Still for Kat of the Lily Cafe!
The Red Queen’s Lost Grave
“A collar and a bell. Collar and bell.” Tick, tick, tick went Hook’s mustache. I said nothing of the horror those words woke in me. A name. A collar. A bell. Bindings to keep a spirit tame and tied safely to the skin of a singular world. To one Story. “It won’t be found easy. It won’t be just lying about in the street.”
Hook’s heavy boots pounded over cobble and dirt. The streets were empty, as if all the people had heard of our coming. Dirty snow, turned gray by the smoke that pours always from the throats of the stacks, drifted down to melt upon the stones of the street, heated from below by those ever burning furnaces that owned the underside of Not-London.
All Londons have a few things in common. From the Ripper’s London to the glass and steal of the London bankers love best, there are cornerstones, odd bits that belong in everywhere that ever was.
Hyde park has always been a place, a harbor and a haven where the walls are thin and we can all find ourselves, no matter what Story we’re in. Here you see Peter and there you find Alice; these are the places where Story holds more sway than reality.
Hook chose Peter. There was some strange violence in his eyes when he looked upon the metal boy caught mid-caper. The statue looked nothing like the real Peter – who lingers always at that strange threshold between boy and man – yet the spirit was there. Hook hated Peter, hated him the way all men who guard young girls will hate boys of that age. Carefree Peter. Thoughtless Peter. Yet Hook chose his shadow to stand in and of course I understood; he could be no closer to Wendy and this childlike version of Peter, who had none of the forever boy’s dangerous charm, was a link, however poor, to the girl lying too still in a narrow Wonderland bed.
“A collar and a bell,” he whispered. We both knew what we needed. No ordinary collar would do. No ordinary bell. They would need to satisfy Story. And Story already knew what it wanted.
I left him to pace circles around Peter and climbed up, heart beating hard in my chest. The cornerstones are always there, but sometimes twisted, like funhouse mirror reflections of a truer reality that none of us can ever quite touch. Some things are always the same, but the small things might be different. In some Londons, Peter and Alice are far from each other, as distant and separate as planets in space. In Not- London, though, they could wave to each other if they were made of flesh and not metal.
From Peter’s shoulders, pads cold from the snow resting in tiny drifts there, I could see Alice. Sitting on her mushroom, all of Wonderland gathered close. The Hatter, the Dormouse, the Rabbit, all of her favorites gathered there. In her lap was a cat. Most people like to think that it is Cheshire. But if you know my father, you know it is not fat enough, not soft enough, not cat enough, for it still has that kittenish quality that marks it not quite grown. Alice. My beautiful Alice. A collar and a bell. I’ll wear them for her and wear them well, if only I can hear her laughing again.
I saw a child perched there, in front of the mushroom, snow drifting down over blond hair, ragged gray of her coat reminding me that all Londons, all places share more in common than these bolt holes that are stitched tight to truth. There are always children. Wandering the streets, hiding in the dark corners, silently starving while everyone else goes on about living. They are the shadows. Boy, girl, cat, dog, holy dream, they are the forgotten. They are the real world’s unwritten. I remember Alice with a cold, piercing pain to my heart, like an arrow tipped with ice driving through. Warm hands, smelling of flowers, I remember and my desperation now mirrors what I felt then.
I leap down from Peter’s shoulders, boots scraping gravel as I run the paths to find Alice. And to see the girl crouching there, Alice tall and smiling above her, hand outstretched as if to lift her up, the way she one did for me.
The girl looks up at me, blue eyes too big for her tiny, sharp face, hair tangled, cheeks red in the biting wind. Like Alice, she wears a black velvet ribbon and, like Alice, her face is full of willful mischief.
Villain Hook. Pirate captain. Deadly and full of fury. Is there any child that does not know him? Is there any child that doesn’t fear him? Not in any London that ever was is there a child – save Wendy – who does not shiver to see him. His name is whispered in shadows and behind fingers. His shadow haunts the alleys and is whispered in between the ticking of the towering clock that always, always stands over London. Hook. Hook. Hook.
The girl startles away, eyes too wide, reflecting the steely glint of a hook etched with a thousand names. Sinister Hook. She runs, swirls of snow closing in veils at her back and I give chase; she is no bigger than a Wonderland mouse and I, after all, am a cat.
“Why not Oxford?” As we race through the streets gleaming wet under gaslight street lamps, I remember. Alice. My Alice. The Alice that didn’t belong to Wonderland or Oxford, the Alice that spoke in whispers into my triangle ear to tell me the secrets no-one else could ever know, bending so close over me that her breath rippled my fur. Ahead was the girl with a black ribbon in her golden hair, like the bit Alice had given Wendy to change the words just a tiny bit. Just enough to keep a kitten without trapping it. Just enough to give a starving waif a home. Behind is Hook, crimson coat tails flying, hook flashing and I know we must be scaring the girl, but my instincts won’t let me stop chasing.
“Why not Oxford?” I remember blue eyes full of something I did not often see there. Fear.
Everywhere has a no-where. A backside, darkside, shadowside underbelly. Everywhere has a not and that is as true as the masks people wear to keep you from seeing what lurks beneath their smile.
Alice did not flinch from Not-London, frightening though it is. She was not scared of the churning, groaning throb of the machines, did not fear the furnaces or the guards with their faces blackened by the coal dust drifting through air. She had never once refused the shadow of Paris, with its burnt-out shells and crumbling walls, caught in the net of empty, blackened streets and Notre Dame’s crumpled, hunchback shadow over the sluggish, tainted water of the Seine. She had never shrunk from that city she couldn’t name, but whose towering skyscrapers looked like grasping, greedy arms trying to snatch the sun from the sky and the howl of air raid sirens that came with a darkness so complete even I couldn’t see. But Oxford? If we came up into her city and found the trees were gone and the river was dry, if we came up and found the university in ruins and the streets full of the sound of marching boots, Alice would not stay, not for a minute.
“Why, Alice?” It was the first time I ever demanded an answer. And it was the last; an innocent question can bite deep and weave nightmares, if you don’t leave it be when you ought to.
“Because he’s there.”
Her face was flushed and her eyes gleamed wet. “Don’t ask about him. I won’t say his name. He’s the shadow man.” The way she looked at me was heartbreaking. “He wants me. But he can’t reach me in Wonderland.”
“Nobody can be worse than the Red Queen,” I scoffed.
“He can,” she had whispered and oh how she trembled, the smell of fear coming off her in waves that made me feel ill with the sickly sweetness of it filling my lungs.
“But how is that possible?” The Red Queen was bright and terrible, still herself, then, cutting off heads and wailing curses from the windows of her palace, demanding white roses be red and sending her playing card guards in search of clever little Alice.
And Alice looked at me, eyes too wide, tears trailing silent down her flushed cheeks. “Because he’s real.”
So lost in memory am I – because isn’t it odd to find myself in Not-London when it should have been Black Oxford – that I nearly miss the girl’s twist to the right into a narrow alley and the quick crouch and slide that lets her vanish into a narrow sewer grate.
I don’t hesitate, but slide after her; no cat worth her salt has ever refused a hole she can squeeze through. And down I go, into the dark. Only it isn’t all dark. It is lit by flickering torches and the dripping wet is full of familiar smells. The wafting air carries the scent of human refuse, the smell of the furnaces and their coal. It smells of burning things and rotting things and unwashed things. It reeks of despair and lost hope. The air itself tells the tale of this place and every day it grows worse.
Every city has another city underneath, one it carries with it through all its incarnations. For some it is a haven, for others it is a place they don’t dare to tread. For me, it is a place I have known too well. Before Alice. Before a pocket that smelled of flowers. Before golden hair and words bent sideways to make a tiny hole for an unwritten ball of fur, there was this place and there were the men that tried to put me in a cage. Before Alice, this was my home.
Even as Hook curses words that make all of Not-London tremble, trying to call me back, I keep on. I know the sensible thing would be to turn back, to perch upon his wide shoulder and show him the other doorway. But the girl is nearly vanished and I can not stop being a cat. So I run after her, toward the undercity, the darkest of all cornerstones, the place where I took my first breath, the city made by people that nobody wanted.