From Her Hands
Post-movie, Hamish and the White Queen.
"You are very pretty," he says to her, gawky and stiff and ill at ease. His mouth feels dry. He has been talking for what seems like hours, even though time doesn't feel as if it's passed; the light outside the ivory marble walls is as strong as when they began. The dish by his side holds only crumbs and a dim memory of biscuits. He can't remember it all. He suspects he is babbling. "You may be one of the most beautiful things I have ever in, in, in my life, had the opportunity to see."
She smiles. "More tea?"
In the beginning, Hamish's mother had been firmly against the idea of uniting Hamish in matrimony with the youngest Kingsleigh. She had planned on a match with someone of higher social status among the families, someone who would guarantee that her grandchildren had superior breeding. Once she had been persuaded of the necessity by Hamish's father, however, she had become resolutely immovable -- as stubborn in her newfound conviction as any other decision she had invested herself in. The Kingsleighs, Lord Ascot insisted, had always been good to their family. With Charles gone, it would only be fair and proper to look after their family in turn. Margaret was safely married, but Alice was notoriously fickle, and would only bring their mother sorrow without a proper husband to bring her down to earth.
So Hamish had grown up expecting to include Alice in his home, expecting to do what a gentleman should for his wife. Namely: to provide and take care of her, to assist in the production of heirs, and to look the other way if she had a few too many oddities. The last part was the most important, considering Alice's proclivities. Alice, who was infamous for being distracted by the shapes of paper. Alice, who was so daft sometimes with her notions. Once, in the middle of afternoon tea, she had burst out with, "You might just as well say, 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see,'" and looked as surprised as anyone else. No one had understood that.
But Hamish hadn't thought about being in love with anyone else. He hadn't thought about being in love with Alice, really. It had simply been the right thing to do.
That had been the example that his mother had set for him in her own union with Hamish's father. Love was a mechanism that glued proper matches together. Romance and marriage were not necessarily extensions of one another. Not everyone could wed appropriately for their station; it was important to tolerate what you ended up with.
"Interesting," the Queen says.
"It's strange," he remarks. "But I can't remember exactly how I got here."
The Queen's lips are curves of liquid onyx. The glow of the walls warms them, turns them soft and alive as no stone could manage. "The Rabbit," she prompts.
"Ah. Right. The Rabbit." It makes sense when she says it. Feeling a smidge braver, Hamish straightens in his chair, squares his shoulders. Memories float up like petals in milk. Sometime after the whole debacle with his rejected proposal, he had taken it upon himself to wander through the gardens at length. It had been to his advantage to avoid gossip, for even if everyone knew of Alice's eccentricities, a rejection in front of everyone was still a rejection -- which reflected all the worse on him when one considered the source.
He had been mulling over the ease of his father's adaptation to the situation when a flash of white fur had hooked his eye. To Hamish's astonishment, he had seen an absolutely huge rabbit standing upon its hind legs in the grasses, dressed in a waistcoat and gesturing angrily towards an ornate pocketwatch.
Backing away from it -- as any rational person would, the thing had been larger than a dog, and likely quite rabid -- Hamish had ended up tangling his feet up in the roots of a sagging tree and going over in a sprawl. The ground had crumbled; his hands slapped on the grass. Dirt caved in beneath him. And then he had been falling, tumbling down into a hole that had swallowed him like a snake; darkness had risen to meet him, burrowing in through his eyes and into his screaming mouth, plunging him into unconsciousness.
That had been the last time he remembers being afraid.
Something about talking rabbits really should disturb him, but Hamish can't seem to grasp the concept completely. Every time he reaches for the idea, it seems to float away, like a soap bubble repelled by his glance. His own apprehension hovers constantly nearby, renewed by each visit of the fish-headed guards and giant card soldiers, but it never descends to claim him. Hamish, it seems, is immune to both.
The white castle where he had awoken is a place of subtle marvels. The gardens exhale mist in the evenings, spreading among the multi-hued lanterns so that the lights -- gold, green, lavender -- escape the cages of their wicks and seep through the manicured bushes. Gentle music trickles through the halls, coming from rooms with no one inside them.
The teas that Mirana -- that the Queen, he corrects himself -- has him drink are strange colors: emerald greens, bruised yellows, and violets that are shockingly bright inside their white bone cups. It's not like proper British tea. It doesn't taste like proper British tea either, being bitter some days and honeyed the next. Sometimes, the Queen offers him liquid that has the color of cherries and the flavor of grapes. Other times, she hands him shallow glasses of clear fluid that look like water, but smell like moss.
The goblet that she carries this time is silver, with looped engravings that undulate around its waist. It's filled to the brim with a frothy green liquid. Darker flecks float on the surface, like reverse duckweed on a pond. A huge white mouse in a scarlet coat bobs and scampers along in the Queen's wake, shooting periodic glares at Hamish. It wears a scrap of ribbon for a belt, and a hatpin for a rapier. He blinks several times, but it doesn't vanish.
"I'm in a fairy tale now, aren't I?" he asks suddenly. There's a faint pang in his chest as he says this -- a sensation that might have been his heart tightening, though he's not sure how or why. It could be either terror or yearning; neither one seem to matter right now. "And you're all magical little faeries, like -- like the bogeyman, or the hedge pixies my nanny would always tell me about. Aren't I supposed to put out milk?" Baffled, he rambles on helplessly, hoping desperately for his wits to not completely abandon him. Imp is not a proper word for the Queen, who is too beautiful to be a monster, and also too tall. "I mean, since -- since you're such a fantastical creature."
"You are the one who is fantastical here, Hamish," the Queen tells him gently. When she leans forward to set his tea down, the waves of her hair sweep forward, descending like frozen willow branches whose rustling is muted by snow. His goblet makes a heavy scrape as she rests it upon the table. He thinks about ignoring it so he can continue to look at the Queen, but that would be disrespectful, and so he schools his attention back in place.
"Not as impressive as the real Alice," the mouse grumbles, hitching itself laboriously up the rungs of a chair. When it reaches the top, it combs out its whiskers and sniffs. "If she was still here, the security of Salazen Grum would be a different story entirely, mind my words."
The diagnosis perturbs Hamish on both counts. "Alice was here?" he repeats dumbly.
"And a far sight better at being useful than you," the mouse snaps.
Somehow, to hear that Alice -- erratic, fluttering Alice -- is better at something than Hamish is disconcerting. Alice's wildness was something he'd put up with; he'd never found it to be a redeeming quality. Certainly, he wouldn't have expected it be useful -- or even preferred.
"How long -- " he begins, stumbles, and finds that he's lost the question entirely. Words slip out of his mind, wriggling like live, buttered eels. "How long have I been here? I mean, it's quite difficult to keep track of time -- "
The Queen strokes her hand through the air, gracefully luring his attention back to the goblet with another of her willowy gestures. "It's Time that has lost track of you, Hamish. Time is not to be treated with lightly, as many inhabitants of Underland know. A hundred days in these lands may be one day above. It depends upon the rabbitholes." She leans closer; he holds his breath. The perfume of her skin crawls into his nose. "Worry not. You are not missed. No one even knows that you are gone."
The number of dead things that the Queen handles is without limit. Their variety is beyond counting. Everything that comes into the Queen's workrooms is already deceased; there are trays upon trays of corpses that arrive each day, slid onto the tables like fresh baking platters dressed in white silk. The juices from their bodies seep into the makeshift shrouds. Their flesh is soft with rot, as pliable as the skin of Hamish's cheek.
On the walls, there are drained, white things hanging from delicate hooks that seem too fragile to support any weight, as if they are attempting to apologize for the passive violence of their existence by hiding among the very corpses they suspend. Plants and animals intermingle in bundles. There are numerous chambers that the Queen uses for her practices and just when Hamish thinks that he's seen them all, he's ushered to a new one for the day.
Hamish would expect each room to reek like a slaughterhouse, but the Queen's habits are quite sterile in smell. The sinks are clean, and the saucepans are used as often by other inhabitants of the castle for cooking, with none of them squeamish about it. When she is not directly asking him questions, Hamish becomes accustomed to watching Mirana go about her tasks, adding snippets of roots and bone to her crucibles.
It is a privilege -- he tells himself anyway -- that she allows him to watch her work.
One afternoon, Mirana pauses in sorting through a bottle of oily beetles, packed together like fragments of a peacock's tail. The dried insects rattle like ancient leaves. Their carapaces scrape together, hissing and chittering in the language of ghosts: creatures that have no lives with which to enact their malice.
Mirana plucks one off the top.
"Go on," she urges. "Have a bite. It's already dead. I must maintain my vows, after all."
Hamish stares unhappily at the beetle being offered in his direction. "Then how did it die?"
A flicker cracks the Queen's expression, turns the radiance of her smile chill and brittle, as if he could reach out and shatter her face with the merest pressure of his fingers. "Eat it," she repeats.
He picks up the insect gingerly, every inch of him flush with refusal -- though he can't think of any reason why he should not simply follow her command. "What's the difference?" he hears himself saying. "Between you hurting something, and you allowing someone to do it? You're only making them culpable because they've done it for you. When you think about it, plants were alive once too, so you can't eat vegetables either. Even by merely walking on the grass in the gardens, you're hurting something -- "
She is around the table like a great white bird, stooping before he can blink. Her dark eyes are wide like an animal's, so that the pupils seem like holes suspended on two spots of snow. Her finger is cool against his lips.
"As you value yourself," she utters softly, "do not speak."
Hamish's quarters are warm, but pleasantly so. The furnishings are simple, and the rooms contain little, for he has not bothered to acquire anything much of his own during his stay. He lies on the sheets of his bed, arms folded behind his head, feeling the small tingles of blood trapped in his fingers. There are flecks of beetle stuck between his teeth. He can taste a sourness each time he runs his tongue over his gums.
He drifts off to sleep effortlessly, leaving his waking awareness behind with the ease of slipping off an old coat.
That night, he dreams of eyeless creatures that live in the bottom of lakes, down where the light never reaches. He dreams of things so primordial that they have no names, their bodies pale and supple, bonelessly crawling over muddy rocks.
He tries to patch things over the next day. "My mother always said," he begins abruptly, "that if you wanted something done right, and couldn't do it yourself, then you should hire someone to make certain that things would be properly taken care of in the future. I mean, forever. I mean," and the words don't line up correctly, but they never do, "that you should hire someone to change things so that you could do it yourself. She's um. Very big into that. Managing things."
"Your mother sounds like a very wise woman," Mirana replies, regarding him with that breathless wonder of hers, her hands full of squid innards.
"Oh, please, don't bring her here too," he protests swiftly.
When Mirana doesn't reply, he can't tell if he's been forgiven; she might simply be trying to be polite. But she smiles, eventually, and he smiles back so quickly that he fears he's given himself a facial cramp.
Floundering for ways to continue the conversation, Hamish latches frantically onto the next passing though. "Do you, do you have favorite places to work?" His hand jerks towards the walls, one after another: north, south, east, west. "I think we've been in this one a few times before. We could, maybe, go out for a stroll instead -- if you'd like?"
"These ones are familiar." Like gelatinous ropes, the guts slither through Mirana's fingers into the pot. "It's more reassuring whenever I'm working with sensitive objects."
"You mean me," he says, talking against without thinking first. "But I'm not sensitive."
She smiles at him, and immediately Hamish knows he's just lied, because every nerve of him is sensitive; every part of him feels painfully tight and clammy. Every inch of his skin soaks in the brilliance that comes radiating off her complexion, as if not even the light would dare to stain her with color. Just the thought of her absence sets his bones to aching.
And he can't help but think, there are other kinds of hurts than those of the flesh.
This time, he makes certain to keep his mouth tightly shut.
She takes off her crown whenever she joins him in the workrooms these days, he notices. It's such a ridiculous little thing, just a piece of tinsel really, not like a real monarch should wear -- but he likes that she does it. As if outside, she's the Queen, but with him, she's Mirana.
Strange, beautiful Mirana.
Strange is becoming less objectionable to Hamish than it used to be.
She takes away pieces of him whenever she goes. It's nothing painful -- always harmless, clippings of nails or hair or his clothing. Gradually, his garments ebb away, to be replaced with strange fabrics like the rest of the court wears, silks that are stitched with diamond wedges, three-clover clubs on his undershirts. He almost doesn't recognize himself when he catches sight of his own reflection in the side of a copper pot one afternoon: this man with ruffles at his throat and wrists, hair sticking every which way, a shadow lingering in the corners of his eyes.
Mother, he thinks, would not approve.
He can't bring himself to care.
On a day like all the other days, Hamish finds himself dwelling on the subject of the Queen's vows again. The Rabbit is visiting him; Mirana is meeting with her advisers, and McTwisp has already finished his herald's chores. He brings watches to Hamish that are all broken; typically, they're either missing pieces or are stuffed with condiments. Some are filled with jam. Others, butter. Somehow, McTwisp expects Hamish to get them running again.
Hamish winds each one methodically, feeling the tiny clicks and pops of gears in unified protest. None have begun to tick yet.
"I don't mean to inquire beyond my station," he says, handing back one watch that oozes strawberry, and exchanging it for marmalade, "But is she -- the Queen, I mean. Is she entirely all right?"
"Compared to what?" snaps the Rabbit impatiently. "The Hare?"
The irony of Hamish's conversation partner is not lost on him -- both in madness and in genus. "She's, well." Now that he's entered into shaky territory, Hamish watches nervously as the Rabbit yanks a handkerchief out of its waistcoat and begins to wipe down one of the watches. "She's been a bit delicate. On certain subjects."
"Fishfaddle. I daresay she's been thinking about her missing Champion. I must admit," the Rabbit continues, fussing with the cloth, "we were quite sorry to see Alice leave. I doubt you know how lucky you are, to be in the same country as her."
The quick dismissal undoes him. "Alice -- Alice isn't that special. I was going to marry her," he says indignantly, even though it doesn't sound very polite to either him or her when he phrases it like that.
The Rabbit makes a choking noise in its throat before it draws Hamish close, its paws tugging insistently on his coat. "Don't let the Hatter hear you saying such things," it mutters, its beady gaze darting towards the doorway. "He still misses her, you know. Makes him quite distraught."
The news surprises Hamish. His first, uncouth reaction is to want to ask, how could someone miss Alice that much? when that's not what he means. It's not him being hateful towards her, it's just that he's known her since they were both children and he was there that time when she went headfirst down a hill into a river while dressed in her holiday best -- just as she had been there when he ate too many peppers in a row and had soiled his trousers before he could escape somewhere discreet. To him, Alice would always be that girl who used to stuff frogs into her mother's hatboxes so they could have floating homes. She was pretty, but she wasn't someone to chase, someone to want.
But he thinks about how there's a curious void in his world, now that Alice has moved out of it. And he remembers the way that afternoon sunlight pours over the back of Mirana's hand, and he thinks: I could understand.
Gripped by an uncommon restlessness, he slips through the castle alone after the Rabbit departs. The guards barely stir as he passes them by; like Hamish, they are so inured to one another that an appearance holds no significance.
Aimless wandering would have served his purpose, yet he gradually finds his own direction, steering towards the gardens with the intention of finding one of the flowers -- preferably one of the non-verbal varieties. Even though plucking it would technically kill the thing, any attempts on Hamish's part of transporting it by pot would more than likely do the same.
He hasn't had much reason to visit other parts of the Castle before, but he's not restricted; he's not a prisoner. Still, it takes a while before he manages to find a corridor that leads the the outside. He's taking the first step down the stairwell when the murmur of Mirana's voice arrests him, reels him back up, and drags him into a side hall.
"Your majesty," he hears one of the officials ask, "is it wise to continue interrogating this man so closely?"
Hamish cannot see Mirana, but he can imagine the benevolence that graces her features. "This man comes from the same world as our Champion," she chastises softly. "Can you not imagine that my sister would be tempted to sway him to her own banner, in hope for the same result?"
The official clears his throat; the sound of paper shuffled obscures the air. Hamish has to strain to hear the next part. "Surely you do not think that Iracebeth would be so brazen."
"He is not bound by the same edicts as one of the Underland. It would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that my sister might wish to capitalize upon that." Mirana's voice fades; she must have turned away. "It is our duty to see him protected while he is here. And I am learning," she continues, "a great deal about the sort of rules that our dearest Champion grew up with. Knowledge of those rules serves us well."
Hamish, digesting this, leans back against the wall. His feet slide him along, sideways; he scuttles like a crab, his flesh escaping and taking his mind with it. He can't focus on what this all might mean, except that his thoughts refuse to detach from the words, as if there is something very important being discussed that he can't quite grasp. It's like the talking animals and the way they're not strange; it's like the dead beetles and the Hatter in love with Alice and the empty suit of armor that stands beside Mirana's throne, cradling a naked blade in its palms.
He loses himself in the maze of his numbed wits, chasing down thoughts that stop and start at random, until a voice snaps him awake.
"Hamish." Mirana is standing before him, the corners of her mouth turned down in concern. There is a glass in her hand; inside is a color he's never drank before, something shimmering and turquoise, with silver streaks that pulse like veins. "You weren't in your quarters. Is something wrong?"
"No," he says quickly, not wanting to alarm her. "Nothing."
She tilts the glass forward, yet does not extend it. If he wishes to accept, he will have to walk towards her. He will have to leave the protection of the wall at his back, and venture into open territory.
But -- and it strikes him suddenly, finally piercing through the fog -- he does not know anything about what he has been consuming. In fairy tales, one should neither eat nor drink, or else be trapped forever. If only he'd paid attention to the kinds of stories that fascinated Alice, he might know what to do. If only he'd been Alice.
Mirana remains silent as he remains immobile, her perfect beauty framed like a jewel in white marble. He tries to swallow, his tongue dry. She lifts the cup. "Hamish?"
He hesitates, and then crosses the hall, reaching out to take the liquid from her hands.