All tales must begin somewhere..
The ancient oak‘s bark peeled away in decaying strands. The boggy ground covering its roots scattered with dead leaves. The air was thick with an unpleasant mixture, the smell of decay overcame what otherwise may have been a pleasant crisp fall eve. The rabbit hole seemed untouched by time and the elements. An unremarkable dry tunnel entrance, no more than waist high to most. Just as it had been that fateful day Alice had taken a tumble. At least he imagined it was, as this was the first time he had ever been on this side. Carefully sniffing the air, his tail twitched faster as his discomfort grew. This place was dead, devoid of magic and mystery. The thought crept into his mind that this was perhaps the world in need of saving.
The moon peeked through casting a long shadow on the frost kissed ground. The cat frowned seeing that his magical nature was not as hidden as he had hoped. He slunk closer to the trees hiding from the moon’s prying eye. The thick, matted fur on his back bristled, regardless of the March Hare’s ascertainment that a rather oversized cat would be much less noticeable than a rabbit in dress clothes. Not to mention the cat had less chance of becoming someone’s dinner. He still felt that he should not be the one on this chore. His mood soured as the cold wind chilled him. His hallmark grin had faded long before he had stepped through the looking glass.
His slow steps announced by the leaves crunching under his paws, fragments becoming lodged on his ragged claws. According to the rabbits journal Alice lived in the house just beyond the rabbit hole. His pace quickened through the dense forest, his eyes searching for a glimpse of a homestead, the vast dark sky rumbled its displeasure at the intermingling of worlds. The cat raised his eyes to the angry sky, growling a warning that it should think twice about releasing its tears upon him.
The trees parted into a clearing and his frown deepened. Ahead of him was a house, the same in size and decoration that Alice had described, but there was none of the radiating warmth she had spoken of. A single window was lit. The trees were mostly bare, their detritus scattered over the patchy lawn. Perhaps the ruin had spread here as well and there was no hope for them at all, he pondered. The Hatter would laugh and call him a pessimist for the millionth time. The cat mused as he slunk closer and closer to the home. He had not quite figured how he was going to get Alice out of the house; it was uncommon for parents to allow a girl out on such an evening. He hoped perhaps she would feel his presence, that something would draw her to the window.
He leapt to the windowsill peering through the thick lead pained glass. A warm fire burned in the hearth, and he yearned to stretch out in front of it, to allow the glowing embers to chase away the darkness that hounded him. Shaking his head he looked deeper, now was not the time for creature comforts. The fire’s glow illuminated two seated figures. The first chair held a matronly figure, her hair shining silver in the dim light. She appeared to be working on some kind of needlepoint, the cat had seen the Duchess do something similar back before she had been executed. Probably Alice’s mother, or even perhaps her grandmother he decided angling his plump body for a better view of the other person.
A nostalgic smile crossed his face as he watched her plate her long golden tresses into a braid. He did not recall her hair having waves. Forgetting discretion, he pressed his face against the glass for a better look. The girl resembled his Alice very strongly. Same bright eyes, and soft smile, but she was older, he could not tell for sure from this distance but she appeared to be in her late teens perhaps even twenty. She sat quietly colored squares scattered around her as she sat absorbed in the pad of paper balanced on her lap.
The Rabbit had said that time passed differently on this side. He never knew the exact measure, but it seemed Alice had aged. She was no longer as he remembered her. She had been just fifteen when she left the last time. His lips settled in a deep frown, jumping down from the windowsill he began to pace. The boards beneath him protested his weight but he was oblivious to their cries. No one had anticipated this. It had been just over a year since Alice had come for her last visit. She had told them she was to go off to a school for the year but would return in the summer. Yet, she had not come; they had waited, watched and hoped she would come in time to aid them in saving their world. A sentry had been posted at the bottom of the rabbit hole so that they could be alerted the moment she arrived. After months of waiting the circumstances had become so dire that they had no choice but to venture into her world to bring her back, no one had ever assumed she had aged.
What if she didn’t want to come? What if she had outgrown Wonderland? The cat stared back towards the place from whence he came and debated going back, talking this over with the Hatter and Hare, but time was not a luxury he could afford; he would have to wait again for a time to sneak into the fortress of mirrors to gain access to the looking glass. No, it was now or never.
He returned himself to the windowsill with a thump. The girl looked up their eyes met. He sensed no recognition, no smile, just confusion. Something was definitely wrong. She stood, she was still petite, but her form was that of a young woman, not a gangly teen child. Gathering her colors into a plain bag she gently closed the book before moving to the door. Cautiously opening it, just a crack, she peered down at him. He regarded her and knew instantly, this was not his Alice. Perhaps the older sister she had mentioned. A moment of relief flooded through him, yes, this was her sister, and Alice must already be in bed. He would search and find the same young lady they had all grown to love, just waiting to return. She stepped out into the chilly air her dark blue night wrap clenched tightly around her.“Hello there,, ” she said softly.
Not wishing to give himself away, he meowed and jumped down rubbing himself against her legs. If she took pity upon him and brought him into the house, it would make his search all that much easier.
She smiled brightly.
“Aren’t you a friendly one?”
He peered up at her attempting a purr which came out as more of a raspy sandpaper sound. Why did the Rabbit have to go and get himself captured he grumbled to himself as he continued to rub against her. It was his job to solve the riddles; it was the Cat’s job to make them up.
“Would you like to come in out of this cold, I could get you a warm saucer of milk,” she crooned bending down to pet him, feeling his matted fur.
“Hmmm seems like you could use a little attenti if you want to come follow me in” She finished.
He cocked his head; she spoke to him as if she knew he could understand her. Curioser and Curioser he thought following her into the house. Once inside the warm fire beckoned him. He slunk over using a cat’s known natural curiosity to aid him in his mission. He approached the older women who smiled at him. She went back to her cross-stitch her eyes heavy. He wanted to open the now closed sketch pad and see what the girl had been so intent upon but there was no way to do it without giving away his other worldly talents.
The girl reappeared carrying a small saucer, the scent of warmed milk wafted to the cat, drawing an actual purr from him. Both women smiled. She set it before him and with no hesitation, he dove in. The liquid warming a path through his weary body, he drank deeply. He startled just a moment when something brushed against him until he realized it was the glorious feeling of a brush running through his long abandoned fur.
How easy could it be to just stay here he thought idly as he lapped up the remaining milk. Become a contented house cat, loved and cared for. Caring not for what lay outside the door. Why should the weight of the world lay on him? He was a mere Cheshire Cat. A feline riddiler, not a hero. His musing mixed with the divinity of having soft fur again, the crackling of the fire, and the milk caused him to lightly doze. His serenity lasted a few moments before the old woman spoke. Her voice reminding him of the wind he had just escaped.
“Allyson, I’m going to go up to bed. Your friend may stay with us if he chooses.”
The young girl nodded.
“Thank you mother” she replied
“I’m going to get the snarls out of his fur and then I’ll take him up to my room.” She finished continuing to brush him.
The old women nodded, reaching down to give the cat a soft pat on the head before disappearing into the darkness in the hall.
Allyson? Why would her sister be named something so close to her name? The cat began to panic his newfound peace quickly stolen from him. He was at a loss. Who was this girl, and where was Alice? His purr disappeared as fear once again gripped him. She noticed his distress. She paused perhaps thinking she was brushing too roughly.
The cat began to pace in front of the fire. He had two options reveal himself to this girl in hope of some answers or escape once she was in bed and return to his compatriots and tell them all is lost, their Alice had vanished.
“What troubles you my friend, you look as if you carry the world,” she said watching him.
“Not this world perhaps, but mine, of this I have no doubt,” He answered settling across from her his large eyes gauging her response.
Allyson startled, shaking her head as if to wake herself from a bizarre dream. After discovering that sleep was not responsible for this odd circumstance, she laid the brush beside her and spoke again.
“Since it seems I’ve gone mad, tell me dear Cat why have you come here?” She asked
“You’re not mad my little one, at least not yet. I come seeking my Alice, to take her back to Wonderland” He replied frankly
Her eyes widened in surprise.
“You mean my Grandmother Alice, she told me stories of her Wonderland, and everyone said it was madness. Yet here you sit as real as can be” she said.
It was the Cat’s turn to show surprise.
“Your grandmother?” he boggled.
“Yes good Cat she has been dead nearly five years” she replied sadly
The Cat’s back raised, his fur bristled. His Alice, a grandmother, an old woman. He was trying to wrap his mind around that concept when the second part of her statement hit him. Was she dead? How could that be? This was a trick, something set on him by the darkness, to keep him from his prize. He visibly shook.
She reached out tentatively to calm him; he could feel her warmth and caring. No nothing this compassionate could be associated with the darkness. It was true. Alice had aged, had a family, and then had passed. It was a cruel joke even in the midst of the turmoil in Wonderland it had been but a year. On this side, it had been two lifetimes.
“Why have you come back after all this time to find her?” She asked running her hand gently down his body hoping to lighten his obvious despair.
“Wonderland is in an upheaval. The Hatter and Hare and I are fugitives, the Rabbit has been captured the Duchess executed. We hoped she would come with us and help our cause.” He explained moving closer for her to facilitate the petting.
She nodded thoughtfully; he could tell she still was not sure whether or not this was a dream.
“She spoke often and fondly of you, and the others, even after the Jabberwocky affair, she still loved Wonderland. My mother never cared for her stories calling them nonsense, which only served to increase my Grandmothers glee. I had always hoped as a child that I would find the rabbit hole and tumble into that world. Sadly, I was never chosen as she was. But in the end it was for the best, I could never have been as strong or as clever as she was” She half whispered.
The Cat pondered his next move. She was not their Alice, even though she bore her name he feared her self-explanation to be true. She rather reminded him of the dormouse. Kind and gentle but not a warrior, could the fire burn within her, could he persuade her to rally to their cause.
Even if he could he had counted on Alice’s knowledge of Wonderland, her understanding of its winding and twisted ways to help them. He did not have the time educate this child. He was at a loss for which path to take.
“I am sorry your trip was in vain” she finished as she continued to pet him softly.
They dying firelight caused shadows to dance across the wooden floor, the silence hung with unspoken words. Allyson’s mind was awhirl with thoughts. Her Grandmother had told stories of Wonderland until the day she died. The family had whispered that she was insane; it was kept quiet, as they did not want her put into an asylum. Her mother was a clamoring socialite and it would not due to have family blood thought to carry madness. Once she advanced in age, it was easy to put off as the senility of age. Yet sitting before her was proof that her namesake had been telling the truth for years.
That all those wonderful and terrifying things had been true, Wonderland was real. On the other hand, you could be mad as well, her mind countered. Her euphoria was short lived. Was she mad? She shook her head. No, she was not mad. It was real, and it was in danger. Her Grandmother would not have hesitated; she would have picked up and gone without hesitation. She glanced out the window the trees swayed against the dark sky, the impending storm evident. It all seemed so surreal.
Across from her, the Cat’s thoughts raged in a similar pattern. What now? Give in? Escape? Try the fight without their champion? Or take this girl and hope that some of her grandmothers lived inside her. Having an unskilled general is just as dangerous as flying without one. Damn that Rabbit, he was the cross-world one. He had led several campaigns against the darkness but he and the Dodo had been captured on the steps of the mirror fortresses. Now they withstood whatever tortures were implemented on those who dare oppose them. He glanced at the girl again. So much of his Alice he could see, yet so much not. What to do, he was pondering when her soft voice broke into his thoughts.
“Can you take me, I may know only stories of Wonderland, but I know that my Grandmother loved it and would want me to try to save it.”
The Cat raised his eyebrows; perhaps the dormouse had a fire after all.
“It will be dangerous, there is a chance you will be captured or even killed in battle. Once you go through the looking glass even if you do make it back out, you will be forever changed,” he advised her.
She thought, glancing around her home. All her life she had lived in books drawing the faces of the heroes from her stories. Pouring her imagination and desires through her fingers. Her mother kept her close, dragging her to party after party. Posing her on benches forever frowning at the smudges of charcoal or oil pastels on her fingers. As soon as her mother could arrange it she would be married off to someone who would expect her to make a home and a family. She had only narrowly escaped that fate recently as her shyness had turned off the suitor her mother had handpicked.
Here was her chance, it was not desire she lacked but experience and knowledge. Which path would she take? She closed her eyes and placed her hand over the necklace her grandmother had given her, on her deathbed. Allyson had always guessed it had something to do with her Wonderland adventures. She closed her eyes trying to feel some sort of guidance, a glimmer of instruction. All she felt was the warmth the metal had absorbed from being close to her skin. She sighed.
“I wish I wasn’t so timid,” she mumbled.
The Cat looked at her, not certain what she said, but he sensed hesitation in her tone.
“The choice is your's child, to go or not to go. Only you can choose your road but know once passed, this road will never present itself again.” The Cat stated his expression solemn. Though he himself was not sure if taking her was wise even if she agreed to go, she looked very frightened.
“Can you tell me what has happened?” she asked, drawing up her knees to rest her chin upon them.
The Cat looked down there were so many things to tell, it would take him all night to share with her the story of ruin, murder, madness and despair that made up the last year of Wonderland’s history. Unfortunately, time was not his friend this night and decisions must be made. Looking up he stared into her clear blue crystalline eyes.
“Only if you come will I burden your heart with the tale, it is not a happy one, nor is it one you could easily forget,” He said.
She nodded, her mind turned over the possibilities. This could all be a dream; she would wake in the chair beside her mother who would still be stitching. Perhaps she really had gone mad, and soon they would whisper about her as they had her grandmother. It frightened her to think about how easily she was taken a talking cat in stride. Did that mean the madness had already taken a hold of her? Beyond that, the most terrifying notion of all was that this was the truth. The creatures from her grandmother’s stories had really existed, that there really was a Wonderland, that was crying out for help and its only choice was her. She placed her fingers over her necklace once again begging it for guidance.
The Cat watched her, his stony demeanor not revealing his panic at the dilemma. If she chose to go, he would take her. He had no choice; he could only hope that she would pick up something from her ancestor and help repel the darkness. He could imagine the despair of those who still fought were he to return alone, but her inexperience and timid nature could be their downfall.
“I will go Cat, I will pack a bag and we will be on our way,” she said, her voice wavering.
The Cat nodded moving closer to the fire, to enjoy its warmth before heading back out into the unforgiving night. She moved silently up the stairs. She paused outside her mother’s door, knowing what the older woman would say were she to tell her of her plans. Despair would overtake her, thinking that the madness her mother had suffered had also claimed her only child.
She moved with quick steps to her room, pausing only to light her oil lamp. She watched the flame a moment as it soared within the glass, her courage pushing to soar as well. Deep within she knew that part of her reason for accepting this challenge was to prove that her grandmother had not been mad, that all her stories had been based in truth.
She had forgotten to ask the Cat the weather in Wonderland, or what they would be the best course of dress. Nevertheless, from the vague descriptions, he had given about the state of affairs she assumed there would be no tea parties to attend. Glancing through her closet full of gowns she sighed. Even in 1880, women’s dress was still impractical and frilly. Pulling out two of her most plain gowns, she placed them into the canvas cloth bag that had been her father’s when he was at sea. Seeing the bag brought on an idea, peering down the darkened hall her timid steps taking her once again past her mother’s door, she made her way to the attic. Opening a large trunk, she was rewarded with the items she sought. The slightly stale smell of the moth balls her mother had tucked in with her father’s clothing making her nose wrinkle. Sifting through the pieces she found his riding breeches, their tan had faded over the years but they were snug fitting so perhaps they would fit her. She pulled them on, slipping on a white dress shirt that fell nearly to her knees, she buttoned up, taking a moment to peer into the mirror, she would never pass for a man; even at the age of nineteen, she had developed the shape of a woman. However, thanks to her father’s less than robust frame the clothing was only slightly too large. Tucking the long shirt tail into her breeches she caught another glimpse of herself in the dusty mirror. Its surface was growing cloudy but even with that, she could see the resemblance to her grandmother shining through. A soft smile crept across her lips, as she pulled the thick cable knit sweater over her head she made her way back to her room. This time her steps much less timid. She suddenly felt a pang of guilt for her excitement. She was leaving her mother alone, her father, a ship designer had been called to New York to designs new ships for the navy.
Perhaps I should leave a note she thought as she pulled on her boots, being instantly thankful that she had opted for flat boots as opposed to the high-heeled ones. Nevertheless, what would she say? That she had gone to Wonderland to help save her grandmother's world? No, she would merely have to deal with the guilt associated with sneaking out like a thief in the night and turning her back on the things her mother had preached.
Ever since the first time her grandmother, whom she lovingly referred to as Nana, had told her about her tumble down the rabbit hole, her mother had been admonishing her for believing. Instilling in her a fear of imagination, telling her to stay grounded, explaining that in order for her to have a happy life she had to stay in the here and now. She had truly tried yet, no matter how much she wanted to please her mother with her practicality, she always found herself dreaming of faraway lands and peoples. She had hidden her nose in books allowing herself to live through them. When it was discovered that she had quite the talent for drawing it was Nana who had purchased her sketch pads and supplies. Her mother had ignored it, for the most part, telling her she should try needlepoint or music. In a word a more marketable skill.
Now, here was her chance to find her own way, to leave the parties and pressures of high society and hunt adventure in another world. It sat staring her in the face in the form of a large tawny cat. The pull could not be ignored.
A tingle of excitement worked its way into her body moving through her muscles like a spark of electricity causing them to twitch in anticipation. She glanced at herself in the mirror. Uncertainty shown in her expression, her chin jutted out in defiance of her own self-doubt as she slung the canvas bag over her shoulder and moved as silently as she could back to the Cat waiting below.
The Cat looked her up and down, he was grateful that she had not arrived in some girlish frock; war was no place for satin and bows. He walked to the door hearing her soft footfalls behind him. She was really coming, he had accomplished his task to the best of his ability given the circumstances, and the Cat felt a deep sense of pride and a glimmer of hope for his world. A small grin crept onto his face.
She moved to the door pausing she stepped backward to grasp her small canvas bag and a fresh sketch pad from the shelf she put them carefully in her bag.
They slipped out into the inky blackness, the wind was bitter and the Cat instantly missed the warm fireplace. He looked up at her and spoke softly.
“The rabbit hole is not far. It is still a safe passage into Wonderland, as the darkness has yet to have discovered its whereabouts. The fall I’m told is quite lengthy, so I will begin my tale then.”
He moved quickly glancing over his shoulder to make sure she was behind him. She moved with him, her head down to keep the wind from stealing her breath. They wove in and out of the dense forest, she had played here so many times as a child could the entrance really have been right under her nose all those years?
The Cat paused sniffing the air, he had been careful to take note of the smell of the area surrounding the rabbit hole, knowing that the odds were very good that he would be returning to it in the dark of night. She stood behind him her breath coming quickly. Before she had a chance to fully catch it, he was off again. A couple hundred yards later, he stopped before a large decaying tree. She searched her memory to see if she recalled seeing it before. Its massive trunk was easily the berth of three men wide, its stark gnarled branches tortured under the hand of the harsh wind. She shivered its peeling bark causing the image of the rotting flesh of the corpse she and her mother had found along the riverbank to flash to her mind.
The Cat sensed her discomfort and mistook it for anxiety. He picked his way between the snarl of exposed roots finding the hole he stood before it.
“Here lies the doorway, to a world once rich with enchantment and majesty. It is on the verge of obliteration, once you tumble you have committed to our cause, we would give our lives to rescue Wonderland, some of us already have. Know that the way is lined with thorns and dangers but if we persevere, the roses may once again flourish. Will you fight to touch the looking glass and restore light to our world?” He asked.
“I will do all I can dear Cheshire Cat, I can promise you not that my blood and my desire will return your roses or your light, but I am willing to lay my life down beside the others who fight for Wonderland” She replied surprising herself with this oath. She wondered if a bit of her Nana was not speaking though her.
“Then our journey is begun” he said and climbed into the hole.
She crawled in behind him. The ground was hard and cold, the soil around her smelled of decay. There was no light, she moved cautiously following the sound of the Cat’s paws as he crunched through the leaves. Pushing the bag in front of her wishing perhaps she had opted for a smaller bag. She wondered idly if this was what it felt like to be in a grave. The Cat paused just before her.
“It is time to tumble, it is a dark free fall, it may frighten you but you are safe, just relax your body and listen to my voice, for the tale I will share is far darker than the place we will be.”
She nodded unsure if he could see her or even if he had already begun the fall. Moving cautiously she reached the end of the tunnel. Reaching her hand out she felt the empty space beckoning, with a deep full breath she plunged forward.