Author: Valadilenne PM
Alice goes back into the Wonderland, charged by a new monarch to root out the cause of classic denizens across the kingdom disappearing one by one. The Mad Hatter and March Hare remain her closest confidantes. WCMI inspired.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy - Alice & Mad Hatter/Hatta - Chapters: 30 - Words: 161,909 - Reviews: 188 - Favs: 172 - Follows: 135 - Updated: 03-10-13 - Published: 04-30-07 - id: 3515609
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Genius hath electric power
which earth can never tame,
Bright suns may scorch and dark clouds lower,
Its flash is still the same.
Lydia M. Child
They both waited through several breaths while he steadied himself, sitting back on the couch with closed eyes. Alice put another log on the fire and considered ringing for tea.
"The thing of it is," continued the Hatter upon rousing himself and pressing a fingertip into the tight line between his eyebrows, "I rather wish we could just drop ourselves in medias res to this whole thing, because it's quite trying to describe it to someone outside my own self. It might not be the thing to simply say so directly, though perhaps it is and perhaps I'm just not very good at telling it." But he looked unconvinced by any of this.
Alice searched within and felt herself on the other side of impatience. She said: "Do try, if you like."
"You see, I'm different from other people—" He leaned forward and massaged a point on his forehead while Alice's eyebrows went up; she was genuinely surprised when he said, "Don't tell me you're still surprised by anything, really."
"It's just hearing you put it so bluntly, I suppose."
The Hatter dropped his hand from a gesture.
"Well, yes. I am different, fundamentally so. I always have been, you know." But he was still frowning to himself still, and remained bent in half almost to his knees in a funny way.
"Quite a lot of things have happened in my life, and they've all coalesced down into strange connections in and amongst themselves, and other things too. It's always been that way, things associated with other things, measured against still more things, interconnected and inducing one another." He looked up at her. Alice could tell that this wasn't what he had meant to start out talking about. The Hatter deflated slightly upon seeing that she did not take his meaning.
"I'm sorry," she said, "Perhaps if you gave me an example."
"Tonight, for instance. It all comes together so much, all at once, sometimes," and he frowned out the window. "All happens at the same time, as if you were to eat all seven courses one after the other inside a sauna, with double symphonies and orchestras overlapping each other in the background. You can't get your head around it quickly enough."
The Hatter blinked and turned to Alice, a bit vague.
"What are we talking about?" She wasn't sure if he was joking.
"I'm not sure."
"It isn't something I can demonstrate properly." Nevertheless, he was peering at her very closely, and idly drew his chalk white fingers very lightly over her cheek to draw away loose strands of hair, before sinking back in frowned scrutiny. It was one of those queer moments when she fancied she might be able to just detect the force making the universe run at a clip, as though she were more alive than at any other time, and wouldn't be able to recall the sensation later whilst lying awake in bed, unable to sleep.
Alice lost his following remark somewhere in the tired paleness of his eyes.
"You taste like green," he said again, the last word vaporous, and would not look at her.
"Oh, ah," she said quietly. She could feel her fingertips prickling, a thousand invisible needles pressing in on her. He nodded in perfect earnestness—there was nothing of the wallowing theatrical madness she had known him for up until now, naught but sincere conviction that She Tasted Like Green. There was really only one response for his remark.
"What does green taste like?" She hoped it wasn't mold.
"Citrus," he said softly, nodding. "Bit like orange blossoms. But you were sort of… ah, gamboge, before, and rather dry."
"Oh, I was, was I."
"That's yellow," he said quickly. "Bright, mustardy."
It was almost curious, she thought, how little interest she had in declaring the whole thing impossible, it simply didn't read.
"Perhaps it's difficult to explain," he said, and looked a bit rueful. "I think it's orange because the letters in your name add up to green now," he said, drawing closer and steering the conversation back around, "Which isn't what I expected at first, because those letters aren't very green on their own." "They aren't?"
He studied her quietly.
"Besides A. That's a celadon color, then L is sort of orange sherbet, all light and crisp, I is a very faint silver, almost grey, and C is cold lemony yellow, but then lastly E is a clear blue. When you write the letters out one by one," and he began to doodle in the air between them with his fingers, "They're separate colors." He moved more fluidly now, and said, "But if you loop them all together in script, they turn into this... mossy spring green, I suppose one could call it." He watched the letters he'd scribbled into the air slowly float away like a bit of fog, invisible to Alice, but she followed his gaze.
"And all that tastes like orange to you."
"Well, really, it's not so much orange as it is a... combination of things, you know, people are more complex than just words or days, they have top notes and heart notes, and it… it sort of lingers and changes after a while.
"It's not really sweet, and it's not really floral, but it's... spiced, I suppose. Bergamot oil and roses, enough to make your cheeks hurt. Light and tart, but, um," and here he paused to think, gesturing, until he leaned back and considered a moment. "New? There's something else, but I can't place it."
Here the Hatter fidgeted with a sort of laugh, shifting about irresistibly, leading up to the next sentence in a heady rush of reluctance, "You've grown more complex the more I know you, you and the Hare both—ruddy copper, that one, we laugh and laugh about it—"
Alice was looking down at her thumbs, which were flexing in a stuttering way back and forth, trying to hide the blow that had shot through her, and did not find it as amusing.
"The Hare and I have been acquainted for a long time. His name tasted spicy and distant once, now it's much clearer; I can pick out nutmeg most of the time, fennel if I remember him well enough."
"Oh," said Alice, and the Hatter plucked up her meaning.
"Well, yes," he said, "I suppose you don't see letters in color, do you?" She shook her head. "How misfortunate," he replied after a moment, and she had to blink to pick it apart. "Hardly anyone does, and I wonder at anybody knowing at all how to spell if the words don't turn the right hue."
"I memorize the words; they're all black and white on the page."
"That sounds like too much work."
"I suppose it isn't quite as interesting, but certainly less work than trying to keep which colors go with which flavors or letters."
He frowned thoughtfully.
"No, it comes as a matter of course—black and white words and flavorless names, no wonder you're so mixed up. Next you're going to tell me that days of the week don't have personalities or something." Alice smoothed her skirt and folded her hands in her lap. "Oh," and he sounded a bit chastened.
"What does your name taste like?" she asked after a bit.
"Completely, or in pieces?" he asked distractedly, reaching for the carafe of water nearby.
"Hatter, I thought."
"Oh! Hatter—that tastes like sherry, but it's subtle, you know, since it's my own. Can't taste your own tongue, of course. H is a dark brown, it muddles everything around it so all the other colors start to get this darker, sort of brass or tarnished gold tone."
"Like a shop sign."
"I suppose so." He set the clear carafe back on the stand with his hand still wrapped around it, magnifying the pale fingers. He looked off into space distantly and Alice watched the glass begin to cloud with condensation for a few moments before a thin curl of steam arose. He jumped and pulled his hand away, resting it awkwardly, watching the fingers flex and release in an alien, unknowable pattern. Alice stared at the mantle clockface for a moment.
"What happens when you see a painted sign? Does it change, or would you even know how it looked originally?"
He tried to call this up to mind and squinted into the ceiling.
"There's a halo around the shift, but it disappears if I'm not concentrating."
"And what would it be like to associate orange with green? Does the fruit taste differently?" She was beginning to feel expansive.
"It tastes like it always does, I suppose."
"But how do you know? How do you know that it's not what other people taste? Do you read about symbolic green in a book and take it for love instead of jealousy?"
"There was a great movement to disabuse me of my mistaken notion," said the Hatter rather bluntly, and then he continued as though to soften the blow of directness: "And it isn't easy to see the classical associations, but they're separate from this." He made as though to wave his hand dismissively. "One can memorize them."
"I think I would enjoy seeing letters in color," she replied, and then looked at his chin instead of his eyes. "I find myself quite envious of you there."
"Perhaps," and he looked as though he did not quite agree. "It's always been there, and I don't always notice it, but when quite a lot of things are happening all at once, everything stacks up and one thing sets it all off, you know, and then there you are."
"Oh," said Alice quietly. "I don't think I'd be able to tell when an orchestra was one player off—I can't imagine… tasting music and being bombarded by one's own senses, or trying to describe it, either, though."
He snorted. "I can't do that; it sounds like the nearest thing to death."
"By your account, though, everything is connected."
The Hatter looked at Alice very carefully for a moment. "Not… not in that way, no."
The momentum had suddenly gone out of their conversation, and if the Hatter had anything else to say to her, it faded with his long stare into the fireplace after that. Alice retired to her bath soon afterward.
Later, though, she found herself standing back in the doorway folding her wrapper closer about her shoulders. He was sitting on the sofa with one ankle balanced on his knee, staring out the window.
"What are you looking at?"
"There's a bird out there on the lamppost," he said without moving. "I think it's watching me."
"Oh. What sort of bird?" She bent up on her toes to see nothing and wondered how he could see past the window and down into the street from his low vantage.
The Hatter opened his mouth and the word almost came out, but his face darkened and he sank even further back, still with a distant gaze.
Alice slid onto the seat nearby and waited to hear if perhaps whatever was outside would call, and she thought she could hear a sound like a mockingbird, but it was hard to tell.
"How are you?"
He roused himself enough to look at her as though he had no idea what she meant.
"Oh. Oh, you mean that." The fire was burning steadily as though he had put another log on, but he had the pronounced air of a man who had not got up in some time. "It's difficult to say."
She did not reply, but instead wound a thick lock of dark hair behind his ear and thought a moment before making another sound, which she did at present, and for his own account, the Hatter was rather surprised—as well he should have been. She sang the only song that came to mind, in a low, meandering voice that dropped into a whisper, pausing after a couple of lines and feeling a bit of embarrassment at the frothy, superficial lyrics, but regardless:
A sunny disposish will always see you through
when up above the skies are black
'stead of feeling blue
Mister Trouble always makes our faces long
But a smile will have him saying 'so long'—
The Hatter did not look up at her with quite the pleased admiration and levity he might have, had this been earlier in their acquaintanceship. Rather, he gazed off long across the room. But Alice could see that the general appearance across his forehead was markedly smoother, though his actual expression, one of odd seriousness and softening dark circles beneath his eyes, was not much altered. He seemed to be reflecting on her choice—not of the words, but rather to voluntarily offer up and lend her voice to his reassurance and comfort.
Alice closed her eyes and leaned her temple into the wooden filigree along the back of the sofa. She could see him out of the side of her eye like a shadow made of light, a bright vague shape projected into darkness.
"I want you to kiss me again," she heard herself say, as though he had only done it the week past. Just as the moment slipped and she began to forget what she had said, there was a subtle tremor before he shifted with a slight clench of the springs beneath them. There was a taut springiness to the outside edge of his mouth, and she could feel a soft pair of creases that ran up to where there was sometimes a black gap of air if he were thinking very hard and close to mouthing something to himself. He was always so warm, and it felt just like she had thought it would, all silence and the inside of his lower lip. But it was tight, she kept thinking that word, tight, and then he pulled away.
She breathed there in repose, head against the cushioning, and had the fleeting thought that there was something she was supposed to be worried about.
Alice woke feeling as though she'd forgotten something, and lay very still until she could remember what it was. It bloomed into being very suddenly when she heard him humming to himself through the gap beneath the door, and when the feeling faded she loitered, half-sitting with one toe on the rug, lest it detect her movement and find her again to pinch her pulse tart red.
She resolved to dress out of view of the mirror.
Upon entering the sitting room, she found the table before the sofa stacked with various plates and jars around a large metal samovar that was wearing a tea pot like a crown. The Hatter strode in, and it hit her again, but she clenched her teeth when he glanced back over his shoulder to look at her, brightness and levity now.
How strange, she thought. He was totally incognizant of his other self, the mockingbird inside her head.
"What's all this?"
He removed a match from between his teeth.
"You aren't serious, are you?" The Hatter gave her a sidelong wry look, opened a canister, and promptly his face fell. A long, exasperated sigh came out of him. "No," he said. And again: "No." He set the tin down with a clank and drew it out for emphasis, "Noooo."
"This is unacceptable. Also: intolerable," he said, matter-of-fact, and rummaged about in his pockets for a pair of notes. "Take this, and this," he paused to scribble at the sideboard on a luggage label, "And go across the street, if you please."
Alice looked at his outthrust fist. "Why send me out?"
The Hatter pointed round the table. "I brought cake. And biscuits. And toast squares. And crepes. And eggs—wait, those don't go with this, but it's all the same anyway, never mind." He settled his long form back onto the couch. "Oh, and bring cream!" that last bit shouted as though she were already halfway down the hall, though Alice had not moved from her first mark upon coming in except to start at this.
Tediously bundled and trussed against a light sleet, she was reasonably content to concentrate upon not being run down by a cabriolet the moment her boot touched the road. She was not, however, pleased, when the man who ran the shop took from her the label, squinted at it, and said, "What's that say, then?" In fact, she was quite disconcerted at the prospect of crossing and then crossing and then crossing the street, when a voice at her ear said,
"Do forgive me, I believe that says Russian caravan,"
And Alice turned to find a young girl about her age, size, and station, with equally dark hair, though it was more agreeable to her complexion.
For his part, the shop man meditated upon the veritable wall of unlabeled jars and gave a soft "Ho!" before climbing a very tall ladder and summiting toward the highest and furthest point possible from the counter.
"Thanks awfully," said relieved Alice.
"Not at all," was the young lady's cheery reply. "Been in town long?"
Alice found herself taken aback by the conversational tone. "No." Not wanting to strangle it stone dead, though, she said, "The hot springs are lovely, though."
"Oh, we haven't gotten to go yet—the opera was quite exciting."
The shop man had brought down several different jars of tea and was blending them, weighing out precisely one ounce, removing a pinch at a time while the scales crept to and fro.
"Mostly I've been doing all the things one does on a holiday tour; this museum and that cafe. I thought it would be nice to have a sense of home, as ironic as that is," and she laughed a bit self-consciously.
Alice was not sure how to reply, and smiled politely. At last the shop man was satisfied that his measurement was universally perfect and trundled off to consult the price book. She was, however, aware that the young woman was gauging her with keen, bright eyes, and biting her lip, wavering about whether to speak again.
"I hope this isn't terribly forward of me," said the young woman as Alice pocketed the square coins and took up her little parcel, "But I've got this invitation to a thrown-open party; it should be a jolly good time, from what I hear. I have to forfeit, we're going to the wineries…" She hesitated. "Perhaps you'd enjoy it instead." The blonde—who was not blonde—took the card the other girl offered. "It's this evening; the address is there."
"Thank you," said Alice, feeling flattered and embarrassed at once, and bid her good day.
"Is it still sleeting?" asked the Hatter's voice from the vicinity of the rug. His ankles were hooked over the back of the sofa again, as though boredom itself was what twisted and contorted him into these oddly fluid rearrangements. She could see, however, that he hadn't begun without her, but was trying to make shadow animals with his hands, currently mangling what might have been a rabbit.
"No, it's finally stopped." He came up, slightly dizzy and utterly disheveled, and groped for something to hang onto.
"Well?" And fell back over against the table, though his face did not betray any indication of his having noticed.
"Tea and cream," she replied, setting them next to his ear and attending to her sodden boots and cloak. The Hatter reached behind his head to seize the brown envelope with the leaves and nearly spilled it everywhere in his haste to open it.
"Better," he said, and came up with a bit stuck to the end of his nose.
What followed was, to Alice's eyes, a strange ritual that made her realize that she had never actually seen the Hatter prepare tea in the strict sense of the word. The tea party table had always been fully laid out, and there was always conversation to be had—quality aside—but no ceremony to the drink itself. Now his strange ministrations seemed divorced remotely from anything recognizable. The Hatter primed the pot well enough from the spigot on the metal urn, but heaped precisely all the leaves into it and put in not nearly enough water.
And then he stopped and simply sat back on the couch, looking about the room as if they were doing nothing at all.
They waited in silence.
Alice motioned to reach for the pot, and the Hatter nearly slapped her hand away.
"DON'T," he said in a loud monotone.
"It'll be bitter by the time you pour," she rejoined sharply, irritated and hungry.
"It'll be fine," he said evenly, and they waited.
At some understood point, he lifted the lid, peeked inside, and began to measure out tiny thimblefuls of the nearly-black liquor into the cups. To this he added hot water from the samovar to dilute the concentrate, and then stirred in a bit of jam, tasted it, added another glob, and finally squeezed a bit of lemon into it, looking immensely contented.
Alice, meanwhile, could only sigh, for she was mystified and concerned that her breakfast would have to be taken downstairs, even after such a lengthly presentation.
"Here," he said cheerily, and handed her a cup before clamping a sugar cube firmly between his front teeth and drinking the concoction around it. She sipped slowly the cup he handed to her. It was certainly not Tea as she understood it—sweet and fruity, but dark and smoky at the same time. A thoroughly complex flavor; she wondered if he ever associated it with anyone. It improved with time and taste, though she couldn't be sure if she'd have it again.
But Alice was glad for the savory crepes, at least, and the whole affair seemed to have put the Hatter in a more encouragingly blithe mood.
This mood stuck with him throughout the day, though it had distilled to inner reflection by the time Alice dressed for dinner.
"You'll want a coat, gauging by the place on this," he said, holding the card at eye level and rolling an empty pipe back and forth over his front teeth with a muted clicking sound.
"Where is it?" The numbers and name of the road told her nothing.
"We'll take a cab," he said with a shrug, and she watched him don his own outdoor togs carefully before making sure to put on a better muffler.
The address went to a set of docks by the river, and it turned out to be a yachting party on a trim shipboard lighted with tiny candles in little globes strung up around the deck. Rather a strange way to spend the evening, particularly as it was so foggy, but there were warmers beneath canopies and plenty of people about—all foreigners to the country on holiday, Alice realized—so there was little space for any cold air to settle between them.
Setting a course along the river, she watched the hazy yellow dots of the gas lanterns in the streets turn so murky that it hurt her eyes to look at them for very long, and out on the flat waters, the mists dissolved into sharp black shapes on both sides.
They drank ice wine, hot mulled claret (which was too spicy for Alice, who hung onto her second cup for warmth until the Hatter graciously tossed it overboard and freshened her drink) and ate some sort of pasty that everyone agreed was quite good but which no one could really see. Someone brought up the idea of dancing on deck, and there was soft laughter, but no band or instruments.
Eventually they found seats at the bow in the dark blue and black air, surrounded by other people, and Alice wondered who they were, but it was very quiet; the sluice sound of the boat moving with the water had was bobbing and nodding along their attention. She could feel his hip all the way to his knee pressed muffled into the layers of her coat and dress, and remembered something that had not pulsed within her all day. She leaned over the edge and pictured herself dropping the memory and the humiliation of a day's worth of private reproof over this involuntary invention of her mind's eye into the invisible riverwater, and wondered vaguely if it would ever find its way back to her.
The Hatter stretched out his arm and made a fist with his thumb stuck out to cover the moon. Alice leaned to peer over his shoulder and saw the thinly waxing crescent light glow around his blackened hand.
"God's thumbnail," she said, and the Hatter dropped his hand suddenly to look at the dim satellite. He shuddered a bit from the cold, or shook his head, when she offered him her drink.
They rounded a bend in the river where white and yellow rings began to appear in the ripples and currents; Alice looked up to see a dock flanked by stringed lanterns and quite a number of wooden stairs leading up. The whole of the party stood against the slowing of the vessel and began to shuffle about with their things, talking in low excited voices.