buzzard of a building, its shingles buckling and warped by weather and bay, Great Fin_s and Scales perched on the docks among the warehouses on Dodgson Street. Alice stood back to look at the sign. She imagined the missing 'd' in "Finds" serving as maitre-d in the Cafe Dumonde or sounding notes in the symphony hall uptown. More likely, the letter hooked up with a present tense verb from the docks and eloped into the past.
If there was one thing Alice could not resist, it was a curiosity, and the Great Fin_s and Scales was the curiousest curiosity shop of all. In the front window alone it offered an eel balancing a shellacked nose; a gryphon with folded wings; a beady-eyed dodo, ostrich-sized, with a clownish beak. So many things to look at, Alice nearly passed over a curiosity of scale.
Some hopeful builder had tweezered together a replica of the shop itself, this smaller version called simply, Fin_s and Scales. The miniature's shop sign curled into a cat, its profile vanishing among the whiskered words: Curiosity is our Especiality . Alice felt whispered at. She saw a doll stooping outside the miniature's shop window. Herself? How queer, to see oneself as if from the wrong end of a telescope.
"How can that be me in there when I'm out here?" said Alice.
What if the miniature itself contained a window ledge miniature nested inside? Great scales and definitions! There might be Alices no taller than Alice's thimble.
"It would be closed," said Alice of the Great Fin_s shop. It was well rumored, the shop's owner snuffed pepper on purpose. A violent woman, the proprietor sneezed so often she forgot what she was doing and threw things to help her remember. Something else, the scale-model was perched perilously close to the edge of the sill.
"If the miniature were broken, I'd never forgive myself," said Alice, working the knob. The wind on Dodgson Street sprayed off the bay. She imagined the diminutive Fin_s and Scales and all the little Alices inside it swept into oblivion on a peppered sneeze. One sneezing fit or a throwing storm might topple a whole size continuum.
Bit by bit, the arthritic latch jerked back, and the door grated open. The wind chooed into the store, tinking spoons in chipped teacups, crumbing imaginary tarts on stained doilies. Even the dodo shifted its matted quills. At the door, a suit of armor offered jawbreakers in a cracked tortoise shell bowl.
Mottled blues, fireball reds, a gingery yellow. "Which shall I have?" said Alice, her hand hovering a moment too long.
"Jawbreakers cost plenty." An egg man balanced on a shelf above her.
"Humpty Dumpty," said Alice. "You're not broken."
"How do you know my name?"
"It's a rhyme," she said.
"Tell it," he said. "I love rhymes and reasons." He tugged at a diamond-patterned belt that on second look was a snake. It coiled above the egg man's shoulder and tongue-tasted Alice in the air.
"Don't you know a belt when you see one?" said Humpty Dumpty. He snapped the snake at his waist. "Now give us a rhyme."
Alice obliged. "You sit on a wall, you have a great fall."
"Autumn always was my season."
"'All the king's horses, and all the king's men couldn't'...pass up a jawbreaker again."
Alice snatched the blue one and sipped its sugar coating. It flowed, a sweet river on her tongue.
"Let'sth sthee her sthwallow ith whole," said the snake.
"Now I'll recite one, and you'll still owe for the jawbreaker," said the egg man. "How about 'Owed on a Great One's Earn.'"
"That sounds familiar," said Alice.
"A cheery poet named Cheats," said Humpty. "The last lines are beauts." He put his very white hands on his snake belt.
"Bounty is to us, to us bounty—that is all
we need to make our money."
Humpty put out his hand. "Now pay up," he said, wobbling on edge. His pride in reciting the verses nearly cost him his perch.
"Pride goeth before the fall," Alice warned.
"You are stuck on seasons. Are you a fortune-telling doll?"
"I'm not a doll," said Alice. "I don't think I am." She remembered her likeness on the window ledge and suddenly wasn't so sure.
"Maybe she'th only a dillt. Nibble at her vowel and sthee," said the snake.
"She has teeth," said the egg man, "let her chew her own vowels."
"Doest she bitesz?"
"Only my tongue," said Alice. "I'm told it's a better meal than the foot." She was certainly not a dill and sucked the harder on the jawbreaker for being called one.
"My tongue ist my forkth." The snake gave Humpty's head a complimentary lick.
"Tongue or toe, enough about biting." The egg man's head swelled with the snake's squeeze.
"Don't snakes eat eggs? I mean, I thought one would..." said Alice.
"This isn't a snake. It's a very clever belt. If you weren't such a dilly, you'd know," said Humpty. "Besides, I can't be eaten. As you've foretold, I will be fool of pride before this fall." Humpty's arms swam the air.
"No one escapet eating or being atend," said the snake.
Alice felt a dilly dizzy. Perhaps it was Humpty's arms swimming him from the edge as he traced generations of eggs back to their chickens and chickens back to their eggs, "none of whom ate the other at all," he said, pinch-lipped.
"You're always about to fall," said Alice. She was suddenly a bit dropsy herself. The odd dizziness, she discovered, was shrinkage--her own.
"Bubblt will-d be bustin," said the snake, who knew something about the jawbreakers. He ducked behind the egg man's wide end. There wasn't any need since Alice flattened like a large balloon. She didn't know how to stop herself. The bottom shelves pumped up to eye level, and the black and white tile stretched out like city blocks.
In desperation, Alice cracked the jawbreaker open. The gum inside stunted the shrinkage, but she kept "smalltening"--the snake's word--remaining steady at about four inches high.
"I might have shrunk to a speck and disappeared," said Alice. High above, the egg man shone, a curiously-shaped moon belted in the diamond-patterned stars of snakeskin.
With all the talk about eating and being eaten, Alice thought it would be safer now to get inside that doll-sized store on the window ledge. She asked a rabbit swinging a pocket watch to direct her.
"It's too late to do anything about anything, what with fins and scales in the same store," said the rabbit. He muttered about Alice's paying for breakage and pointed out a door in the cabinet beneath the display window. Inside, the resident mouse showed Alice up a kaleidoscope of back staircases until she climbed through a smoothly nibbled knothole and onto the window ledge.
The wind outside shook the windowpane sky like far-off thunder. The dodo blinked once and resumed his beaked indifference. The gryphon switched his tail and sniffed.
Alice peered into the diminutive shop's toothpick-framed window. The small-scale world was in more trouble than she had feared. The miniature's miniature leaned half off the window ledge store's window ledge. Alice heard sneezing inside, a storm of curiosities flew in gusts and crashes.
"Oh dear," said Alice, "if I go inside I'll get broken for sure. And what if I shrink again? I'll be no taller than a fingernail." As it was, she chewed her gum vigorously to keep from sinking.
Meantime, a tuna strolled along the window ledge’s street. The fish pivoted on her tail like a singer in a sequined sheath, so tightly petalled were her scales.
"Lines and sinkers," said the tuna, "you're completely out of your depth." Her fish lips glittered with hooks. "I'm Tunny."
Alice checked her arms and legs for fins, but she was still little Alice. "Tell me, please, how to escape these scales and scales."
"Oh my gills, you can't escape them. They're almost infinite. Like the stars. The hook is, so are we." Tunny's eyes swiveled.
At Tunny's explanation, Alice thought she must be shrinking again and put out her hands to catch herself from falling. But her size remained the same. It was the relative size of everything else that seemed telescoping out in her mind, beneath her and above, backwards and forwards.
"If I go inside the shop," said Alice, "Humpty Dumpty will be headed for a fall."
"Unless he's lying broken on the floor," said Tunny.
"The snake will be saving him for dinner."
"If he has not already eaten him."
"And I'll shrink in a river of jawbreaker sugar," said Alice. By now, she was breathless at having discovered she was trapped in a near-forever of scale.
"You could swallow your gum." Tunny's fins folded tight as clams. "It's sure to change something."
The jawbreaker's wad bubbled and snapped big as an egg man strangling in snakeskin. Alice couldn't live among peppered sneezers and throwing storms and bay winds, not at the edge of an edge on a windowsill's windowsill--and at such a small scale. So she took Tunny's advice and swallowed the whole gumball.
The tuna gillied a deep breath and sang bubbles at poor Alice, who was by now, flapping her arms to clear her windpipe. She felt dilly and too slippery for her skin and her feet.
"There's your swim bladder," said Tunny from two scales down. "You were chewing it. It will float you back to scale." Her voice shrank, tinny with distance.
Tunny's bubbles burst, and Alice breathed a breath that might have sucked down the stars as they bobbed above her. Dodgson Street seemed slowvy and deaf as Alice flapped to pump its thick breath into her swim bladder lungs. A curious thing, the world rippled, now, as she stepped.
MaryAnn Suehle's fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Antietam Review, Del Sol Review,
Folio, Fodderwing, Gargoyle, the New Orleans Review,
and Passager. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is
writing a novel, By the (S)word.
Back to the Top
Issue 10 |
story copyright by author 2003 all rights reserved