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A Lesson in Uselessness

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For the first few days, Alice respected Belle in the same sort of slippery way she respected her sister: Belle was a person who Knew Things, which was impressive enough, but not necessarily exciting. Someday perhaps Alice too would be a person who Knew Things, and she and Belle and her sister would sit in the fancy chairs that children must never sit in, and sip watery tea from delicate cups, and talk about how much they knew.

“I know about the history of words,” Alice would say. “ ‘Establishment’ is derived from ‘blishment’, meaning ‘a judgment made by a blish,’ which is a kind of fish. The prefix ‘Est’ is a shortening of ‘estuary,’ which in this word signifies the collection of the blishes into a single body of water, and, symbolically, the collection of their judgments into a single judgmental unit.”

“That's the commonly accepted explanation,” Belle would say, “but according to some historians, the blish didn’t begin to be a feature of European courts until the fifteenth century. Since the earliest form of the word appears in the fourteenth century, it’s been proposed that the actual root of the word is ‘istment,’ meaning ‘to annoy.’”

“I know about the import of astronomical figures,” her sister would cut in, bored of etymology. “When Jupiter is in the second thirteenth one should never read poetry, because the second thirteenth is antithetical to rhymes.”

And so on and so on. Alice had no doubt she’d enjoy it – Belle certainly seemed to, and growing up to be like Belle was, she thought, probably a good idea. Belle had a whole castle, and everyone did whatever she told them to without her even needing to boss them. But until that happened Alice was far better off avoiding Belle, because most of their conversations began with Belle asking her how her reading was going, and progressed to Alice being completely unable to give a coherent account of her studies, even though they’d seemed to be making sense not an hour before, and ended with Belle making a face of benign tolerance and sending her to Mrs. Potts for tea.

Which is why Alice was on the roof climbing over gargoyles, instead of in the library, where she should have been. You might've said she was hiding, But Alice had a vague idea that exploration of one's surroundings was necessary to becoming a Fully Realized Individual, and as studying was also necessary to becoming a Fully Realized Individual, then exploration must be necessary to studying.

“If A equals B and C equals B, then A equals C,” said Alice out loud, thinking it sounded very nice. It was probably something Belle had said, which meant Alice was beginning to integrate her book-learning into her daily life, and was therefore already well along the path to Fully Realized Individualism. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that; she didn’t think that her exploration had necessarily been improved by the As and Bs, and what it would be like if they filled up her head completely, and her thought processes were entirely replaced by mathematical equations?

As she was pondering this, she began to notice a slight scuffling noise to her left, as if she was being followed. Once she would have glanced around nervously, but she was a braver (or perhaps a more foolish) Alice then she'd been in the past, so she thought, 'I’ll keep walking, and whatever it is will either appear or not appear, that being the way of things.' This proved sound reasoning, and a few moments later the scuffling noise revealed itself to be Chip. He tried to jump out at her from his perch on the horns of a minotaur, but he miscalculated and went rolling into a lion instead.

Alice didn’t like Chip much and didn’t want him in her adventure, but she was far too polite to say so, so she said, “Good Morning.”

“What are you doing?” said Chip, who had never been told that the correct response to “Good Morning,” was “Good Morning.”

“I’m studying,” said Alice.

“What are you studying?” Chip climbed on top of a Cerberus and fixed her with the kind of horrifyingly-rapt attention that only small children can muster. ‘Oh dear,’ Alice thought.

“If A equals B and C equals A then B equals A,” said Alice, feeling that something had gone wrong. To cover her confusion she pressed on, saying anything that came to mind in the prissiest tone she could manage. “ ‘Establishment’," she said, "is derived from ‘blemish,’ which is a kind of a symbolic estuary from the fifteenth century.”

“What’s the use of knowing that?”

“You have to know the history of words,” said Alice. “What if you visited the fifteenth century and you didn’t know about blemishes? Where would you be then?”

Alice was beginning to feel very peculiar. She had an idea that she’d had similar conversations before, and that she’d been on the other side of them. She hoped she wasn’t giving Chip misinformation; she was, she realized, somewhat out of her depth.

“I’m also learning about poetry,” she said desperately. Poetry was what it was; it didn’t exist to make sense, so she couldn’t possibly make it make less sense by talking about it. “I’m learning Christina Rossetti, who wrote poems about how sad she was.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” said Chip, making a face.

“No, they’re lovely,” said Alice. “Listen:

"I've scanned you with a grullish gaze
To synchronize your secret maze
But walk it as I will,
Your maze is strident still.

"I shriek and shuffle, shriek, and shrill:
The maze is melting into swill;
I hoped it would be pies,
But here it offal lies.

"I dropped some nutmeg in, but Diss
Said "War is imminent, and this
Creation is the field;
The enemy will yield."

Chip looked blank. “Jupiter must be in the second thirteenth today,” said Alice, apologetically. She was gearing up to make her escape, when Chip’s eyes got big, and she saw a larger shadow swallow up her own.

“Alice, there you are,” said Belle’s husband, from behind her. “Belle’s looking for you. Don’t worry, you aren’t in trouble.”

Alice didn’t understand why the people in the castle sometimes looked afraid of Belle’s husband, since he was pretty much the nicest person in the world. He was so nice she could never remember his name.

She made polite excuses and set off for the library, wondering why Christina Rossetti had abandoned her in her time of need.


“Chip says you’ve been reciting poetry for him,” said Belle, and Alice wished she wouldn’t keep forgetting that Belle knew everything.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It all came out wrong. I never have this problem at home, but sometimes-”

Belle waited patiently, but Alice couldn’t figure out how to coherently end that sentence in a way that said what she meant, so she settled on “ – sometimes everything’s all wrong.”

“How so?” Belle prompted.

Alice took a minute to think, and said, “Sometimes I get out of my depth, and then I’m bad at things. But I’d rather be out of my depth than in it. I’m good at things at home, but I'm so used to home that it isn't very interesting. I'd like to be both: I'd like to be competent and to have fun at the same time. I don’t understand why I can’t.”

“I think I can relate,” said Belle, smiling reassuringly. Alice blinked at her. She appreciated the effort, but if there was anyone who knew absolutely nothing about being incompetent, it was Belle.

“I didn’t like my home much either,” said Belle, putting on her telling-you-a-story face. Alice made sure to pay attention; Belle’s stories were good. “I loved my father, and I loved my house and my horse and the local library, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. I got along pretty well, but after a while ‘pretty well’ starts to feel not so well at all.

“And then I came here. This place wasn’t always like it is now. It was under a curse. Nothing was growing in the garden, and the walls were covered in soot and slime, and the people who lived here were afraid, all the time. I was afraid too, and I handled it much less well then the rest of them, because I didn’t understand it. But I stayed.

"At first I thought I was staying because I had no choice – I thought the castle had caught me and wouldn’t let me go. Then I thought I was staying because I’d fallen in love. Both of those things were true, to an extent, but I think really I was staying because I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand anything that happened here, and not understanding was new to me, and I wasn't used to things being new to me. So I wanted to stay here not understanding things forever.”

“But you understand now,” Alice said.

Belle, whose gaze had drifted to the window, looked back at Alice. “Some,” she said. “I know most of the people here very well, and I know the castle, and I’ve mostly figured out how to run it. But I still don’t know all the rules. I don’t know if anyone can know all the rules of a place like this, who didn’t grow up here.”

That was all very well, Alice thought, But if Belle was faking it she was doing a hell of a lot better job than Alice was.

Alice didn't know what she could say about Belle's story, so she switched tracts. “I wish I could learn to recite things without making them ridiculous, at least,” she said.

“Well I can definitely help you with that. Can I hear the one you recited for Chip?”

Alice repeated it, and thought it went even further off course this time around. She couldn’t meet Belle’s eyes, and looked at the armrest of her chair instead.

“Alice,” Belle said, completely sincerely. “That was wonderful.”

Alice didn't believe her that time, or the time after. But she would.


A week later, Alice knew she was going to grow up to be just like Belle. They’d sit in the grownup chairs and drink tea, and Alice’s sister would not be invited, because Alice’s sister thought life without magic was pretty great.

Sometimes Belle would talk about things she knew, because Belle knew a lot. But Alice wouldn’t. Why should she? Alice would recite nonsense, and talk about things that had happened to her.

(When you go around reciting nonsense, Alice was beginning to realize, more things happen to you. And what Alice wanted most was for things to happen to her. So probably that was the reason for her problem. Her lessons and her adventures had integrated after all, and to her advantage; they just hadn’t bothered to tell her first how it was to her advantage.)

One day she fell asleep by the fire in the library, wondering how Belle and the Cheshire Cat would get along, and whether Belle could get it to do what she told it to do the same way she got everyone to do what she told them to do. Alice was betting not, but it would be fun to see her try.

She woke up on the floor of her cousin’s sitting room. After a moment of consideration she went to the pantry to steal some jam, and then to her borrowed room to put on her gloves, and then she went to find her sister and annoy her with false etymologies of words. She resolved to keep a mental catalog of goings-on, so that she'd have stories to tell Belle when she got back.