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After Looking-Glass

BY EMILY HITTNER-CUNNINGHAM

Honorable Mention for the 2013 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Marlin Barton

 

         It’s a hot day in late July and much too sunny. Under the white canopy of the tent in the sprawling yard the humidity is stifling. Alice’s dress is blue, and she fought to have it that way. She rejected, as a matter of principle, the pink bridesmaid’s dress and locked herself in her room until she got her way. Sitting in her room with her sister an hour before the wedding, she wept, but now she is sullen and irritable. Now she is sitting with the other bridesmaid, not listening to the ceremony.

         Rising from her dull daydream for a moment, she hears the priest ask if anyone knows of a reason why the marriage should not go forward. She is about to shout out but then it is too late, and in any case, she has no reason that a priest would accept. She goes back to staring into space. A fly, who is certainly not on the guest list, buzzes about her sister’s veil. The look on her face, as she no doubt tries to keep herself from swatting it, makes Alice want to laugh. She catches her sister’s eye, and they exchange a quick smile. Her sister turns away. She is too old now to share their private jokes.

         During the reception, relatives Alice does not remember envelope her in overwhelming hugs. She hates how these adults pretend to be so glad to see her and then forget she is there in an instant. Afterward, her sister brings her trunk down from her room. She has to convince the maid not to bring it down for her – Alice understands, in the way in which sisters understand each other, that she wants a few more moments alone in the house. They say goodbye on the gravel road out front, and then her sister steps into the carriage and is gone.

On summer nights she never sleeps
but goes out and listens
for the thunderstorm she knows will come.

         Weeks after the wedding, Alice sits in the living room, wondering what she would be like if she had never fallen down that rabbit-hole, never discovered she could climb through the looking-glass. Staring at her own reflection, she feels a small spark of excitement. She climbs up onto the mantle and at first simply touches the glass, trying to reach through it again. When she finds it solid, she pounds at it. Finally she cracks it with an umbrella she pulls out of the horribly fussy pink umbrella stand. Sitting on the floor among the shards of glass, she sobs until she hears thunder in the distance and laughs, opening the umbrella. Tempting fate, she thinks: breaking a mirror and opening an umbrella indoors on the same day.

They tell you: “stay away from this mad child.
She breaks all promises, does her best
to bring bad luck on herself,
tempting God to strike her down.”

         In August, Alice’s parents come home to find the looking-glass over the mantle shattered and her dancing about the house with an open umbrella, exclaiming about a thunderstorm. It hasn’t rained in months.

         When she sees them, she drops the umbrella and rushes over, grabbing her mother’s wrists.

         “You can see the lightning everywhere – oh, look, over there, it’s flashing again. We won’t need to light lamps tonight – ”

         “Alice – ”

         “But you have to be careful – keep moving or it will hit you – ”

         “Alice, you’re inside –”

         “If you go fast enough God won’t catch you –”

         “Don’t talk like that, Alice –”

         “He’ll never be able to send me to hell now that I’ve learned to dance.”

         Her parents are concerned about her health and brain. She’s too pale, too thin, too absentminded. Nowadays she doesn’t even smile.

         She has always been an odd child – her manners are not exactly bad, but she has always been excessively curious. Tending the new-born kittens with her mother, she asked her, “Why don’t we have fur like cats?” To her father, as they came home in the rain from church, “Why does rain fall in drops?” And to her sister a few weeks before her marriage as they were sitting on the bank together, “If I gathered enough bird feathers and tied them to my arms, could I fly?” Still, none of it was too bad, too noticeable until now.

“Don't listen to this mad child.
She's dangerous,” they say,
speaks no poetry, only lies.”

         The day after the looking-glass incident is a Sunday. In church, Alice sits quietly in her pew, twisting lacy strips of her dress around her fingers. She resists the temptation to tap the heels of her shoes against the stone floor, to speak out loud the words of the poem chasing its tail in her mind. She listens grudgingly to the sermon because she has forgotten how to daydream. In her mind she makes a check-list of the preacher’s blasphemy: he speaks of sin and hellfire, of sinners and guilt and those who are not children of God.

         Tossing down the lace of her skirt, Alice stands up, fists clenched at her sides. “You’ve found the wrong God,” she yells, and storms down the aisle. Her father shrinks back in the pew, covering his face with one hand but her mother stands up, trying to control the sound of her rustling skirts. Outside, Alice sits on a low wall in the garden and glares at the cobblestones. Through the open door of the church, she sees her mother coming, crossing herself as she leaves the pew. Alice fidgets with the pale pink dress again. (She had been in a daze that morning, still dreaming of the thunderstorm, and had not even thought to insist on another dress.) Her mother kneels beside her and watches her face. Finally, Alice lets go of the lace and looks up. “I hate this color.” It is the only thing she says for weeks.

         Then, one night, she sits in the gardens at dusk looking up in wonder at a few fireflies when her father joins her. She points up at the hovering, shimmering insects, smiling, and says “Faeries.” She turns to her father and sees that he is not looking at this miracle she has discovered but at her, with worried eyes – she sees all too clearly both his concern for her and his lack of amazement. She turns away, smile fading, and lets her hand fall to her lap.

This girl who pours secrets out on the streets like gold
preparing the earth for her strange deity
drinks honey like wine and speaks to the sky.

         After that Sunday they try to keep her quiet, keep her from going outside, but she becomes increasingly hard to control. They can’t take her to be looked at, of course (the scandal!), but what should they say when people ask them how she is? Their excuses for her behavior are quickly becoming obvious. They can never tell anyone that she sings children’s songs to herself and that some days she refuses to eat anything but plum cake. They cannot explain to people that they find her in the library looking at constellation charts and that she sneaks out at night even in the cold of late fall to stargaze. This is what they tell no one: madness in the family. Sometimes they catch themselves thinking she would bless them all by dying.

Do not listen. Try to soothe the lost child,
impatient, always, for the next spring’s thunderstorms,
perhaps, or messenger-pigeons to carry love letters.

         Sometimes Alice hears her parents speak about her. In late October, she sits on a straight-backed chair outside the library and listens. “She will never marry,” her mother says.

         Alice, too, has given up the idea of marriage. To console herself, she has written stacks of letters to her love (a star-crossed love, of course, for the poetry of it), but she hasn’t found any messenger-birds to carry them. He is beautiful and tall, with dark hair and eyes. It is he who taught her the names of the stars: Rigel, Vega, Capella, Polaris. Now he’s gone far, far away. There is no hope of reunion. She will spend her life alone, and that will show them how cruel they have been to keep her from this love (never mind that she has mentioned him to no one). Perhaps she’ll write desperately sad sestinas that no one will find until after her death and then they’ll weep for her. Of course she will have to die young and most theatrically. (She is considering flinging herself out the window, but she doesn’t want to crush the deep red rose-bushes beneath.)

         Among the stacks of poems she has written or copied out of books is one without an author’s name (titled “Caring for the Lost Child”), but she does not remember writing it. It is the one that goes round and round in her head, but she can never remember all the pieces. She reads it again and again and again, but as soon as she looks away from the page, she forgets it all over again.  It troubles her that she does not know who wrote it.

         She stands up and walks back to her room, where she pulls the bundles of letters out from under her pillow and looks at them for a moment before stuffing them far under her bed.

In winter she climbs a high hill
so she can stand, freezing, at the top
and scream blasphemy in the icy wind.          

         It is perhaps three or four in the morning when Alice sits up in bed, shivering. It is winter now, and she has a habit of keeping her windows open to let in the fresh air. There is a single thought in her mind that she can’t chase away. What if she has already grown up? Adulthood is her perpetual fear, but it only occurs to her now that it perhaps it is no longer in the future. It is her nightmare that woke her up. She dreams of little monstrous insects that creep through cracks in the plaster ceiling and from under the carpet and burrow into her skin, slowly turning her to stone. Perhaps they are under her skin now, and maybe soon it will begin to crack at the surface and the insects will crawl out, leaving her frozen.

         She wonders why she can’t be a little child again, so that she could fear a monster under the bed. A monster can be fought. She could have a most heroic death at the very least, but these insects frighten her because she does not know how to fight them.

         Throwing off the comforter, she gets up.  She wraps herself in her shawl and puts on her slippers. In the hallway, the soft bottoms of her slippers let her slide about on the smooth wooden floor, and that makes her smile. Smiling frightens the insects.

         She was so angry in church when they told her to fear the day of the Lord. “No, that’s all wrong. It will be wonderful. A cloudy day, I think, with plenty of thunder and people dancing about for joy. This God is like the rosebushes, with their sweet smelling flowers and their terrible thorns.” (She smiles when she remembers how haughty they’d been when she’d spoken to them all those years ago. Since then they haven’t shown their faces, but she hopes they’ve learned better manners by now.)

         Now she has come to the front door. As she opens it, she can feel the sharp cold on her skin, but she will not get a coat. The insects from her nightmares don’t like the cold, don’t like her delight in it. They scamper away as she thrills to the biting cold of her feet in the snow. She pulls off her shawl and hangs it by the door. A thin golden chain with a pearl dangling from it slips out of the pocket and onto the floor. Alice picks it up. She steps outside and closes the door, fingering the necklace – it is her sister’s, an ornament Alice has not seen in years. She undoes the clasp and fastens it around her neck. She makes her way out to the back and trudges up the hill, going slowly as her numb feet begin to resist.

         At the top of the hill, the wind is stronger, unrestrained by the trees below. She can see their leafless branches wiping through the air. The sheer cold of it hits her and she stretches out her arms to pull it all in, letting her shawl drop from her shoulders. The ice forces its way through the pores of her bare arms, numbs her fingers and ears. Her ears are full of the whistling song of the wind.

         “I’m here. I’m here on this bloody cold mountain top, God, and where are you? Up in your damnable heaven where you never feel anything? There are no thunderstorms in your heaven, so what do you have. I’d rather be in hell, thank you. At least there are flames there, and fire is passion.” Her voice has risen to a scream, drowning out the wind in her ears. Her nightgown flaps around her ankles. “I will not be ashamed. I will not repent. I am the mad child on the hill and you can’t strike me down now that I’ve learned to dance.”

         She remembers the words of the poem clearly now.

She wants only to be crushed
by a thousand angry archangels
ready to restore the honor
of their mysterious God.

         Panting and out of breath from yelling, she leans down and pulls all the cold of the air into her lungs. She looks up into the gray sky of early dawn and sees no lightning bolts. Her God is there somewhere, smiling at her daring, in a heaven with cloudy skies and long, sleepless summer nights. How silly of them not to see this. She begins to make her way down the hill, skipping and dancing and laughing.

Tell the lost child children’s tales
and tuck her in at night;
thank God for her silence as she sleeps.

         A few hours after dawn, her father finds her shivering violently on a wooden chair in the Hall. The clattering of her teeth echoes against the stone walls. Her feet and fingers and lips are blue and as he reaches out for her hand, he can feel the chill that surrounds her. To him, her skin feels as cold and tough stone, but to her, it seems to dance and burn with life.

         “Alice?”

         She looks at him, smiling, but she does not speak.

         Her father carries her to her bedroom like he did when she was a child and too sleepy after dinner to walk up the stairs. As he climbs, she feels herself drifting back into sleep, but the nightmares won’t return tonight. She’ll dream up a new adventure, vivid and real as they always were before.

         Alice is asleep when her father lays her down on her bed and pulls the covers up to her chin. He hurries then to wake her mother and tell her that Alice is freezing, Alice is dying. She runs, hair tumbling about her shoulders, to Alice’s room. Her father rushes down to call a doctor.

         Downstairs, he orders the just-woken maid to put a kettle on the stove for a hot water bottle and rides to the doctor’s house. He cannot stop remembering the coldness of her skin and that smile. It is so rare for her to smile now. She looked just like a child when he lifted her up. The weight of her head against his shoulder as she drifted off to sleep had been familiar. How long has it been, he wonders, since he had done that? If she had known that day that it wouldn’t happen again for years, would she have cried? And what had she been thinking, going outside? When he stepped out he saw footsteps, and there were her slippers, sitting neatly side by side on the step. (She had not wanted to get them wet.)

         Upstairs in the bedroom, Alice sleeps. Her mother sits by her side and rubs her hand to force warmth back into her as she dreams. When her father returns with the doctor in his crumpled suit, he puts a hand on his wife’s shoulder. She turns her head a little and looks up at him, but then returns her attention to the child.

         As she sleeps there is a break in the cold weather – the sun, so long absent, comes out and begins to melt the snow. On the hill, a simple necklace is tangled in the damp green grass, glinting in the sunlight. She waits to wake up to a world of ice, so she can sit inside wrapped in a blanket and stare with a child’s wonder at the swirling snow. In her mind, she is in a beautiful country where a storm rages, travelling toward the mountains and meeting all manner of strange creatures on the way. They point her in different directions before they vanish into the confusion of wind and rain. Occasionally, the fog will clear and she can see the blue mountains in the distance. When she is too tired to go any farther, she curls up among the trees, safe from the wind and rain, and sleeps. When she reaches the mountains, she will climb and climb up above the tree line, where snow falls, soft and sweet, and as she sleeps the snow will begin to fall again outside her window.

Wait for her to wake, and when she does,
kiss her on the forehead and tell her
you’ve been waiting all your life
to fall in love with her.

 

 

Emily Hittner-Cunningham has been published in Hanging Loose and The Louisville Review, and is the recipient of numerous national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She was also a 2013 YoungArts Finalist.