One caveat. This story is strange and it is getting stranger. It happens, once in a while, that a character comes into my head and speaks in strange ways. I happen to love them, so I write their stories as is. If you don’t like it, that’s okay, just don’t expect me to change it. This one is turning into a favorite of mine. It is getting a little dark, but, well, Hook is involved.
Dedicated To Kat Of The Lily Café
The Red Queen’s Lost Grave Pt. 2
By the by, long and long ago, there came a child wandering in the snow. My mother’s favorite of all the riddles she has ever told begins just so. I know it by heart, but no-one knows the answer she’s looking for, not even Father. No-one, that is, but me.
A name is such a heavy thing. It lies upon the soul and catches at the heart. It is a chain, a leash, a thing by which others may bind you, a spell meant to hold, a glass dome slammed cat quick over a wandering butterfly. To a cat it is a thorn in the paw that won’t come loose. Oh, but Alice. For her I will endure it.
I left by the rabbit hole and not the mirror, climbing up, up, up to a sky full of stars and the silver moon caught in their net. Sometimes it goes to Paris. But not always, no. Sometimes to cities full of light and laughter or to places where the air is full of sand and the people still look upon my mother with reverence and fear, though there are many who tell them she doesn’t exist. Sometimes there are metal carriages that growl like Grendel, other times long, slow boats in a silent drift over river streets so still they look as though they are made of glass. And sometimes there are none and nothing at all but the gray mist of predawn and the call of ancient gods.
Alice would sometimes take me with her, tucked careful in her apron pocket, cradled safely in the rough cotton perfumed with flowers she loved so much she plucked them and learned a harsh lesson. To pick the flower is to condemn it and weeping will not stop it wilting. Alice does not pick flowers anymore. She lies among them, breathing them as deep as her body will allow, winding them up in memory so she can have them for always.
She would climb up on strong girl legs, with me in her pocket, chanting names like a bright song, threading them into a necklace, each one burning bright, bright, bright like the fire pearls the mermaids sometimes bring Wendy from the bottom of the ocean to shine against her skirts like red coals against black ash. “Oxford, London, merry, merry Brighton. Highland moors and kings dreaming beneath the mountains, this is where my heart breathes.” Softly, gently, soothing my trembling fear; that she might, somehow, lose us both forever seemed impossible when she knew so well what she was seeking. There are paths that only have destinations when you know where you want to go.
Before there was Wonderland, there was Alice. Before the funny, round brothers, before the rabbit, before our wicked queen and her smiling, snowy sister, there was Alice. Before even the caterpillar or my father, there was a child with milky skin, teeth like pearls, and a habit of saving helpless things. She had a child’s logic on that sort of thing. You don’t save them to be a hero, you don’t save them to show your own worth, you save them because they need saving and it is the right thing to do. And you love them all the more because no-one else will. Simple as that. That is Alice and Alice is herself because of it. I do not know if I’d have taken a name for another, but, for her, I did.
Climbing up, I sing it to myself; many times I’ve gone up before, but never to leave my Wonderland behind, only to find Alice and bring her home; she might love her green meadows and busy cities, but her heart lives with us. “Bury and Norwich, Yorkshire and Liverpool. Cambridge for my learning and Nottingham for my duels. Can we run to Coventry or down to Drury Lane? Give to me my Birmingham in daylight and Canterbury in the night. And if there be a benevolent god, let Bath never leave my sight.” I don’t look down. Height gives me no shivers; I always land as you’d expect. It is only that I know it will take twice the courage to go up if I look down at my Wonderland because, this time, I’m not going to Alice, only for her. I am alone.
Sometimes this long climb comes out in the hot, chaotic streets of New Orleans or looking down on ancient Rome. Sometimes Alice, just for a laugh, will spill us out on sail boats or trains, because she is Alice. She can. And sometimes it comes out on a high mountain with no knowledge of anything but itself. But not always. Sometimes, sometimes it comes out somewhere else. The other places. And Alice still would know it because that is what it means to love a place. You know it in the day. And you know it at night. You know it when it’s deep and haunted dark and you know it when it’s bright. She would know it, but she would not find it so pleasing.
Sometimes you find yourself in London. And, sometimes, you find yourself in Not-London, where the world is tumbled upside down and little girls choose to climb back down to the magic instead of out into the dirty street.
I was unwritten. Now I am not. I carried the burden up with me, hanging heavy from my neck, a name which held me and bound me and sent me away from Alice and my mad, fair Wonderland. That I may not ever be able to skip there again, climb the trees or tease my father made my heart feel the full weight of that name I’d been given. It isn’t always so; clever Wendy can find the holes in the Stories and show you the way to Oz by way of Neverland, but that isn’t always possible. And so, as I climbed, I knew the price I might pay for Alice could be my homeland. Perhaps, perhaps, since the girls were mine to save, I would not be locked out. But that was no guarantee. I wish I could tell you I was not afraid and that I was very brave. But that is the way of Alice and has never been me.
There were other things to think about besides my fears and it was that I bent myself to. The Story was spinning. It was weaving me into the tapestry that, though improbable, was still there. Has ever a villain existed before the Hero? I had not heard so. But rumors say the rules of Story can be tricked, if you know just how to pull this thread or that; all the Heroes, in theory, already exist, even if we have not yet seen them or caught them with names. And so, maybe, if one had great desire to use the Story to pull others off their rails, it was possible. The only question was why. The Red Queen was a warning. That cautionary tale before bed. Do not pull at things that aren’t your business unless you are willing to chance that final end, the one that does not come recall itself.
The Red Queen still remained in Alice’s Story, but it was only as a shadow, a mimicry, a nothing with no mind to think with and only her Words to say. You could ask it questions and, did she know it alive, so too did her strange reflection. But she was only a bit of paper. A puppet.
Many of the written die, but it is the jester’s death. Like Dorothy’s witch, they melt only to pop up, prancing and laughing in the wings; they are not on the stage, but they are still in your head, casting shadows and dreams, and so they are not really dead. But the queen, in some madness no-one understood, tried to unspool her Words and slip from her prison. The Story tore her out and swallowed her up. Once you are written. You cannot be undone. Only broken, discarded, and buried, to rise up no more. Still. Ghosts are another thing. As the Story could not wholly be shut of her, so her spirit would remain, trapped within the confines of her wandering grave. And cats are quite good at seeing and speaking ghosts.
However this odd Story had begun, I was determined and that kept me climbing toward those stars and that moon. For Alice I would climb and I would not falter or look back. The villain would not have their way. I would find the grave and the shade of a lost queen and I knew she would tell me secrets because I, like my father, am tricksy and stealthy at climbing into heads. Even the ghostly ones. I had a name and I carried the thread of Story, so the pretty maids were all bound up with me. I was in a cage, but they were in it with me and so were momentarily safe in the limbo of their strange sleep. There are rules, you see. There is no Story without the Hero, no End without the answer, and no answer without the question.
Did the princess leave her tower before the prince arrived, then there was no Story for the prince to tell. The princess might have her Story, but that would still beg questions and riddles and answers. No Hero. No Story. To this iron framework, this scaffolding of laws, the Story must adhere, climbing brick by brick into the shape it is meant to have. Cathedral or castle. A graveyard or a city. It must follow the path laid by the laws or come crashing down. True, that framework can be assembled a thousand and one ways, into shapes as simple as a single square room or as intricate as vast labyrinths, but the material that makes it is always the same. First the Laws. Then the Words. And, finally, the Story twisting and winding one of them upon the other, becoming itself and, when it must, discarding. That is why there are unwrittens. We -they – are the left behinds, that final bit of thread snipped as the last stitch is laid, things and possibilities that did not fit into the Laws a Story has chosen for its frame. We cannot unexist, but we are not bound by Words, either. Perhaps, somewhere, sometime, Cheshire chased his daughter into Alice’s path and the girl thought to keep her as a friend. Or she carried a lost kitten in her apron from her own world, like Dorothy clinging her Toto. But somewhere, the Story decided against it, even though it had been there all along and that kitten was set aside, so close to a name that it was all she really lacked.
Sometimes you come out in Not-London and find Hook waiting.
Written means trapped. But if you are clever, then you can slip between. Wendy could come into Wonderland and Dorothy could find Peter. For them that is all; they are firmly bound, recognized and known by singular names with a few others they – and all young girls – share. But Hook. Hook is very clever. Clever enough you might ask how Wendy so often leaves him defeated and quietly listening to the tick, tick, ticking of a certain crocodile. The same one my mother carried from the mud black banks of her beloved Nile. That was before he swallowed that clock. Yes, you might ask. Just like you might ask why her victories so often become Peter’s in her retelling.
Hook is the pirate king. The dark shadow of the ocean, the crimson coated brigand. He was clever enough to let Wendy spin him a thousand names and the list seems to grow with every tale she gives us. And, of course, London has always been his, in the sun or in the night, he can slip through Stories on bright, shining threads made of names into all the Londons there have ever been and onto every sea that has ever known a pirate. So, you see, it may be a chain. But, given enough of them, names can also be a bridge to freedom. Of course, you could also ask if Wendy knew that. And, if you are very, very clever, like me, and often caught in curiosity, you might follow her out, one day, to watch Hook scoop her up and hold her to his shoulder. You might hear the most important name she ever gave him, the one that is only her chain for him and realize it is one he wears happily. You might watch through a lamp lit window as he lays her under covers and, tucked in tight, murmurs his pirate tales until she’s sleeping soundly, wrapped in downy safety, far from Peter and his merry band of boys, far, far from Neverland, where, sometimes, Crocodiles will try to catch you and eat you, if they can. Especially if you a young girl.
“Hurry,” he says, mustache tick, tick, ticking. We both know Story likes to keep a certain pace and I can feel it pulling at me, telling me to get moving. He holds out a gloved hand to lift me from the darkness of Not-London’s sewer; the rabbit hole is not always a rabbit hole when you leave it behind.
I leapt from girl to cat, perching on his shoulder. “Where?” I asked him. Perhaps I would not trust him any other time, but I had seen him through that window. His heart might be blacker than the deepest cavern under the earth, but it beat for Wendy.
“If you want to find a grave,” said he, “you need to find a gravedigger.”
“She’s safe,” I said, curling my silver tail around his stubbled neck, like the noose he’s so often thwarted and felt the mad gallop of his heartbeat that made his mustache twitch.
Clever Hook. Villainous Hook. He knows all the dark things, the ugly truths. “She’s not Alice.” And in those words, I saw I wasn’t the only one who’d been following and watching through windows.
I can wish I loved Wendy or Dorothy the way that I love Alice – and I do wish it – but it was not their apron pocket I was tucked into when Story cut me free. It was not their clever fingers that sought me out again in dark places and refused, Laws or no, to accept such a thing. No. Wendy is not Alice and lovely as Dorothy may be, feeding me bits of cheese when I come calling or tossing catnip mice she’s sewed, it was not she that grabbed quick hold of a shadow and willed it back through childish determination. Alice is not as clever as Wendy. But she has her child logic and even Story bows to her stubbornness. “Just because the Words don’t bind it,” she whispered, “does not mean it wasn’t there.” So Wendy isn’t Alice and Story knows which one of them must be there for me to seek the answer. Story always knows.
“By and by, long and long ago, there came a child wandering in the snow.” I said it softly, reminding myself that only I had ever solved that riddle and it was a secret kept between me and my mother. I am the sphinx’s daughter. I would save them all. He turned his head to look at me, periwinkle eyes full of trouble and not so bright as they might once have been, though there were burning coals still buried there, dim, but not dead. There are no cats on Hook’s ship, though other shipmen call us lucky. Hook does not like riddles.
“And down on Camden Lane there came a pretty, prancing maid. A calling and a song, may her beauty never fade.” I regarded him with surprise, for none but Mother and I speak those lines and only to each other; Father has no love of a riddle he cannot solve. That Hook could fit himself into this Story well enough to fool even the Words startled me. Maybe more than it should have. He looked at me for long moments. “If you need to find a gravedigger?” he asked
“You need to find a grave.” He smiled tightly, turned, and I didn’t question him. The time for answering riddles was ahead. first, we must find a caterpillar and there was no doubt that surly creature would not be coming; he has one Story and stays there happily. We’d need another.
For all that Hook makes me jumpy – his is a bloody, ugly history to hear – I was glad to have him. Alice the chants the names and can call them to her the way that a whistle can call the wind if you know just how to pitch it. But Hook walks the city every day. He knows the secret corners. He knows the way to find those hidden little places tucked in like hidden compartments in a drawer. All cities have them and those who live all their lives there know just how to get to them and never consider those quiet, hidden boltholes can’t be found by one who has come from outside because they do not exist for that person.
We weren’t looking for just any grave. So we couldn’t ask just any digger. We needed the gravedigger. Oldest of his line, the first and, if you know his Story, the last. There are few who would know where to find him and fewer still that could visit him without first gaining an invitation. No pirate in the history of pirates has ever cared a whit for appointments or polite warning, and so Hook was a well chosen companion. He turned and walked and turned again, following roads and lanes deeper into that city of shadows and machinery, never hesitating, never bothering with street signs or what sort of men might be lurking in the doorways.
Bloody Hook, Mad Hook, The Butcher of the Seven Seas. Oh, how many names he wears and, sometimes, if you are lucky and know just what sort of thing to bring her, Wendy will weave a tale that is all Hook and has nothing of Peter in it. Oh how many fear him! But not Wendy. Never Wendy. When she tells those tales, when Peter isn’t there to see her, there is a sort of light that shines out from her like a beacon. And how Hook loves her. Hand cut off, haunted by crocodiles and clocks, still he loves her. When his eyes burn with crimson rage, it is never at Wendy. But that does not mean you should not fear him. What grace she has does not extend to others. Even foolish Peter knows that. She is the sole reason Hook hates him, but it is also the reason Peter is still alive. I knew to get well away from Hook’s hook, when the time came. He is as he is. A villain who just happens to have a singular weak spot. But that weakness is not crippling. Not for Hook, who made Blackbeard tremble when he faced him. And, rumor suggests, cut him to ribbons. There are whispers and tales that even Wendy won’t tell. There is no sane man or monster in all the Stories ever told who would not fear Hook in his rage. And when it burned for Wendy’s sake, whole universes could be formed from the heat.
We were seeking gravediggers, a gravedigger, the gravedigger. Walking through the beast of Not-London, grumbling in its sleep, I could look up and see the throats of a thousand factories coughing black ash laced with wild, red sparks, like the ones buried in Hook’s periwinkle eyes into a sky tainted with the hell light of industry. The Machines beneath, always turning, grinding, sighing, humming, pushed us along with their subtle vibrating, like the warning of an earthquake. Hook’s long stride was never a run, but no man running could have paced him. A man will give his daughter a hand. He might give her a leg, did she ask, or even an eye, if that is what she needs to breathe life into her dreams. And that man is not one with which to trifle. If he would give her a hand in play, then imagine how little he would hesitate to take the life of another to save her for real. Imagine. Even if he was not a pirate, how frightening would he be?
And so, when they came, soot streaked ruffians with torn clothes stained gray with ash and hands burnt black by the furnaces throbbing in Not-London’s black, black heart, I never had a moment of hesitation. I leaped quick to a ledge and looked down, girl fingers clutching for purchase on stone. Hook. The captain. The pirate king. If ever I thought I had seen him fight on the sea wet boards of his ship’s deck, I was mistaken. That was only play meant to teach a girl or boy the right way to wield their sword. Here, more than ever before, I saw the master, instead of father, and knew. Even quick and laughing Peter would be dead in less than a heartbeat, did he ever come face to face with the real James Hook. I might have warned him to watch close over Wendy’s heart, so firmly did he own it, but I knew that, between them, never was another girl so well loved and Peter would have turned pirate himself to save her.
I sat upon my ledge, watching, and did not see the others creeping down the ragged brickwork, clinging like dirty spiders. One of them caught me by my shirt, but in the next moment, he had only fur and claws that were made for drawing blood. He wailed and lost his hold, plunging to the ground with a cry. He landed with a crunch. I landed… well. Like a cat ought to. I did not try to flee. I dodged well away from Hook’s fight; I’m no fool. He was in a bloodlust and I’d have fallen as fast as any of them, though he would not have struck me on purpose. Instead I faced my own attackers alone. Not so young as Alice, not so old as Hook, they hadn’t the sense of men, yet, but they were too old for playing games. I hissed and they thought that funny. But I. I am the sphinx’s daughter. My father likes to vanish. But mother likes her meals and taught me how to hunt. I ran back on padded feet, buried claws in the flesh of leg and thigh and buttock, climbing up to land a heavy boot hard and crunching against a nose. A fast leap frog from head to head, tearing scalps and blinding eyes as I went, I was laughing when I landed, cartwheeling away from their small daggers and clumsy chasing. I was a cat as I ran up the wall, clever paws finding holds here, here, and here, and I pushed off in a graceful spin to land my sharp, girl knee in a back to spill a boy in the gutter. Too close to Hook and he would chase no more cats or girls.
I darted through the arm that closed around my middle, my silken coat easily slipping through fingers more used to heavy labor and larger things. Up the rain spout to stand laughing on the ledge of the nearest building. They looked up at me cursing, spitting, and tossing sharp bits of broken bricks. Not one was good enough to hit me and Hook cut through them like a farmer reaping wheat.
Steel flashed bright, sword and hook, tearing flesh and biting throats, slashing, dancing, singing until the blackened stones of the street were washed with fresh rivers of red. Only one left alive. Only one. Cowering, shivering from the blood colored gleam of Hook’s mad eyes, rubbing at his scratched face and looking as though he wished he’d stayed at his furnace shoveling coal.
“Who sent you?” Had he been looking at me, I’d have told Hook everything he wanted to know, including the answer to every riddle I’d ever learned. Give the boy-man some due; he did not give in at once. Not until he began to lose bits of himself to Hook’s furious wish for answers.
“The Dark One,” he cried at last. “That’s all I know ‘im by. He wears a black cloak and his face is always hidden. He comes down into the furnaces sometimes, when he wants somethink dun. He’s always good for the odd bit o’ extra here and there, if you’ve no aversion to knifework.” He was weeping over all he’d lost – he and his friends certainly had not earned the easy bit of silver they had been promised and he’d not get paid enough to ease his personal losses, I would have bet my own fingers on that. Hook left him there, amid the bodies and the bleating cries of women watching from behind the shutters. He whistled me down and I perched upon his shoulder, feeling a little like we must have called all the guards down upon our heads. But no-one tried to stop us; be you in Not-London or the true one, the city knows Hook’s name too well and her truncheon armed guards will not meet with him in battle.
It seemed the tale of Hook’s rage ran before us; shutters and doors slammed closed as we walked through those dark and grimy streets. No-one challenged us again as we made our way to the graveyard in Not-London’s belly, a graveyard of a special sort that not many could find or recognize if they did. If you were to wander Camden Town to Big Ben, searching every alley, you would not catch a glimpse if you don’t know which way to look or how to unfold the city under the city. In this graveyard the tombstones have pages and the story of a life is a Story always remembered. Within its rambling lines, hills, and hollows, behind the iron fence that holds it, there lives a very special gravedigger and it was upon him Hook meant to call.
You’d think so violent a pirate would look completely out of place in places made for wealth. But Hook’s eight gold buttons gleamed in a perfect line down his handsome captain’s coat and his boots were mirrored black to set off the snowy white at throat and cuff. Even so recently employed as they were, hook and sword were polished bright and glinting like stars in the lamplight that lined the paths and no-one challenged his right to be there as he swept past the iron gate. A pirate. But, also, a man of breeding and aristocratic grace who was known in all the Londons and treated with respect, even when they think they need are above the danger of his rage. Sometimes I wonder at Wendy, so wild and unrestrained. She is no lady, not even the vaguest shadow of one. Mother tells me a girl like Wendy is not a reflection of the woman she’ll become, but is flaunting everything she will have to use up and surrender before she gets there.
Hook walked with straight backed strides and maybe you wouldn’t guess, as a cat might, that even here, Wendy meant he would hurt anyone he must. Even the gravedigger. It isn’t as if that cold-fingered creature could truly catch Hook. Even he would find that hard. He’d have to dig a thousand graves and still never get all the names right.
This is not Hook’s Story, even if he’d found a thread to carry him into it. Which meant that it was my turn to show my worth. Hook might protect me, but he can’t spin the Story. He can’t tell the tale or find the answer. To have a name – or a hundred – is to have a place. Heroes must be in ours and guardians in theirs and we each have our roles to play.
The gravedigger. He sits at his long desk, counting out papers and names and graves and there may be other gargoyles, but never has any looked so grim. Pale face stretched long with bones jutting beneath his translucent, blue-veined skin, a lamp perched upon his brow like a third, glaring eye, to help him with his work, fingers smudged black with ink and back bent with all his long labors so that his head is lower than his shoulders, that is the man who knows where all the bodies are buried. I jump down on cat soft feet to walk among his papers, giving not one whit for their order; no cat worth her claws ever would. Tail up, eyes sharp, the plush silver white of my coat glistening like snow and my black spots perfect shadows upon it. He pins me with pale eyes brightened by a million lives sparking, turning, spinning behind the silvered gleam of his glasses.
“You don’t fool me,” says he of the first grave. And the last. His ancient voice is cracking and full of the dust of ages. He is older, even, than my ancient mother and it lies upon him in a thick cloak of scents that speak of times so lost that not one historian remembers they ever were. “I know your name. And I know that you’re afraid.”