Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Janet Asimov: Another Alice Universe

Janet Asimov

I suspected nothing when Aunt Alice gave me one of her down coats, not even after I put it on, glanced into the hall mirror, and immediately felt dizzy. I didn't report this to my aunt, who was standing by looking slightly anxious, because I was afraid she'd stop me from going out.

The coat was white, with tight-fitting sleeves that puffed at the shoulder seams. The top was molded to the chest, but from the waist down it descended stiffly outward, for the down padding had been sewn into bulging horizontal rings.

"Thank you," I said, to be polite. "I won't be cold now."

Aunt Alice nodded. "You Californians always arrive during a Manhattan winter wearing only thin raincoats bought, no doubt, for those years your rainy season lives up to its name. This coat is warm, and you are so young that it doesn't make you look like the White Queen. In fact, it's probable that the coat won't give someone like you any trouble."

I didn't ask her to explain what she meant because Dad had warned me that his oldest sister—who has always been a bit strange, especially since she was widowed—was given to odd remarks that create suspense, perhaps because she makes a living writing peculiar novels.

Besides, I assumed she meant that the coat was lightweight enough to be carried easily, which I found to be the case as I went through various museums.

I also found it hard to concentrate on the museums, for I kept thinking about Aunt Alice and her mention of the White Queen. My aunt's real name is Alicia, but no one's called her that since childhood, when she had long, straight blonde hair like the girl in Lewis Carroll's book. I was named after her, and I also have long, straight blonde hair. But there, I used to think, the resemblance ended.

I have always prided myself on being as logically rational as my dad. We don't read much fiction. For us, down-to-earth reality is enough, and we always keep our cool.

That is, I did until a couple of months ago when I heard that my ex-boyfriend had married someone else. I guess Mom and Dad got tired of seeing me mope around the house, suffering over the permanence of my loss, and not getting at applications for business school. When Aunt Alice suggested that I visit her, my parents handed me an airline ticket and wished me well.

The book arrived just before I was due to leave California. It was an old copy of Alice in Wonderland, bound in faded purple leather. Enclosed was a note from Aunt Alice saying, "Please read this book on the plane and be sure to take careful note of the plot of the second story."

I had never read it before, you see. She'd asked me that when we talked on the phone about my trip. She seemed both amused and dismayed when I said I'd only seen the movie.

So I read Alice in Wonderland during the plane trip, and I must say it was a lot more somber and peculiar than the movie. I fell asleep thinking that the second story, "Alice Through the Looking-Glass," was darker and full of anticipatory sadness over loss. Not Alice's sadness, for she wasn't sad. The author's.

The plane was landing at La Guardia airport when I woke up, my mind churning with the book's last words—"Life, what is it but a dream?" Nonsense, I thought.

I was relieved when Aunt Alice didn't grill me about the book she'd sent, and permitted me to go right out sightseeing. And there I was at the Metropolitan Museum, not experiencing any "trouble" until I visited the ladies' room. While there, I put on the down coat and looked in the mirror.

Instantly I was dizzy, so dizzy that the mirror seemed to mist over and I thought I was going to faint—toward the mirror, which unaccountably terrified me. I turned around and ran out of the museum to get a taxi back to my aunt's apartment.

By the time I arrived, I was feeling perfectly well—until I opened Aunt Alice's front door and saw myself in her hall mirror. This, too, became misty and I experienced what seemed to be a mysterious pull upon my person.

I was about to call out to my aunt when I thought carefully and logically, as Dad trained me to do. The dizziness had occurred before, when I had the coat on indoors. The problem was merely that a Californian is unused to the cold outdoor temperatures and the high inside temperatures that New Yorkers somehow survive. I peeled off the down coat and immediately felt cooler and better.

I unpacked, gave Alice in Wonderland back to my aunt, and after dinner we talked. I told her what I'd seen at the museums and she listened, although, as Dad had predicted, she did glance occasionally at her computer with what may have been suppressed longing. Her computer, by the way, contains software only for word processing. Aunt Alice doesn't play video games and she can't even do spreadsheets!

At one point, I said, "Aunt Alice, Dad says you've been awfully down in the dumps, at least you were when he visited a year ago. What was the problem?"

Aunt Alice did not bridle at my intrusiveness, as any of my other relatives would have. She said, "To paraphrase

Lewis Carroll, it had something to do with knowing that eventually all of us are but older children, fretting to find bedtime near."

"Are you dying?" I asked in horror.

"I'm quite well, but everyone does die, you know. Except the great authors. I'm now sure they live on. Tolkien's still there in Middle Earth; Kenneth Grahame messes about with boats under the willows; and Charles Dodgson will always be Lewis Carroll."

"You are speaking metaphorically, of course."

"Of course, dear niece. Do you know that for a while I even went through a nasty period of being envious of other people, particularly children with all their future ahead of them, but now I'm trying to achieve a moderately serene acceptance of things as they are, at least here. Can you, dear?"

"I hate accepting things as they are," I said, thinking of that louse, my ex-boyfriend. I could feel myself scowling. "It's too bad you can't change reality."

"That depends on what reality you're talking about," Aunt Alice said. "I hope you read Alice."

"Yes, but I'm afraid I'm not big on fantasy."

"It's a pity you are so much like your dear father," said my aunt. "Otherwise… but then it's a pity I haven't the courage to right my own wrongs."

I didn't have the faintest idea what she was talking about, and since I was very sleepy from tackling Manhattan so soon after leaving California, I went to bed early.

That night I dreamt, not about my ex-boyfriend for a change, but about going from one mirror to another, trying to see my reflection but never catching it before the mirror misted up.

When I woke, Aunt Alice was not in the apartment. Pinned to the bathroom door was a note saying she was out buying jam, croissants and eggs, and would return soon to make breakfast.

As I waited for her, I kept thinking about the dream, and finally I went to the hall mirror, the only one in the apart-ment that's full-length. No mist, no dizziness, and I saw myself clearly. My brow was distinctly clouded, my eyes tired, and I looked so woebegone it was no wonder Mom and Dad had sent me away. I was an insult to California.

There was no reason to put on the down coat because I wasn't going out in the Manhattan winter until after a warm breakfast, promised me by Aunt Alice. But I put it on.

The mirror promptly became blurry. I rubbed my eyes, but it stayed blurry, and I was soon so dizzy I keeled over toward the mirror. To keep from falling, I put my hand on the surface of the mirror—and went right through!

I wasn't frightened because, as a logical realist, I immediately assumed that I was ill, no doubt feverish, and having hallucinations based on that damned book.

I seemed to be walking through a forest composed of ancient trees and scanty underbrush, in the company of an old lady wearing an expression of featherbrained stupidity, a long garment very much like my down coat, a shawl around her shoulders, and a crown on her very messy white hair.

"It's jam every OTHER day: today isn't any OTHER day, you know," she said.

"I don't care. I'll eat eggs." I don't know why I said that. It just came out.

The White Queen—she could be no other—gasped and stopped so abruptly that pins cascaded from her shawl while a comb and brush fell out of her hair. She looked every bit of one hundred and one years, five months and a day.

Before I could remember whether or not that really was her age or merely a joke, she took a good look at me.

"Botheration. I've already believed six impossible things and I'm ready for breakfast, not for another impossibility."

"I'm sorry," I said, to make up for starting things off badly with eggs. Then, before I could stop myself, I asked, "Well, where's Carroll? Or Dodgson?"

A suddenly shrewd glint came from the faded blue eyes of the White Queen, and she whispered, "Here. Everywhere.

An echo in memory, a holding fast in the nest of gladness, a shadow of a sigh. No matter what happens. Checkmate."

"Well, I hardly think…"

"It's not your job to think, hardly or otherwise. It's your job to do something about the bad changes. Make a memorandum of it, and don't omit your feelings."

"What bad changes?" Then I remembered the book's plot. "The child Alice is supposed to be here before you. Where is she?"

"Little Alice, my White Pawn, had been doing well through the first two squares," the White Queen said with a melancholy bleat in her voice, "and she even kept up with the Red Queen's race. She's had amnesia and lost it; she's coped with the identical twins (all identical twins being mirror images of each other, you know), but now she's…"

The White Queen stopped and suddenly screamed as piercingly as the whistle of a steam engine.

"What's the matter?"

"Oh, oh, oh, oh! Mixed up! Still mixed up! Since that awful old Alice was here. Any moment now there'll be death and disaster…"

"Is that why you screamed? Over something that hasn't happened yet?"

"Well, of course," said the White Queen. "I'm the only one around here who can remember what's going to happen in all the Alice universes. I live backwards, so I remember backwards and forwards, real and unreal, young and old, light and dark, summer and winter, autumn and July, hither and yon, now and then…"

I interrupted, because it seemed as if she'd go on forever. "You haven't told me what the bad changes are."

"It was her fault. That old Alice, wearing my clothes just the way you are, implying that little Alice turns into me, which wasn't the case and shouldn't happen to a nice child. Pawns turn into Queens if they're lucky, but their own sort, not somebody else's."

"You don't make any sense," I said angrily. "My Aunt

Alice gave me this coat and I can't help it being like yours. Anyway, you're merely part of a feverish hallucination and I'm not only not a chess piece, I'm not part of any fictional game."

"Fiction?" The White Queen plucked at her drooping shawl. "If it makes you happier to think that way, go ahead. But I do wish you could remedy the situation."

"What situation?"

"Little Alice never meeting the White Knight. It will break his heart. Your aunt should have been punished for her envy, but perhaps you're here as a substitute. You'll be the better for the punishment, I know."

"I don't intend to be punished."

"But you are. She sent you here, without a word of advice, and if you don't fix things I'm going to order that you won't get even jam during the next week of Tuesdays."

"I have nothing to do with any of this," I said, struggling to remind myself that I must be feverish. It seemed to be getting lighter in the wood, as if a cloud had passed, yet the light was sinister. Was something horrible coming? I looked around for a looking glass so I could get out, but there was nothing to be seen, just the loneliness of the place.

"There, there," said the White Queen, patting my head. "Don't go on like that. Perhaps you've been punished enough. Remember that you're a great girl and you must stop crying."

I was. Crying, that is. I couldn't stop. The tears just went on wetting my face and clogging up my nose. I felt lost in this alien place, and it was becoming more alien, for a dreadful shriek rang out, followed by a crash and then a hideous crunching noise. It wasn't the White Queen, for she was still talking.

"… that's better. You've stopped crying. Be good and it's jam today, even semper iam. Remember it's the rule to try to consider things so you can manage to be glad."

"Glad?"-I cried, "When there's a noise that sounds like death? What's happening?"

"Nothing can be done about that, but you can still fix the rest. Here's little Alice."

The child who ran down the path toward us was an eerie duplicate, not of Tenniel's pictures, but of a photo I'd seen of Aunt Alice as a child. Only this little Alice's eyes were wide with fright.

"The Jabberwock is loose! It came whiffling and burbling through the tulgey wood, its eyes all aflame, and it just ate Humpty Dumpty, leaving over some of the yolk—oh, its jaws are so messy! And now I think it's looking for me!"

'This is not in the book!" I exclaimed, forgetting to be careful.

The White Queen jabbed my side with her elbow—I could feel it even through the thick down—and said to little Alice, "Pay no attention to her. She's out of temper and in that state of mind where she wants to deny something."

"And I know what to deny!" I yelled triumphantly. "All of you! All of this!"

Little Alice was staring at me as if I were crazier than the White Queen. "Are there three of you, now?"

"I am not a White Queen," I said indignantly. "I am not from around here. I'm from California."

"Is that on the weird side of the Looking-Glass too?"

"Not exactly," I said slowly.

Little Alice looked up at me sadly. "You don't sound as if you know the way out, either. I'm not having fun since I met that sad lady like you, only old, and I want to go home before the Jabberwock eats me."

"Where is—that old lady?" I asked.

"Gone. She said she wanted to make her own universes. I didn't know what she meant. She didn't like me, and she was so sad that it was catching. I do want to go home, because I'm getting older and older and older…"

"Now listen here, Alice," I said, choosing my words with care. "You're not old. You're not like us."

"Well, you're not terribly old," Alice said, studying me.

"You look much more the way I'd like to be when I grow up."

"That's nice," I said, absurdly pleased. "But right now you're seven and a half exactly, and it doesn't matter about Humpty Dumpty because he would have smashed anyway and all the king's horses and all the king's men…"

"Get on with it," said the White Queen. "Leave out the Egg. All he did was argue about the Jabberwock—or was it with the Jabberwock? No matter, he's breakfast, so get on with it."

I gulped. "Remember, Alice, you're not old, and you'll get home safely. Right now you're going to go on having fun here, with lots of adventures because they are ways you have fun with your mind. You'll especially enjoy the White' Knight."

I suddenly shivered, remembering that Charles Dodgson, Lewis Carroll and the White Knight were one.

"Will the White Knight keep the Jabberwock away?"

"Yes, Alice. Concentrate on the journey. That's the best part of the game."

Alice turned to the White Queen, who was fumblingly rearranging her shawl. "Is this Alice right?"

The White Queen winked at me and bestowed a foolish smile on little Alice. "Now you won't miss your White Knight."

"Is he mine?"

"Yours," I said quickly. "It's supposed to be that way, even if it can't and won't last." I shivered again, knowing the words were my aunt's, coming to me through the damned coat.

"Won't last?" Alice said, her voice quivering.

I could hear a deep bass burbling, far off in the wood but coming closer.

"Well, nothing does—no, that's not true."

The White Queen peered into the wood, looked back at me, and flapped her shawl. "Truth is not quite another im-possible thing. Try again; draw a long breath, shut your eyes, and get to it."

I did take a deep breath, but I didn't shut my eyes, not with the Jabberwock out there. "Alice, don't worry. I promise you that you'll get to the end of the game, and you'll go home. But no matter how old you get or how much you forget, you'll always remember the White Knight."

Alice looked puzzled, but then she smiled and asked the White Queen (as if knowing that I didn't know), "Which way is the next move for me?"

The White Queen pointed to another bend in the path. "Now run along and have a good time, dear. After your tryst with the White Knight, cross the brook to the eighth square—that's where you'll get your crown. I'll meet you there."

Alice curtseyed to both of us and, with happy eyes, vanished into the shadows of the trees.

After the echo of her footsteps died away, I noticed that the wood was silent.

"Has the Jabberwock stopped?"

"Been stopped. By the White Knight. Didn't you say he'd take care of things?"

"Yes, but…"

"It's your Alice universe, now, you know. Through joining."

"Nothing you say makes sense and I want to go home!"

"Very well," said the White Queen, and pushed me hard.

I flew through the mirror mist, landing in the hall just as Aunt Alice came in. Without a pause she said, "I see that your coat gave you an interesting time."

"I undid some of whatever the hell you did, I suppose by mistake because you were so unhappy then… now wait a minute, Aunt Alice! It wasn't—it couldn't be real. I must have a fever and I've been hallucinating."

She felt my forehead. "I don't think so, dear."

"But fantasy universes can't exist in time and space!"

Aunt Alice began to laugh.

"I am not amused," I said.

"Don't worry, dear niece. I understand that time and space can be thought of as fantasies, too."

"But—Carroll's, I mean Dodgson's universe—I mean, it isn't real, is it?"

"Wasn't it?"

"Only when I was in it. And that nonsense about joining. That doesn't happen when I read a book."

"It does if you're lucky. You and the author join. It's like love."

I was embarrassed. People of her generation shouldn't talk about love. "Isn't it more logical that, symbolically speaking, each reader creates a new universe with the author…"

"I believe that's what I was saying, dear," said Aunt Alice.

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