The White Rabbit

The White Rabbit

For Bill Pronzini

 

One moment he had been comfortably reading, for the umpteenth time, Alice in Wonderland, and the next moment it was too stuffy and hot to concentrate. The words seemed to melt and re-form before his eyes, and he found himself slipping in and out of sleep like nervous fingers first filling, then withdrawing from a glove.

Sleepy, but being a man of strict routine, he put the book aside, left his tacky hotel room—the Egyptians here in Cairo thought it a fine place—and took to the streets in the dead of night.

It was warm out, but more comfortable than his room. Out here was like sitting in an oven with the door open, as opposed to the room, which was more like sitting in an oven with the door closed.

Yet, in spite of the stickiness of the night, the air had an intoxicating feel. The streets, buildings, all that should be familiar, had an oddly haunting, slightly alien look about it, as if they had been replaced with facsimiles of the originals. Even his footsteps on the cobblestones seemed strangely distant. Odder yet, there was neither street urchin nor curled sleeping beggar in sight. More often than not, they lay against the walls of buildings, or in the doorways, like abandoned curs. But tonight . . . no one.

Wally Carpenter knew that to walk these streets late at night was to invite trouble, but he was not a fearful man. And besides, he carried in his coat pocket a fully loaded, .38 snub-nose revolver, with which he was rather proficient.

So it was with caution, but no particular dread, that Carpenter stalked Cairo's dark streets and pondered upon the seeming emptiness and uncharacteristic silence of the city. He wandered in a nearly aimless fashion, feeling for all the world as though he had been hijacked by space creatures and set down in a replica of the city he knew and loved; and presently his footsteps brought him to that area of Cairo known as the City of the Dead.

The place was quite a marvel. An entire city—houses, streets, and walls—devoted to the spirits of the recent and the long departed. It was said that there were men in Cairo who had the ability to speak with these dead and for a fee they would summon the spirits of loved ones and communicate questions to them, and return their answers.

It was a mystical place, a place shrouded in legend, and not a good spot for a person, especially a non-Egyptian, to wander late at night. Robbers and lepers were said to frequent the city, and it was also said to be the home of demons and ghouls.

Carpenter was well aware of this, but it did not concern him. His revolver could dispatch robbers, and as for ghouls and such, he did not believe in them; they were the stuff of opium dreams and fevered imaginations, nothing more.

Once Carpenter had been a student, a promising one at that. He had majored in anthropology and archaeology, and those fields of endeavor had brought him to Egypt, land of antiquity, land of dreams.

But once he had dug in its sands and prowled its tombs, he lost interest in the physical work of the profession, decided he was more suited to the academic side of the subject. He determined to write a book, to deal in paper and ink instead of dirt and sweat.

That decision made, he often walked the streets at night, made his mental notes and later consigned them to paper, saved them up against the day he would write his book on the wonders and marvels of Egypt. In the meanwhile, he read his archaeology, mythology and anthropology texts, and in his spare time, for pure amusement, he read and reread Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, as well as its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Carroll's was the only fiction he truly cared for. It relaxed him, made him smile, and each time he read the books, he found something new and fascinating within. In fact, Alice and her adventures were still in his head as he reached the City of the Dead and made his way within.

Walking among the ruins he could smell the rank ripeness of decay, as well as the mixed and confusing odors of Cairo proper. But the smells seemed oddly received by his senses, as if they were being filtered to him from another dimension. It was quiet and peaceful here, like stepping off the earth and standing on the face of the moon.

But even as he dwelled on the solitude, there came a scuttling sound to his right. Carpenter turned quickly, saw a figure move from one clump of shadows to another, flitter once in the moonlight, then disappear totally into darkness.

Carpenter almost pulled the revolver from his coat pocket. It could be a robber, but most likely it was a beggar or a leper who had taken refuge here, much in the same way tramps back in the states slept in graveyards to avoid being disturbed. If the latter were the case, then there would be little to fear. If it was a robber, then he had his revolver.

He strained his eyes into the darkness, but saw nothing. Presently, he began to walk again. He had not gone ten feet when he heard the scuttling again, and this time, as he turned, he saw the author of the noise.

Out of the shadows hopped a huge white rabbit wearing a checkered waistcoat and vest. The rabbit stopped, gave Carpenter a disinterested glance, then plucked a pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket.

"Oh my goodness, goodness," the rabbit said in remarkably plain English. "I shall be late. Yes, yes, yes, so very late."

Turning, and with a succession of rapid hops, the rabbit disappeared back into the shadows.

Carpenter shook his head; blinked a few times. Yes, it was an intoxicating night, all right, but this was ridiculous. Six-foot rabbits in Cairo? In the City of the Dead? Shades of Harvey. He must be dreaming.

Suddenly there came the sound of melodious humming. Carpenter recognized the tune. It was the song that George Armstrong Custer had adopted as his personal theme. What was it called? "Garry Owen"? Yes, something like that.

The humming faded off into the night. Pulling his revolver, Carpenter strolled briskly into the shadows, determined to find out why there was a rabbit-suited joker hopping about in the City of the Dead humming "Garry Owen."

He could hear the humming again. It seemed to come from far away. Carpenter continued forward and the velvet night closed tight around him. He came to an obstruction and, lighting a match, he saw that it was an adobe wall. Just to his left was a large, round opening. It appeared to have been knocked into the clay. Beyond the wall, he could hear the faint humming of "Garry Owen."

Stooping, match in one hand, revolver in the other, Carpenter stepped through the opening.

Once on the other side he stopped and looked about. No rabbit.

The match went out. But there was no need for it now. It was suddenly very bright, much brighter than before. Above him the moon shone like an aluminum skillet and the stars looked down like millions of bright, animal eyes peering out of the darkness of a wood.

"Odd, quite odd," Carpenter said aloud. He thought I must be sitting at home in my chair fast asleep, having fallen off reading Alice in Wonderland, and now I'm dreaming all this. "Curiouser and curiouser!" he said in self-mockery.

"Oh my, my," the rabbit's voice came again, and the big bunny seemed to come out of nowhere and hop by. The rabbit's white, fluffy tail bobbed before Carpenter like a bounding ball.

"Hey you, wait a minute!" Carpenter yelled.

The rabbit stopped, turned to look over its shoulder. "Goodness, goodness, what is it? Make it quick. I'm so late, so very late."

Carpenter, feeling a bit stupid about the revolver, returned it to his coat pocket. It hardly seemed sporting to shoot a giant bunny. He walked quickly over to the rabbit, shook his head and said, "It's not a suit."

"What?" the rabbit said.

"I am dreaming, must be. Giant rabbits, indeed." The rabbit turned completely about and faced Carpenter, wriggled its ample pink nose, flashed its pink eyes. "Let's not dismiss rabbits, shall we?" The rabbit produced a small fan and patted it into the palm of his other paw (hand?).

"This is ridiculous," Carpenter said. "I can't wake up."

"Is it now? Can't you now?" the rabbit said sharply.

"A crazy dream. I feel as if I've fallen down a rabbit hole."

"Quite possible, quite possible," the rabbit said. "There are holes all over the universe, you know. Whitechapel, England; Fail River, Massachusetts. All over. They pop up all manner of places, yes they do."

"This is all rather inconceivable," Carpenter said.

"Is it now?" the rabbit said as if truly surprised. "'What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.'" The rabbit bowed. "Sir Thomas Browne."

"Yes.... Very nice. Where am I? Can this be the City of the Dead? A dream?"

"'There are countless roads on all sides of the grave,'" the rabbit said. "Cicero."

"Now what kind of answer is that?" Carpenter said. The rabbit produced the pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket again. "Oh filly fuddles, I am wasting time. Come, come if you must, but hurry."

For a moment Carpenter stood dumbfounded, then finally followed the rabbit, who was making rather remarkable time with his hops. It was quite a merry chase, and presently Carpenter came upon the rabbit again. The big bunny was sitting on a stone bench next to a metal light pole reading a newspaper. A piece of paper taped to the light pole fluttered in the wind, and a handful of large bugs swarmed in the overhead glow. At the rabbit's feet a horde of passionflowers grew, along with purple-flowered belladonna plants.

"I thought you were late," Carpenter said.

"Late?" the rabbit asked.

"I thought . . . Oh, never mind. I can't believe I'm talking to a rabbit."

"And why not?" the rabbit said, dropping the paper to his lap. His nose wriggled in an impatient sort of way.

"Well, you couldn't be real."

The rabbit crossed his left leg over his right knee and swung his foot nervously. The newspaper fluttered to the ground. "My goodness, but you are silly. So hard to convince, so hard." The rabbit raised his voice, pointed at Carpenter. "Believe it hard enough and it is true."

"But six-foot rabbits! Rabbits are small, insignificant creatures."

The rabbit stood to its full height. "I'll have you know we are quite revered, quite. Why, the very god of Egypt's antiquity was rabbit-headed. Yes he was, he was."

Carpenter considered. Yes, in fact, Osiris, God of the Dead, was often depicted as a rabbit-headed god. In that guise he was usually known as Wenenu.

"But where am I?" Carpenter asked the rabbit.

"You are here, that is where you are," the rabbit said. "My goodness, such silly questions."

Carpenter scratched his head. "You said there were holes all over the universe. Could I have fallen into one of those?"

"Oh, quite possible, quite. There are holes all over the place. Whitechapel, for instance." And with that, the rabbit went into a little dance, chanted a rhyme.

 

"Jack the Ripper's dead.

And lying on his bed.

He cut his throat

With sunlight soap.

Jack the Ripper's dead."

 

The rabbit paused and said, "Fall River also." The dance began again, a sort of highlander jig.

 

"Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty-one!"

 

The rabbit stopped dancing, leaned forward, showed Carpenter its two front teeth, both as bright and thick as huge sugar cubes. "Or did she?" the rabbit whispered.

"Very nice," Carpenter said, getting into the spirit of things. "A very fine dance."

"Oh," the rabbit said with obvious pleasure, "you really think so?"

"I do."

The rabbit made an effort to appear modest. "Well, I do have a certain knack for it, you know?"

"I can see that."

"Can you now? Good, good." Then, almost confessionally, "There are a lot of rabbits, you know. Pop up anywhere and everywhere." The rabbit gave Carpenter a sly wink. "Take a look at that paper on the light pole there, sir. Very enlightening, very."

Carpenter turned to the light pole, to the paper fluttering there. The wind had picked up and was making quite a production of it. It nearly managed to rip the taped paper from the pole. Carpenter reached his glasses from his pocket, put them on for a look-see.

The wind died as suddenly as it had come up, and Carpenter bent forward to read the little paper. It appeared to be a page precisely torn from a medical journal. A stamp at the top of it alerted him that the page had once been included in a book contained in the United States Army Medical Library in Washington.

Reading, Carpenter found the page concerned the matter of one Mary Toft, a woman who, in 1726, claimed to have given birth to twelve baby rabbits. Although this incident was never proven to be true, neither was it disproved.

"Astounding," Carpenter said, putting his glasses away, turning toward the rabbit. But the rabbit was gone. Carpenter could see him hopping in the distance, disappearing once again into the darkness.

The wind came again, and it stirred the paper that had fallen from the rabbit's lap, wrapped it around Carpenter's ankles. He dislodged it, and was about to toss it aside when an article outlined in red caught his eye. He did not bother with his glasses this time, but instead pushed it close to his face.

It was a short little article dealing with the brutal deaths of several black New York cabbies. They had been killed in their cabs and their hearts cut out. The article said there were no clues.

Carpenter shivered, tossed the paper away, looked about. Things had changed. He had not been aware of the moment of change, but this no longer appeared to be the City of the Dead. In the distance, silhouetted by the moon, were shapes that reminded him of the place, but here, close up, all was very different. The bench and light post, for instance. Where in the world had they come from?

There was something else. The feel. Not something you could put your finger on, but something you could sense in much the same way you could sense the changing of climate. Yes, something was very different.

For lack of better things to do, Carpenter strolled toward where he had last seen the rabbit. As he walked, he noticed on his left a great vista of bombed-out houses and buildings. It looked much as he thought London must have looked after the Germans tried to abolish the city with their blitzkrieg.

To his right there was a huge cart piled high with something encased in shadows. A horse was hitched to the cart and it held its head dipped toward the stones. Smoke rose in the distance beyond the cart, and somewhere, faintly, came a voice calling, "Bring out your dead."

Carpenter walked briskly, the visions on either side of him melting away like fading motion picture images.

"Do you think perhaps it's done with mirrors?" the rabbit asked, stepping from the darkness.

"I . . . I thought you were ahead of me. How did you do that?"

"I put this foot in front of this one," the rabbit said. "Quite simple, really."

"I mean how . . . never mind."

The rabbit produced the pocket watch again. "Oh, I must hurry."

"I thought you weren't late."

"You did? Why would you get such an idea? I am late, you know. Murdering time, murdering time."

"Late for the tea party?"

"Tea party? I don't drink tea. What tea party is that?"

"Never mind."

The rabbit looked at his watch again. "Goodness yes. I must hop." And away went the rabbit, singing the Jack the Ripper chant again, only this time substituting other words.

 

"Jack the Rabbit's dead

And living in your head

Cut his throat on moonlight rope,

Jack the Rabbit's dead."

 

Carpenter found himself practically running to keep up with the rabbit. Soon he came to a long, seven-foot-high rock wall. Like the first wall, there was a large hole in it. The hole led into total blackness. Carpenter's last sight of the rabbit had been as the creature, ducking somewhat to fit, hopped through the hole and disappeared.

"When in Rome or whatever," Carpenter said, "do as the Romans or the whatevers." With that he stepped through the hole into the dark . . . felt as if he were drifting. There was a loud ticking sound, tick, tick, tick, like some sort of giant clock. Then came a swooshing, like sand drifting down into the bottom of an hourglass, followed by complete and total silence.

I must be at home asleep in my chair, he thought. This is so real, but it must be a dream. It must be.

Reaching the matches from his pocket, he struck one. It did very little to illumine the darkness. "God, but it's dark," he said.

"A fact so dread," the rabbit said, "extinguishes all hope."

"Wha...?" Carpenter dropped the match and it went out. "You startled me," he said, striking another match, holding it in the direction of the voice. The rabbit's face looked oddly menacing there in the wavery light of the match. The ears looked almost hornlike, the eyes and nose appeared blood-colored instead of pink. The rabbit's teeth were almost in Carpenter's face. They looked as large and firm as tombstones.

"Now listen, you," Carpenter found himself saying, but his voice cracked and he never completed the sentence. Strong hands grasped him. Two on his left arm, two on his right. It was impossible for him to draw the revolver, and of course he dropped the match.

The rabbit said from the darkness, "Bring him."

The hands gripped Carpenter tighter, carried him forward. Eventually they pulled him out of the gloom and into silvery moonlight. Great stones stood before him, formed a ring. In the center of the massive circle was a long table with chairs—lots of chairs. The table was set with cups, dishes and pouring vessels.

"Stonehenge," Carpenter said. "And the tea party."

"Tea?" came a voice to his left.

Carpenter turned to look at his captors. The one on his left was wearing an outrageously tall top hat. It was the Mad Hatter. On his right, clenching his arm with viselike paws, was the Dormouse.

"You're characters in Alice in Wonderland. I don't understand," Carpenter said.

"Then you shouldn't talk," said the Hatter.

"This can't be real," Carpenter said. "It has to be a dream."

"The two are much of a muchness," the Hatter explained.

With the rabbit hopping before them, they led Carpenter to one of the upright stones. The Hatter produced from his hat an impossible length of rope, and he and the Dormouse bound Carpenter mummy-wrap tight to the stone. Carpenter could not free himself no matter how hard be struggled, let alone reach the revolver in his coat pocket.

"Why?" Carpenter asked. "Why?"

"Why?" said the rabbit, checking his watch. "Why because it is almost time, and you, my friend, are the much-honored guest." The rabbit lifted his head to the stars, as did the Hatter and the Dormouse, and scrutinized the heavens.

Out beyond the ring of stones there was an uncanny darkness. Carpenter thought he could see eyes there, growing more numerous by the moment, collecting in droves. In one spot, like a moon that had come off its hinge, hung a huge, white Cheshire Cat smile.

The rabbit lowered his head, put his watch back in place. He smiled at Carpenter. Those teeth seemed suddenly very ugly. They reminded Carpenter of nothing less than two huge grinding stones.

"Help me, White Rabbit," Carpenter said. "I've done you no harm. You wouldn't hurt me, would you? Rabbits are by nature gentle and timid creatures."

The rabbit held up one finger. (Odd, thought Carpenter, he had not noticed that the fingers were clawed before.) Then the rabbit began a rhyme.

 

"How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in

With gently smiling jaws!"

 

The rabbit lowered his hand. His pink eyes went deathly dark and cold, like two bright stars that had suddenly gone nova. Slowly, the rabbit walked toward Carpenter. Somewhere, from the darkness beyond the stone ring, came the fluting of pipes, the slow cadence of drums.

Carpenter struggled against the ropes, but to no avail. "God, it's not a dream. It's real!"

"Is it?" said the rabbit.

"A dream? Then it's a dream?"

"It is? My goodness, is it now? Did I say that?"

"You're out of Lewis Carroll's imagination, for Christ's sake!" Carpenter screamed as tears began to run down his cheeks.

"Carroll was such a romanticist," the rabbit said. "He could take the coldest truth and turn it into something sugar-cone sweet. Just refused to see things as they are, you see. Made them out to be fairy tales. A very reprehensible thing for a journalist to do."

The rabbit was very close now, and there was nothing cute about the way he looked, about those skull-socket eyes, those ugly teeth. Carpenter could smell the sourness of the rabbit's breath, a smell like decaying meat.

"Do not the Japanese say," the rabbit said slowly, "that we only live twice. Once in life and once in our dreams?" He smiled broadly. There seemed to be an endless supply of teeth. "Tonight we kill two birds with one stone."

"Jesus Christ!"

"Yes, yes indeedy. A very solid fact of Christianity's belief is suffering. Remember Jesus on the cross? Stretched out there for all to see, suffering for redemption. Christianity tells us that if we suffer enough we get a prize, yes indeedy. Are you ready for your prize?"

"You're mad!"

The flutes had risen in tempo; the drums beat in a heartthrob sort of way.

The Hatter said, "It really is time, sir."

"Is it now?" the rabbit said, taking out his watch and examining the face in the moonlight. "Why it is. Quite time, quite."

Carpenter began to laugh hysterically. Tears glistened on his cheeks. "This is crazy! You can't hurt me. You're a dream. You're the frigging White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. You're a dream. I'll wake up!"

"Oh," said the rabbit, looking puzzled, and with surprising deftness, produced from his waistcoat pocket a sharp-bladed knife. "Will you?"

And he cut Carpenter's throat.

Then they all sat down to the feast.

 

 

 

 

Head on back here for more Mojo shenanigans on Thursday, December 8, when we'll offer up another treat from Champion Joe R. Lansdale!

 

         "The White Rabbit" originally appeared in The Arbor House Necropolis. It later appeared in Bestsellers Guaranteed, a collection published by Ace. "The White Rabbit" 1981 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.