I was so immersed in my surroundings that I did not even notice the old man had left until it was too late. It struck me that I was utterly alone in a strange world that I had no idea how to get around. The vastness of the forest overwhelmed me—I had no other option than to venture into the darkness between the trees, for to my left and to my right stretched only an infinite lawn of pristinely emerald grass. If I was not as anxious as to where I would go and what I would find there, I would have lain down amongst the flowers, savoring the sweet smell of their nectar. I would have gazed up at the clear blue sky, squinting my eyes at the abnormally large sun. I would have become mesmerized at the brilliance of the butterflies’ wings, watching the creatures as they darted through the air.
But I did none of those things.
The woodland was not as foreboding once I entered it. Shafts of light passed through the canopies of the trees and illuminated my surroundings with a soft, almost magical glow. Near the roots of trees grew circles of little toadstools—cheerful red speckled with white. Here too there were butterflies, lined up perfectly along the branches of the trees and glancing down at me with what—oddly enough—seemed to be curiosity. I could not help but feel like a stranger invading their territory.
Although I was only about a foot tall, the world around me seemed proportional to my height. The undergrowth was easy to maneuver, and the roots that snaked over the ground did not hinder me at all. The largest trees were enormous, but I figured that they would still look that way if I was my normal stature. I wondered if I would reach a point in the forest where everything increased in size. I hoped not, for I could not think of any way to become bigger.
After a few minutes of aimless wandering, I began to see something strange in the distance: rings of smoke. They floated lazily in the air—perfect O’s drifting through the branches and carrying with them an odd smell that I could not identify. I craned my head, trying to see from where the smoke was originating. A short distance away and to my left, I noticed a tall cluster of fronds, over which the rings drifted. I hurried toward it and pulled the leaves aside, revealing a grassy clearing with a giant yellow mushroom at its center.
I coughed; the odor of the smoke was heaviest here, and I immediately saw why.
Sitting prominently on the mushroom was a dark-skinned man of about my height—my current height, that is. He was surrounded by such a hazy cloud of smoke that I wondered how he could breathe, yet he inhaled the tainted air as zealously as if it were permeated by the sweet smell of roses. The azure robes the he was dressed in did nothing to conceal the fact that he was extremely overweight, for although the fabric was voluminous, his figure somehow managed to swell inside the abundance of silk. In his hand he lazily held the mouthpiece of a hookah, its hose so long that the body of the instrument was nowhere in sight.
At first, he did not even notice my presence. He brought the pipe to his lips and took a deep breath before slowly releasing the smoke into the air. I cleared my throat, and only after a few moments did he fix his beady, contemptuous eyes on me.
“Who… are… you?” he said languorously between puffs. His voice was the kind that could put someone to sleep—although perhaps such a slumber would result in nightmares.
The longer I looked at him, the fatter he seemed to become. His nose was large and bulbous, and his face was the shape of a pear—bulging outwards at his cheeks and widely rounded at his chin. There were layers to his stomach, and they piled up on each other in a manner that caused them to resemble sections of an insect’s abdomen. On his head was a turban as bulky as he was—adorned with a single blue feather, which curved back elegantly.
“Who… are… you?” he repeated, this time with impatience.
I blinked myself out of my trance and quickly replied, “Sorry. My name’s Alice.”
“Yes, yes,” he snapped. “But Alice Little who?”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “I don’t get what you mean.”
He sighed out a billow of smoke and gave me a derisive look. “I didn’t ask for your name.”
“But it was only polite of me to give it to you,” I retorted. “If you had any manners, you would tell me your name.”
He gestured the thought away with a wave of the hookah. “No matter. First question.”
Our conversation had gone full circle. I crossed my arms and replied, “Well, I guess you’re out of luck. I’ve been through so much today that I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
“Explain yourself,” he said.
“For one, this isn’t my… preferred size.”
His face darkened. “I think it is a perfectly acceptable size, mind you.”
“Oh, of course,” I said rapidly—only now did I remember that the man was the same height as I. “It’s just that I’m not used to being this small. See, when I woke up this morning… everything was different.”
“Explain,” he demanded again.
I sat down on the grass, for it was awfully tiring to stand while trying to keep my temper. “I’m not from here,” I said. “That’s the best I can explain it. I don’t know how I got here or where exactly here is or why I followed that old man—”
“Old man?” he interrupted.
“Yes,” I said with all the patience I could muster. “The one with the glasses and the pocket watch.”
He took a lungful of the odd-smelling smoke and nodded to himself as if he knew who I was talking about.
“Aren’t you going to tell me his name?” I asked.
I huffed and rose to my feet. “What are you even smoking?”
He shrugged his hefty shoulders, causing his layers of fat to ripple like waves.
I shook my head in disgust and made to leave the clearing. Before I took two steps, however, he called out—
I glanced back at him over my shoulder, wondering what it was now.
“I must tell you something. A piece of advice.”
This caught my interest. I turned to face him.
“Beware of the Queen,” he said gravely. His words—paired with his sleepy voice—were troubling.
I remembered how the old man I had followed had mentioned a Queen. I did not dare ask this man who she was, however, for his identity philosophy was too absurd for me to handle. I could only wonder why the ruler of this land was so dangerous.
“Is that all?” I said.
He was silent for quite a while, smoking his hookah so languidly that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he forgot I was even there. Minutes passed, and still he said nothing; I was losing my composure with every ticking second. As soon as I decided I was about to try to leave again, however, he took the hookah out of his mouth.
“If you go that a-way,” he responded at last, pointing to the trees behind him, “your size will be most inconvenient.”
“Well, then I’ll go another way,” I said.
His eyes widened as if he were outraged. “Oh, but you must go that way!”
I shook my head in disbelief. If all people here were like this man, I would soon lose my head. “Then what in the world should I do?” I asked.
With a loud thump, he slipped off the mushroom, his fat jiggling once he reached the ground. He blew out a ring of smoke and said, “One side makes you smaller, and the other side makes you larger.”
“Wait, sides of what?”
He had begun to walk toward the woods at such a slow pace that it resembled a crawl. The hose of the hookah followed him like a snake, and I wondered if perhaps the mechanism had no base at all—just a never-ending pipe that somehow carried smoke to his lips. Without turning back to look at me, he replied loudly, “Of the mushroom.”
And so he was gone, leaving me alone in the clearing. I gazed at the mushroom thoughtfully, wondering which side was which. Figuring there was only one way to find out, I broke off a chunk from each edge and weighed them both in my hands. There was no visible difference between the two portions of the mushroom. I nibbled at the piece in my left hand and instantly felt myself growing. Something was wrong, however; my body was stretching far too quickly. In panic, I chewed down a mouthful of the second piece, causing my size to diminish significantly. I was larger than I had been a few minutes ago, but I was still too small. Thus I alternated bites between the left piece and the right piece until my height became one that felt quite normal.
Now I was taller than the mushroom, which wasn’t even remotely as gigantic as it had been before. When I looked down on it, I noticed a neatly folded handkerchief made out of the same blue silk as the man’s robes. On the corner, a name was embroidered in silver stitching: Cahta.
“What an odd name,” I said. “Well, I suppose everything here is odd.”
I thought about taking the handkerchief with me, but then it occurred to me that the man—Cahta—might come back looking for it. I left it untouched, for I felt as though I had already given Cahta enough trouble by disturbing his peace. With my head decidedly clearer because of my typical size, I entered the woods and strode toward the direction in which everything became bigger, hoping that perhaps I would meet someone who wasn’t so bizarre.