Tea Party

by Katherine Perry

Tea Party

Natalie T. McGarvey

Henry surveyed the meal spread out on the cloth-covered rock. He couldn’t put a name to anything, and many things he couldn’t say whether they were food, utensil, or ornament. A pile of twigs here, a clot of graying dough there; it looked like someone had neglected to clean up the craft table at a woodsy summer camp.

Or maybe it looked like exactly what it was, he corrected himself: a 5-year-old’s tea party. He did not make a habit of going to them. He was almost a teenager, with almost-teenager friends, and an iPhone, and a couple of worn, hooded sweatshirts. Normal things. His life was so predictable that it gave him a bored stomachache just to think about it. At least this he could not predict.

He gave a small, resigned sigh as Dodo set two jars in front of him. One was a half-full jar of pimento-stuffed green olives, the other had formerly held pickles, but now was full of wet-looking gummy bears. The label had been papered over with a new one reading “OR dwarves”.

Dodo stood behind the jars and eyed him seriously, head cocked. She said he should pick one of the jars, that they were “things to eat to start eating.” Henry retrieved an olive and started to reach absently for the second jar, but Dodo pointed with exasperation at the label, “OR dwarves.” It took Henry several moments. Hors d’oeuvres. Dodo ate a bear, and her whole face retracted to a single point. She had pickled them, with lemon juice, and she thought they were the better choice. She handed him an acorn.

“Morning dew?” Henry asked.

Dodo frowned. “Sap tea, and it’s getting cold.”

Henry met Dodo over a dozen Sundays. His younger brother, Benji, delivered the Sunday papers, like he had. When Benji was sick or hiding, Henry would take over. Sometimes grudgingly, hating the early morning. He would silently strap his canvas bag across his chest, like a bandolier, and wheel out, gritting his teeth against resentment.

But the morning he met Dodo, like many mornings recently, he found himself happy to go. He had the thought that he would like to see the places where he had felt decidedly un-bored so many years ago. The world was a dangerous place, then, and there had been many lonely battles during ice-purple sunrises.

On this Sunday, in the near-frost, and the too quiet, he felt an almost forgotten, empty fear spread over his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut hard and pulsed his hands on the handlebar grips. He called up victories: here, at the North Harbor Country Club, he had circled, herded, and shot just under a dozen proto-zombies with three flaming arrows. Here, a line of faceless orcs had stepped from the Hapland Memorial Town Forest in unison. He had, without hesitation, pulled a flaming scythe from his bag, and mowed their faceless heads from their bodies in a smooth line.

He was trying to remember if there had been something along this route with a flaming sword when he rode up to the Farragut house. The many-gabled Farragut farmhouse had a wide yard, dotted with crabapple trees, almost an orchard. It was at least a quarter-mile long, from road to house, and had no particular driveway to speak of. The hint of a sedan trunk peeked from around the back of house, and Henry thought it must take a different winding route through the gnarled trees each time, since no visible path was worn. He slalomed his way through trees and towards the front door. As he gave the paper a gentle toss, he saw a quick movement out of the corner of his eye, like the flicking of a snake’s tongue. He turned to see a tiny hand retracting, plump fingers clutching the paper, through a dog door. He watched the plastic flap swishing, pedaled a slow, dazed circle and rode away.

For many Sundays all he saw was her arm, but he always saw it. Then, one Sunday, before he had grabbed the paper from the bag, a tiny, fat, black dog shot out the door instead. Two footballs worth of muscle and wrinkles, it ignored Henry entirely, galloping past him into the thick of maples beyond the yard.

A series of rapid, thin shrieks followed it: Bisquick! Bisquick! Bisquick! Then, through the dog door, a brown ponytail emerged, followed by the serious, furrowed brow of a little girl. She glanced at Henry and the crevices in her forehead deepened. She began to worm her way through the door, snorting, sighing, and muttering as she emerged. Standing, she swayed a little, not off-balance, Henry would come to learn, but just her natural stance; when she walked she looked like she was always testing unsteady ground.

In a red knit sweater that came to her knees, clearly sized for an adult, she looked like a red bowling pin perpetually on the edge of tipping over. Henry quickly offered to bike after her lost dog, but Dodo declined: “She’s not lost. Just that she likes me to yell for her.” And she started to shriek the dog’s name again.

Henry biked away. Over other Sundays, he learned that Bisquick often sprinted off in response to approaching cars, animals, and newspaper boys. That Dodo had named herself when, as a very little girl, she couldn’t say her given name, Joanne. That on Sundays her mother got up early and went to the bogs to birdwatch, while her dad made popovers. Then he and Dodo often found a sunny spot to doze in, which was where he usually was when Bisquick made her quick exits.

Finally, one Sunday, Dodo wriggled out as Henry rode up, and quite solemnly handed him a large red maple leaf, yellowing and rusting around the edges, with the words “To Tea” written neatly, almost certainly not by Dodo, in black marker. When Henry mentioned the invitation to Benji, he simply said: “Don’t go hungry.”

Henry was still standing, holding the warm acorn. He felt the slap of rough slime on his ankle, as Bisquick licked him perfunctorily in passing. Dodo gestured to a rock across the table, tapping her finger through the air like a wand: his seat.

Tea then began in earnest. The liquid itself was piney, but not terrible, and not so bitter, Henry thought, that it was likely to be very poisonous. Dodo refilled it from a thermos while they talked about things that might or might not live under Dodo’s porch and what traps might catch them. Henry picked at pinecones slathered in peanut butter and covered in sunflower seeds, while Bisquick looked woefully on.

Dodo told Henry about a missing bird’s nest, a new tennis racket, Bisquick’s fall sweaters. The greying blobs—Henry could see now that they were also ragged, and strangely feathered –were scones. Maple-leaf helicopters in oatmeal, slow-baked, Dodo explained, by the sun. Excellent with horse chestnut butter.

Henry threw a bowl of yew berry jam (very likely poisonous) into the woods, while Dodo fed Bisquick from a bowl of raspberries. Henry’s bemused indulgence started to burn off with the late morning, and something like agitation followed it. Anxiety hedged at the cozy enclave. An ache in his throat made him think of his dirty room, his loud house, his too short days, crowded hallways, his angry friends. Here, it all seemed too quiet, pastel, washed out, remote from order and warmth and industry. I’m too old for this, he thought. Dodo seemed to him now a bit like a stray cat: aimless, solitary, and wild.

He pleaded breakfast with his parents and stood to leave. Dodo seemed unfazed. She stuffed Bisquick back through the dog door, backing herself in afterwards, her dimpled hands and tiny brown ponytail the last to retreat.