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Return to Wonder

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2021

Mrs. Liddell's knees popped as she wandered atop the hills behind the forgotten manor. Though her body slunk with age, her mind still raced with youth. Her blue eyes bounced around the sights before her: the towering evergreens bending underneath the weight of the gray sky; the overgrown grass that licked at her popping knees; and the crumbled remains of the decrepit manor. Its grand stones once held such regality and beauty before the depression and subsequent war deprived it of its residents and glory. Mrs. Liddell couldn't help the smile that twisted its way up in the corners of her mouth. She was back.  

Cecelia, her nurse, didn't care for Mrs. Liddell's cheery attitude. Mrs. Liddell heard her huffing and puffing from behind her, Cecelia's skirts swishing above the dew-strewn grass. "Mrs. Liddell!” she called out.

The older woman paused in the middle of the expansive field behind the manor's remains, resting against the umbrella in her hand. She closed her eyes and tilted her face up, enjoying the sky's warm glow behind her eyelids. 

Gasping for air, Cecelia reached Mrs. Liddell's side and slumped forward, resting her hands on her knees. "How can a ninety-one-year-old woman move so quickly?" 

 

Mrs. Liddell shrugged. "Gumption."

 

Cecelia scowled at her, taking a moment to catch her breath. "Would you please wait for me and walk at a normal pace? When you race away, you don't remember to--Good heavens!"

"What?" Mrs. Liddell opened her eyes and looked up at Mrs. Liddell's horrified expression. "What's wrong?"

Cecelia gathered the bottom of her dress in her hands before stooping down to examine the mud-caked, green-streaked trim of Mrs. Liddell's dress. "Look at what happened! You ruined your yellow dress! You have to lift your skirts if you are to continue walking across the field, Mrs. Liddell." Even though Cecelia addressed her by her formal name, Mrs. Liddell still understood that the nurse was scolding her like a child.

 

Mrs. Liddell looked down at her feet. "It's just a dress. It'll wash right out, won't it?"

 

Cecelia clicked her tongue. "Maybe...but we'll have to hurry back to the house so the stain won't set." She reached out a hand, believing Mrs. Liddell would take it.

She didn't. "No, I don't want to leave. Not just yet."

The nurse crossed her arms, leveling Mrs. Liddell with an annoyed look. "Alright. Fine, we'll stay. But only for a few more minutes." She sighed, her expression softening as she watched the smile return to Mrs. Liddell's face. "Though, I would very much like to know why you dragged Lloyd and me out here to see this abandoned place."

 

Mrs. Liddell leaned around Cecelia at the town car waiting in the round-about driveway leading up to the manor. Lloyd was waiting in his usual place, reading the daily newspaper in the driver's seat. He must've felt Mrs. Liddell's stare because he looked up from the paper and met her gaze. He grinned and tipped his hat towards her. 

 

Mrs. Liddell waved back. "Lloyd doesn't seem to mind."

Cecelia snorted. "That's because Lloyd will always jump at the chance to drive the new Austin 1949."

"He must've enjoyed the drive, then."

"Only him and you."

 

Mrs. Liddell raised an eyebrow. "You mean to tell me you didn't appreciate driving along with your fiancée?"

 

"I would've preferred to stay back at the house and have my afternoon tea. But someone just had to request driving out here to the middle of nowhere as her birthday gift."

 

Mrs. Liddell shrugged again, purposely letting her skirts swish in the mud. "I'm old, Cecelia. There aren't many birthdays left for me, so I wanted to come out here one last time while I still could." She turned back to the manor, her smile turning sorrowful. 

 

Cecelia heaved in a breath, like she was about to say something, but then decided against it. Mrs. Liddell could feel Cecelia's eyes on her, boring into her neck. But Cecelia didn't understand. Mrs. Liddell couldn't possibly leave yet. Not when she still hadn't found the wonder from her past. She needed more time, but as she stared up at the looming remains of the manor, she was unexpectedly overcome by a wave of insecurity. Of anxiety. Of doubt. 

 

She was about to turn back when she felt a gentle hand rest on her shoulder. Mrs. Liddell reached up and placed her hand on top of Cecelia's.

"This was your home, wasn't it?" Cecelia whispered.

Mrs. Liddell slowly nodded, as if she was still coming to grips that only large gray stones and shattered wooden fragments were what remained of her childhood home. Nature's roots had reclaimed most of the manor. Her ivy arms and mossy hands covered almost all of the estate, leaving little to remember. 

 

"This was where you lived before you married Mr. Liddell," Cecelia wondered aloud, her voice full of amazement. 

But Mrs. Liddell didn't mirror her admiration. Not really. Sure, she still treasured some of the blissful memories with her father. They would believe in utter nonsense together and dream of seven impossible things before breakfast every day. He would allow her to enter his study after lunch and spin the globe in the corner of the room.

“Close your eyes,” he would tell her, resting his hands on her shoulders, “and reach out.”

 

Mrs. Liddell would stretch out her tiny hand and stop the spinning globe with a single touch of her finger. Wherever her finger had landed in the world, she and her father would spend the rest of the afternoon burying themselves in the vast collection of books her father kept in the library, studying all they could about the new country. 

Her father had always encouraged Mrs. Liddell to be curious, to always seek out the wonder in the world. “You never know what’s possible until you try,” he would always whisper to her while she drifted off to sleep. He had brought her so much comfort and love.

 

But after he died, all of her memories turned bitter. 

 

"What had your life been like, Mrs. Liddell? Did you enjoy living in such lavishness?" Cecelia asked, her eyes sparkling. 

Mrs. Liddell dropped her hand and stepped away. "Not as much as you would believe."

Cecelia's head tipped to one side, confused. "What do you mean? Weren't your parents a part of the nobility?"

 

"Yes, they were. My mother liked to remind me of such every day. I was expected to be the perfect example of an honorable daughter. And as much as I tried, she always chastised me like I was a girl of folly."

 

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"It’s all right. It's long since passed now."

An awkward silence fell between them, but Mrs. Liddell didn't want to fill it with halfhearted pleasantries. She liked the silence. She welcomed the soft breeze and birds chirping in the distance. The smell of damp pine stung her nose. The quiet helped her focus on the past; it allowed her to remember. Where was the tree?

"Well, you married Mr. Liddell," Cecelia interrupted, breaking the silence and returning Mrs. Liddell to the present. "That must've been a happy day to say goodbye and start a new family in a new home."

The older woman finally cut her eyes away from the manor and turned to Cecelia. "Perhaps in some ways. I absolutely adore my children and grandchildren, but Mr. Liddell? Well, he was a difficult man to love."

 

Mrs. Liddell thought back to the day when he had proposed marriage to her at her mother's spring party at the manor under the gazebo. Everyone and their mother's uncle had come to watch the girl with foolish dreams and wild memories be conquered by a gentleman of sophistication and manners. 

The young Mr. Liddell had looked up at Mrs. Liddell with eyes full of interest but harbored no love. No, he had never looked upon her with adoration or fondness. His eyebrow arched as he asked her the question that would trap her in a new set of chains.

 

“Oh, my beautiful dear,” he announced, wanting the whole audience to hear his declaration. “Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

His smile grew into a cheeky grin as her frown deepened. Mr. Liddell had posed the question not as a plea for her to marry him but as an invitation to become his new trophy. Even though their audience sighed with admiration, Mrs. Liddell held no endearment for the proposal or the man in front of her.  

Mr. Liddell did not love Mrs. Liddell and regarded her as a prize to be won, something to gaze upon but never taken seriously. He never listened to her because, like everyone else gathered around the gazebo, he had never believed her wild imagination. 

Even though Mrs. Liddell’s soul screamed at her to run, to journey back to the time when her imagination rang true, Mrs. Liddell had accepted the proposal with as much grace as a queen without a heart. 

"We were not suited for each other,” Mrs. Liddell whispered, bringing herself back to the present with Cecelia at her side. “Not like how you and Lloyd are. You two will be very happy together, I am sure." Mrs. Liddell smiled again as she wandered forward, away from the manor and town car.

Cecelia picked up her skirts and followed, a relieved grin on her face. "Thank you, Mrs. Liddell. That's very kind of you." 

Before Mrs. Liddell could reply, a blue butterfly fluttered over to her side. The older woman reached out a hand, and the butterfly gracefully landed on her index finger. His eyes seemed to stare straight into Mrs. Liddell, almost as if he was reuniting with an old friend. 

 

“Good day, Absolum," Mrs. Liddell giggled. 

Cecelia raised a teasing eyebrow. “Friend of yours?”

Mrs. Liddell watched as the blue butterfly flew off from her hand. It soared over the grass towards the far hill, where an old oak tree rested peacefully against the gray sky. There!

Mrs. Liddell glanced at her nurse. "Do you believe that butterflies can talk, Cecelia?"

Cecelia's brow furrowed. "Like with their own form of communication?"

Mrs. Liddell shook her head. "No. I mean, do you believe that they can understand us? That they can recite old, forgotten poetry at the tip of a hat?"

 

Cecelia shifted her weight between her feet, unsure what Mrs. Liddell was talking about. "No, I don't."

 

Mrs. Liddell bobbed her head like she had expected the nurse's answer as she switched her umbrella to her other hand. "Of course. It's utter nonsense, isn't it?"

"Yes...quite right." Cecelia glanced worriedly at the sky. "Oh no, it looks like it's going to rain. Maybe we should start heading back."

"But why? I have my umbrella should it start to drizzle," Mrs. Liddell explained, twirling her umbrella along the grass by her boot.

"Yes, but I'm sure it's getting late, and we mustn’t be late for supper."

Mrs. Liddell reached into her pocket and pulled out an old, golden pocket watch. She flipped it open, glancing at the time. "It's just past four o'clock."

 

Cecelia sighed and rolled her eyes, but a grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Of course, you brought your pocket watch with you. Why am I not surprised?" 

Mrs. Liddell ran her thumb across the rim, feeling along the familiar grooves of the relic. "Because I never want to be late for an important date." 

The two ladies silently laughed into their hands until an ear-splitting bang rang out. Both women spun around to see Lloyd raising the town car's hood, his head disappearing from view as smoke billowed out from the engine. He coughed and sprang back from the car as if something had shocked him. He whipped around toward the field and waved his arm, signaling for the women to come back.

"Oh, dear. We better hurry back," Cecelia said, starting toward the car.

But Mrs. Liddell grabbed her arm. "Wait, I still need a few more minutes. There's something else I want to see."

Cecelia stopped, glancing worriedly between her and her fiancée. "What is it?"

Mrs. Liddell pointed toward the tree where the blue butterfly had flown off. "Please, I just want to look over there. Just for a moment. Then, I'll be right back."

Cecelia watched Mrs. Liddell for a moment before realization dawned in her eyes. “You’re looking for your wonder, aren’t you?”

 

Mrs. Liddell nodded, allowing herself to smile again. Cecelia had heard all about Mrs.Liddell’s outlandish stories about a land sparkling with enchantment. Still, she never once had chastised Mrs. Liddell for believing that a world of wonder truly existed. 

Cecelia sighed, shaking her head. “Do you really believe you’ll find it again?”

 

Mrs. Liddell nodded again. “I do.”

"Then, I'll see you soon." With that, Cecelia turned to continue back towards the vehicle, but Mrs. Liddell stopped her again.

"Cecelia?" she asked, placing a hand on her nurse’s arm.

"Yes?"

 

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"For believing me."

 

At that, Cecelia's rigid posture relaxed, and she placed her hand back on Mrs. Liddell's shoulder. "You're always welcome."

Mrs. Liddell released Cecelia's arm, and the two women parted ways. As Cecelia raced to help Lloyd with the car, Mrs. Liddell stumbled as fast as she could on her popping knees toward the tree at the edge of the field. 

 

When Mrs. Liddell reached the giant oak, she stuck out her umbrella and rifled through the grass, searching for her wonder. She hoped it was still here. She needed it to be here. Even though it had been eighty-four years, her curiosity must have remained hidden among the tree's roots. 

 

With every step around the tree, Mrs. Liddell grew more anxious. Her stomach flipped over on itself until all of her intestines had wrapped themselves into knots. She couldn't find where the burrow was. Was it still there, or had it even been there at all? Had her memories only been crazy dreams after all? Had her mother, her husband, and everyone else in her life been right to criticize her memories?

 

No! No, it had to be true. If it weren't true, then Mrs. Liddell wouldn't have remembered how blue the sky had been. Or how the roses had looked as if they'd been painted. Or how a cup from a hatter had never run out of tea. Or how a smiling moon blinked its playful, yellow eyes. Yes, it had been decades, but surely, it still had to--

"Alice?" 

Mrs. Liddell spun around at the sound of the small, patient voice. There, standing next to her in the grass, was a white rabbit in a little red and white vest and a monocle on his eye.

"Mr. Rabbit!" Mrs. Liddell cried. Her voice cracked with overflowing emotions as she slowly and achingly lowered herself into a curtsy. "You recognized me."

 

Mr. Rabbit bowed, holding his monocle to his sparkling pink eye. "Well, of course. You may look different on the outside, but on the inside, you're still the same, curious Alice."

Mrs. Liddell's eyes glimmered with unshed tears. She had been right; her memories had been real. She red traveled to the land of wonder. Her boundless curiosity and imagination had led her home. 

She pulled out her pocket watch, holding it out to Mr. Rabbit. "I believe this is yours."

 

Mr. Rabbit held up a paw. "No, Miss Alice. That watch has always belonged to you. And look," he said, pointing toward the clock's face, "it's just about time. We mustn't be late."

"Late for what?"

"Why, your homecoming tea party, of course. Everyone's waiting to see you."

Mrs. Liddell placed a hand on her chest, her heartbeat faint under her touch. "Everyone?"

Mr. Rabbit nodded. "Are you ready to go?"

Mrs. Liddell looked over her shoulder, back to the car. Lloyd and Cecelia had fixed whatever had been malfunctioning in the hood and laughed together. They leaned against the car's hood, wrapped in each other's arms. They were happy, and they always would be.

"Yes," she answered, facing Mr. Rabbit again. "I am."

Mr. Rabbit motioned toward the burrow. "Then, let's go."

The wind raced past Mrs. Liddell's ears as she leaped into the burrow and fell through the darkness. But just as the shadows were about to overtake her, everything erupted into light and color. The tendrils of a luminous rainbow wrapped around Mrs. Liddell like a comforting hug after an eternity of isolation. Her stained yellow dress and coat transformed into her favorite blue gown. Mrs. Liddell’s limbs regained their forgotten strength. And as her hair streaked around her, the strands morphed from white back to a youthful shade of blonde. 

Alice dissolved into joyous laughter as she realized that she was no longer falling. No, she was soaring, higher and higher toward the light

above. The light that called her home. 

Alice had finally returned to wonderland.

Published in Wilder Things Magazine 2021

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