Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Novel excerpt: Song meets Alice

I’m still working on my next Outlander tourism blog post. Meanwhile, our writing group meets today, and I plan to share this scene draft from my novel-in-progress, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Enjoy.

Posts related to this novel’s journey, buoyed by NaNoWriMo programs, include Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start (April 2016), Packing for Camp (July 2016), The Labor of Learning to Set Limits (September 2016), and This Hunted Story (October 2016).


Scene: Song and Alice meet for the first time as Alice leaves Humpty Dumpty’s estate.  From Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land by C. L. Tangenberg. Draft 11/5/16, revisions 11/22, 12/15

“Little girl!” called Song as Alice began to pass, heading away from her.

It was not the smoothest of introductions.

Alice looked up and screamed, beginning to run the way she was already going before she received such a fright.

“Wait! It is all right. I am not going to hurt you.”

Alice, too scared to listen, did not stop, but it only took a few strides for Song to catch up.

She had no choice. She grasped Alice’s side and shoulder with her right claw, but she did not lift her. Song held the girl in place and tried to shush her. It was not working, so to avoid attracting unwanted attention, Song spread a finger from the same claw over Alice’s lips and said, “I promise, I am not going to hurt you, but I must speak with you as a matter of some urgency.”

She paused but briefly.

“My name is Song, and I am going to take my hand off you now and back away so you can turn freely. Please do not run. I need to talk to you about how you got here. It is a matter of life and death for those I love.”

Alice had begun listening at first because she could hardly do otherwise, and then, something about the creature’s voice, though deep and tremulous with excitement, seemed calming to her. She stopped struggling, and as soon as she did, Song gently let go of her. Still afraid and shivering, Alice did not turn right away. When she finally did turn, her head moved first, followed by her body.

“Wha– I mean, who – are you?” Alice asked in a voice that squeaked in spite of her. She swallowed, hoping to strengthen it. She was now fully turned and facing Song.

The young Jabberwock breathed an internal sigh of relief and decided not to press her luck. She slowly sat down so as not to tower over the girl. Instinctively, she closed her hands into tighter balls than was comfortable, knowing that her claws might easily seem to be reaching for Alice if she were not careful about how she held them. She dropped her hands to her sides, making fists into the ground, which also helped her relieve some tension and feel more grounded.

Now that Song had Alice’s attention, it seemed impossible to know just where to begin. The wind was whipping up, and a few stray leaves in full green dipped and dived across the clearing in which the two very different girls sat. There was a chill that went with this wind, and the sun seemed to grow shy in the face of such a meeting as this. Song looked around and up, then, behind them toward Humpty Dumpty’s stone wall. She wanted to be sure no one had heard Alice scream or seen Song chase her.

“My name is Song Warber,” she began. “I am of the Wock race that lives, well, that used to live, here in Looking-Glass Land. My parents, my brother, and my sister are nearly all that is left of us. The Nobles have—” She stopped. No. Too much too soon. “Let me back up. I live in the Tulgey Wood by the Knights’ Forest. Do you know either of those places?”

“No,” said Alice, growing calmer with each breath. “No I do not. I have meet the Tweedles—”

“Yes, I know.”

“You know?” Alice’s eyes widened. “How . . . do you know?” Alice’s speech became strained and tentative again.

“Oh, I was passing through there. It is actually not far from the path I usually take to get home from my chores. And I have heard of you,” she added quickly, “from around the land. Your coming here has raised some . . . interest.”

She paused again. All of this was changing so fast, it was hard to know how to represent everyday life. Everyday life was effectively extinct for Song.

“Your name is Alice, is not it?”

“Yes, that is right.”

“Forgive me. I stopped out of curiosity and watched you with the twins for a while. I heard how they frightened you about the Red King. I’m sorry for that. For what it’s worth, I believe you are real.”

Song attempted a smile, but she knew it would not be received as anything more friendly than a grimace. It was not in the Wocks’ custom to smile as an expression of happiness. They expressed their joy with the instruments nearer to hand—their arms, their wings, their antennae. Their lips were not much, and not much for flexible movement. It had taken an accelerated adaptation to learn English as a spoken language. One could almost liken their speaking to ventriloquism; they were able to pronounce English words very well without much lip motion.

Alice tried to smile back, perceiving that Song had tried, too.

Song looked down in mild embarrassment upon noticing this gesture. “The thing is,” she began again, “it is because you are real that they feel threatened by you. The Nobles, I mean.”

“Threatened? How?” This was news to Alice.

“Well, I do not want to alarm you, but they have employed sentinels, a kind of guard, to watch the portals for forbidden species and humans trying to enter Looking-Glass Land. My father is one of those guards. Or, at least he was until the Nobles found out about you. Now, he has been punished for letting you in. You see, human children are among those not allowed here. I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned that to you yet.”

“No, they haven’t.” Alice was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable indeed. It was also odd to her that her fear was not coming directly from beholding this creature before her, but from warnings, of what seemed a friendly sort, that the creature was sharing. But then she remembered.

“Then why do they not escort me out? I have met several of the chess pieces already—the Red Queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Queen, and Humpty Dumpty just now.”

“Well, technically, the Tweedles and Humpty are more like pawns, but never mind. That is not important. Yes, the queens might well have seemed tolerant of you, acted out of politeness. The truth is, I think they are afraid of human little girls.” Song opened a questioning claw while adding, “I do not know why. So many things about the Nobles and Royals are not to be explained.

“Afraid? Of me?” This notion seemed quite silly to Alice. She chuckled, but it quickly turned to hurt. “Why, I would not hurt anyone! I hardly can.”

“Yes, there seems to be some hidden reason for their fear, which is why they try so hard to act normal around you.” Song was pensive, searching.

“Normal? I would not say that.” Alice reflected on what passed for normal around here. “No, I wouldn’t say their behavior is normal at all.”

“Well, still, it is a bit of a mystery, as if there is something they chose not to tell Looking-Glass citizens about the blacklisted creatures. It really seems as if more and more beings are getting to be off limits. It becomes sort of . . . tight around here, if that makes any sense. Kind of pinched. I do not know quite how to explain it.”

“You mean stressful? Like everyone’s afraid of upsetting the king?” Alice offered.

“Yes, just so! They keep adding more and more rules and restrictions all the time, of all sorts, until it is hard to know how to behave or where to go or what you are allowed to say, or even be, after a while. The Wocks have long been restricted terribly much, in many ways, by the Nobles. For us, too, things are getting worse, very fast actually.”

Song looked up to see if Alice understood. She was fully attentive, but her expression had changed little. Wide eyes and a sympathetic brow accompanied rosy cheeks and a petite set of pink lips. Suddenly, Alice sat down where she was, with growing interest in what Song had to say. This was encouraging to the Jabberwock youth. At least this human girl wanted to hear more, even if she could not understand everything. Song continued.

“This is why I came to find you. It was mere luck that I happened to hear you and Humpty Dumpty talking. I needed to tell you about this, about my situation because I thought you might be able to help.”

Song took a deep breath and went for it.

“Would you be willing to help me?” Her tone was almost shy.

“I suppose so,” Alice said simply. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I guess that is the real question. I want to get my father back, for starters. He has been banished to the Sleef Mountains off to the west. That was his punishment for what they said was ‘not doing his job.’”

Song decided to keep things simple by not telling Alice about the mysterious additional penalty, the details of which Song herself did not yet know. It seemed pointless to add this wrinkle to the present complications. She needed to gain momentum now that she had Alice’s ear.

The wind picked up again, but the sun came out this time, light scattering across Song’s antennae as if across tree limbs. Alice was watching, wondering what the creature was thinking. “Are you really sure I can help?” she asked finally.

“Honestly, I do not know,” Song admitted. “I was hoping you would come with me to the White Palace in order to petition to the King for my father’s return. You see, I know my father. He is a good worker. He would not shirk his duties. He has never had a mark against his record. I know he could not have let you in.” Song blushed suddenly.

Not missing a beat, Alice said, “Wait, how can that be? Does he not guard the looking-glass above the hearth in the house in the 1st Square?”

“No, he does not. Wait, the house?”

“Then how—”

“You said it was a house?” Song just realized Alice was describing a portal she did not know about.

“Yes, why?”

“Oh, there is more than one portal in and out of Looking-Glass Land, but there is no portal at any house in the land. At least I have never heard of it. My father worked the one nearest the Reed-Wallow, not at a house.”

“There are supposed to be only four portals.” Song opened her lips again to say which ones were where but then thought better of it. She did not want Alice escaping the land without at least coming with her to the palace, if possible. Song settled on “Yours would make five.”

“Well, it is not mine,” Alice replied bashfully, but the feeling turned into pondering, with scrunched eyebrows and a finger to her mouth. “At least I do not think so.”

Alice began to have a strange feeling that maybe she had created the portal on her own somehow, that it was not there until she put it there. Curiouser and curiouser, she thought to herself.

“This is very strange,” Song said, echoing Alice’s thoughts. “Why do you suppose— Well, no, how would you know, right? I mean, do you come from a place with many portals in it?”

“Not exactly. We can walk through open doors and cross borders and such, but those are all clear and visible. You know what you are about to do by how it looks from the side you start from.” Alice secretly believed she was still dreaming, and that, perhaps, it was possible her dream was a kind of portal into this world. “No, we do not have portals like the one I went through, usually. But then, I did go through it . . . This is all so confusing.”

“Yes, it is,” Song conceded. “But maybe, if you come with me to the White Palace, we can both get some answers. If you can tell them about what you did, then maybe they will see my father is innocent.”

“But I thought you said they do not like little girls. Will I not get into trouble just for showing up?” Alice brought her arms in toward her chest, folding them with her fists resting under her chin in apprehension, and then she began to scramble up on to her hands and knees from the seated position she had been in. “I— You have told me—”

“Yes. Yes, it is possible things will not go very well, for either of us. But I guarantee my fate will be worse than yours. You, they will most likely send back to your own world, if they find the courage to deal with you directly, that is. But something about their rules and behavior regarding little girls makes me think they might not be brave enough to do much of anything with you. It is a risk, I know, but honestly Alice, I am desperate. I think you’ll be okay. And you see that I am also strong.” She paused, working diligently on more ways to convince the girl to go with her.

Finally, Song said, “What if we were to make a deal, you and I? You agree to come help me get my father back, and I agree to protect you if anyone at all should try to harm you. As I hope you have learned by now, I have nothing against little girls. In fact, I think I am starting to like you.” Song smiled. “Even with all the craziness in my life that is making it hard to like anything or anybody. You might just be something really special, Alice. All these strange things. I do not know.” She shook her head in wonderment.

“I think I know what you mean. You have proven that you are not bad yourself.” Alice chuckled nervously, not quite convinced of her own declaration. She thought for a moment about Song’s proposal. This was not exactly how she had pictured her adventures in Looking-Glass Land going. But it was an adventure, even if it was one she had not chosen herself.

“Why not? Let us strike hands on the bargain.” Alice gradually held out her right hand to Song.

“Oh, okay,” Song said slowly, reaching out her hand equally slowly. She did not want to hurt the girl with her ungainly claws, so she held her large hand out still, nodding to Alice to strike it.

“It is a deal,” said Alice, with a pat of her hand on the claw, which felt a bit dry and scaly.

“All right. This way.”

And Song led them off to the east toward the seat of power in Looking-Glass Land, on what would seem to be a hunch and the smallest hope, but she felt lighter somehow. Now they had each other. Alice was a good girl, she could tell. Song decided she would do her best to do what she had promised, to protect Alice from harm, no matter what else may happen.