Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations IV

Cheshire Cat Whiskers (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Black wood-framed shadowbox; glass vial with cork stopper; old cat gut strings; twisted wooden branch; dried cherry; black paint; colour print of antique cat tintype; colour print of forest at dusk

What remains of a path is now nothing more than a grassy furrow worn into the earth. It winds, twists, traverses a field and continues straight on to the wood. The forest spreads in all directions, like black ink spilled on patterned silk, its edges ragged and blurred. Trees with gnarled trunks and knotted limbs seem to scrape the sky and nearly blot out what little sunshine penetrates. Moss is springy, spongy, underfoot. Everywhere stalks of vividly purple foxgloves genuflect in the balmy springtide breeze, their flowers oh so beautiful and oh so venomous; Dead Man’s Thimbles they’re called, the random mottling on their petals believed to be a warning of the toxic juices pulsing within. Could this be the Tulgey Wood—the stretch of strange and sinister timberland that divides Wonderland from Looking-Glass Land? If so, then…?

There’s something caught in the brambles, something incongruous, something odd, almost absurd (as if anything in Wonderland could not be called absurd)—tattered bits of flannel, shreds of delicately-woven lace, and the threadbare remains of a baby’s bonnet. So, evidence at last! This must be the point where Alice tired of carrying the Duchess’ infant—that wailing, chubby babe, with a pink, pink face and turned-up nose, given to the most violent snorts and grunts; a babe who metamorphosed finally into a genuine porker, a transformation our young heroine took in quite unperturbed:

‘If you're going to turn into a pig, my dear,' said Alice, seriously, 'I'll have nothing more to do with you. Mind now!' The poor little thing sobbed again (or grunted, it was impossible to say which), and they went on for some while in silence.
Alice was just beginning to think to herself, 'Now, what am I to do with this creature when I get it home?' when it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm. This time there could be NO mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig, and she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it further. So she set the little creature down, and felt quite relieved to see it trot away quietly into the wood. 'If it had grown up,' she said to herself, 'it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.' And she began thinking over other children she knew, who might do very well as pigs and was just saying to herself, `if one only knew the right way to change them—' when she was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off."
 
That adjacent oak was once mighty given the circumference of its trunk—and the trunk is all that remains. Thick barked, its huge roots run wide and deep, but the rest of the tree is gone, felled it appears as if by a stroke of lightning. Burn marks singe far into pale wood, splinters rise up sharply, dead branches lay scattered hither and yon.

And what’s this?

Brushing aside the debris, the leaves from countless autumns past, a skeleton is revealed—long, thin, four-legged and finely boned, obviously felinic. Bits of gray and black fur cling; its claws are formidable. Its skull still grins (but all skulls grin, do they not? As if they alone appreciate the punch line to life’s final jest). One touch and…the cat vanishes—not slowly as it was prone to do while thriving, leaving naught but that insidious rictus behind—no, this time the feline fades swiftly, instantly, into dust. Is there nothing to be salvaged? Wait. Here and there, a few all but imperceptible strands sparkling silver in the sunlight—whiskers.

Cheshire Cat whiskers.

Collected.

Bottled.

Labeled.

Time to move on.

One final glance back, the mind’s eye conjures, and the cat is yet again curled upon its branch, legs tucked in and under, ochre-hued eyes glinting; it’s watching, and grinning…grinning…

…as if saying,

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad…you’re mad…”

…and I’m left asking defensively,

“How do you know I’m mad?”

And that all too perceptive answer—

“You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

How true.

How true.