Unthinking, I stood and walked to her chair. She wrapped me in her arms and drew me to her lap, the way one might a small child, holding me close.
“Credit me what thou behold without,” she said, “for well mayest thy mind flit skimble-skamble hither and thither, sans one to act as thy questrist, an events prove amiss.”
I closed my eyes. “Open or shut it’s the same,” I slurred, “your face, the forest, the fireplace, the tea.…”
She smiled down at me. “’Tis meet and right an it be so, m’ lief Reggie. But let thy mind beat as I keep thee close, and cheque the cards ’til the right one reduces thee to where thou art meant to be. Then via! Scape thou thence.”
As she said it, I felt myself floating to the treetops. I looked down and saw myself sitting, seemingly asleep, on Bethany’s lap, my head on her shoulder, her arms around me.
She looked up at me, indicating, with a slight movement of her head, that I should get going. I slowly descended at an angle, away from her, my mind in almost a contemplative state. At last, my mind’s eye found a narrow but well-worn trail and began to follow it.
“What dost thou see?” Her voice resonated inside my head.
“A trail,” I replied, “with signs everywherMost of wood, some of stone. A couple are written in runes. Fair few more in what looks like a form of Celtic or old English. Even ones I understand seem to contradict each other. I don’t really know where I’m going. There’s a cat, up in an ancient chestnut tree. I don’t believe it.”
“What dost thou not believe?”
“It looks like the Cheshire Cat – grin and all.”
“A Cheshire Cat?”
I gave Bethany a thumbnail sketch Alice in Wonderland, with particular emphasis on the Cheshire Cat, his role as benevolent trickster and his peculiar abilities and propensities when it came to appearing and disappearing.
“Then thou hath best rise and go after him.”
“Why? He’ll only disappear the instant I get there.”
“All the more reason.” That made no sense at all, but to mollify her, I agreed to do it.
I drifted to the Cat’s perch. He obligingly remained there until I was nearly upon him, then began to fade a bit, as his grin grew wider.
“I do wish you’d cheer up,” he said to me. “You’ve a face like a fourpence, and I shall be obliged to disappear altogether.”
“Surely it’s not as bad as all that,” I replied. “I’m not at all unhappy, only a bit woozy. Sorry….”
“Well, that’s a relief,” said the Cat.
He returned at once to his tangible three-dimensional form, his grin undiminished.
A carved, disk-like mahogany tabletop materialized, levitating between us; in its center was a single antique china cup containing a murky sepia-colored liquid, almost, but not quite, bearing a resemblance to tea.
“Drink up,” he said.
“Thou mayest have a cup of it, if thou wilt, but no more,” I heard Bethany say.
“Thank you,” I said to both of them, and downed the liquid. It was thicker than tea, tasting like a mild kind of cherry-molasses going down, with a slightly tannic aftertaste. It took some getting used to, but it did shake me out of my wooziness, and I couldn’t resist making a proper smile.
“That’s better,” said the Cat encouragingly.
“No more,” Bethany reminded me.
“I heard you,” I grumbled aloud, completely forgetting that Bethany and I could communicate telepathically.
“Are you talking to Wigner?” the Cat asked.
“No,” I sighed, “to my friend Bethany.”
“Is she Wigner?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“I am not,” Bethany said.
“She says she’s not,” I told the Cat.
“Then you’re Wigner?”
“No, I’m Reggie – I’ve no idea who Wigner is.”
The Cat’s grin faded, he looked thoughtful. “You’re not, by any chance, carrying a hammer.”
“Sorry, no,” I said, “it’s not the sort of thing I usually carry with me. Shall I try to fetch you one?”
The Cat’s grin fully returned, and he looked visibly relieved. “Thank you, but no. The hammer must be out on some other branch, and I’d vastly prefer that it went its own way. All the same, I’d best be going, before things collapse around me.” Then he predictably faded away, as if he’d his very own personal dimmer switch, leaving only his grin.
“Throw the string, quick-like,” Bethany said.
It was only then I realized I had a small ball of glowing silver string in my hand. I’d no idea how it got there, or for how long, but I obediently threw it, only to watch the Cat fully reappear like a switched-on light and dive after it.
“After him, Reggie!”
I noticed that now a hole-like disturbance in the ether surrounded the Cat, and dove into the hole after him, just as it closed around us both, encircling my feet like a pair of mukluks before releasing them and letting me drop. This time, the Cat vanished like a light going off.
I was alone.
© 2017, 2016, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.
The Bluebottle Boys (Volume One) and Walking Backward for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall are each now available from Amazon Books. The Bluebottle Boys (Volume Two) is expected to be delayed due to illness and surgery (mine) and to technical problems beyond my control, but should be available late this year or in early 2018. The next novel of the series, By Good Angels Tenanted, will be available later in 2018.