S/he’s most used to running away at first: metaphorical running from anything that panics or overwhelms her. It’s a childhood habit s/he can’t seem to break, something that seems ingrained in the psyche, an instinct rather than a conscious thought. It’s not just that s/he’s scared; paradoxically, s/he takes a sort of stubborn enjoyment in challenge and the adrenaline of fear but when s/he can’t see a way out and the world spins with anti-logic and vertigo, thoughts jam in a blocked mind and nausea overcomes the senses, s/he runs desperately back to the safety of routine and familiarity that makes sense. S/he’d just turned thirteen when s/he realised s/he was in Wonderland and must have been for a while without consciously realising it. The rabbit hole’s hidden in the forest that marks the transition of adolescence and if you’re careful, you skip straight over it. But Alex, caught in the nervous run of a child who’s not sure when you’re supposed to grow up or how or even if s/he wants to (is a child ever ready, really?), must have fallen straight through the leaves and tree roots that hide the hole without even realising and carried on running.
At first, s/he didn’t know s/he was there at all. Something seemed different, but teenage years never make sense and hormones merge feelings, thoughts and behaviours in dizzying spirals that never seem to stay constant from one day to the next. Sometimes s/he’d go weeks in the real world where the hint of Wonderland was a distant trace in the imagination; other times s/he’d have months of increasing vertigo and shifting perceptions, and the world was constant change. Yet Alex never noticed that s/he was running constantly through a world where truth was relative and rules shifted from place to place until, suddenly, s/he ran straight into a mirror.
S/he fell backwards, landing in a pile of leaves which, now that s/he looked more closely, were arranged in an unusual way, spiralling outwards in regular helices that seemed to follow a pattern. As s/he looked closer, s/he noticed that the number of leaves in each coil was equal to the sum of the two previous coils and for some reason, s/he felt safe. The leaves in the forest of adolescence had been irregular and messy, spreading across the forest paths so that you slipped on them as you tried to walk or run. S/he got to her feet, brushing dirt from jeans and stood to look closer at the mirror that blocked the path. It was barely visible in the darkness, a shimmering forcefield of reflections and moving shadows. As s/he stepped closer, s/he could see an image staring back at her, both familiar and strange. You never see yourself, really, and Alex found it hard to align the features to form a complete face; instead, s/he saw a collection of topographic details that seemed to swim across their gaze. Away from the reflection, s/he couldn’t visualise their own image in their mind and mirrors were scary, mirages and illusions that seemed to change each time s/he looked into them. S/he looked different somehow but couldn’t work out how; as s/he focussed on each individual part of the face, it seemed alien in the context of the whole but somehow still Alex, whatever that meant. As s/he turned away, the reflection spoke.
“Where are you going?” Alex’s own voice, disembodied in the darkness, was a shock and s/he turned around to see the reflection still staring. S/he walked slowly back towards the mirror, raising an arm experimentally. The reflection stayed still, watching.
“Who are you?” Alex asked, feeling as though s/he was talking in the distant voice of a dream, slightly out of sync with thoughts.
“Who are you?” repeated the reflection. It was more of a statement than a question. “Who you are.”
Alex stared at the mirror, confused. The reflection stared back. “You’re me? Or I’m you? Or is that the same thing?”
“What are you?” the reflection continued. “Is there a ‘you’ or is that just something you use in your language to make an identity that isn’t there?”
Alex started to feel confused, thoughts clouding their mind and eyes blurred. “I don’t know.” The reflection continued to stare, expressionless. “I can see, hear and feel, and there must be something that is seeing, hearing and feeling.”
“But is that you?” the reflection persisted. “If I cut off your head so that you could still see and hear, would that part of you be different from your hands which could still feel objects around you?”
Alex’s head spun more and s/he began to feel dizzy. “No. I mean yes. I mean, I don’t know, really. Maybe there’s more than one of me. Maybe it’s a collection of feelings.”
“So you are your feelings?” The reflection didn’t seem happy with this. “What if you didn’t feel? Would you stop existing?”
“That would be great.” Alex stopped, surprised. S/he hadn’t meant to say that and wasn’t sure why s/he had. “I meant emotional feelings then, obviously. Physical feelings are different. They’re OK, most of the time.”
“What makes them different?” asked the reflection, looking genuinely interested for the first time.
Alex was surprised. “What do you mean? They just are. I mean, you can understand physical feelings- hot, cold, pain, hard, sharp et cetera, but emotional feelings don’t make sense. You don’t know what they are, and they’re sort of physical too but different because you don’t know what causes them.”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of physical too’?” The reflection looked as confused as Alex felt.
Alex looked at the reflection. “You know, like making you feel sick, or hot and cold, or shaky or something but without a real reason to.”
“No, I don’t know,” the reflection replied. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
“Not at all?” Alex was shocked. “But how can you exist? What are you?”
“I thought that was the question we started with.” Alex felt completely confused again and the reflection continued. “I’m you, or you are me, it’s about the same thing. Or a part of you anyway, if you want to go with the view that there is no actual ‘you’. You’re a collection of experiences and memories, an experiencing body which is where we differ. I have no physical body, and it’s up to you to decide if I exist or not.”
Alex’s mind was still spinning with the conversation and began to feel a bit nauseous. “But does that mean you don’t have feelings?”
“Feelings is an interesting word,” the reflection answered. “If, by ‘feelings’ you mean emotions then no, I don’t. But the word itself implies a physical sensation, which seems to be what you are describing an emotion as. Aren’t emotions also physical feelings? And in that case, you would need a physical body to experience them.”
“So you don’t exist?” asked Alex. “If you don’t have a physical body? But how are you talking to me?”
“Does that mean you don’t believe in ghosts?” the reflection replied. “Or God, or spirits or anything? Or am I a figment of your imagination? Or can I be, if I’m saying things you’ve never thought?”
“Or maybe I don’t exist.” Alex had no idea where that thought had come from. “Maybe I’m the illusion, maybe I just think that I’m thinking and really I’m someone else’s thought. Or maybe thoughts themselves don’t exist and there’s nothing outside of the body and everything’s physical and you’re really just my reflection in the mirror and I’m imagining this whole conversation. Or maybe it doesn’t even matter and the fact that I’m having this conversation at all makes it real.”
“Then maybe the real question is, does it really matter?” The reflection looked directly into Alex’s eyes and s/he edged backwards uncomfortably.
“I don’t know.” S/he looked at the forest around her. Branches arched overhead like witches’ fingers and shadows moved in the darkness. Alex’s heart beat faster and felt a stomach-swoop of vertigo. “I don’t really want to be here on my own.”
“Why are you running?” The strange question took Alex by surprise.
“What do you mean?” The reflection didn’t reply. Alex stepped closer to the mirror, hands pressed against the glass. The reflection mirrored the action and s/he leaned closer. Suddenly s/he felt herself falling forward as the glass seemed to dissolve to nothing. S/he slipped through the frame of the mirror and stumbled onto a path not dissimilar to the path s/he’d been following previously. There was a definite change though; although the trees lining the path seemed different from any trees s/he had seen before, they formed a sort of pattern with colours and shapes of leaves and as s/he walked cautiously through the trees, Alex tried to work it out. The path itself seemed to twist and bend in spirals and the air merged with colours like the inside of a rainbow. Alex felt strange, as though s/he’d been here before somehow but wasn’t sure when and the feeling of vertigo intensified. Thinking of what the reflection had said (or maybe s/he had only thought; the further s/he walked into the forest, the more unreal the conversation seemed), s/he began to run, disjointedly as through jarring disconnected limbs but slowly s/he found a rhythm and feet pounded the forest floor like a drum beat.
It was the first time s/he’d paid attention the act of running and it felt strange. Alex’s body seemed to know its own rhythm; s/he hardly had to think about legs and arms seemed to move naturally. After a few minutes, Alex’s mind began to drift and the vertigo seemed to subside slightly. S/he ran on, following the path through the trees. After a while, s/he felt strangely euphoric, as though s/he had realised something amazing and s/he was suddenly alert in the rhythm of the run. It scared Alex slightly and s/he slowed to a walk, breathing deeply. The forest seemed less intimidating and s/he continued to walk further into its depths. S/he walked for what seemed like hours, and the sun stayed high in the sky. Time seemed to pass differently here or maybe not at all; snow lay metres away from parts of the forest which breathed with the humid air of a rainforest and sometimes Alex felt as though s/he were hardly travelling at all even though s/he had been walking for what felt like a very long time and s/he was beginning to get tired. S/he checked the time on a pocket watch and was surprised to notice that only five minutes had passed from the time s/he had first fallen through the mirror. S/he felt out of sync with time, as though mind had detached somehow from body and s/he realised that the vertigo had returned in waves alternating with detachment. As s/he walked down the path, s/he tried to focus on the surroundings but they kept changing; bronze leafed trees shone golden for an instant before waning to skeletons glittering with frost without any apparent continuity and the path itself seemed to be shifting even as s/he followed it. It was as though all time were present at once and her usual constant forward trajectory had broken somehow and s/he could see all of time as the present moment. The sun still shone through the trees as brightly as it had when she had first arrived in the forest and it did not seem to have moved its position in the sky. S/he half thought she might be somewhere near the North or South Pole but even there in high summer, there were variations in light. S/he wondered vaguely how people here slept with constant daylight, or even if there were people here at all. S/he hadn’t seen any sign of life so far although there was a definite sense of a pulse around her, as though the forest itself were alive.
The further s/he walked, the more unreal the world around her seemed or maybe s/he felt unreal herself. S/he felt floaty and detached and the forest slipped around like liquid, and Alex’s mind seemed to drift slightly out of focus, brain exhausted and thoughts flowed viscously but senses seemed hyper-sharp and even the slightest noise jolted Alex’s heartbeat. More as a distraction than anything else, s/he started to run. Gradually, the world became the beat of footsteps once again, regular and constant and s/he breathed deeply as though s/he could inhale the essence of the forest around her. Brain slowed to the low frequency waves of pre-sleep, s/he ran in an almost meditative state, not connected or disconnected but breathing the rhythm of the forest, inhaling its oxygen which in turn was absorbed back as carbon dioxide into the trees in cycles of photosynthesis. Alex’s mind became a vacuum of trees and green light as s/he ran down the path deeper into the forest. The floatiness had shifted; s/he still felt lightheaded and detached but it was as though s/he were a part of the forest’s heady cadence, running through its substance as though detached from Alex-as-a-body rather than the world all around. Thoughts drifted like autumn leaves down a river, fragile and transient, and s/he let them sink through consciousness until they faded into green light. S/he ran without thinking about how far or how long s/he had run, lost in the rhythm of footsteps.
The path opened out to a wide lake that shone silver in the pale sunlight. S/he slowed down and gradually became more aware of the surroundings. The lake shimmered in the clearing like liquid moonlight and the sky above was the pale blue-white of icicles. Alex walked closer to the water and looked across the glasslike surface. The water barely rippled in the still air and s/he could see through its depths to the sandy floor. As s/he stared through the water, she could see a reflection on the still surface. After a few moments, the refection started to speak.
“So you ran away again.” Alex jumped backwards, tripping over a tree root. The reflection stayed on the surface of the lake, watching.
“What do you mean?” Alex asked. The reflection didn’t answer. “I haven’t run away from anything. I was just…running.”
“Just running,” repeated the reflection. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Alex replied slowly. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.” The reflection continued to look at Alex closely and s/he began to feel uncomfortable.
“When you run, how do you feel?” asked the reflection. “Can you feel yourself moving? Are you aware of your body as you run?”
“I’m not sure.” Alex was confused by the question. “I can feel it, obviously, my feet hitting the ground and everything but after a while, it sort of becomes automatic and you’re not totally aware of how you’re moving.”
“So you’re not completely aware of your body?” the reflection pressed. Alex thought for a moment.
“Yes. No. Maybe. I’m not sure.” S/he stopped and thought for a moment. “It’s weird- when I wasn’t running, everything felt strange and unreal and when I started to run, it all sort of merged together and I was me and not me at the same time, and everything seemed to be there all the time. It was like everything was present and linked but temporary at the same time.”
“That’s interesting,” commented the reflection. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
“But you don’t have a body,” Alex replied. “Or not a physical one, anyway.”
“So where does that fit?” asked the reflection. “Can something exist without a physical body?”
“I don’t know,” replied Alex. Brain starting to blur with overloaded thoughts, s/he sat down at the edge of the lake and breathed in its stillness.
“How do I know that you exist?” The reflection broke the silence and Alex looked up. “I mean, all I know is that I can see something that looks like a physical presence but I don’t know that. All I know is how it appears to me. If I were something else, a tree for example, you might look completely different.”
Alex was confused. “But you can see me.”
“Can I?” countered the reflection. “Or do I just think I can?” Alex didn’t reply. The reflection continued, “Everything I think I can see is in my mind- it’s all perspectives and interpretation. Everything depends on your point of view. I’m assuming you exist because you look the same as the Alex I met earlier, just like you think that your body exists because it appears the same to you every time you see it. You infer that things are real because they seem consistent to you. What if you looked in a mirror and saw somebody else, but you still felt like the same person?”
“But I wouldn’t be,” said Alex, getting angry at the questions. “How could I be the same and different at the same time?”
“But you’re not the same as when you were born,” replied the reflection. “Most of your cells have regenerated and you’ve grown up and your thoughts and ideas have changed. Does that mean you’re a different person?”
“Of course not!” exclaimed Alex angrily. The reflection stayed silent. “I’m still me; I’ve still got memories and experiences and… But maybe they’re not me either. Maybe me doesn’t exist.”
“Maybe not.” The reflection sounded thoughtful, which, to Alex, was hardly surprising since s/he was really just a thought itself. “Maybe all you perceive is everything there is, and you can’t know about anything else. Maybe everything’s just perceptions.”
“But when I run,” Alex said slowly, “there seems to be something else. Definitely something physical.” The reflection looked up and s/he continued. “I mean, I’m not sure if it’s physical or mental or what, but everything sort of merges together into one something. It’s like nothing exists, or everything exists, or maybe there isn’t a difference. I’m running and I’m the run, and everything forms a part of that experience. Just for that time, I’m pure experience and that’s it. No I, no me, just running.”
“Do you ever get that when you’re not running?” The reflection looked straight into Alex’s eyes and s/he felt a sudden sensation in her stomach, as though someone had punched there hard and s/he flinched and looked away.
“I don’t know,” s/he replied. It was the truth but s/he felt as though s/he were hiding something. The reflection continued to stare intently. “I don’t know. I’ve only been here a day!”
“But haven’t you been here before?”
“Been where?” Alex felt more confused than ever and turned away from the lake.
“Watch out for the Red Queen,” the reflection called after Alex as s/he entered the forest once again.
S/he walked quickly back down the path into the trees, hardly noticing where s/he was going. The trees merged above in green shadows and the path seemed eerily quiet, air heavy and close after the calm stillness of the lake. Something jarred in Alex’s ribcage, jolting the heart with surges of electricity and s/he felt nausea creeping up in the region of the throat. There was something about the mention of the Red Queen that disturbed Alex, something just beyond the reaches of memory and s/he felt sick with a sudden, abstract sense of guilt or something similar. S/he half walked, half tripped down the path in an effort to escape the familiar but unfounded feeling and found that s/he was breaking into a run, breathing the oppressive air until s/he felt their chest loosen and heart beat oxygen-purified blood fast around the body. S/he ran until the feelings faded to the pulse of the run and once again, the world merged to a rush of green. S/he ran on and on, building the rhythm until s/he tripped suddenly over a tree root.
The path ahead was lined with roots spaced evenly towards a darkened clearing. S/he picked through carefully, trying not to fall over. As s/he reached the space where the trees opened to shadows, s/he could see something glowing in the centre. Looking more closely, s/he realised it was a pair of cats’ eyes and s/he walked towards it. In the centre of the clearing was a large black cat, eyes glowing green in the darkness. The next thing Alex noticed was its size: it was nearly as tall as s/he was, tail swishing like a python and fur like dark wild grass. And then s/he looked more closely at the trees, towering over her head like skyscrapers with trunks as wide as cars. S/he looked up through the branches, alarmed. The pale sun shone through the trees like a golden mirror spilling light over the branches, huge and distant. Everything seemed suddenly bigger than before but Alex hadn’t noticed the change happening, hardly perceptible like the movement of the hour hand of a clock. S/he shivered and turned towards the cat.
“Who are you?” s/he asked.
“I thought that was what I should be asking you,” the cat replied in a slow voice that sounded as though there were a faint purr hidden behind its words.
S/he looked more closely at the creature’s face. It reminded Alex of something but she couldn’t work out what; something in the odd asymmetry of the cat’s face and the ruffled fur on its back, prickled slightly as though defensive. S/he looked into its pale green eyes and flinched instinctively, looking away in an intense wave of intrusive feeling. S/he spoke again.
“I’m Alex,” s/he said uncertainly.
“I know that,” answered the cat, sounding slightly amused. Alex felt more confused than before. “I want to know who you are.”
“Alex,” s/he repeated, frustration causing the tongue to jam and Alex’s words sounded strained. “That’s who I am, I think. My name is Alex.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” The cat’s voice sounded still more amused and the hint of a purr more pronounced. “Your name is Alex. That’s what you were called. At least, I’m assuming you had no say in the matter.” Alex stayed silent, staring at leaves the size of dustbin lids that littered the ground and began to pace in circles. “What I want to know is, who are you? In your own words, or maybe I should say in your own mind?”
Alex frowned. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
The cat purred softly. “Yes, you do. Think about it.”
Alex stopped pacing and gazed into the shadows, thinking. The sunlight was fading fast, leaving a silvery glow through the trees. “Look,” s/he started.
“Where?” replied the cat. Alex ignored it.
“Look,” s/he continued. “I have no idea what’s going on and I’m getting really fed up with it. First I run into a mirror and my reflection starts totally confusing me about what or where I am, and now you’re trying to get me to think about who. I don’t even know what that means any more. What is this place? Where am I?”
“That’s what I was asking you,” answered the cat, annoyingly. Alex glared at it and its purrs grew louder. “I’ll ask you again: who are you?”
“I’m Alex,” Alex replied stubbornly. “That’s it. I’m Alex, I’m a person, I have a body. I also think I have a mind, or the fact that I can think seems to show that anyway. I’m not a part of this stupid world.” Alex turned to run away from the cat, but s/he suddenly stopped. S/he looked at the carpet-sized leaves on the ground. “Why does everything keep changing, anyway?”
“How do you know it’s changing?” asked the cat, infuriatingly. Alex glared back once again.
“Because it is,” s/he replied. “One moment, everything’s normal-sized, and the next it’s massive. I’d be walking through the trees and they seem giant sized and everything’s slowed down and spaced out, and I don’t know why. And then it’s like I’m detached from my body somehow, like I’m floating above my head and everything’s out of sync and my mind seems a few seconds behind my body. It’s weird and horrible and I don’t understand it. Why can’t everything just stay the same?”
“What if everything is the same?” asked the cat, looking intently at Alex. S/he flinched and looked down at the leaves once again, feeling as though the cat were trying to see straight into their thoughts. “What if it’s just your perception that’s changing?”
“But- what?” replied Alex, confused. S/he looked around her at the tall trees, the moving shadows and the pendulum swing of the cat’s tail. Its eyes shone in the darkness like green orbs. “What do you mean?”
“Perception,” repeated the cat slowly. “Perception, perspective, viewpoint, awareness, impression. What you see, what you hear, what you experience. How you interpret it. What makes your reality.” Alex didn’t respond. S/he stared at the ground, thoughts tangled in a confused mind. The cat continued. “You can’t know if things around you are changing, or if it’s you. Think of when you were growing up. Don’t things that seemed big when you were little seem so much smaller now?” Alex stayed silent. “That’s perspective. And here, nothing is constant- everything’s in a state of flux, including you. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.”
Alex looked up suddenly. “What? What do you mean, I wouldn’t be here? Where is here, anyway?”
“That’s for you to find out,” answered the cat annoyingly. Alex glared at it once again. “I can’t give you the answers. I can only help you find them out for yourself.”
“Well, you’re not being very helpful,” Alex replied stubbornly. “Thanks for your help.” S/he walked back towards the path, then, struck by a sudden thought, s/he turned back to the cat. “By the way, who’s the Red Queen?”
“That depends why you want to know,” answered the cat and Alex clenched fists in frustration. “You’ll find out soon enough, if that’s what you’re here for.”
“But I don’t know why I’m here-“ Alex started but the cat was gone, leaving a grin of dinner plate teeth gleaming in the darkness. Alex shivered and walked back along the path.
The trees towered above, casting mazes of shadows. The sky through the branches looked darker as the silvery grey faded to blackness. S/he could hardly see the path ahead and edged carefully through leaves the size of bicycle wheels, climbing over stones and fallen twigs like an obstacle course. Every now and then, giant mushrooms shone in the darkness and cast a rainbow glow across the path. S/he made her way through the trees for what seemed like hours along a path that threaded the forest in spirals. Sometimes s/he thought s/he’d been here before, others s/he had felt lost in the vastness of gigantic trees and vertigo shadows. But still there was a sameness s/he couldn’t quite identify, something that felt like a distant familiarity but somehow scary, like a forgotten nightmare that deep down, s/he still wanted to revisit. As the darkness closed around, s/he could feel its pulse, far away but still present. S/he shivered again, walking more quickly.
As s/he walked, she heard a voice nearby. Startled, s/he turned around but there was nothing there. Something jolted the mind into a vertigo of fear. S/he broke into a run, tripping across twigs and leaves. The voice seemed to follow. “You’re going the right way…don’t stop…keep running…” It persisted almost inside Alex’s head and s/he ran still faster, leaping stones and branches in a way s/he would never have thought possible. “You know what to do….” continued the voice, and s/he kept running. Alex’s heart beat the voices from their ears and s/he slowly became calmer, running the rhythm of the trees and the noise of her footsteps was the only thing s/he could hear. S/he slowed to a walk once again, breathing deeply. The voice seemed to have gone.
There was a sinister feel to the forest which grew stronger as s/he walked. The echo of the voice reverberated in Alex’s head, disturbed thoughts and made Alex feel more uneasy. S/he felt like s/he’d heard it before but didn’t know where, somewhere beneath the mess of screenshot memories that mazed her mind. S/he shook her head to clear it and began to run again down the pathway, feeling the now-familiar anaesthesia of the run, calming the mind and loosening muscles. As s/he ran, s/he realised that s/he was running more easily than before, covering much more distance without even thinking about it. S/he kept running, feeling the beat of feet calming the mind. S/he felt strangely real, as though s/he had somehow lost sense of their own reality without noticing and when s/he ran, s/he was suddenly present and alert once again.
S/he thought about this as she ran; the constant detachment that had become part of how s/he experienced the self suddenly seemed odd, and s/he started to question it. Running clarified thoughts, sharpened senses. When s/he ran, s/he felt connected to the world around her in a way s/he hadn’t experienced for a long time, not since before s/he’d fallen into Wonderland for the first time. S/he slowed down, really looking all around for the first time. The trees appeared smaller than they had done, and time seemed to have sped up; the heavy dreaminess of the forest had distilled to a sharp freshness, clear and distinct. Through the branches overhead, s/he could see the scatter of stars on a sky as deep as the sea. S/he ran slowly, breathing deeply. S/he inhaled the connection, feeling something stir in their chest and spread through the body. It was at times like this when s/he wished she could run forever.
Then, suddenly, a voice hissed in Alex’s ear. “Run faster.” S/he stopped, whirled around but could see nothing. “Don’t stop,” the voice continued, with an edge of anger. “Keep running. You’re nearly there.”
S/he started running again, more urgently this time, heart beating painfully against the breastbone and breath burned Alex’s throat. The voice receded slightly. “That’s right, keep going. You can do it.”
“Do what?” Alex asked out loud, coughing as the words jolted breathing. There was no response. S/he continued to run down the path as fast as s/he could. One knee started to twinge painfully and the muscles at the back of their legs felt tight and sore. But as s/he thought about slowing down, an echo of the voice whispered persistently and s/he forced her legs to move more quickly. This was a different kind of running: a paradox of choice and compulsion. It was Alex’s body, their decision to keep moving and s/he knew that s/he could walk if s/he wanted to but something was urging them to keep running even though it was painful and muscles were seizing with exertion. And then suddenly, the feeling changed as though someone had switched off the sense of pain. S/he was no longer sore; s/he ran as though detached from the body and Alex’s legs moved automatically. S/he was floating above the body, sensing rather than feeling its movement. Time slowed to irrelevance; s/he barely noticed the sun begin to stain the horizon and shadows lengthened through the trees. The voice was silent.
The path opened suddenly into a clearing and Alex stopped abruptly, looking around. In the middle of the clearing was a table set with a multitude of mugs, teapots and plates, many of which were chipped or broken. The table itself appeared lopsided, as though one of its legs had broken. Sitting at the head of the table was a very tall man with a large top hat. Alex approached him nervously. He didn’t seem to acknowledge Alex’s presence and poured hot liquid which s/he guessed to be tea into one of the mugs. It seeped out of one the many cracks, trickling slowly across the table but the man didn’t seem to notice. He took out a newspaper and began to read. Alex stood by the table awkwardly, unsure of what to do. S/he didn’t want to interrupt him, but didn’t want him to notice is s/he walked away. S/he began to feel slightly nauseous and the mind seemed stuck on the question of whether to go or stay. And then the voice spoke in Alex’s head, sounding angry, “Stupid girl. Why didn’t you keep running?” Alex wanted to turn and run but their legs seemed to have seized up and s/he couldn’t move. S/he realised s/he was shaking and sweat trickled down their back as s/he stared at the scene, trying to focus on the table in front of her. Alex’s vision blurred and s/he felt floaty once again, as though their mind had levitated above the body. Part of Alex wanted the voice to speak again, to give instructions or reassurance but it had gone. S/he pinched their arm hard in case s/he was stuck in a strange dream, but nothing happened. The sharp pinch brought Alex suddenly back to the forest, and s/he could see the table clearly again although in Alex’s mind, s/he was still seemed stuck on the same dilemma.
And then, the man spoke. “Did I invite you to my tea party?”
Alex jumped, heart thumping erratically. “Wh-what?”
“Did I invite you?” the man repeated, sounding impatient. “You arrived from who knows where into my personal space, and I can’t remember if I was expecting anyone or not.”
“Um, no,” s/he answered, confused. Alex’s voice didn’t seem to work properly and s/he could only manage a squeak.
The man looked frustrated. “Well, if you don’t want to stay for tea-“
“No, I do!” Alex was surprised with the sudden eagerness and flushed crimson. S/he breathed deeply to try to calm her thoughts.
“Well, sit down then,” said the man irritably. Alex sat at the opposite end of the table, feeling more awkward than before. The man poured out some more tea, and pushed a mug towards Alex who took a sip, hands still shaking. “Who are you?”
Alex sighed in frustration. “I don’t bloody know. Who are you?”
“It’s rude to answer a question with a question.” The man seemed offended. Alex went red and apologised quickly. “Don’t worry. Just tell me something about yourself.”
“My name’s Alex,” Alex said, uncertainly.
“Well, that’s a start,” replied the man. He picked up a plate of flapjacks and handed one to Alex. S/he took it and put it on a plate. “Where are you from? And what are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Alex answered. The man looked annoyed again. “I mean, I know where I used to live- I lived in a town by the sea but it’s so different from here that part of me thinks I might have imagined it. You know, like a dream that you don’t know if it’s real or not.”
“OK,” said the man. “I’ll go with that. But if you can remember it then it must have been real for you at some point, even if that time was in your head. Time’s not very reliable anyway. One of the most temperamental people I have ever met.”
“People?” asked Alex, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“Time is a person, of course,” replied the man, looking at Alex as though s/he was stupid. “Did you believe all that rubbish about time being something abstract and permanent? That’s just a concept made up by people to regulate a world they don’t understand.”
Alex was amazed. “So, have you actually met Time?”
“Unfortunately for me, yes,” replied the man. Alex stared at him in amazement. “He’s not a nice person. Not always constant, has his favourites and can change faster than the sun can rise. People are unreliable, and Time is no exception. I offended him once by mistake, and his punishment is to keep time for me at always 6 o’clock- tea time. Days pass but time stays the same. So I’m stuck drinking tea and reading the same newspaper for eternity.”
“Well, at least you’ll never get old,” Alex remarked.
The man didn’t look impressed. “Can’t do anything else either.” He sighed, picked up his tea and took a sip. “But let’s not dwell on that. You were going to tell me why you are here.”
“I…I…think it’s safe here.” Alex stopped suddenly, shocked at the words which seemed to come from somewhere outside of their thoughts. The man stared intently. “I mean, compared to the outside world, or whatever isn’t this forest. Here, it’s strange and changing but it’s constant somehow, like everything has a reason. In the other world, nothing does- it’s all random and nothing seems to make sense.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very nice place to be,” the man replied, looking at Alex so intently it was though he was trying to see into the mind. “But there, time is constant?”
“Yes,” Alex answered, “it’s about the only thing that is.” She took another sip of tea. “Even if it is a concept that’s made up, it works. And actually, I think I kind of knew that already- timetables and routine are human constructs made to structure what would otherwise be chaos. But that’s not a bad thing- the construct, I mean. If it works for you, what’s the problem?”
The man didn’t answer and stirred his tea before looking up at Alex. “Everything changes,” he replied. “You can’t rely on anything. Not even something you made up yourself.”
“But if it’s in your head…” Alex started.
The man looked at her disbelievingly. “Don’t believe everything you think.” Alex stared, confused. “The only thing that’s real for you is the present moment,” he continued, “and even that isn’t infallible. Be careful, especially around here. If you’re here for the reason I think you are…”
“And why’s that?” asked Alex desperately. The man didn’t reply and s/he banged her mug down angrily. Tea splashed over the table but the man didn’t flinch. “Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m a hatter,” replied the man. “Some people say I’m mad but I’m not, and I don’t like that word anyway. There’s no such thing as madness, especially somewhere like here. But all I do is drink tea and read the same paper, so from other people’s perspectives, that seems strange and therefore mad. But can you judge a person by their situation?” Alex didn’t reply. “A bit like you, really.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” s/he asked, angrily. The hatter looked at Alex intently again and s/he poured another cup of tea to distract from his stare. Then s/he suddenly remembered something. “Who’s the Red Queen?”
The hatter stiffened and concentrated on stirring his tea. “I have no idea.” He sipped his tea purposefully and looked at Alex. “Have another flapjack.”
“I don’t want one, thanks,” Alex said, determined to get some sort of answer. “Anyway, I haven’t had one yet so I can’t have another. And I’m not hungry anyway- I haven’t been since I came to this place. That’s another weird thing. And time seems to slow down and speed up, and sometimes I’m all over the place and others it’s like I’m part of the weird structure and I’m meant to be here. I don’t get it. And I’m sure the Red Queen’s a major part of it but I don’t know why.”
“Maybe you already know,” replied the hatter, avoiding Alex’s gaze. “Or maybe you don’t need to. Do you have to understand everything?”
“Well, understanding something would help,” said Alex, starting to feel more frustrated.
“But I thought you said that Wonderland made more sense than your other world,” commented the hatter. Alex stayed silent. “How can something make sense and not make sense at the same time?”
“I- I don’t know.” Alex was confused. “It’s not that it doesn’t made sense here- there’s definitely something that, I don’t know, sort of regulates things but I don’ know what it is. It’s safe and not safe at the same time. Safe because there’s some sort of logic to it but not safe as well because I don’t know what that logic is and it seems to change all the time.”
The hatter didn’t speak for a moment and Alex felt suddenly shy and awkward. Then he looked directly again. “You like running.”
“Um, I think so,” Alex answered, feeling more confused. “At least, I think I do. I hadn’t really thought about it properly before I came here.”
“Have you heard of Achilles and the tortoise?” asked the hatter. Alex shook their head. “It’s about a race between Achilles, who’s a very fast runner, and a tortoise who is obviously slow. To be more fair, Achilles gives the tortoise a head start of a hundred metres. Who will win the race?”
“Achilles, obviously,“ said Alex, thrown by the sudden change of subject, “unless the race is only about a hundred metres long.”
“It’s definitely a lot longer,” replied the hatter. “Let’s assume they both run at a constant rate and neither of them stops. So for every hundred metres Achilles runs, the tortoise covers ten metres. Correct?”
“Yes,” answered Alex, trying to keep up.
“But every time Achilles runs ten metres, the tortoise has moved further ahead, even if by only a small amount. Yes?” Alex nodded. “So Achilles can never catch him up.”
Alex’s brain spun with confusion and s/he tried to make sense of it. “Well, yes, logically there’s an infinite number of half-distances so you’d have to cover that before you actually get there so OK, logically he can never catch up. But he would, in real life.”
“Why?” asked the hatter. “Isn’t logic part of life?”
Alex thought for a moment. “No,” s/he answered finally. “I wish it was, but it isn’t. Things have meanings that change and depend on situations and interpretations- everyone’s different and no two people see the world the same way. So logic can’t always apply. But it’s still the safest way of thinking about things.”
“So for Achilles, his perception of running would be different to the tortoise’s?” asked the hatter. “So you can’t really compare the two?”
“Not exactly,” replied Alex thoughtfully. “Just that you need to look at the bigger situation, not just the distance. But logic is cool; it makes you think about things in two different ways at the same time and that’s definitely a good thing.”
“Well done,” said the hatter. Alex looked at him in surprise. “Keep that way of thinking- it’s the only way you’ll survive in Wonderland. So how does that work in your situation?”
“What do you mean?” asked Alex, feeling as though time had shifted again.
“How does it apply to you?” continued the hatter. “As a person, and in running. Because running’s obviously a part of being here, for you anyway. It could save you or it could keep you trapped here- that depends on you.”
“I don’t understand,” said Alex slowly.
“I think you do,” replied the hatter, “or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Just don’t forget it. Wonderland’s a dangerous place. Nothing is exactly as it seems, everything has simultaneous meanings- just like Achilles and the tortoise. Don’t trust anything you perceive, think or feel. Especially what you think- there are people here who can twist your thoughts without you even realising. Everything you see will change; that’s the nature of the world we’re in. And sometimes you won’t even notice until it’s too late. Stay aware and keep reminding yourself of who you are. Don’t lose yourself in the vortex.”
Alex didn’t reply, not sure how to react. “But, I think I want to be here,” s/he answered, slowly. “Or, maybe not want exactly, I don’t think you can want something if you don’t know about it already. But it feels safer here, weirdly, than the other world. Less confusing, and less chance of messing things up. I don’t think you can mess things up here- there’s no expectations or hidden agendas, or people who don’t tell you what they’re thinking until it’s too late. There’s a sort of structure or rules underlying Wonderland that feel safe and even if they do change, they’re always logical. And I feel different here too- calmer, and more in control. Which is definitely a good thing.”
“Be careful,” said the hatter, staring at her intently. “Keep hold of your self.”
“But-“ Alex started, and then stopped abruptly. S/he felt threatened, as though the hatter was trying to take something away from her, or stop Alex from progressing through the forest. And then s/he knew that s/he wanted to go, the urge sudden and intense. A harsh anger flashed across Alex’s eyes and the hatter flinched instinctively. “I know what I’m doing.” The hatter continued to stare and s/he avoided his eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m fine; I know what to do. Just leave me alone.”
Alex’s eyes shone with a fervent intensity that s/he had never displayed before, at once guarded and fanatical. The words seemed to come from a part of the psyche that s/he had never expressed before, something hidden that s/he somehow knew had always been there but s/he had never realised before. It was something powerful that permeated the membrane of consciousness, not-quite-known in the recesses of Alex’s mind like a silhouette of something much more intense. Something sharp and clear as icicles, and just as cold. But s/he knew that it was on the same side, that it would protect them from whatever dangers or chaos were in her path or even in Alex’s own self. It wasn’t trust exactly but s/he knew s/he could rely on the force, whatever it was, although sometimes s/he feared it too, was scared of its obsessive control and merciless power. But this was part of the self, and s/he didn’t want to lose it. This was safety.
S/he turned and walked back into the forest and away from the hatter. Anger still burned in Alex’s throat and s/he was shaking uncontrollably, face hot and sweat trickling down the spine. S/he didn’t know where the rage had come from and s/he felt odd, slightly detached from the surroundings and Alex’s brain seemed clouded and slowed down. Thoughts merged and s/he couldn’t distinguish one from another; they crowded her mind and ears started to ring as though s/he were underwater. S/he couldn’t see straight and the trees swayed into shadows, blurred into fog of muffled sounds and shapes. Alex felt frozen and feverish at the same time.
And then suddenly, the voice came again. “Run.” Alex jumped and their heart jolted painfully. S/he started to run, awkward and shaky at first but soon mind and muscles loosened and s/he could see more clearly, running through the darkened shadows of the trees. The sun had set completely and s/he could see stars prickling the night sky. The surge that shook Alex’s body and mind had dissipated; s/he still felt shaky and slightly nauseous but thoughts were clearer now and s/he could move more freely although s/he felt totally exhausted, as though the brain surge had drained her energy. As s/he ran, the shakiness subsided and s/he felt real and connected once again, breathing in the night. The voice spoke again through in Alex’s ear. “Run faster.” Alex’s heart jarred in her chest and a rush of guilty nausea flooded their stomach. S/he forced legs to move more quickly, feeling the strain in leg muscles. Alex’s throat seared with sharp breath and pain shot through their feet. S/he ran faster still; hardly aware of the surroundings, s/he pounded the night with a jarring rhythm. “That’s better,” the voice continued. “You don’t have to enjoy it.” The voice didn’t scare Alex anymore; it seemed as much a part of the surroundings as the trees and the path s/he was following. S/he carried on running, felt the nausea seep from the body with each footstep and s/he forced legs to keep moving. Soon, s/he hardly knew she was running at all; the forest blurred a heavy blackness and the air hung thick with anticipation. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant. S/he ran as though slightly detached from the body, moving automatically. S/he didn’t really feel anything at all. And then, once again, s/he ran into a mirror.
This mirror seemed a lot more solid than the one s/he had seen earlier. Its metal frame was all angles and sharp edges, and the glass itself seemed crystal clear. S/he leaned in closer, and the reflection appeared once again. It appeared different but s/he wasn’t sure why, and Alex didn’t like it; s/he felt nauseous and uncomfortable, and had a sudden urge to hit, scream or kick. S/he kept silent, trying not to look into the mirror.
“How’s your running?” asked her reflection. It wasn’t a query- more of a confrontation, and Alex jumped back.
“OK,” s/he replied. S/he wasn’t sure what the reflection meant. “Why are you here? I thought you’d gone.”
“Gone where?” The reflection sounded almost mocking and Alex felt suddenly uncomfortable, vertigo dizzying their body and guilt surging inexplicably through veins. The reflection stared straight at Alex and s/he had the horrible impression that it was looking right into the mind. “I can’t go unless you go. I’m your reflection, remember? Although you don’t seem to have been paying much attention to me at the moment.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alex, confused and scared. “How have I not been paying attention? You’re just a reflection.”
“Just a reflection,” repeated the reflection quietly. “I’m a reflection of you. I’m your perception of yourself.” Alex didn’t reply. “That is, if you’ve worked out who you are.”
“I don’t know!” shouted Alex, surprised with the force of her voice. “How am I supposed to know? There isn’t a me anyway. I don’t want to be me.”
“How can you know you don’t want to be you if you don’t think there’s a you in the first place?” asked the reflection. Alex stayed silent. “Maybe you need to decide who you want to be.”
“But how can I do that?” asked Alex, frustrated. “I can’t change other people’s perceptions, and that’s what matters really. Doesn’t really matter whatever you actually are- you could be the most amazing person in the world but if people saw you as, I don’t know, selfish or horrible or something, then you may as well be.”
The reflection looked at Alex directly again and s/he felt its gaze penetrating the mind. S/he looked up at the distant stars through the network of branches. The reflection spoke again. “I think you know what you need to do.” Alex didn’t look down. “Listen to what your mind is telling you. Do whatever you need to do.”
“Whose side are you on, anyway?” Alex felt angry again. “It’s like everyone here is against me and I don’t know where I’m going. I really don’t get it, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. All you’re doing is confusing me, and making me feel bad.”
“I’m your reflection,” the reflection repeated. “I’m how you see yourself. And if you don’t like it, maybe you need to change.”
Alex looked at the reflection. It shimmered in the darkness, not fully visible, but what s/he could distinguish made her feel uncomfortable and s/he shivered. There was something unfamiliar about it, dominant and greedy, and s/he flinched. Its edges curved through the shadowed trees, in and out of focus as though it were ever-present and dangerously pervasive. A sudden urge to hit, scratch or bite tensed Alex’s body. Eyes narrowed, the body trembled inexplicably. S/he felt fingernails digging into their hands and s/he had a sudden image of lashing out at the reflection, scratching nails down its face in scarlet streaks. The thought scared Alex and s/he clenched fists tighter, biting the tongue and trying not to react. S/he shook with hotness and eyes burned with unexpected tears.
“I hate you!” s/he shouted, scared with intensity. “I really hate you! You’re such a stupid, annoying thing and I wish you’d just disappear and leave me alone. You’re not me. You’re, I don’t know, a weird freak who thinks it’s OK to question and confuse people. It’s your fault I’m here and now I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. I just want to get rid of you.”
The reflection didn’t respond. It hovered in the trees, watching Alex. Sweat trickled down Alex’s spine as s/he glared back, still shaking. Then s/he turned and ran through the trees as fast as s/he could. Footsteps pounded the forest floor aggressively and the shadows seemed to close in, oppressive and heavy, choking Alex’s lungs. S/he could feel their heart in their throat and blackness hazed across eyes. Still s/he ran, pushing the body harder through the forest. It wasn’t Alex running anymore; something external seemed to be motivating to keep moving, a paradox of fluid movement and frozen velocity. Something that gave Alex power as long as s/he was submissive to its indirect control. Control that, deep down, s/he wanted to give because it seemed easier, freer somehow. It’s strange how easily you get caught in the bell curve of control, swinging from one side to the other like a pendulum of emotion. Alex hardly noticed the burning feeling in their legs as s/he ran; pain overwhelmed to numbness and the mind spun an oxymoron of thoughts, building and whirling until they merged into white light that flashed across Alex’s vision. S/he ran as though distanced from the body, hardly aware of where s/he was going. The now-familiar voice spoke again. “Don’t you feel better now?”
Alex stopped, looked wildly around but there were only trees and shadows. The voice whispered insistently. “Don’t bother looking for me; you’ll know when you’re ready.”
“Know what?” Alex asked out loud. There was no reply. All s/he could hear was the rustle of leaves and muffled noises that s/he assumed were creatures hidden in the trees. And then the voice spoke again.
“Why have you stopped? Don’t you realise you’re almost there?” It seemed different now, harsh and close as though it were right inside Alex’s skull. S/he ran. Heart burned in their chest, beating hard and irregular like a desperate prisoner trying to escape. Alex’s legs shook as s/he forced them to move. As s/he ran, she felt the tremor of over-exertion vibrate the body and muscles felt stiff and weak. This wasn’t like the running s/he was used to; this was something completely different, something out of Alex’s control but somehow seemed the only way to get out of the chaos of Wonderland. S/he kept running, hating every moment but knowing instinctively that it was the only thing to do. The voice whispered in Alex’s head, encouraging with veiled threats. S/he felt safer, more calm now that the voice seemed to be content with the efforts and s/he ran harder. The pain seemed to ground her, sited in a body which was the only known reality and control. S/he felt a lightness s/he hadn’t felt before, a detached sort of purity, connection with the world around. For the first time, s/he felt like something had settled inside and the vertigo that had overwhelmed Alex since before s/he’d even entered Wonderland had dissipated. It was an amazing feeling and s/he ran with a sudden rush of energy, high on a paradox of emptiness and fulfilment. The voice stayed silent but s/he could sense its approval pulsing through the body. It was inside Alex now, a part of their thoughts or maybe it had been all along. S/he ran on and on, lost in a world of hazy relief and detachment.
Have you ever been in a haze so strong that the boundaries between sleep and waking blur in a semi-permeable membrane of dream feeling? It’s a state where feelings in dreams seem stronger than in reality and it’s hard to tell which is which. Alex wasn’t sure if Wonderland was a dream or if s/he’d just dreamed her life before entering the forest. And did it really matter? As s/he ran through the trees, the constant present of the run overwhelmed the senses and it felt like s/he existed only in a dreamstate of connection to the forest, as though if the cycles of nature were broken, s/he too would cease to exist. S/he was running; s/he understood it now. She felt as though running made the self whole, gave it some sort of meaning. Running was existence. And yet s/he could never reach an endpoint; the goal was fluid, shifting further and further and Alex’s mind slipped relatively. S/he was an existence of perspectives like the mirrors in a funhouse, never knowing which was real. The body was language as the mind was trapped in the limitations of perception and the voice seemed to have forgotten words. The only communication came from the voice inside Alex’s head, at once commanding and reassuring. As long as s/he did what it said, s/he was safe.
Alex’s mind was still and consciousness sharp as she ran down the forest path. S/he gradually became aware that the surroundings were changing; the sky was getting lighter and a morning heat haze hovered above the ground. The stillness permeated Alex’s consciousness, increased the sense of connection to the forest and s/he breathed the humidity of the morning. It was the half-light you only see if you’ve been up all night and Alex felt more surreal, as though s/he had run straight through a fairy tale and was still running. S/he wondered vaguely why s/he wasn’t tired but it felt natural just to keep running. The trees and plants around were also different; red flowers like Venus fly traps grew between tropical-looking bushes and the trees were a mixture of yew and elder, old and strong. The ground beneath was rusty and rich with moisture. Alex felt uncomfortable, as though their cold, detached body did not belong in the luxurious warmth of this new part of the forest. The voice spoke again, cutting through the discomfort. “You’re nearly there now. Just keep running- don’t stop. You’re past all that now.” Alex ran on, thoughts clashing to a blur of renewed blankness. S/he breathed in the energy from the trees and kept running.
The voice whispered continuously, reassuring and constant. If s/he slowed slightly, it would turn slightly menacing but as soon as the fear began to register in Alex’s slowed mind, it became gentle and encouraging once again. It was their only companion but it was all that s/he needed. It was as much Alex’s thoughts as the mind was; the difference being that it guided Alex and kept them safe. It helped Alex to see how dangerous a chaotic mind could be and the effect of thoughts on unchecked emotions. Now, s/he was free of the chaos of feelings and thoughts were strict and controlled. Just keep running. The voice made sure s/he did not slip from the path and s/he obeyed with a faith stronger than any s/he had felt before. It was a part of the self, the only part s/he could rely on totally and s/he didn’t want to lose its security. It made Alex free to be Alex without the usual selfishness of being and s/he valued that beyond anything else. S/he felt as though s/he had a direction, something to aim for that was constant in its unattainability. S/he knew s/he’d never get there; that wasn’t the point. The only way to succeed was to literally run the self away, run until s/he or the world disappeared. And until then, running was enough.
As s/he ran, the voice grew stronger and more tangible. At times, s/he thought s/he could see it, a shadow in the trees but it never materialised. And then suddenly, it was there in front of her. A tall woman wearing a dark red cloak and a silver crown studded with rubies. Even before the woman spoke, Alex knew that it was she who had been speaking to her through the forest. There was a chill to her in contrast to the surroundings and her black eyes were cold. Her impassive stare seemed to cut straight through Alex’s flesh and s/he stopped running abruptly. The woman’s dark hair hung straight around her white face and her dress was pure blood. There was a sinister sort of symmetry to her body; her face seemed too perfect, her skin flawless and her clothes pristine and balanced. She stood, tall and thin and still as a china doll but without its delicacy. This woman was as strong as the forces of logic and just as arcane. She was very beautiful. She stood perfectly still, looking directly into Alex’s eyes. And then she spoke.
“So you made it here,” she said and Alex flinched as the familiar voice came from the woman’s mouth. S/he didn’t reply. “Well done. That’s half the battle won already. But here is the important part. Now you need to decide if you’re really willing to commit.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alex, voice broken with lack of use. The woman smiled but her eyes stayed cold.
“I’m offering you an apprenticeship. I’m the Red Queen and I control this world. I have the power to trap anyone who enters, either by choice, curiosity or stupidity. But I don’t just want anyone. To stay here, you need to be special.” Alex looked up at the Red Queen who was still smiling. “You can do it. I know you can. You’re different from the others, stronger and more controlled. Look how well you’re doing already. You know the truth. You understand the pull of equilibrium, the importance that the world stays in balance. You have control.”
Alex still didn’t answer, avoiding the woman’s gaze. S/he felt a strange attraction, as though this woman held the key to the disjointed world s/he was living. Thoughts began to press through the blankness of the mind and s/he focussed intently, trying to work out what s/he should do. “I- I- I’m not sure,” she said, body starting to shake uncontrollably. The Red Queen’s eyes flashed.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” she said, her voice cutting Alex like knives through a mermaid’s tail. Alex flinched and their heart stung with pain. It was as though the woman could somehow read their mind and wound without moving. “How can you not be sure? Don’t you realise what I’m offering you? This is it, pure control of your mind, body and emotions and the chance to lead others to the same salvation. How could you even think of turning it down?”
Alex’s thoughts raced a battle with the Red Queen’s; s/he could feel the inner conflict tormenting their body. S/he had the sudden urge to run. Not the Red Queen’s harsh, precise strides but real running, the freedom of long distances and varying speed and absolute connection. S/he turned to face the Red Queen, focussing the mind hard on thoughts that s/he knew were their own. “I like to run.”
“Good,” said the Red Queen. “Running is good, it keeps you safe. Just make sure you’re focussing on the outcomes- don’t just run for the sake of it. Keep it strict, controlled and limited.”
Alex felt their mind slip to the Red Queen’s gravity and s/he forced it back, intent on keeping their own thoughts. “That- that’s not running,” s/he managed, coughing with the effort. The Red Queen glared.
“Of course it’s running,” she replied coldly. “It’s exactly what running is: scientific and precise.”
Alex’s thoughts pulled further from their mind and s/he began to feel dizzy. “No, it’s not,” s/he gasped as their throat started to seize up. Their body was still shaking violently and s/he dug fingernails into their arm to ground in the body, breathing deeply and forcing nails into flesh. “It’s not running. It’s- it’s- it’s like running but it’s not. Running is free. It’s a way to express yourself, to develop and to escape in a way which grounds you. It’s not forced, or painful, or restricted. Running is what you want it to be.” As s/he spoke, Alex’s thoughts grew clearer. The Red Queen stood still, her silhouette sharp in the lightening forest. She did not look beautiful anymore; her face seemed unnaturally perfect and her eyes were cold as onyx. Her skin was so pale that Alex shivered and her angular frame cut shadows across the forest floor.
“So what do you want?” she asked, her voice steady and calm. She looked directly into Alex’s eyes and her gaze penetrated deep into Alex’s body. Alex felt an intense fusion of feelings; one part was desperate to accept the Red Queen’s offer and stay forever in the safety of Wonderland with its logic and rules but there was another feeling too, a growing sense of uncertainty and doubt. S/he knew what s/he thought s/he wanted, but suddenly s/he wasn’t sure it was really Alex who was doing the wanting. All s/he knew for certain was that s/he wanted to run– really run with no boundaries or restrictions. S/he wanted to be, to feel the oneness with the world around and their place in it. Alex wanted to be real.
“I want to run,” s/he replied, returning the Red Queen’s gaze. “I want to just run, not for any reason or goals. I want to get lost in the run and find who I really am.”
“I thought you already knew that,” said the Red Queen in a measured tone. “Haven’t I shown you how to be yourself, in a safe and controlled way? Why would you want to throw all that hard work away?”
Alex didn’t reply, still feeling the clash of emotion inside. “Because…because that isn’t me,” s/he answered finally. “I wanted it to be, and I thought it was and maybe it is, partly, but it’s not real. It’s false and restricted and I want to be more than that. It’s a half-life, a safe existence but nothing else. And I want to live.”
“Since when have you bothered about reality?” asked the Red Queen harshly. “What does that matter? You’re live in your mind and body; that’s all that matters. And that’s the control I’m offering you. Control of your whole world.”
“But it’s not!” shouted Alex, surprised once again with the force of her words. “That’s not all there is. It’s all you can know, yes, but there’s a whole world out there. And I want to feel it, not just see from a detached point of view. I want to explore, to run and to feel. And maybe that’s not safe but that’s life.”
“You’re making a big mistake,” replied the Red Queen. “Once you leave, you can never come back. You’re putting your own selfishness over your own safety and you’ll regret it. You’re giving your greed and laziness a chance to grow unchecked, to take over your mind and body and you won’t even realise it. Without restrictions and rules, you’ll be as selfish as you always have been. Only I can offer you salvation from that.”
Alex’s head spun a vortex of vertigo and their body shook more violently than ever. Then s/he turned and ran through the trees, feet hitting the earth hard and arms swinging a powerful rhythm. The Red Queen’s voice rang in Alex’s ears but s/he didn’t pay any attention to it, running as fast as s/he could. After a while, s/he noticed that the forest was dark green and leafy once again, and the sun had fully risen. Alex’s thoughts had calmed and muscles ached comfortingly. S/he slowed her pace, breathing the forest air and relaxing into the run. This was running, the way her footsteps beat the rhythm of the trees and the mind flowed freely. Awareness of every moment, recognising thoughts but never judging or dwelling on them. The freedom of fluidity. A spectrum of feeling and sensation.
It’s strange, the way the mind wanders during a long run. It’s almost as though it’s released somehow, untethered from the limits of the body and free to explore in a way that would be impossible in the prison of flesh. Alex felt lighter, more liberated, running as though s/he were flying. S/he breathed the dark stillness of the forest’s night air which seemed to purify her from within. Her vision blurred in the darkness but it didn’t seem to matter; s/he ran on, light and smooth. The voice did not speak but s/he knew it was still there, dormant in her brain while the mind flew through the trees. What is a body? The physical manifestation of the spirit, a collection of atoms animated through consciousness, a fluid becoming of selfness, a sculpture to be moulded into an identity, an illusion, science, life, God, energy…the possibilities seemed to dance in the shadows of the run. The only real thought that stuck in Alex’s mind as s/he ran was the freedom, the temporary escape from the physicality of the self. The irony of losing sense of actual bodiness through motion, as though the blurred movement of the body made it somehow less solid and limiting. The lack of conscious awareness of the self, calm connection to the outside world. An escape from the insistent heaviness of flesh. Fluidity of movement. Even years after s/he left Wonderland, that was the feeling s/he missed: the intoxication of limitlessness.
Every story needs an ending. Alex knew s/he had to exit Wonderland sometime, leave behind the vertigo and detachment and surreal safety that comes with escaping the real world. But few people can stay there permanently; only those who wish only to live a life of shadow and illusion or worse, have lost sight of the physical world altogether, absent in a haze of dissociated coldness. Those are the people to pity and to admire, a semi-living paradox of existence and non-existence. The personification of desperate control. Alex was not one of those people. S/he knew, even through the warped logic of the Red Queen, that s/he could not stay there forever. But the route out of Wonderland isn’t straightforward. It’s a three steps forward, two steps back, hop over a river and fall off a stepping stone, get back up and battle through the thorns sort of journey. Sometimes you think you’ve made it but there’s always a pull back to the forest hidden in many forms. Alex knew s/he had to stay vigilant, and keep running.
When do you truly leave Wonderland? Is it when you leave the rabbit hole and negotiate the knarled adolescent forest alone? Or do you need to break free from the forest completely before you can know for certain that you’ve escaped? And once you’ve been there, it’s impossible to forget. Most people think that once the marks of Wonderland- the distant not-quite-there haze across the eyes and the intense obsession- have gone, you’re free. Alex knew different. Even years after s/he’d left the forest, the voice of the Red Queen still whispered in their thoughts, trying to pull Alex back. Some people manage to block it and they’re lucky. Others, like Alex, learn not to ignore it but to listen, accept and disregard. Ignoring her only makes her angry, her voice more insistent and anyway, it’s rude. The key is acceptance, both of the Red Queen and your own thoughts and feelings. The body speaks much, much louder than words and it’s up to you how you communicate.
Everyone’s journey through Wonderland is different, and so is each route out of the maze of paths and possibilities that ultimately lead to only two choices: to stay or to leave. And it’s your choice. Don’t let the Red Queen decide for you. It’s your life.