io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “Queen Lily” by Theodora Goss. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
“It is the voice of my child!” the White Queen cried out, as she rushed past the King, so violently that she knocked him over among the cinders. “My precious Lily! My imperial kitten!” and she began scrambling wildly up the side of the fender.
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
How does the story go, again? She’s almost sure she remembers.
Once upon a time, there was a princess named Little Snowdrop, who had six brothers and four sisters. Her brothers were ravens, and her sisters were swans. Whenever they wished, they would fly around the castle on their black or white wings, but Snowdrop, not having any wings of her own, could not join them. She could only wave at them from the window of a high tower as they flew by. Her father was the King, and he loved her very much. He would sit on his throne of white marble wearing a cloak made of raven feathers that his sons had let fall, and tell her stories about faraway lands. He would say, Someday, my Snowdrop, you will be the queen of your own country, and Snowdrop wondered what country that might be. Her mother, the Queen, was a witch. She had hair as black as night, and skin as white as snow, and she was as proud as she was beautiful. In her drawing room, where she used to retire after supper, she kept a magical looking-glass that could show you anything you wished, no matter how far away it was.
One day, the Queen became jealous of how much Little Snowdrop’s father loved her, so she banished her daughter to Looking-Glass Country, which was on the other side of the gray, misty surface. You see, the mirror was also a doorway. All magical mirrors are, as all queens are witches, and all cats can speak when properly spoken to. “Go!” said the Queen, and Little Snowdrop had no choice but to do as she was bade, even though she was dressed in her nightgown and had slippers on her feet.
As soon as she stepped through the glass, Little Snowdrop found herself in a dark forest.
Little White Lily
Sat by a stone,
Drooping and waiting
Till the sun shone.
Little White Lily
Drooping with pain,
Waiting and waiting
For the wet rain.
“Lily? Lily? There’s someone here to see you.”
The White Queen is hovering over her with an expression of concern. But then the White Queen always has an expression of concern. Her forehead, under her neat white cap, is permanently wrinkled.
“It’s Alice. You remember Alice, don’t you?” The White Queen turns to Alice and says, “She hasn’t spoken for days. I’m not even sure how much she understands of what I tell her. At first I thought she was getting better because the coughing had stopped, but the doctor says we should prepare ourselves for the worst . . .”
Alice presses her hand and says, “Thank you, Mrs. MacDonald. Can I sit with her for a little while?”
“Of course, my dear,” says the White Queen. “I have to give George—Mr. MacDonald, that is—his dinner. I’m sorry my husband can’t see you—this is one of his bad days, and he has no strength for visitors. He’s so worried about Lily. After Mary died, he could not get out of bed for weeks. It’s just too much, isn’t it? A mother should not have to . . . Well. I’ll be back presently.” And then she leaves the room, her hands over her face, as though she can’t bear to see the dark forest closing around her.
The first thing Little Snowdrop saw in the forest was Princess Rosebud, although it’s a wonder she recognized her, for Rosebud was dressed in armor, with the hem of her red skirt poking out underneath. In her right hand she held a sword, and on her left arm was a shield with a red rose on it. Snowdrop had met Rosebud only once before, in the castle garden one afternoon when Rosebud and her mother, the Red Queen, had come for a tea party. Nevertheless, she recognized her playmate of that afternoon at once.
“Whatever are you doing in this forest?” asked Snowdrop.
“Why, looking for the Jabberwock, of course,” said Rosebud. “It’s burning down all the houses in these parts, eating up the little girls as though they were sugarplums. You haven’t seen it around, have you?” Then she stood very straight, as though in elocution class, and recited,
Beware the Jabberwock, my girl!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
He’ll take you to his elfin grot,
And there he’ll weep, and sigh full sore;
And there he’ll shut your wild, wild eyes
With kisses four!
Little Snowdrop shuddered, for she had no wish to meet such a fearsome creature. “Be careful,” she said to Rosebud.
“Of course I shall be careful,” said Rosebud. “You see I have my vorpal sword. Through and through him it will go, snicker-snack! But you too must take care, Snowdrop, for this is a dangerous country.”
“Will I meet you again?” asked Snowdrop, reluctant to leave her friend now that she had found her. She was frightened by the thought of continuing her journey alone.
“Of course!” said Rosebud. “When we reach the last square, we shall be queens together: I shall be the Red Queen, and you shall be the White.”
So Snowdrop went on down the path, looking back once or twice and very much wishing she had a sword too, for she feared the Jabberwock, with its eyes of flame.
“It’s been so long,” says Alice. She sits by the bed, in the chair usually occupied by the White Queen, who is endlessly knitting something wooly and shapeless. She reminds Lily of a sheep, with her low bleating, her constant worry. Why does she worry so much? Lily is doing just fine in the dark forest.
“I’m sorry about that, you know,” continues Alice. “I should have come sooner. When my mother told me you were sick . . . but I didn’t realize how sick. I still remember the day we came for tea, me and Mama, while Edith and Ina had to stay home with measles under the supervision of Miss Pickett. I wish we could have been better friends. But there was always so much to do . . . family obligations, and traveling, and then I got married. Do you know I have three children? All boys! He wouldn’t have liked that very much, would he? Boys were never his favorites, although he did like Henry—but not as much as Ina or Edith. Not as much as me . . .”
Alice smooths Lily’s patchwork coverlet. “He liked you too, didn’t he? He used to mention taking you and your sister Mary to the theater. He thought you might become an actress, like Ellen Terry! I always felt a bit jealous, to be honest, at the thought that he might prefer the two of you to us—I think perhaps he meant me to be.”
But you were his favorite, Lily wants to say. You were the one for whom he created Wonderland.
Little White Lily
Sunshine has fed;
Little White Lily
Is lifting her head.
Little White Lily
Holdeth her cup;
Rain is fast falling
And filling it up.
Little Snowdrop came to a garden of flowers. There were poppies and cornflowers, such as one sees in country fields, delphiniums and the tall hollyhocks that grow in cottage gardens, the small pink and white daisies found on tennis lawns when they are not mowed properly. There were bluebells and foxgloves, and violets like those sold in London by violet-sellers. All of the flowers were blooming together, which was strange because of course in our country they bloom at different times, but in Looking-Glass Country such things are done quite differently. And what is even stranger, all of them were girls, an entire garden of girls blushing and nodding and chattering among themselves.
“Oh!” said a splendid Iris, and gave a little shriek. Her standards were lavender, her falls a dusky purple shading to indigo, with bright yellow beards like caterpillars. She reminded Snowdrop of twilight, which comes creeping over the eastern sky as the sun sets in the west. “A monster, a monster!”
“Where?” asked Snowdrop, looking fearfully behind her.
“You’re the monster, of course,” said the Iris. “Why do you go about like that, on two legs? Did no one think to plant you properly?”
“I don’t want to be planted,” said Snowdrop. “I would not like to stay in a garden all day, with my toes in the soil, never moving about.”
“All the best girls are properly planted, and very happy that they are,” said the Iris. “You, for example, would be much happier if you stayed in one place, and you would look so much nicer with a good watering. Why, how limp your petals are!”
Snowdrop supposed that by petals, the Iris meant her hair, which hung down her back rather than standing up around her face.
“Come join us,” continued the Iris. “I’m sure you would make a splendid Lily! You’re already dressed in white.”
“Come join us, come join us,” cried all the flowers.
But Snowdrop continued to walk down the garden path until she had passed the flowerbeds. “How silly they are,” she said to herself. “Who would want to stay in one place all their lives?” And she was more determined than ever to reach the last square and become Queen.
“Did he ever photograph you?” asks Alice, who is still holding her hand. “I know he did, because I’ve seen a photograph of you with your father. But did he ever photograph you alone?”
Alice is silent for a moment. Lily can still hear the flowers calling after her, but she will not join them, even though she is a lily, with great white petals. She will not be one of the flowers in his garden.
“There was a day he photographed me twice. I remember that, although there are so many things I’ve forgotten. It was a summer day, around midsummer for the great purple clematis jackmanii was blooming on the vine, and the leaves of the nasturtiums were as big as saucers. Ina and I used to pick and eat them, along with the orange flowers, in what we called our sallets. He wanted to take a photograph, so I stood by the garden wall, ever so still—you remember how still we had to stand! I wore my favorite dress, white muslin with ruffles and lace—very grown up, I felt in it. There I stood, and he took a photograph, disappearing under the black velvet curtain like a magician. Several days later he showed it to me. I told him I looked like a ghost, haunting that corner of the garden.
“‘A clever, charming ghost,’ he said. ‘You may haunt me whenever you wish, ghost Alice. I think perhaps you will haunt me all my life.’ I’ve always wondered what he meant by that.
“But after taking the first photograph, he told me that he had an idea. How would I like to be a beggar maid, dressed in rags? I wouldn’t even have to wear shoes!
“Of course I said yes. What child doesn’t want to take her shoes off on a hot summer day and walk barefoot on the lawn?
“So he told me to run and ask for a costume—rags, mind, he said. I was to be a proper beggar maid, tattered and torn.
“And so I ran upstairs to find Miss Pickett, and she asked Mama if it was quite all right. In those days Mama was friendly with him, and Papa too, so she said yes, of course. It was just pretend, like one of his games. Miss Pickett dressed me in a ragged old shift, which she hastily pinned up because it was too large for me.
“I went back down to the garden, running across the lawn. He was waiting by the wall, next to the camera tripod. How pleased he was to see me looking disheveled!
“He told me to stand by the wall and put one hand on my hip, the other out as though I were begging for coins. He himself rearranged the shift I was wearing, pulling it down my chest and off one of my shoulders so I would look quite destitute, he said.
“Then he told me to look at him, both boldly and pleadingly, as a beggar girl might. And to hold still, hold still, hold still . . .
“‘There!’ he said. ‘I’ve got it.’ Then he kissed me with his hands on my bare shoulders, first on one cheek and then the other, and said he was so pleased with me that someday we might marry, if he didn’t marry Ina first. ‘For I can’t marry you both,’ he said, winking at me. ‘The laws of England won’t allow it.’ And then he laughed, and I laughed too at the silly thought of him marrying the both of us!”
“My dear, don’t you look a fright!” said the Red Queen. Little Snowdrop was sitting in a train compartment across from the Queen, who seemed to be very cross indeed.
“Sit up straight and comb your hair and don’t eat with your mouth open!” said the Queen.
“But I’m not eating anything,” said Snowdrop.
“And don’t speak until you are spoken to!” said the Queen. “Now, what is your name, and where are you from, and where are you going?”
“My name is Snowdrop, and I come from beyond the looking-glass, and I’m going to the final square, where I shall be queen.”
“Wrong!” said the Red Queen. “Wrong on all counts. Why, I never met such an ignorant child. Your name is Lily, and you come from London”—she emphasized the L’s a great deal—“and you’re going to the mountains behind the moon.”
“Are there mountains behind the moon?” asked Snowdrop, intrigued.
“Of course,” said the Red Queen. “It’s so far north, at the back of the North Wind herself, that it’s all mountains there. Your hair really is frightful. Someone might mistake you for a raspberry bush and have you pruned. Come sit by me and I will brush it for you.”
Feeling doubtful, for the Queen seemed so hot-tempered, Snowdrop got up from her seat and sat down on the other side of the compartment, between the Queen and the window. They were traveling through very pretty countryside, laid out in patchwork shapes rather like a great quilt, with square fields, circular ponds, and triangular bits of forest.
Out of a large purse, almost as large as her crown, the Queen took a hedgehog that opened one eye, looked at Snowdrop, then closed it again and started to snore. “Turn around so I can reach the back of your head. And while I brush your hair, I shall recite a poem for you. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
“Yes,” said Snowdrop, although she did not think she would like it very much. Most poetry struck her as rather dreary, and it all sounded very much alike. But the Queen recited, in a sing-song voice,
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
There are no fish within the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So sad and wandering all alone?
The birds have left their empty nests
And the fish have flown.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist, and fever too,
And on thy cheek a red, red rose
Is turning blue.
At the same time as she was reciting this, the Red Queen brushed Snowdrop’s hair with the hedgehog. She pulled rather hard! But Snowdrop did not complain, for she did not want to be disrespectful, and she knew that queens, or future queens, should be courageous.
“What an odd poem,” said Snowdrop. “Whatever does it mean?”
“You’ll have to ask the White Knight,” said the Queen. “I’m done. You can turn around now.”
But when Snowdrop turned around, the Queen was no longer there. Instead, on the seat beside the queen’s capacious purse sat a black kitten, with its claws still tangled in Snowdrop’s hair. She untangled them, and the kitten curled up in the purse, washing its nose contentedly.
Just then, the train whistled and came to a stop. “This is your stop, miss,” said the conductor, who seemed to be a walrus in a blue serge uniform, with an official-looking cap on his head.
“Is it?” asked Snowdrop. But she was so uncertain of herself, so unsure of where she was going, that she got up, curtseyed to the kitten, who might after all still be a queen, and descended onto the platform. At the end of the platform, there were two signs, each pointing in exactly the same direction. One said Tweedledum, and the other said Tweedledee.
Little White Lily
Said: It is good
Little White Lily’s
Clothing and food.
Now I am stronger,
Now I am cool;
Heat cannot burn me,
My veins are so full.
“There, that’s better,” says Alice. “Your hair was so tangled.”
She puts the brush back on the bureau, beside the looking glass, then sits down again on the chair by Lily’s bed. “Would you like some water? There’s some right here in the carafe. Yes?” She pours water into the glass and helps Lily lift her head. The water is cool, so cool. How good water is, when you’re thirsty and it has not rained for a long time.
Alice plumps up the pillow before putting Lily’s head back down on it. It’s like a cloud, and Lily is floating on it, up above the world so high, like a tea tray in the sky. From up so high, she can see all of Looking-Glass Country.
“What did it mean?” asks Alice. “That’s what I don’t understand. That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out all these years. The presents, the letters, the kisses—what did they mean? And did they mean something different to him than they meant to us? At the time, I thought of him as another child—taller than us, as though by a sort of accident, and better at telling stories. But now, looking back . . .”
She puts a hand on Lily’s forehead, as though feeling her temperature. How nice it is to be up in the sky, among the birds! Lily can see the forest, and the garden of flowers, and Rosebud fighting the Jabberwock—it looks like a fierce battle! And there is Snowdrop, having tea with Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But who is that other round fellow sitting beside her? She will have to fly down and see for herself . . .
“All I know is that as we got older, Mama and Papa stopped inviting him to the house, although he had been a friend for so long. And when I asked Miss Pickett why we never saw him anymore, she said he had done something inexcusable. But Miss Pickett would say that if she saw me eating with my mouth open. Inexcusable. It was her favorite word. So I don’t know.”
Alice laughs. It is a bitter, brittle laugh, and pieces of it shatter on the uncarpeted floor. “Do you know, Mama told me nothing, nothing, about what to expect on my wedding night? Poor Reginald . . .”
She dips her handkerchief in the water jug, then folds it into a rectangle and puts it on Lily’s forehead, where it feels so cool. She touches Lily’s cheek, gently. “Oh, Snowdrop, I wish you could talk.”
But that can’t be right, because Snowdrop is the kitten, the white kitten. Mary’s kitten, and Mary is a swan, with white wings.
“Biscuits?” said Tweedledum.
“Or bandersnatches?” said Tweedledee.
“Oh, biscuits please,” said Snowdrop. “I don’t think bandersnatches would be at all nice. For tea, I mean.”
“They’re very good with mint sauce,” said Tweedledum. “Nohow.”
“Contrariwise,” said Tweedledee. “They’re much better with treacle.”
“But what does it mean?” Snowdrop asked Humpty Dumpty, who was pouring his second cup of tea. “White rabbits and caterpillars and Mad Hatters. What does it all mean?”
“In Looking-Glass Country, everything is backwards and upside down,” he answered gravely. “To understand anything at all, you must stand on your head, balancing carefully, and turn the rest of you all the way around, as an owl does. Then you will understand.”
“Is that how you do it?” asked Snowdrop. She could not imagine him balancing on his head, for it was so very round. Surely he would fall down and crack! Then all the Red Queen’s knights would have to put him back together again . . .
“Of course not,” he said indignantly. “What an idea! When I wish to understand something, I tell Looking-Glass Country to turn upside down and backwards for me: forests and fields, rivers and lakes, the whole countryside.”
“If the whole country turned upside down, wouldn’t the rivers and lakes fall out?” She could imagine them raining down, down, into the clouds below.
“What a stupid child you are. Of course they don’t. For one thing, they’re fitted into their sockets so well, and for another, it’s a matter of perspective. Why, we could be upside down right now, and you wouldn’t even notice!”
“And the whole country obeys you?” asked Snowdrop, much surprised, and not at all pleased at being called stupid.
“Of course,” said Humpty-Dumpty. “You just need to know the right words to say. Now, I know a great many words, such as xylophone and lepidoptera and amphimacer, so of course I can do whatever I wish.”
“That must give you a great deal of power,” said Snowdrop.
“Of course. After all, everything is made up of words. It is words that make the world what it is. Take this table, for instance. If I did not say the word table, if I did not call it, table table table—” he sounded as though he were calling a dog “—it would simply vanish.”
Surely that couldn’t be right! Yet when Snowdrop looked closely at the table, she saw that it was indeed made up of the word table, in small black type, repeated so many times that the table seemed quite solid and her teacup did not fall through it.
“Jam?” asked Tweedledum.
“Yes, please,” said Snowdrop.
“Blueberry or boysenberry or badminton?” asked Tweedledee.
“There’s no such thing as badminton jam,” said Snowdrop.
“Ah, but there could be!” said Humpty Dumpty. “To make something so, you have only to say it’s so. That is the power of words! Try it yourself and see. Tell your bread and butter to become something else.”
What nonsense! But Snowdrop looked down at her plate and said, to her bread and butter, “Turn into a bird.” Nothing happened.
“Not like that!” said Humpty Dumpty. “How would you like it if someone addressed you like that, ordering you to become something other than what you are? You would not do it, simply to be contrary! No, you must address whatever you wish to transform politely.”
How did one address a slice of buttered bread politely? “If you please,” said Lily. “I would very much like it if you could turn into a bird.”
The bread and butter flapped its brown wings. They were still made of bread, and the bird had a brown bread body, streaked with yellow. It turned its yellow lump-of-butter head and looked at Snowdrop with one sesame-seed eye. Then suddenly it flapped its wings and flew off.
“Oh dear,” said Snowdrop. “I’m afraid it’s going to be eaten very quickly.”
“Well, you were about to eat it anyway,” said Tweedledum. “Nohow.”
“Contrariwise,” said Tweedledee. “And now you have nothing to spread your jam on.”
With dismay, Snowdrop realized that he was right. There was no bread left, indeed no food left of any kind on the table, which was shutting up like an umbrella, with the teapot and cups and saucers inside. When it had shut itself up completely, she saw that it was an umbrella after all.
“There’s a storm coming,” said Tweedledum.
“It’s not a storm at all, but a flock of ravens,” said Tweedledee.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” asked Humpty Dumpty.
“Because they’re both made of words?” replied Snowdrop.
Just then, the storm broke. Great drops of rain pelted down, and she stood as close as she could to a tree trunk with Humpty Dumpty, trying not to get wet. The sky grew darker and darker, until she could see its wings—no, they were ravens, six ravens flying down down down toward her. They snatched Snowdrop up in their claws, and as she rose into the sky, she could see Tweedledum and Tweedledee staring up from under the umbrella, with startled looks on their faces.
Little White Lily
Smells very sweet;
On her head sunshine,
Rain at her feet.
Little White Lily
Dressed like a bride!
Shining with whiteness,
And crownèd beside.
The ravens set Snowdrop down at the edge of a river, then flew off toward the mountains. She could see those mountains now, high in the air—behind the moon, which had already risen, even though it was still daylight. She was standing in a great meadow. On the other side of the river, the dark forest began again.
How many squares had they flown over? She did not know. Anyway, from the air, the countryside had not looked like a checkerboard at all, but like a patchwork of different shapes—rectangular, triangular, rhomboid. She had entered Looking-Glass Country assuming she knew the rules of the game. But now she realized it was a different game altogether.
“Aaaaaah . . .”
What was that? At first she thought it was the bleating of a sheep, but then she realized it was the White Knight, sitting on a large stone in which a sword was half-buried, with only the upper half of the blade and the hilt showing. Beside the stone was his shield, with a silver star on it. He was weeping onto his armor, which had already developed several rust stains.
“What on earth is the matter?” asked Snowdrop. “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?” Where had she heard that? Ah yes, from the Red Queen, or perhaps the black kitten, she was not certain which. It seemed the proper way to address a weeping knight.
“Aaaaaah,” moaned the knight again. “I have lost her, lost her forever, and I shall never find her again!”
“Whoever are you talking about?” asked Snowdrop, lending him her pocket handkerchief.
“Shall I tell you my sad story?” The White Knight took it and wiped his eyes, then blew his nose loudly into the bit of cambric.
“Yes, please,” said Snowdrop, even though she would rather have gone on to the next square, which she assumed was across the river. Once she crossed it, she would be queen at last!
“Very well then,” said the White Knight. He sat up very straight, not that he had much choice since he was wearing armor, and recited this poem:
I met a maiden in the meads,
So beautiful—a fairy’s child.
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were mild.
I made a garland for her head,
Of violets and lilies too.
And sure in language strange she said
She loved me true.
I set her on my bicycle,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For we would ride across the park
And sing this song.
She took me to her magic glen,
And there I saw, ah woe betide,
The strangest thing I ever saw
On the cold hillside.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Accountants, death-pale were they all,
Who cried, “this little child doth keep
Us in her thrall!”
What a strange poem! Snowdrop was not at all sure what it meant. “If the fairy’s child spoke in a strange language, how did you know what she was saying?”
“I could read it in her countenance,” said the Knight. “We were very much in love. We would have understood each other in any language.”
Snowdrop frowned. “Why, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. She was a girl, not a book. For all you know, she could have been asking you for directions to Piccadilly Circus.” She had not meant to be rude, but really, the White Knight seemed to have no sense at all.
“Aaaaaah,” he sighed again. “She held me in her thrall . . .”
Snowdrop felt quite angry with him. “I’m not quite sure what you mean by her thrall, but if it’s anything like a prison, I very much doubt a little child could have locked up so many important men! And you had no business going off with her on your bicycle anyhow, without her mother’s permission. I bet that fairy was angry when she found out her daughter had been spending time with a strange man, even if he was a knight! Perhaps it was she who locked them all up in the hillside, if they behaved as you did—and I don’t blame her one bit. “
The White Knight only sobbed louder into her handkerchief. She had not meant to upset him, but he had behaved most improperly.
Just then, the sky grew darker, and Snowdrop heard thunder in the distance. Was it a storm again, or the ravens coming back for her? No, it was the Jabberwock, barreling toward them with its claws outstretched!
“Run, run!” cried the White Knight, but there was nowhere to run: In front of them was the meadow, where the Jabberwock had just landed, folding its great wings. Its eyes were blazing. Behind them was the river. It began striding toward them, whiffling and burbling like the combination of a train whistle and a kettle on the boil.
“Pull out the sword!” cried Snowdrop.
“I can’t!” said the White Knight. “I’ve tried, how I’ve tried, but it’s no use! Only one pure of heart can draw it out of the stone, and I am not worthy.” He began to sob again into the handkerchief, which was quite soaked by now.
“Then we can swim across!” said Snowdrop.
But the White Knight cowered under his shield, sobbing. “I can’t swim!” What could Snowdrop do but hide under his shield with him? She could not abandon this silly, blubbering creature.
Closer and closer came the Jabberwock, striding toward them across the meadow. They would be eaten, she was sure of it! The great claws of the Jabberwock would tear away the White Knight’s shield, and then they would be done for. She could not bear the suspense, so she peeked over the edge. At least she would see it coming for her . . . The Jabberwock was standing uncomfortably close to them, in a circle of singed grass. A red figure leaped from its back and landed beside her. It was Rosebud!
“Come on,” said Rosebud. “We need to get to the boat.”
What boat? But Snowdrop ran after her, and there, under the riverbank where she had not seen it before, was a small boat, just large enough for the two of them.
“Get in,” said Rosebud, stepping into the boat herself. She threw down her sword and shield, and picked up the oars.
“What about the White Knight?” asked Snowdrop, stepping in carefully after Rosebud and sitting down on one of the wooden seats. “He can’t draw the sword out of the stone, and he can’t swim!” She could not see him over the riverbank, but she could still hear the Jabberwock, roaring in anger.
“Sword or no sword, he will have to fight it,” said Rosebud, pushing off from the shore with one of the oars. “It’s his Jabberwock, after all. It was irresponsible of him to let it out so it could devour all those little girls.”
“How do you know it’s his?” asked Snowdrop. As Rosebud rowed the boat away from the bank, the roar of the Jabberwock faded in the distance.
“It’s wearing a collar that says Property of the White Knight. If Found, Return to Owner. Do you know,” she said, resting the oars in their locks and letting the motion of the river carry them. “This reminds me of something.”
“What is that?” asked Snowdrop, curious.
“A summer day, long ago. I was in a boat, like this one, floating on the river to Godstow, and he was telling me a story.”
“Who was telling you a story?” asked Snowdrop.
“That’s just the thing I don’t remember. Was it the White Knight, or the Jabberwock? Or someone else altogether? Oh Snowdrop, I wish you could remember for me! It’s as though I see a door, with a keyhole, but I can’t find the key. And even if I could, I would be either too small or too large to enter. I feel as though there’s a piece missing from my childhood, but I don’t even know what shape it might be. How can I ever find it?”
“Alice, my dear,” calls the White Queen from the doorway. “I’m afraid it’s time for Lily’s medicine.”
“Yes, of course, Mrs. MacDonald,” says Alice.
“It’s mostly laudanum at this point. For the pain, you see, but it means she’s away in a dreamland of her own much of the time. The doctor says nothing else is likely to do her any good. How kind of you to put a damp cloth on her forehead! She does get feverish, then cold, then feverish again. It’s terrible when a family is susceptible to consumption. I wish she had not gone into the tenements, but she insisted on continuing her charitable work, even after Mary succumbed. Oh dear, I’m going to start crying again . . . I’m just glad your family has been so healthy. Do send my best regards to Mrs. Liddell and the Dean, and if you see Mr. Dodgson, could you let him know that Mr. MacDonald loved Silvie and Bruno? He is so grateful that Mr. Dodgson sent it to him, but you see he’s been too ill to write, and I’ve been so busy myself, with Lily to care for. And of course a household does not run itself.”
“I’m afraid I never see him nowadays,” says Alice.
“Oh yes, I forgot that your mother had—some sort of falling out with him? I never knew what it was about.”
“I don’t think anyone did,” says Alice. Lily can see that her smile is strained.
“He was always such a thoughtful man, and a good friend to the children, especially Mary and Lily. You know, he even put Lily into one of his books—the Looking-Glass one. She was the daughter of one of the queens, I believe. And he put in Mary’s Snowdrop—do you remember Snowdrop? She was just a kitten then. An excellent mouser she turned out to be, and a favorite with all the servants.”
“I thought Snowdrop was the princess in one of your stories,” says Alice. “Didn’t you tell it to us, that day my mother and I came for tea?”
The White Queen smiles with pleasure, and for a moment she looks less like a harried sheep. “Fancy you remembering that! Why, it was only a trifle, you know. Nothing in comparison to the sorts of things my husband and Mr. Dodgson write, of course. But it did give you children pleasure. Well, my writing days are behind me, I think. Mr. Dodgson very kindly gave Lily a copy of the first edition, inscribed To Princess Lily, from the White Knight. But of course you were his heroine! What a precious memory that will be to you, all the days of your life. Whatever else happens, you will always be Alice in Wonderland . . .”
“Would you excuse me?” says Alice, hurriedly. “I must be going—I’ve forgotten the time—it was so lovely to see you and Lily, and please don’t bother, I’m sure the maid will let me out.” With a final glance at Lily, as though she wishes to ask something more but cannot, Alice leaves, shutting the door behind her. The White Queen kisses Lily on the forehead. Her lips are thin and dry.
“Snowdrop! Wake up, sleepyhead! This is where we get out.”
“Here?” said Snowdrop.
But of course Rosebud was right, for the boat had become caught in some roots by the riverbank, and Snowdrop could see the castle. They were on the other side of the river now. The dark forest had been replaced by fields over which were scattered small copses of birch and alder. By the riverbank rose the castle, built half of white marble and half of jet as black as a night without stars, which created a curious effect, as though the castle were also a shadow of itself. It had so many turrets that Snowdrop became confused when she tried to count them. From each turret flew a pennon, flapping in the breeze. Half of the pennons had a red rose on them, half a white lily.
Rosebud helped her out of the boat and onto the riverbank. She was quite glad to be standing on solid ground again!
As they walked under the portcullis and into the castle courtyard, the trumpets began to sound their tarantara, and when they entered through the great doors of the castle, the White Rabbit proclaimed, “Their Highnesses, Princess Rosebud and Princess Snowdrop!” The crowd cheered—such a strange crowd! Snowdrop could see a great many pawns, both red and white, and there were Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Humpty Dumpty, and the Lion and the Unicorn, and the Duchess carrying a pig, and the Caterpillar perched on a large mushroom, and the Mad Hatter holding hands with the March Hare, and the Dodo surrounded by a whole coterie of birds and small animals, including several bright pink flamingoes. A rather large grin floated above the festivities. Standing at the other end of the room were the Red Queen and White Queen, arm in arm.
“Come, come,” said the Red Queen. “It’s rude to be late to your own coronation!”
Behind the two queens, set up on a dais, were two thrones, one upholstered in red velvet, the other in white silk. On the red one was embroidered Queen Alice, and on the white one, Queen Lily.
“Why, the Red Queen must have been right all along,” said Snowdrop. “I’m Lily, and you must be Alice.” But Rosebud did not hear her. She was already sitting on her throne, with a gold crown on her head.
“Come, my dear,” said the White Queen. She stepped forward and took Snowdrop by the hand, then led her to the white throne. It was more comfortable than Snowdrop had expected, although the silver crown the White Queen put on her head itched just a little. But she did not think it dignified to scratch. Queens did not scratch as though they were kittens!
“Queen Alice! Queen Lily!” shouted all the pawns, red and white.
“Lily. I’m Lily,” she whispered to herself.
“Of course you are,” said the White Queen. “Oh my dear, you remember your own name! It’s been so long since you’ve known who you are, or who I am, or even where you are—here, at home.” Snowdrop noticed that she was crying. She would have offered her pocket handkerchief, if the White Knight had not taken it. By now, it was probably in the Jabberwock’s stomach!
“Mother, why did you banish me to Looking-Glass Country?” she asked.
“I was wrong to do that,” said the White Queen. “I was jealous, you know, because your father spent so much time with you and your sisters—although you were always his favorite. And then there was his writing . . . He never had enough time left over for me. It’s not easy being a queen, and a witch, and a mother, even when your sons are ravens and your daughters are swans. But look at you now! You’re a queen of Looking-Glass Country!” And the White Queen gazed at Snowdrop with such love that Snowdrop thought she might start to cry as well. Her mother stroked her hair, and held her very tightly, so tightly that her crown almost fell off. Snowdrop had never felt so safe and happy before in her life.
“Cake, cake!” shouted the Mad Hatter and March Hare. And there, at the center of the throne room, was a large cake, as large as Snowdrop herself, iced all in white, with a giant icing lily on top of it, sprinkled with silver stars.
“Is that for me?” she asked.
“Of course, darling girl,” said the White Queen.
“Today is your unbirthday,” said Humpty Dumpty, bowing as best he could, without a waist to bow from. Then he shouted, “Let us all cheer for Queen Lily on her unbirthday!”
“What is an unbirthday?” asked Snowdrop.
“Why, the opposite of a birthday,” said Humpty Dumpty. “On your birthday you are born, and on your unbirthday, well, that is the opposite. Now, three cheers! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!” The cheers were so loud that Snowdrop thought the castle roof might fly right off at any moment.
“I envy you,” said Alice, leaning over. “I’ve never had an unbirthday party before, not of my very own.”
Lily was so happy that she closed her eyes, because it was almost too much to bear. When she opened them again, she was lying in a white bed, under a quilt with irregular patches. She must be very high up, in one of the turrets of the castle, for she could see the moon out of the window, closer than she had ever seen it before. It seemed to be smiling at her. The White Queen was sitting next to her, holding her hand.
“Mother, sing me a song,” she said.
“Shall I sing you the one Papa wrote about Little White Lily, which you liked so much as a child?” asked her mother.
“No, sing me ‘Lully Lullay.’”
So the queen sang, very softly and sweetly,
Lully lullay, lully lullay,
The ravens bore my father away.
They bore him up, they bore him down,
Until he lost his golden crown.
They brought him into a marble hall
In which was hangèd a silver pall,
And in that hall there was a bed,
Whereon he lay his snow-white head.
And there he bled both day and night
So that I shuddered at the sight,
And by his bedside stood a stone:
It is the White King lies hereon.
Lully lullay, lully lullay,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay
By his graveside night and day,
With a lully, lully lullay.
Snowdrop turns her head on the pillow to thank her mother, but notices that across the room is a glass coffin set on a black marble pedestal. A man is lying inside it.
“Who lies there?” she asks.
“Alas, it is your father,” says the White Queen. “He has suffered a terrible blow, and I fear he shall never rise again. I have tried to kiss him awake, but to no avail.”
Snowdrop pushes back the covers, then stands up and walks over to the coffin. Yes, there lies the White King, although he has lost his crown. He looks so peaceful, lying there! Is he dead or asleep? She can’t tell. Perhaps she should try to kiss him awake—could her kiss do it, if her mother’s cannot? But she hears a sound, like a piece of cloth being shaken, like a waterfall. Snowdrop, who is also Queen Lily, turns and walks to the window. There are her sisters, the white swans, and that sound is the beating of their wings. Behind them she can see the North Wind, with her black hair floating all around. They have come for her at last.
“Lily!” cries the White Queen.
“Don’t worry, Mother,” she says. “I’m going to the mountains behind the moon, which are ever so much nicer than Looking-Glass Country. My sisters will take me there. See, they are riding upon North Wind, who is lifting their wings like pillows on a clothesline.”
“But you could have been Queen here!” says her mother.
“Alice can be Queen,” she says. Alice is welcome to it, rabbit holes and tea parties and black kittens and all. She has other places to go.
Snowdrop climbs up on the windowsill, from which she can see the entire countryside, the whole patchwork. There is the garden of flowers, and a train track winding across the fields, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee’s cottage, and the riverbank where the White Knight is still fighting the Jabberwock. Will he win? She won’t stay to find out, for she has important business elsewhere. Below, in the castle courtyard, the musicians have begun to play their viols and bassoons. The Red Queen is ordering everyone to find partners for the quadrille: the Lion with the Unicorn, the Mad Hatter with the March Hare, Alice with the Mock Turtle, pawns and flamingos together. Poor Alice, she thinks. Will she ever escape Wonderland? Perhaps someday she’ll be able to move on to the mountains, or wherever else she wishes to go.
“Lily!” cries the White Queen again, but the sound dissolves into the bleat of a sheep who has seen a wolf in the distance.
Snowdrop holds out her arms so the swans can take her, and up they go in a rush of white wings, into the sky, with the North Wind beneath them, toward the moon and the shining mountains beyond.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theodora Goss is the author of the novels The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (which was a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards) and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. Her other publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology co-edited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia(2014). Her work has been translated into ten languages, including French, Japanese, and Turkish. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Locus, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, and on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her short story “Singing of Mount Abora” (2007) won the World Fantasy Award. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the November 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Charles Yu, Cadwell Turnbull, Maureen F. McHugh, Sofia Samatar, Stephen Graham Jones, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.