What a peculiar clattering... "Wake up, creature!" voices shrilled, and Alice sat up, blinking in the sun. Where was her cosy rocking chair?
She found herself on a mound of fish nets, overlooking a lavender sea. A row of oysters balanced on the sand, clapping their shells like castanets.
"What a hideous creature," one cried. "How can it live without a shell?"
"I am a child, a human child," Alice said with dignity.
"Whatever you are, there's a creature like you yonder, under the dune. And the tide is rushing in like a train." Snapping shut the oysters dove into a wave.
"I wish they'd stay and explain," Alice said to herself. "Curiouser and curiouser." Getting up, she trotted towards the dune, where something twinkled like a star, just out of reach of the foaming waves. Metal, partly buried in the sand?
She thought she heard a familiar groaning. Then a horse stepped from behind the dune -- still loaded with a mousetrap, a beehive, and bunches of carrots -- and stood placidly gazing out to sea: the White Knight's horse. He himself lay sprawled on his back in his ill-fitting tin armor, like a helpless toy, head to the encroaching waves.
"Oh what happened to you?" Alice knelt beside him.
"I got stuck, like a fish in marmalade." He tapped his horse-head helmet, which gave off a hollow sound, as if the Queen had already cut off his head. Or maybe he had learned to walk around, invisible, as the Cheshire Cat?
"Wait, I'll help you." She tugged at his helmet, and tumbled backwards onto the sand.
"That's better," he mumbled, "thank you, dear. Now I can see the sea. A good thing too, since it sees me... At least it should." His large, mild eyes glowing like a near-sighted sheepdog's, he beamed at Alice as if not surprised to see her again; as if she'd never left the Looking Glass world.
She thought she remembered waking up, however, while she shook the little Red Queen -- which turned into Dinah's black kitten, back at home. She thought she remembered the years running past, with many disappointments. Or was that all a dream?
"Were you jousting with another knight just now?" she asked, to cover her confusion.
"No, I was searching for the Cheshire Cat's leash, after he ran away in the woods. I fell into my helmet and got stuck. The Queen will be angry as a Jabberwock. I'm supposed to bring the cat to her garden party, to keep the mice away from her teas."
"Her cheese, you mean?"
"No, I mean her precious teas, which show poor eyes the truth... Mice are very fond of teas, you know. They like to go to the Mad Hatter's parties."
Alice peered up at the cloudless sky. "Well, you'd better hurry and find that cat. The sun is high, so it must be almost noon."
"We always have plenty of time, my dear. And a good thing too, since the cat ran off after mushrooms which hadn't grown. Do help me find him; you are young, and your eyes must be sharp as sewing needles. Not like mine. I can't find my own way out of my helmet."
"Only if you promise to walk," she said firmly, "so I don' t have to keep on helping you climb back into the saddle, like I did before."
"Very well." He nodded amiably, and they set off for the distant wood. Rambling after them, the horse snorted, carrot greens dangling from its mouth.
"If the Cheshire Cat ran away in the woods, whatever were you doing on the beach?" Alice asked to make conversation.
"My horse hoped to catch some fish, to fry in a pan. Which is fine, so long as they're goldfish or starfish, not a shark."
"That reminds me of a poem," Alice said to her own surprise. "Would you like to hear it?"
"I love words that rhyme and chime," he said; "they help to pass the time." So she began:
Twinkle, twinkle little shark,
Like a diamond in the dark.
How I wonder what you eat
When you tire of horses' feet.
"Oh dear, that does not sound right," she said sadly. "Not like we learned in school."
"But it was right as a poem can be, since they can say anything. And you see how my steed wears proud spikes around each hoof: my own invention. To keep the sharks away," he said modestly.
"Is that really necessary?"
"My dear, do you see any sharks on this beach?"
"No, but I don't see mice here either." She pointed at the trap on his horse's saddle. "Maybe your mousetrap frightens them away?"
"Well the point of a trap is not to catch mice, but to have it, just in case."
"Just for show?"
"Like the great part of words, ornamental and choice; an excuse, if you will, for employing the voice..."
"Wait, I believe I see a grin shining over there. Look at that -- halfway up the pine tree. Like a diamond necklace." They had almost reached the dark woods. "Could it be the Cheshire Cat?"
Peering down, the grinning face exclaimed: "What took you so long to materialize?"
"You were the one who ran away," the knight complained, "searching for mushrooms that give you good dreams."
"But you were the one who got lost." Slowly the cat waved a bushy tail tip, which looked strange without any tail.
"Please, never mind," Alice urged. "I understand the Queen is waiting for you both."
"Let her wait, till I'm ready to look at her again -- the foul-tempered creature," said the cat. "For a cat may look at a queen, you know. And she should be kinder, at her age. She should keep her words sweet, in case she has to eat them. Or she might choke on her hard words."
"That reminds me of another poem," said Alice. "Come along with us and I will tell you what it is."
"Harrumph," said the cat; but slowly its legs, its neck and tail took form. It leaped down from the tree with a single bound, and offered its shaggy head for her to pet. (This she did very carefully as its glittering teeth looked sharp as knives). As the knight led the way down the sun-dappled trail, clanking along in his ill-fitting armour, Alice recited, loud and clear, as if called upon in school:
"You are old, Mother Hubbard," the chimney sweep said,
"And your hair it is turning paste-white,
And yet you wear bellbottoms, velvet and lace.
Do you think at your age it is right?"
"In my youth I dressed grim as a clergyman's clerk;
I only wore whale-boned sacks;
But now I am three-score and counting, my boy,
And I know what I need to relax."
"You are old, Mother Hubbard," the chimney sweep said,
"And your cupboard is bare as a bone,
And yet you give parties as if you were Queen.
Couldn't you save more money alone?"
"In my youth I saved money and stayed just as poor,"
She answered with mischievous glee,
"So I might as well fling all my coins out the door
And make people as happy as me."
"You are old, Mother Hubbard," the chimney sweep said,
"And you should be thinking of God.
Instead you go dancing the night into day;
Don't you think it is vulgar and odd?"
"What is odd is the wonder -- and that is enough,"
She giggled and gave him a whack.
"Now brush out the chimney while day is still light
Or I'll waltz you to London and back."
"I've heard better poems head-first down a mouse hole," hissed the Cheshire Cat.
"But I didn't write it," Alice said quickly, "and I don't know who did. It didn't sound like the one in my schoolbook..."
"In any case, reciting poems is prohibited in this woods." Nose in the air, a white rabbit in a coat and tails blocked their path.
"We are on the way to the Queen's garden party." The knight drew his rusty sword.
"In that case, you may pass," said the rabbit with importance. "If you pay the toll."
"Highway robbery," the cat harrumphed.
"And how much is the toll?" Alice turned out her skirt pockets: quite empty.
"One mushroom per each pair of legs. That makes seven mushrooms, counting the horse."
Resheathing his sword, the knight gazed meaningfully at the Cheshire Cat, who reached into his belly fur and extracted three wrinkly mushrooms.
"Is this what you have in mind?" the cat asked the rabbit.
"I never have anything in my mind," he retorted. "So I won't be distracted from serving the Queen." Greedily he pocketed the mushrooms, without counting them.
"If you serve her Majesty, why don't you come along?" the knight asked in a friendly tone. "There will be cheese for all on the meadow, and rabbits are very fond of cheese."
"I thought you said that teas would be served," said Alice.
"Teas and cheese, and whatever you please," he soothed. "We won't have to beg for food on our knees."
"Cheese makes me sneeze," said the rabbit. "But I have nothing better to devour at home." Turning to the horse, he warned: "Mind you don't step on my delicate paws." Clattering the mousetrap on the beehive, the plump horse whinnied and pranced, and the odd companions continued on the path.
What a strange parade, thought Alice. Maybe I am only dreaming it. She pinched her little finger, but didn't wake... Would she miss her appointment this afternoon with the arthritis doctor? What time was it anyway? The sun still hung high in the sky, as if it hadn't budged.
Soon she heard voices in confusion, along with a soft, thwacking sound -- as if someone was energetically beating a drum with a feather duster. Emerging on a hillside with her companions, she saw a meadow spread out below, with diverse birds and animals playing a game like badminton.
Except they were all playing at once -- with cricket bats instead of rackets -- and squeaking and barking and hooting and howling like a zoo run mad. And the net seemed a zigzag, woollen scarf almost as long as a train, and the patient Sheep from the Looking Glass store still was adding on to it... The old ewe sat ensconced on a giant mushroom, clacking many pairs of glittering needles in her front hooves.
Meanwhile, the shuttlecock -- which looked like the Mad Hatter's Hat, but rumpled and half-crushed -- came wafting down, once again, after a rude swat from a dodo. Loudly complaining, a pair of turquoise pigeons fluttered out of the hat: "We have had enough of your racket. It can fly by itself, or not at all." And off they fluttered into the woods, leaving the hat on the grass.
"That's it -- the end of the game!" blared the Queen. Striding up to the net, she waved an eggbeater over her head. "Now serve me my tea and cheese, I say."
"Looks like we got here just on time." The White Rabbit reached for a silver platter.
"I told you we had plenty of time," the knight said contentedly, spreading his hands wide in front of his nose and studying them. "Yes, I always have time on my hands, so I can give plenty of it away."
"Would you like some hot tea?" The March Hare asked Alice, rolling a silver samovar on a pushcart up to her feet.
"Yes, please, I will," she said politely, and he poured her a steaming, fragrant cup. She carried it over to a well-polished tree stump and sat down. Bright butterflies frolicked around her ankles, and she felt happy and giddy, as if she'd been dancing for as long as her heart desired.
As she gazed into her tea, however -- which smelled like country apples and honey -- she spied a white-haired, aged woman gazing back, with skin as wrinkly as a prune forgotten in the bottom of a box, in the back of the larder.
"Oh dear." Alice asked the White Knight, standing beside now her with a wedge of cheese in his hand. "Is this how I really look?" She pointed at the ruin in her cup.
"Not to me," he soothed. "You remain the same little girl -- like a puffy baby swan -- we met before."
"But if you leave," warned the Cheshire Cat, flashing sharp teeth; "I mean, if you leave this story, you surely will grow old and withered and die, like any other creature from beyond the See."
"In that case, maybe I should stay here with you? That reminds me of a poem... Would you like to hear it, friends?"
"Does it rhyme?" the knight inquired.
"I don't know, but here we go..."
"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"We've had a lot of fun;
Shall we be heading home again?"
"Oh no, we've just begun
To understand the wonder
In this nonsense, never done."
* * *