A.C.H.Smith. The Labyrinth. Chapter 7: The Meaning Of Life

      Sarah joined Hoggle on the top rung of the ladder, gratefully clutching the side of the open hatchway. It felt like firm land after a voyage at sea.
      They were looking at a garden, where birds were singing. It was surrounded by well-trimmed hedges - box hedges, she thought, and indeed they ran so straight, with neatly cut openings in them, and turned such precise right angles, and the lawn was so flat and tidy, that the garden was like a green box, with the blue sky for a lid. But that was not why they were called box hedges, was it? It was a rather formal garden, with carefully positioned stone monuments. On the stones were runic carvings, and a few faces - more of those Phony-Warnings, Sarah decided, preparing herself for gloomy predictions.
      The hatchway through which they had emerged was itself the top of a large ornamental urn, set upon a marble table. What a ridiculous arrangement, Sarah reflected, as they clambered out of the urn and stepped down to the lawn. Nothing was what it seemed to be. It was like a language in which all the words were the same as your own, but where they meant something quite different from what you were used to. From now on, she would take nothing at its face value. She looked with suspicion at the urn, and then down at the grass. She stepped carefully. It could turn out to be the top of someone's head.
      Hoggle spread his hands. "Here we are then. You're on your own from here."
      "What?"
      "This is as far as I goes."
      "You..."
      "Said I didn't promise nothing." He shrugged, callously.
      "But you..."
      "And you said you didn't need anyone to save you."
      "You little cheat!" Sarah was outraged. "You nasty little cheat!"
      "I'm not a cheat. I said I'd take you as far as I could go. Well, this is it."
      "You're lying. You're a coward and a liar and -- and -"
      He sniffed. "Don't try to embarrass me. I have no pride."
      "Pipsqueak!"
      "Don't say that." Hoggle tightened his fists.
      "Nasty double-crossing little runty cheating no-good pipsqueak!"
      "I said, don't say that!" His eyebrows beetled.
      She leaned toward him, and whispered, "Pipsqueak."
      "Arrgh." Hoggle's body clenched. He bared his teeth, then opened them to scream. With his feet together, he jumped in the air, thumping the ground as he landed. Then he lost his balance, and rolled on the grass, beating his fists in the air, kicking his stumpy legs. His voice alternated between a growl and a scream. "It was you insisted on going on. I said I'd get you out, but oh, no, you're so clever. You knew better, didn't you? Arrgh. Well, now you're on your own, and good luck to you, and good riddance." He closed his eyes, and rolled on the grass again.
      Sarah watched him, her mouth open in amazement. She had never seen anyone so angry, not even Toby.
      Eventually Hoggle subsided, and lay for a while, his eyes still closed, his body twitching occasionally. Sarah wondered if he needed some sort of help. She felt guilty. She had provoked all that with just her one word, which was clearly more hurtful than sticks or stones.
      Hoggle opened his eyes. He did not look at her as he stood up, brushed himself down, and pretended he had enough dignity left to turn away with his head held high. "Hoggle won't be coming back to save you this time," he informed her.
      "Oh, yes, he will," Sarah muttered under her breath. And before he could get away, she darted forward and snatched the chain of brooches and badges from his belt. She had to tug quite hard to get it off, and he staggered forward.
      "Hey!" he protested.
      "Ha-ha!" She held his precious jewelry too high for him to reach.
      He danced around beneath the dangling chain, trying to jump up and grab it. It was no good. "Give that back!" he shrieked.
      "No. You can have it back when I get to the center of the Labyrinth."
      "But you heard Jareth," Hoggle whined. "The center is farther than I can go. No! No!" His whine had risen to a shrill whimper. "Upside down in the Bog of Eternal Stench," he said. His eyes closed, and he shuddered.
      "Now there's the castle," Sarah said, in a deliberately matter-of-fact voice, one a parent might use to a child after its tantrum. Over the hedges, she could see the castle's spires and turrets and towers gleaming in the sunlight, and she pointed to them. "Which way should we try?"
      "I don't know." Hoggle had turned sullen.
      "Liar."
      "Give it back!" Hoggle was trying to leap up and grab the chain again. "Give it back!"
      She ignored him. "Let's try this way," she proposed, and walked smartly through one of the gaps in the hedges, into a hedged alley.
      Hoggle followed her reluctantly, his chin on his chest.
      She led the way down the straight alley, and soon came out into another garden, very like the one they had just left. Indeed, it was so like the first garden that ... it was the same one, she realized. She went to the urn, and lifted the lid, to check. Yes, there was the ladder leading downward. She frowned. "Isn't this the place we just came from?"
      Hoggle was paying no attention to anything but his string of baubles. "You - you..." He leaped, but could get no more than half an inch off the ground. "Give it back!" he bellowed.
      "I'm sure it's the same place." Sarah stared at the hedges and decided to try another gap. "Come on," she told Hoggle, "let's try down here."
      He trotted miserably after her.
      Again the alleyway ran geometrically straight, at a right angle to the hedge bordering the garden, and again, within a few strides, they emerged into a garden so very like...
      Sarah groaned. "Oh, no." They had come out through a gap directly facing the one they had entered.
      "Give me my things." Hoggle was trying on a tone of menace. It was easy to ignore.
      "Come on," Sarah said, undaunted, and tried a different gap.
      The result was the same as before. They were facing the gap they had entered, and Hoggle was watching nothing but his jewelry. Sarah scratched her head. "I don't believe it," she muttered, and looked around the garden. "Which one haven't we tried?"
      Hoggle pointed at a gap.
      "Well, let's try that one, then." She plunged into the gap.
      This time, Hoggle didn't follow her, but waited, arms folded, on the lawn. It was only a moment before she reappeared.
      "Oh," she groaned, "it's impossible."
      "She's so clever, is she?" Hoggle sneered. "Thinks she can do it all. And she's lost before she's even started."
      Sarah turned on him. "There's no point in sounding so smug. If you don't help me, you won't get your stuff back."
      "But..." Hoggle's face fell. "I don't know which way to go," he admitted.
      "Then you'll have to help in some other way, won't you?"
      "Them is my rightful property," Hoggle complained. "It's - it's not fair."
      "No, it isn't," Sarah conceded. She found herself smiling, and it took her a moment to realize why. Then she saw it, like a conundrum that would never fool her again. Nothing was fair. If you expected fairness, you would be forever disappointed. She turned a broad grin upon Hoggle. "That's the way it is."
      At that moment, she spotted a curious robed figure strolling across the lawn, apparently deep in thought. Where had he come from? He was an old man, with a long white mustache and white eyebrows, but the most striking thing about him was his hat, which was topped with the head of a bird, with a sharp beak and eyes that were darting glances everywhere.
      "Excuse me," Sarah called, running across the lawn after the old man. With his slow stride, furrowed brow, bent head, and hands clasped behind his back, he appeared very wise. Surely he could be of more help to her than the runty pipsqueak she had had to rely upon till now. He was sitting gravely down on a garden bench as she approached. "Please," she said, "can you help me?"
      The Wise Man didn't really register Sarah's presence. It was true that he raised his face toward her, but only as one might gaze at a tree, a fly, or a cloud while lost in thought. Rather than her, he seemed to be seeing a far horizon beyond her, so far beyond that few mortals had ever scanned it.
      The depth and range of his thinking was clearly vast, whatever the subject of his thoughts might be. He was probably pondering deeply upon some problem that Sarah had never even imagined. Was it mathematical, she wondered, like the square root of negative two? Or philosophical, like the meaning of meaning, perhaps? But no, those were things she'd at least tried to imagine, when she had read about them. Those great eyes gazing right through her were more likely preoccupied with some question of physics, or biochemistry, or linguistics, or all of that at once and more.
      "Please?" she repeated timidly.
      The bird's head on the Wise Man's hat suddenly spoke. "Go away! Can't you see he's thinking?"
      The Wise Man slowly raised a finger, and rolled his eyes up toward the bird, and spoke. "Sh," he said.
      Sarah closed her mouth apologetically. She stood aside, and waited.
      "And don't stare," the hat reprimanded her. "You'll put him off."
      "I'm sorry."
      The Wise Man's lips opened slowly, and his eyes turned upward again, to address the hat. "Silence," he commanded.
      The hat looked wryly at Sarah. "This is the thanks I get," it said disgustedly.
      "Where was I?" the Wise Man was asking.
      "How should I know?" the hat chirped. "You're the Big Thinker."
      The Wise Man noticed Sarah. "Ah, a young girl."
      Sarah returned a polite little smile.
      The Wise Man's gaze traveled downward, and settled on Hoggle. "And is this your brother?"
      "Oh, no," Sarah answered. "He's just a friend."
      Hoggle had been about to expostulate at being taken for Sarah's brother, but now he stopped, and looked sideways at Sarah. It was the first time anyone had ever called him a friend. He frowned.
      The Wise Man took a long breath. "And what can I do for you?" he asked Sarah.
      "Please," she said, feeling shy and a little confused to be conversing with an ancient sage about what must seem to him so trivial a matter, "can you tell me... we - er, that is, I must get to the castle... But I can't even get out of this garden. Every time I try to leave I find myself right back here again. I can see the castle over there, but... can you tell me, please, how I can get to it?"
      "Ah." The Wise Man nodded slowly, closing his eyes. After a while he said, "So you want to get to the castle."
      "How's that for brain power?" demanded the bright-eyed hat.
      "Quiet," the Wise Man commanded.
      "Nuts," the hat replied.
      Sarah put a hand over her mouth to conceal a giggle.
      The Wise Man composed his hands together on his lap. "So, young woman," he told her, pursing his lips in thought. Nodding, he explained, "The way forward is sometimes the way back."
      His hat pulled a face. "Will you listen to this crap?"
      The Wise Man was glaring upward and clenching his fingers. He cleared his throat. "And sometimes," he continued, gazing earnestly at Sarah again, "the way backward -"
      "Is the way forward," the hat interrupted. "Can you believe it? I ask you."
      "Will you be quiet!" the Wise Man ordered his hat, profoundly. He looked again at Sarah. "Quite often, young lady, it seems we're not getting anywhere, when in fact we are."
      Sarah looked despairingly around the garden. "Well, I'm certainly not getting anywhere at the moment."
      "Join the club," said the hat.
      "Perhaps," the Wise Man said, "perhaps it only seems like that. All... is not always... what..." It appeared that he was drifting off into a reverie, on the nature of good and evil, possibly, or four-dimensional calculus, and he only just made it to the end of his sentence, "...it seems."
      The hat peered down over the Wise Man's forehead, then looked perkily up at Sarah and Hoggle. "I think that's your lot," the hat said. "The sum total of earthly wisdom strewn at your feet for the asking. Please leave a contribution in the box."
      Sarah noticed for the first time that the Wise Man had absentmindedly drawn a collection box, with a slot, from the folds of his robe, and now was sitting, quite abstracted in contemplation, with the box on his knee. As she looked at it, he gave it a discreet little shake.
      What was she to do? She hesitated, then had the idea of donating one of the badges from Hoggle's string, which she was still holding.
      He read her mind. "Don't you dare!" Hoggle barked. "Them's mine."
      Sarah paused, and finally slid her mother's costume ring off her finger. Hoggle watched her drop it in the collecting box and looked green. He'd thought he was going to get that too.
      "Thank you so kindly," the hat said, sounding like a fairground barker. "Move along, please."
      As they walked away, across the garden, Hoggle said, "You didn't have to give that away. He didn't tell you nothing."
      "Well," Sarah said reflectively, "he said something about the way forward being sometimes the way backward. We haven't gotten anywhere so far trying to go out forward, so why don't we try walking out backward? It might work."
      Hoggle's expression was skeptical, but he humored her by doing as she suggested. They walked backward through the gap in the hedge from which Sarah had last emerged, and the garden remained in peaceful silence, decorated with birdsong.
      The hat was watching where they had gone. When they did not return, it chirped, "Well, what do you know! They took your advice."
      "Zzzzzz," the Wise Man said, having dozed off after so much mental travail.
      His hat cocked an eye down at him. "It's so stimulating being your hat."
      "Zzzzzz," the Wise Man concurred.