The weekend passed uneventfully. I finished my library book early Saturday morning, feeling a mild sense of relief that Charlie’s claims of what happened in Wonderland weren’t anywhere near the truth. No one lost their heads. All of it, the entire curious adventure, turned out to be nothing more than a dream. A highly unusual one, yet effective enough to make Alice consider that it might’ve been real.
I started rereading the book, keeping with Alice as she chased the white rabbit down its hole. I was barely through the first chapter when my mother called to me, forcing me to scamper out of the closet.
We had eggs for breakfast and crumbly biscuits made from ground meal and water. I wished for more cream to moisten the bread, but no bottle of cow’s milk showed up at our backdoor.
I helped my mother wash dishes, then spent the remainder of the morning in my room reading and daydreaming about Alice in Wonderland. After lunch, which consisted of leftover biscuits drowned in beans, I dragged a bucket of water across the yard, through the trees, and into the clearing, letting it tip over to flood our tiny garden of buried potatoes. No sprouts had broken the soil yet, but I knew it was much too early for such expectations.
I took a long walk through the woods in the afternoon, purposefully headed for the Hopkins’ home. I kept to the trees when their farm came into view, never daring to leave my hiding place among the shadows. From a distance I watched the activities of a busier world play out, one I imagined was a Wonderland of its own.
Two chocolate horses grazed in the pasture, keeping together, now and then brushing their shiny coats against one another. A herd of cows—some black, some brown—sought out shade to loiter in. They seemed the laziest of animals, moving around far less and with more effort than the horses. I counted three baby calves in the mix. There were penned hogs too, plump and pink and noisy. Their snouts wiggled constantly, rubbing in the mud and then sniffing at the air. I watched a mix of farm birds travel from here to there and back again, waddling in a social flock—chickens, ducks, and long-necked white geese. Behind the red barn, a bit further away, dirty-fleeced lambs with dark faces spread themselves out across a grassy field. Their bleating carried for a distance. Two hounds ran loose in the yard, barking at all the other animals. For the most part their taunting was ignored, except by the mix of fowl who flapped their wings and hustled away from the playful threat.
Mrs. Hopkins was working outside the house, taking down white linen from a stretched clothes line. She flapped the sheets in the air before folding them up. A white hat shaded her eyes from the sun, secured below her chin with purple ribbon. Violet flowers covered where the ribbon attached on each side. The dense color matched a housedress draped loosely over her petite figure. Short, gray curls framed her face— a tranquil countenance heavily etched in happy wrinkles. It seemed her weathered lips were glued into a permanent smile. Whenever the dogs drew near she shooed them away by name, wary of having her clean laundry soiled.
“Dash! Banjo! Off with both of you now! Go bother your Grandpa.”
Overhearing Mrs. Hopkins’ hollered words, I chuckled at the thought of dogs having human grandparents. It seemed a bizarre notion. One that might occur in Alice’s world.
Banjo and Dash took off running as if they understood the old lady’s command perfectly. I watched the spoiled animals race around the side of the house, out past a stretch of white fence, and on further into a plowed field. They met up with a tall, skinny figure who was keeping his steps in line beside a furrowed stretch of soil. He wore denim jeans, a green button-up shirt, and boots, all finely dusted in dry dirt. Shading his eyes was a ball cap matching the shirt.
Banjo reached his Grandpa first, barking a greeting before proving his exuberance by jumping up at the old man’s side. Dash was right behind him, mimicking the same behavior. Mr. Hopkins showed the dogs some attention, and then sent them off again racing for a flock of poor, little lambs.
The familiar sound of another animal stole my attention. Its mew sounded near rather than distant, rising in the air from quite close. I looked down at my feet.
“Mittens!” I smiled, delighted to find one of the Hopkins’ many mousers.
I dropped to my knees to pet the gray cat who was rubbing the length of himself against my ankle. He had four entirely white paws—hence his name. The Hopkins were in the habit of naming every stray cat that adopted their farm, regardless of how they came to be there. I learned each one through eavesdropping.
There was Bear, a big, fat, brown tomcat that bullied all the others. I didn’t care for him. Marmalade was an orange, short-haired female that hissed and clawed a lot. Boo was all black. I wasn’t sure if his name had been inspired by the fact that he blended into the night or by the playful way he hid behind corners and jumped out at approaching figures. I once saw him spook Banjo and Dash with his antics. It was funny to watch two hounds run from a cat.
Then there was Catfish, a gray short-hair like Mittens, with the longest whiskers on any feline every born. I think Marshmallow was supposed to be a white cat, but he kept so dirty—with barbs and twigs and hay caught in his long fur—that he looked more like a roasted marshmallow to me. Then there was Freckles, a calico patchwork cat; Gizmo, another gray mouser who liked to steal things; Truffles, nothing but a ball of chocolate fur; and the last few self-explanatory kitties—Hugger, Mellow, Joker, Itchy, and Dimwit.
I sat on the ground so Mittens could climb into my lap. He rubbed his head on my stomach and purred so strongly it vibrated against my tummy, making me giggle. I scratched behind his ears, watching his back arch as if an invisible string connected the top of his head to his spine. He mewed at me when I brushed my hand clear along his back, straightening it out.
I could just imagine him saying, “More ear-scratching, please,” and I happily accommodated him. The purring picked up, a sure sign of contentment.
After a few minutes of continuous petting and scratching, Mittens sprang from my lap without any hint or signal that he’d had enough. I watched him race from the trees and across the open field toward home. Then I rose and headed for home myself.
Dinner, dishes, and bedtime left me alone in my room where I took advantage of an illuminating beam of moonlight that peeked through my window. I fell asleep reading about Alice’s conversation with the Mock Turtle. My dreams were a take-off of the same idea, where I carried on conversations with the Hopkins’ cats, hearing the differing tales of how every last one of them arrived at the old couple’s farm. The dream ended with Mittens, Boo, Marshmallow, Catfish, and all the other felines dancing around me on their back paws, mewing up at the clouds in perfect harmony.
Sunday elapsed as peacefully as Saturday. The only real difference was the routine bible story my mother read to me after breakfast. On any Sabbath morning when my father wasn’t around, Mother and I shared a parable from the scriptures. As she recited the story of Noah’s Ark, I imagined a boat huge enough to carry all the animals from the Hopkins’ farm plus two of every other worldly creature. A couple things occurred to me as I envisioned it all. First, a floating barn wouldn’t be nearly large enough. And secondly, there’d be no need to save room for the Hopkins’ ducks. They could swim.
I stuck by the house to play in the backyard later that day. I liked being near the kitchen on Sunday evenings to hear the “clanks” and “pings” carry through the screen door as dinner was prepared. I especially enjoyed the sizzling and crackling sounds of searing meat and potatoes. My mother always made a bigger meal on Sundays, usually including a cut of meat. The smell made my mouth water with anticipation. The savory aroma was nearly as satisfying as tasting that first bite.
While mother cooked I gathered a bouquet of bright yellow dandelions, plucking them out from among the tall grasses in our backyard. When my hands could barely fit around the cluster of supple stems, I carried my arrangement inside and presented it to my mother. She thinned her lips into a smile and motioned toward an old white vase on the table, chipped at the rim. It was already filled with water, awaiting my gift of wildflowers. This was a Sunday tradition, practiced when it was only the two of us. I’d started it with my rag doll, “Mama.” She used to help me choose the best flowers to collect.
We had ham and fried eggs and potatoes for dinner, drowned in a thin, dark sauce made from the drippings. It was delicious. Mother told me the yellow dandelions looked like little smiling suns. I thought so too.
I went to bed that night with a full stomach and a cool kiss on the forehead.
Monday meant back to school. It was a windy day, overcast but bright enough. The birds echoed familiar twitters in the treetops. Their songs competed with the woods’ eerie whistling, the result of sporadic gusts pushing through the hollowed arms and frames of dead trees. I kept both hands pressed against my skirt to prevent it from flying up. Alice didn’t accompany me on my walk to the bus. I figured the book was safer buried in my closet than at school where taunting classmates like Charlie and Gregory might get ideas about heisting it again. If Mrs. Cosgrove was going to insist that I not take it out to recess, there was really no point in carrying it back and forth anyway.
Nothing too eventful happened at school. I did overhear Charlotte and Lizzy discussing their weekend sleepover at Ginger’s house. They both agreed that Ginger’s father was an expert storyteller and that he ought to give up his current job for one in the entertainment business. I wondered if there really was a paying job in professional storytelling and if a girl would be allowed to do it. Then I thought of how our teacher read books to us every now and then, not that she was an expert at it, but it made me feel confident that storytelling could be a woman’s job too. Unlike farming.
At the end of class Mrs. Cosgrove handed out slips of paper for us to take home. They were permission slips for another field trip to be signed by our parents. This one for a visit to an actual farm.
My lips grinned on their own. How wonderful! As often as I stood among the trees secretly watching the Hopkins run their farm, I’d always wished for a chance to see it all close up. I longed to walk across the fields myself, to follow the furrows of tilled ground, to skirt the pens and fences and meet every animal face to face. Perhaps even touch them! I was giddy at the thought of actually stepping foot on a real farm!
My fingers quickly folded up the permission slip into a tight little square. Then I tucked it away in my skirt pocket, patting it twice.
I barreled through the house as soon as I got home, calling, “Mama! Mama!” I searched every room, eager to find her. She was outside in the backyard taking down laundry that had air-dried in the breeze.
“Mama, guess what!” I blurted out the surprise without giving her a chance to guess. “We’re going on another field trip! This time to visit a real farm!”
She turned abruptly as if startled, her eyes darting here and there before finally landing on me. I was smiling big, and eventually she copied my expression to some degree.
“A real farm? With animals and everything?” she asked.
I nodded assuredly. “My teacher said I need to have this paper signed so I can go.” I reached into my dress pocket and pulled out the folded square, opening the page before handing it over.
My mother put her face close to the paper, squinting to read the note. I held my breath and waited. More often than not, disappointment squelched those few dreams I ever came near realizing. But not this time.
Looking up from the page her eyes shifted from me to the backdoor.
“I suppose I’ll need a pencil then.”
I could barely contain myself and bounced on my tiptoes all the way into the kitchen, watching and beaming while my mother signed her name on the provided black line.
I hugged her as soon as she handed the permission slip back to me.
“Thanks, Mama,” I cooed.
Then I hustled to my room and placed the signed slip on a little wooden step that sat by my mattress. It would stay there until morning, reminding me upon waking to take it to school. I went to bed early that night, anxious for morning to come.
It was hard to remember if I’d been dreaming or not, but I didn’t mistake the voices that awakened me. My body instinctively coiled into a ball, scooting closer into the corner where the wall met my mattress. For some reason the cold cinderblock at my back provided a false sense of security. It made no sense, but that physical support eased my apprehensions.
I listened as two voices carried down the hallway—my mother’s and my father’s. They were mumbling and making strange noises. Mother giggled. That was a good sign, though it still caused a layer of goose bumps to spread across my skin. I heard my father say her name, low and firm, but it wasn’t growled nor cursed. He was muttering and…..breathing loudly.
“Johnny, wait…wait...” I worried until she giggled again. My ears strained to hear when things fell silent. A hard thud. The sound of scraping and scuffling. Something pushed across the wood floor. Furniture? Their voices again, grunting and breathing heavily.
I covered my ears when I heard my mother moan his name. It made my stomach turn.
A jostle woke me up the second time. Mother made me rise before the sun peeked through my window. She whispered for me to dress quickly and quietly. Breakfast was a cold ham-and-mustard sandwich prior to being hustled out the front door earlier than necessary to catch the bus. My neck twisted to peer over my shoulder as I headed for the dirt road. Mother forced a smile for the few moments our eyes met, then her fingers flitted at the air, urging me on. As I moved away she crossed her arms and squeezed her frail frame. I understood her worries. My job was to stay hidden from Father’s view but within earshot when I wasn’t at school. That seemed the best way not to anger him.
I tried to think about the upcoming day at school and patted my dress pocket, eager to return the signed paper. My footsteps halted abruptly when my fingers registered the truth. I panicked.
Oh no! My permission slip! It was still in my room, lying on the wooden step.
I turned around in time to catch my mother stealing back into the house. I didn’t want to risk waking my father by calling out. If I ran quickly, though, I could catch her and explain that I’d forgotten the note. But she’d probably make me leave without it. Not rousing my father was more important to her than any silly desire of mine.
I turned back to the road. Then, I faced the house again.
I needed that permission slip. How could I turn my back on a chance to visit a real farm? To touch live farm animals and step in green pastures and walk through muddy fields and pick a potato! I’d done my job. I’d gotten my mother’s permission—her crucial signature. I just needed the paper to prove it.
What was I going to do?
I ran back to the house and up the front steps as silently as I could, trying my best to copy the Hopkins’ mousers. My plan seemed simple enough: sneak inside, slink down the hall, retrieve my slip of paper, and then vanish for the day.
My thumb and forefinger pinched the long handle on the screen door, cautiously inching it open, careful to pause at the onset of any creeks or squeals. As soon as I was able to maneuver my body in between both doors, I did so. My fingers curled around the knob on the next door and twisted slowly. It wasn’t locked. It hardly ever was. A soft push on the wood moved it open five inches. I froze, waiting to hear any objections.
With a teensy more confidence I peeked through the opening and squinted to see inside the dark house. No one stirred in the front room. Mother must have gone back to bed. Unless she was in the kitchen. I listened for noises that might give her away, but it remained dead quiet. Unwilling to turn around empty handed I pressed forward, squeezing sideways through the small opening, not wanting to widen the gap any further and trigger a groaning hinge.
I left the door ajar behind me and tiptoed lightly past a rigid sitting chair that kept its back to the entry. A skinny lamplight sat on a short stand nearby, one that usually remained lit throughout the night when my father wasn’t home.
A lowered ceiling marked where the hallway began, which wasn’t far from the entrance. I paused at the end of the wall to peek around the corner. My eyes registered nothing but empty blackness. The door to my parents’ room existed at the opposite end, but the dark made it difficult to tell if it was open or closed. Hearing nothing, I swallowed and held my breath.
I stopped almost as suddenly as I started around the corner, disturbed by the faint squeak of my own footsteps. My moves were measured and quiet, but it was impossible to be entirely silent in sandals. I crouched to the floor and quickly unlatched the straps, removing and placing the shoes back around the corner so as not to accidentally trip over them in the dark on my return. In bare feet I carried on, shoulders tensed and hunched as I carefully shifted my weight with each step.
I was making fine progress when a noise stopped me again, this time coming from my parents’ room. I stood mere feet before their door—kitty-corner from my own—so terribly close to successfully reaching my goal. My pulse hastened, spurred by anticipation and fret.
The muted sound of dialogue flooded my system with paralyzing panic. I wanted to run, but my toes kept glued to the floor, my muscles frozen—useless.
The door opened. We could both see in the dark, our vision perfectly adjusted to the lack of light. I caught how my mother’s eyes grew wide like a pair of full moons.
She gasped. So did I.
The door slammed shut behind her, a doing that was certainly unintentional. Her fingers fumbled to tie up her robe and she flickered a necessary look at her hands before bringing her wide eyes back to me. I made a move toward my bedroom but was blocked by her long reach.
“Anna, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be gone!” The words were anxious and stern, though whispers in my ear. “Go, go! Get on your way. Johnny’s in a good mood. Please, Anna, don’t ruin this.”
I wanted to resist as she turned me around and shoved between my shoulder blades. All I needed was ten seconds to run into my room and grab that paper. Just ten seconds and I’d be invisible as a ghost for the rest of the week if she wanted!
“What’s goin’ on, Lin? What the hell’d you slam the door for?”
I turned away from my father’s voice and cringed into the wall, wishing I could dissolve right into it. My mother’s hands remained against me as she turned to face my father, putting herself between the two of us. His weight creaked the flooring with each heavy step forward.
I turned away from my father’s voice and cringed into the wall, wishing I could dissolve right into it. My mother’s hands remained against me as she turned to face my father, putting herself between the two of us. His weight creaked the flooring with each heavy step forward.
“Why’s the brat hidin’?” He must have caught a glimpse of me shielded by my mother. As usual, he presumed me guilty of something.
“She’s not, Johnny. Anna was just getting off to school. She needs to go or….or she’ll miss the bus.”
A long moment of silence passed. I was frozen against the wall with my back to them both. I didn’t dare sneak a peek at their exchange of expressions. I already knew how they’d appear. My mother’s brown eyes were no doubt darting about, finding it difficult to remain on my father. He, on the other hand, would be entirely focused—narrowed eyes scrutinizing her nervous features.
“Where’s her shoes?”
I felt my mother turn to face me, to stare at my feet. I swiveled enough to get a look at my father. He was standing in his boxers, his hairy chest and legs entirely bare. I pointed to the other end of the hallway and muttered an answer to his question.
He squinted through the darkness for a moment, then his eyes boomeranged back to me.
“Get yourself to the couch. You sit and wait for me.”
I heard a quavering inhale over my head. Mother didn’t nudge me to move, but my father did. I stepped along quickly to escape his touch. When I crossed the living room, headed for the couch, he went for the front door. He made no comment about the fact that it was ajar. His half-naked figure disappeared in the dim onset of sunrise outside.
Mother found a place to stand at one end of the sofa. I sat on the edge in the very middle, leaving room to slide either direction. In my peripheral vision I could see her fingers clasped below her chin, kneading apprehensively together. Then her hands dropped and she hugged herself, rubbing at her thin arms like they needed warming. She said nothing to me.
Father returned with a cardboard box pinned under his arm. His biceps appeared nearly as thick as the package. He rounded the rigid chair by the front door and tossed the box at my feet, standing over it with his hairy chest puffed out. I looked down at the dented cardboard, then up at him.
His head gestured at the box with a jerk.
“Well? What the hell’s wrong with you, girl? Open it.”
I knew better than to look directly at my mother, but caught a glimpse of her biting her lip from the corner of my eye.
I leaned over and picked up the box. It was light. Nothing moved inside. Setting it on my lap I drew in a silent breath. My brow automatically creased before I lifted the lid and let it fall to the floor without a sound.
Shocked, I glanced up at my father. The expression on my face was certainly bewildered. He seemed to smirk, but said nothing.
I reached inside and pulled out a shiny black item, turning it around in my hand. I thought for sure it looked new. Brand new.
“You better bloody-well like ’em,” my father growled.
Mother and I swiftly answered him at the same time. “I do.” “She does.”
The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like them, but that I was stuck in a state of utter disbelief. My father had just given me a gift. Black, shiny shoes with buckles and two tiny yellow butterflies stitched in the leather. I stared at the pretty shoes, stunned. Then I dared a timid smile.
“What do you say, Anna?” Mother prompted me.
“Um….th…thank you.” It was hard to look at him and express gratitude at the same time.
“Yeah, well…..hurry up and get those clodhoppers on your feet. Your butt needs to be off to school. You miss that bus and you’re walkin’ to town. I ain’t no taxi for beggars.”
I nodded my understanding. “Yes, sir.”
The shoes slipped on easily. They were too big, but I didn’t care. Both my parents noticed when the heels slapped against the floor with my first few steps.
“Why ain’t she wearin’ any socks?” My father scowled at my mother. “Hell, Lin, you send her off to school without socks? What kind of mother are you?”
I recognized a prime opportunity and quickly pulled off the shoes, heading straight for the dark hallway. “I’ll get some socks!”
I dashed to my bedroom before anyone could object. The first thing I did was retrieve the signed permission slip and shove it into my pocket. My entire being swooned at the touch of that folded sheet of paper, thrilled to have the valuable ticket back in my possession. Then I dropped to my knees beside a basket of clothes and dug through the odds and ends until I found a thick pair of white socks—or, at least they had been white at one time, anyway.
I slipped my toes into the stiff cotton and folded over each cuff before hustling back to the living room. Rounding the corner, I slid across the floor, nearly losing my footing. My mother and father hadn’t moved from their spots. They watched as I tightened the shiny new buckles over each foot. I stood up and did my best to walk to the front door without losing the heels. Mother moved in behind me to pick up my old sandals and place them in the discarded box.
“Bye, Mama,” I uttered on my way out.
She didn’t reply to me, but I heard her whisper to my father, “That was real nice, Johnny.”
His grumbled response hit my ears before I closed the front door. “You gonna stand there and tell me somethin’ I already know, woman, or are you gonna get me some breakfast?”
At school Mrs. Cosgrove noticed my shoes, which drew the attention of all my classmates.
“Those are nice sandals, Annabelle. Are they new?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I was beaming so wide my cheeks hurt.
“They seem a little big for your feet. I noticed your heels slipping when you walked in.”
I shrugged, catching the way Ginger and Elizabeth stared at me from the next table. A quick glance around the room caught every curious eye focused on me and my shiny, black shoes. I crossed my feet and moved them beneath my chair.
“Maybe you could tighten up the straps and they’d stay on better,” my teacher suggested. “They are very pretty.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
At recess I sat in my usual spot against the wall and removed my new shoes. I pulled at the toes of both socks until the cuffs came down to where they barely covered my ankles. The heel of each sock landed below the arch on each foot. I rolled up the excess stocking at my toes, then carefully slipped my feet back into the shoes. The padding at the toes made for a better fit. I buckled them as tightly as I could. They held more snuggly.
The awareness of approaching shadows made me look up. Ginger and Elizabeth (stanch best friends) came to a stop beside me. Their focus was on my new shoes.
“Where’d you get those?” Ginger asked.
It took me an anxious moment to answer. “Um….my father.”
Lizzy flickered a look at me as if gauging my honesty. “My mother usually buys my shoes. But I haven’t had a new pair in a while. She says I don’t need any until my feet grow again.”
I wasn’t sure if Elizabeth was talking to me or to Ginger. It looked like she was talking to my shoes.
“I always pick out my own,” Ginger said. Her blue eyes shot directly down at me. She even turned her body to face me. “I might get some like yours next time I go shopping with my mom. I like the butterflies, they’re pretty. I’d prefer pink ones, though. Do you know if they sell those with pink butterflies?”
Her head cocked a degree as she waited for an answer. I stared back, stunned. Ginger was talking so nicely—to me!
She went on without a reply. “It wouldn’t matter that much if there were no pink ones. Yellow is nice too. It would match my sunflower dress. Butterflies love sunflowers, you know.”
“Oh, yes, I know,” Elizabeth answered. “Butterflies like all flowers.”
“No, not all,” Ginger corrected in a voice that resembled our teacher’s lecturing tone. “They only like the ones with really bright and colorful petals.”
“I know that,” Lizzy, huffed, elevating her freckled nose. “That’s what I meant. Even Annabelle knows that. Don’t you Anna?”
I slouched a tiny bit as my shoulders shrugged in answer. At that same moment Charlotte stepped up to join the conversation, her shadow melting into an indistinguishable mass with those of her other friends. She brought Mary along to see what was going on. As if answering their unspoken question, Ginger pointed to my shoes at the center of the circle.
“I love how shiny new shoes are,” she said, “and these are especially shiny.”
Mary nodded in agreement, causing tight, black braids to slide up and down her shoulders. “Yeah. It’s pretty how they shimmer.”
“I like those teeny tiny butterflies,” Charlotte said. “Butterflies are the most beautiful creatures ever. They should call them beautiflies, don’t you think?”
“We were just talking about that!” Ginger exclaimed. “Butterflies like colorful flowers, you know.”
Mary, Charlotte, and Lizzy answered in joint huffs, “I know that!” Then they all giggled.
I stood up, about a foot outside of their tight circle. They didn’t seem to mind my presence. No one cast me a dirty look or made any impolite comments, so I kept in their shadows and listened.
For ten whole minutes, the length of time it took for recess to come to its end, all four girls discussed the curiosities of butterflies and how much they absolutely adored them. Nearly as much as they loved horses. No one asked me anymore questions. I didn’t really belong in the huddle of bright, pretty girls anyway.
But my shoes did.