together.
They have tea and carrots and jam on toast, and no blood, and Alice spends most of the time asking them how on earth they managed to survive the long March in such a dreary hole.
"We manage, my dear, we manage," Hatter laughs as Hare clears the plates. "But just barely and I really must be off to forage for provisions."
He's had his jacket over the back of his chair as a reminder all morning and he swings it around himself easily now. His luggage is by the door, sparse all in all.
"Are you quite certain I can't send you off with some cakes?" Alice worries, but Hatter tells her no and turns his eyes to dear Hare.
His beloved Hare draws close, something smiling in his mangy animal expression. He very carefully touches the stitches in Hatter's neck with his sharp claws. They will need to come out soon. Hatter will have one of Jack's doctors do it for him.
"Hatter, Hatter," Hare murmurs and strokes his throat. "Hatter, Hatter, the season is here again."
The Mad Hatter smiles cruelly and tips his hat to his beloved March Hare. He hefts his brown tweed suitcase and turns away, headed for the city.
He'll be back with gifts by May, Hare knows. Until then he sleeps fitfully in the bed which smells of blood and cigars and the mercury of the Mad Hatter.
They are both so cruel, yet as the Hatter walks the countryside he thinks, "Oh but Hare I do love you."