Today, Lise Quintana and Nathan Tompkins explore “That Certain Smile” by Angele Ellis, submitted for Issue #10, Alice in Wonderland.
I was raised by pigs: sua scrofula domesticus. Not so glamorous, I admit, as being raised by wolves, but better than being reared in a human litter.
I wasn’t left for pigs to find, mind you. I went off to join them, having become one. How this happened, I never was certain. One moment I was in swaddling, and the next, I was free to run.
Of my infancy, I remember little. Heat, spice. Bellowing bipeds, itchy blanket. Bright blond hair, smile. I used to think that the hair and the smile belonged to my human mother. Pigs, for all their virtues, do not smile, although their mouths sometimes quirk upward in what human eyes might perceive as a grin.
There is no luck in a world of rabbit holes, only misfortune and miracle. Mine was to find a sow resting in damp shade with four nursing piglets at her side—and an open space with an unused teat, to which I applied myself. Milk, contentment, sleep. When I woke, Mother accepted me as her own, although she was brown and I, alone of all her children, remained as resolutely pink as a toy. She was proud of my tightly curled tail, a sign of good health.
The other piglets nosed me with curiosity, but left me to myself, although they roughhoused with each other. Perhaps they sensed that I had been enchanted. I was last in teat rank, but as big as the first-rank piglet. This gave me status, although when not nestled next to Mother and the others, I felt lonely. Nursing was as close to bliss as any experience I have known.
When we grew large enough to forage, I wasn’t as adept as the others—my sense of smell wasn’t as keen—but Mother never let me go hungry. Sometimes she would drop a stub of carrot right in front of me, or a large mushroom. I learned to keep my snout close to the ground. Once, near the ruins of a human shelter, I came upon a patch of flowers with flat roundish leaves. (We ranged free, but on land that humans claimed.) I ate a huge mouthful of nasturtiums, and then began to sneeze. The peppery leaves seemed to force the sneezes out of me. A fire—once there had been a roaring fire, and a harsh loud word, repeated…suddenly, I could smell the charred timbers of the house all too strongly. I came close to fainting.
Pigs do sneeze, although rarely in the wild. Mother and the rest of the drift (we were no longer a litter, but not yet a passel) accepted my sneezing fit as natural. Although deficient at foraging, I excelled at vocalization, making twice as many sounds as the others. My grunts—both short and long—were crisp and commanding, and my scream was impressively loud, its echo coming back as Help! Help! Several times, we hid in the underbrush, amused by some confused human trying to find the lost boy. I remember a fish wrapped in red cloth, one of the colors that pigs can see vividly. This fish walked on human trotters, and had long hair, like…but the fish’s hair was no color, no color at all. It paused, swiveling its head to look out of its flat, widely spaced eyes, before hurrying off somewhere else. In our rabbit hole world, many creatures were as self-important as humans.
The most self-important creature in our world was human, of a sort. Mother taught us a special grunt for her, passed down from her own Mother. To my ears, the grunt sounded like Dutch! and the sound alone inspired fear—fear shared by the others. But I was more afraid than all of them.
Whenever Mother grunted Dutch! we displayed ourselves briefly to this creature—looking respectable, as Mother had taught us to be—and then politely ambled away to find cover. Dutch sported a face nearly the color of the man-fish’s coat, and coarse features it would shame a pig to have. Wrapped around her head was something like an angry cloud, when a storm is coming. Her trotters were hidden by cloth that trailed in the dirt, leaving a mark like a snake’s.
Time, to a pig, is like a dream—smoke from a hookah, drifting into infinite space. When the leaves on the trees turned red, however, Mother became anxious. She led us farther and farther into the woods. But no matter how hard Mother tried to get us away, when we turned around, we could see human shelters in the gaps between the increasingly bare trees.
As dawn broke one chilly morning, Mother grunted Dutch! Dutch! with extreme urgency. The fearsome creature could just be seen at the crest of the hill—as small as a crudely carved cameo, I would think later. Much closer to us were men in dark wrappings, sun flashing off their upper trotters. Old words broke into my brain: knife, axe. One man let his axe fly, catching Mother in the back. She screamed. I didn’t hear Help! There was no help. I ran.
I woke into a different world, a different body. I was human. Again. I could see and feel my limbs, which ended in fingers and toes. I brought my hand to my face. It smelled like pig’s blood. I fainted for real this time.
The next thing I knew, I was being carried somewhere, covered by an itchy blanket. Human voices boomed above me, but I was too weak to run now. Then their ugly bellows started to make sense. Poor young man…Looks to be a gentleman…So fair, he is, his hair’s as white as a rabbit’s…Bandits in these parts, mad as hatters…About sixteen, I’d say…Best take him to The Duchess…. I fainted again.
There was a fire, but it was drawing up a chimney—no smoke—and the room smelled…clean. Human words… I was in a bed. Wearing wrappings…clothes…a nightshirt. I turned my head. There was a girl beside my bed, in a blue dress and pinafore, her bright blond hair hanging down around her eager face. She was holding a covered tureen.
“Would you like some soup?” she said. “It’s beautiful soup. Turtle.”
I started to grunt, but turned the noise into a throat-clearing sound. “Yes. Please.”
She took off the lid and ladled a delicate spoonful. I swallowed it. It was beautiful soup. She fed me for some time before I thought to ask, “Wh-what is your name? Please.”
“Alice. What is yours?”
“And may one know your first name?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Charles,” she said, smiling. But it was not the smile I remembered.
“Alice,” I said, gathering my courage, “w-where is The Duchess?”
“In Bath, of course.”
“She is in the bath? Will we s-see her—later?”
“Silly! This is The Duchess. It’s a hotel that my father owns. In Bath. The most wonderful city in England,” Alice replied.
My body relaxed. I fell asleep before I could say anything more.
That night, I dreamt that the looking glass above the mantelpiece melted, and a big house cat stepped out of it, as proud as anyone. The cat smiled at me—that certain smile I remembered. I put my hands over my eyes. When I took them away, the cat was gone, but the smile was still there. “Good to have seen you again,” said the Cheshire Cat. “Don’t forget me. Or your Mother.” The smile faded into the air, and into memory.
I stayed in Bath. Like the pig I may once have been, I can’t sweat, so I need to soak in the Roman baths every day. During my convalescence—a normal occurrence, in Bath—Alice taught me to read and write, and to do figures. I proved to be quite adept at numbers, becoming the bookkeeper at The Duchess before I was taken on at the bank. I learned to study my face in the mirror without revulsion—it is a nice-looking face, Alice says, despite my slightly snub nose—but never to eat the flesh of any mammal. And to tell the story of my life only to children, some of whom believe it to be true.