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Around the Bones, Tender Leaves Unfurl



Around the Bones, Tender Leaves Unfurl
by Wendy Hammer

Nate first saw the tea set on their anniversary.

He’d hoped to surprise Gemma with her favorites: white roses, champagne, and a box of lemon-verbena macarons from that snooty French bakery she loved so much. He made it into the apartment unseen, and bustled straight into the kitchen to fetch the appropriate tableware. He’d learned the hard way Gemma wasn’t charmed by kitschy plastic wine glasses or takeout containers. His girl had a keen sense of occasion.

She was also a fastidious housekeeper, so he stopped in surprise at finding dishes on the counter. It was something she'd chastised him for more than once. Each time he slipped up, she would make him repeat her mantra: “Everything has a purpose and a place.” It wasn’t like her to stray from those words, not even a little.

But there it was.

A small tea set, arranged in neat rows, rested on a dishtowel lined up perfectly parallel to the sink. Each piece was saffron yellow with rings of red poppies, bright as freshly drawn blood. It was an oddly sophisticated choice for a child, but it fit Gemma’s style, despite the fact that she had no use for toys, and openly scoffed at adults who did.

He picked up one of the tiny teacups and turned it around in his hands. For all its apparent delicacy, the cup felt strong, like real china.

He put the cup down and went in search of her.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Even muffled beneath the sweater she’d pulled over her head, the cold certainty in her voice was clear.

He was tempted to press the point, but lost his resolve when he finally saw her face. It was pale and drawn—the dark hollows that had bloomed under her eyes were thrown in sharp relief. How had she wilted so much since the morning? She’d been humming with energy then.

He’d been awakened by a pop of static electricity from her fingertips, and had yelped in protest, but hadn’t minded a bit once those fingers got moving. It was a perfect start to the day. He’d languished in bed for a little while afterward, but she seemed unable to stay still.

By the time he was ready to head to work, Gemma had finished dusting and vacuuming. She’d returned his good-bye kiss, and told him to have a great day, but didn’t pause. Only hours later, Gemma looked barely able to stand. “Please, Nathan,” she said, reaching for him.

He held her and she shivered in his arms. It didn’t take long for Nate to forget about the tea set. She was what mattered.

* * *

Nate stopped reading after he sneezed all over the report. He made sure nobody was looking, and swiped the thick layer of mucus off the front page, hoping it would dry clear. He leaned over and drew his hand along the carpet. Better there than on his pants. Gemma would have a fit.

Nate knew he should go home, but hesitated. He was sure Gemma would be happy to play nurse, but she’d been so damned chipper that morning, it was sure to bug him. She loved telling him that men were babies when they got sick. He could hear her now: "Once a cold hits, you turn twenty-six going on six, Nathan." He hated to prove her right by being cranky.

Nate managed to catch the next sneeze by pinching his nose shut. It was violent enough that he feared he’d blown out his eardrums. That clinched it. He’d suck up whatever teasing was coming to him, especially if it meant he’d get hot soup and sympathy out of the deal. He packed up and made his way home, never thinking to send a message ahead. He’d thought it was just like any other day.

Nate was surprised when he heard Gemma’s laughter coming from the dining room.

“I remember! I thought the whole suit would fall off. I’ve never had the nerve to go waterskiing again,” she said, and laughed some more. It was a light and carefree sound. “I can’t believe you all won’t let me forget it.”

Nate smiled. In the six years they'd been together, he'd never heard that story. He'd have to ask her about it later. Nate hadn’t expected her to have guests. He didn’t want to interrupt, but couldn’t resist the temptation to take a peek at her confidantes. He inched forward.

Gemma sat at the head of the table. She sipped from a little yellow teacup. He recognized it from the day of their anniversary, but the rest of her party was new to him. He’d never seen any of them before. He’d have remembered.

Nate stood there, gaping, unable to speak.

A mohair teddy bear sporting a jaunty Derby hat and monocle sat to Gemma’s right. A magenta rabbit with floppy ears was pulled in close to her left. The final member of the group, a grinning sock monkey, occupied the last chair. Each had a small cup and saucer. He’d stumbled onto a tea party.

Nate sneezed.

Gemma jerked in her chair, and stared at him for a second, before nearly shouting, “No! You’ve not been invited. Get out.” She shooed him backward with a forceful wave of her free hand and added, “Now.”

“What the hell, Gemma?”

She stabbed her finger once at him and again at the living room. “I’ll explain in a moment. Don’t argue. Just go.” Red spots glowed on her cheeks, forehead, and at the hollow of her throat. That only happened when she was really upset.

Nate cooperated, but didn’t like it. He stomped out into the living room and threw himself onto the couch. “Of all the whacked out BS I’ve seen—”

He stopped his muttering when he overheard Gemma say, “I’m sorry that tea-time has been cut short today. I apologize for the rude interruption.” Her voice rose and fell in a formal singsong—tea party patter. She paused. “Definitely. Maybe next week.” After another few seconds of silence she said, “Okay. Good-bye, then. Love you all.”

His anger fled. Something else took root. Its cold tendrils crept up from the pit of his stomach and settled heavy in his chest. Nate tried to halt the flowering panic by focusing on something practical, something he could do. He tried to think of something to help her. He came up blank.

Gemma entered the room.

Nate searched for signs of obvious distress, but she looked...lovely. She was wearing an elegant little pink dress, strappy white high-heeled shoes, and pearls.

She’d been dressed in jeans and a t-shirt when he’d left that morning, back when he’d thought everything was fine.

“I know you must think I’m crazy,” she said. She walked over, sat beside him, and took his hand. “I need you to believe I’m not.” Her grip was firm and steady.

"How can I?" He swallowed his fear. "I mean, what was all that?" He rubbed the pad of his thumb on her skin. "It isn't like you at all."

She slipped her hand free and moved it to his knee. She massaged it as she spoke. "My great-grandmother gave me the tea set when I was little. It was old even then, and expensive. It's real bone china." She looked at him for comprehension, but saw none. "It's like porcelain, but there's bone ash in the mix. That shade of yellow is one of the most difficult to achieve. It's really quite a work of art." She shook her head, dismissing the statement. “Don't worry about it. It’s not important."

Nate shifted in his seat. He wanted to understand, but couldn't figure out why she thought he'd care at all about colors and china.

She read his face and tried again. "She taught me the proper way to throw a tea party. She told me the rules. And the consequences of failure."

"Wait. What? Are you saying she abused you or something?” His brow furrowed. "Honey, did she hurt you?"

"No. Nothing like that." She chewed her lip as the silence between them thickened. "I think the only way to understand is to see for yourself."

She held up a finger to shush him. "Will you wait a week? Will you do that for me? Until then, you can think of this as a fit of nostalgia, a throwback to a childhood game. I mean, I know, I'm not actually the most flexible when it comes to playtime and toys and all that. It must seem so strange—I don’t want you to think I’m a hypocrite."

She tried on a laugh, but it was too tight. "Can you wait?"

Nate wanted to say no, but at that moment she seemed both rational and controlled. He’d probably overreacted. It was probably just the cold that made him feel so slow. He'd blame the chill that passed over him on it too. He said, "Sure, baby. I love you."

He sneezed again.

When Gemma began to fuss over him, he relaxed into it, gratefully. A final twinge of uneasiness tickled the back of his throat, but he suppressed it.

* * *

The invitation appeared on the mantelpiece six days later. It was printed on one of those fancy little cards, the kind that comes in shades of white: ivory, eggshell, beige, and bone. It was addressed to Mister Nathan Rivers in calligraphic script.

Teatime would be the next day at three. Dress was semi-formal.

Nate closed the card, slipped it back into its envelope, and tried to ignore the crawling sensation at the base of his neck.

* * *

Nate sat across from Gemma, between the bear and monkey. He’d never felt so ridiculous. He resisted the urge to pull at his collar, and hoped he wouldn’t sweat through his shirt.

Gemma looked cool, beautiful, and as unperturbed as the other guests.

“I’m so glad you could make it today, Nathan. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” she said. The singsong was back. It must be her tea party voice.

Her smile was wide and sweet. She waited.

Nate swallowed hard and tried to play along, tried to fall into the rhythms of polite play. “I appreciate the invitation. I’m sure the experience will be . . . something special.”

Gemma bowed her head slightly, opened the lid of the teapot, and began to mime the brewing process.

Nate found himself oddly soothed by her motions. He began to feel relaxed, almost sleepy. He’d drifted far enough away that he was startled when she asked, “How do you like your tea, Nathan? Strong or weak?”

He had no idea, but said, “Strong.”

Gemma tipped the teapot over one of the cups, and pretended to pour for a second or two. “With milk, sugar, or lemon?”

Nate was curious to see how far she would take this, and answered, “Milk and sugar, please.” He plastered on a smile as she went through the motions, dipping into the tiny sugar bowl with a wee set of tongs and pouring invisible milk from the little pitcher.

She placed a small spoon on the saucer beside the cup and handed it all over to him, saying, “Careful, now, it’s hot. Don’t spill.”

Nate’s fake smile died on his face when he realized she was right. He could feel heat. Nate almost dropped the cup, but managed to maintain his grip.

Gemma hummed as she served the others. Apparently, she knew their preferences well enough not to have to ask them anything.

Nate strangled a giggle.

In another minute, Gemma had completed service. She took her spoon and moved it in gentle arcs in the center of her cup.

Nate copied her. He swore he could smell tea and citrus.

She picked up her cup, blew on it ever so softly, and took a sip.

Nate followed her lead. Instead of air, he tasted strong black tea made mellow and sweet by sugar and milk. The flavor was chased by a whisper of orange. He knew it couldn’t be. He knew that the pot had been empty, knew nothing had gone in his cup. His senses believed otherwise.

Nate asked, “Is this actually Earl Grey?”

Gemma beamed. “Yes. I thought it would go well with the sandwiches.” She gestured to a serving dish and to his plate. “Do help yourself, please.”

Nate’s hand trembled as he reached forward. The plate seemed empty, but when he closed his fingers, he could feel that he held a thin sandwich with the crusts cut off. He brought it to his mouth. He bit and chewed and swallowed, tasting smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumbers. He took another sip of tea.

She was right. It was a fine accompaniment.

He cleared his throat. “Gemma? What’s going on?”

“You’re at a tea party, silly.” She laughed before sobering. “I’m sorry. I’ve been so excited that I’ve been a poor hostess, neglecting you and our other guests. They’ve been so anxious to meet you, too.”

Nate shivered.

Gemma gestured to the rabbit first. “Nathan, I’d like to introduce you to my mother, Harriet Rowan.”

Nate’s eyes widened, and he felt his skin grow colder. He’d been wrong to wait. This was worse than he’d imagined. He needed to get to a phone. He started to rise.

Then the rabbit spoke and Nate dropped back into his chair.

“I’m so happy to finally meet you, Nathan. My Gemma speaks of you very fondly.” The voice was much like Gemma’s, but with the slight rasp of age. It throbbed, loud and low, deep in the center of his head.

He choked out, “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Rowan.”

Gemma motioned to the bear. “This is my grandmother, Mary-Margaret Yarrow.” She touched the bear’s shoulder. “It was really father’s turn, but she insisted on being here.”

The bear chuckled and said, “It’s better this way. Trust me. Your father still isn’t used to the idea of your being of courting age, much less being married. It’s best to ease him into it.”

The bear never moved, but Nate got the impression that it had turned its attention to him. He was proven correct when it said, when she said, “You treating her right, young man?”

His heart hammered in his chest, but he replied, “I do my best, ma’am.”

Had Gemma hypnotized him?

Gemma looked at him. “You’re doing great, Nathan. Stay with us. I’ll let our last guest introduce himself, if you don’t mind.” She gestured to the sock monkey.

“Long-time no-see, huh, Tiger?”

The voice of his father twanged in Nate’s mind; it dug in deep. He hadn’t heard that voice for fifteen years. Nate’s breath seized in his throat, and without thinking he reached out for the teacup, and gulped down more tea.

“It’s a real kick to the head, ain’t it?” His father laughed.

If he’d been asked, Nate would have said he’d be willing to give anything to hear that sound again. Now that he had, he never wanted to let it go. Tears leaked from his eyes, and something in his chest clenched and flexed, like it was too big to be contained by his flesh. He felt frozen and stunned, but couldn’t stop either the crying or the smiling.

“Would either of you like a cranberry-walnut scone? I understand that’s your favorite, Mr. Rivers,” Gemma looked up from under slightly lowered lashes.

The sock monkey replied. “Call me Bill, if you please, Miss Gemma.”

A light blush colored her cheeks. Pink posies, his dad had always called them. Nate had always thought his father would’ve been charmed by her.

He hadn’t been wrong. His dad flirted outrageously with all the ladies throughout the afternoon. He paid special attention to Gemma, treating her with all the warm care Nate had dreamed of.

It was a splendid tea. They basked in the warmth of companionship and family. Nate threw himself into the experience and had a hard time tearing himself away.

“All good things must come to an end. Don’t worry. There’ll be other parties,” Gemma said.

She refused any help in cleaning up. Instead, she ordered him to rest.

Nate didn’t argue. He’d never been so tired. He felt weak and his muscles trembled with strain. He could barely stand.

* * *

It was the silence that was hardest to bear.

The problem wasn’t between Nate and Gemma. If anything, their relationship felt stronger after the tea party. She couldn’t explain exactly how she did it, and didn’t really know where their loved ones came from or returned to. All she knew was that it worked, and that she was ecstatic to share it with him at last.

He loved the sharing too, but once his father’s voice had filled him again, Nate couldn’t shake the feeling of emptiness left behind. He’d tried to talk to Gemma about it, but she put him off, telling him that it got better over time. She told him to be patient. To wait.

He’d managed to comply for weeks, and had continued to respect her wishes for one whole day after she’d left for her annual retreat.

He figured he’d start small, with just the sock monkey. A little one-on-one time would do the trick, and could tide him over until Gemma decided to have another party. He knew his father would never rat him out. Nate warmed to the idea. The two of them had never really had the chance to hold a secret together, man to man.

He tried his best to replicate Gemma’s movements. He imagined a solid English Breakfast tea, roast beef sandwiches, and jelly doughnuts. He scooped and poured and swirled and waited. He peered inside the vessel—imagined he could see dry leaves unfurl and drift within the bone pot. Gradually, languid currents of pigment infused the apparent emptiness until all Nate could see was a uniform golden brown.

He felt relaxed, open, and unfocused.

He turned to the monkey, “How do you like your tea, Dad? Strong or weak?” He stood and hoped for an answer.

“Make it strong. Extra sugar. No milk.”

Nate was so excited, he’d filled the cup before realizing the voice wasn’t his father’s.

* * *

The sock monkey had told him terrible things. Things Nate couldn’t shake. They’d haunted him as he washed the tea set. As he set the pieces down on the towel to dry, all he could think about was the sock monkey’s gardens.

“They say that poison’s a woman’s weapon, boy, but that’s just because women usually take the easy route. They don’t know finesse,” the sock monkey had said. It had sung the praises of the Mala Mujer’s caustic milksap, the delights of the Angel Trumpet’s zombie-like spell, the asphyxia brought on by Monkshood. It spoke of long hours of slow torture, and the raptures of a quick, violent end.

It talked for hours.

Nate had listened, staring at the monkey’s unmoving red lips, its beady black eyes, and its outstretched arms. He hadn't been able to muster up the will to resist. He drank up the words. He learned.

Nate tried to forget, but couldn’t. Even after the tea set had been dried and put away, he knew he had to find out more. He clung to the hope that it wasn’t real. Maybe it was all a sick joke, a lie, or even a bad dream. Nate pulled out his laptop and got to work.

Jasper Jason Saunders had been a beloved fixture in his small Southern town. He’d been a deacon of his church, a biology teacher for forty years, a coach, and avid gardener. Almost everyone in his town had called him Pops, until the bodies were discovered. Then he’d become “The Gardener,” “The Owlersburg Killer,” or just “That Awful Old Man”.

Nate’s research told him that he’d been convicted of killing twelve people, but had been suspected of more. Saunders had gone to his grave refusing to disclose the location of his third trophy garden.

Nate wished the monster hadn’t decided to become talkative now, wished he could turn away, but held another party the next day.

Pops had insisted.

* * *

Nate went to the park after the fourth party. By that time they were like old friends. Nate couldn’t clearly remember why he’d been uneasy before.

Pops had given him clear directions, so he knew exactly what to do. He’d even had the pleasure of surprising the old man with a description of what a GPS was capable of. Pops had been fascinated by the idea of Geo-caching, and had encouraged Nate to take up the hobby—after his errand was complete, of course.

Nate thought that was a fine idea.

He kept the secret from Gemma. Pops had thought it was for the best. Gemma would only worry, he’d said, and Nate had to agree.

She’d asked him a couple of times if he was okay, if she should cut her trip short, but he’d reassured her. He’d even secured her blessing by seeding some truth into the story. He told her about his plans for a day hike. She’d asked him to take pictures. “Will do,” he’d said.

Nate found the correct trail easily enough, and was pleased to discover that even when he left it, his footsteps were sure. It was hard going at times, and he was exhausted, but when he finally arrived at the garden, it was worth it. He could see why Pops would’ve taken the trouble to haul his fertilizer out there, and he understood why he’d had to abandon it once age had weakened him. It was a shame, really.

A huge patch of Trout Lily flowers blanketed the forest floor. Their bright yellow heads nodded from long stems. The leaves gave them their name because they were dappled like the skin of river trout. They were beautiful. Nate hated to disturb them.

He picked an area and started to dig, working until he found one or two treasures. It was all he needed. Nate pulled out a couple of delicate finger bones from the earth. Pops had been right. He plucked a few mottled leaves and tenderly wrapped the bones before slipping them into his pack.

He couldn’t wait to share the good news.

* * *

“Wake up, Grumpy.” Gemma prodded him.

Nate grumbled, but complied, and worked hard not to glare at her. She meant well, but ever since she’d returned from her retreat, he’d found himself on edge. He didn’t want to think about why.

“Don’t you remember what today is?” She tickled him.

Nate shook away the morning fog, glanced at the envelope on his nightstand, and smiled. He thought of the finger bones. He’d taken to carrying them around, still wrapped in leaves. He remembered. “We’re having a tea party today.”

He reached for her and they started the day off right.

* * *

Things went wrong the moment she began to brew the tea. Gemma’s graceful and sure movements suddenly became jerky and strained. Her eyes widened, and when she spoke, her words were dense with fear. “Nathan? Did you have a party without me?”

Nate didn’t answer, but his flushed face told the truth.

Her intake of breath was sharp. “Did you follow the rules?”

“Rules?”

“Yes! Did you send out the invitations? Did you have a full table? Did you pick your menu? Did you wait to recharge? Did you maintain control?” Her voice rose in pitch. “Did you? It’s important.”

The bear and rabbit moaned, but the sock monkey only grinned.

Nate shook his head with difficulty. His body felt leaden. He’d apparently done something wrong, but couldn’t seem to care. The finger bones were tucked in his pocket. They pressed against his thigh with reassuring pressure.

Gemma’s arms twitched, but kept working. Tears streaked her face.

As the tea steeped, a scent like carrots filled the room, and hung heavy in the air.

Gemma grabbed each cup in turn and poured the tea. Her muscles strained against the motion, bunching and twitching, but it did no good. Soon everyone had a full cup.

Gemma took her seat at the table. She looked at Nate, but did not speak. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to. Maybe she was beyond words.

Pops spoke. “Drink up, Gemma. Drink it all up.”

“Don’t do it, sweetheart!” the bear roared.

“Fight him! He wasn’t invited. Make him go. Nathan, help her,” the rabbit pleaded.

Nate couldn’t move.

Gemma obeyed and drank.

Pops lectured them. “Cicuta, water hemlock, cowbane, or poison parsnip is one of the most toxic plants in North America. If ingested, it over-stimulates the nervous system, causing cardiac and respiratory distress, hallucinations, and generalized seizures.”

Nate watched as Gemma’s pupils dilated. She wheezed and shook. The spasms grew more and more violent until she fell out of her chair and hit the floor.

Nate tried to fight.

“Help her!” the others cried.

He held on to how much he loved her. He thought of her laugh, her neatness, her regard for rules and politeness. Nate struggled.

“It won’t matter now, son. Death is almost certain,” Pops said.

Nate strained and pulled. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the bundle of leaves and bones. He let them drop and felt some of his strength return.

Nate finally pushed himself out of the chair. It felt like swimming in a strong current wearing heavy clothing. He lurched forward, reached out, and grabbed the sock monkey. It seemed to weigh ten times what it should. Desperation gave him strength and Nate yanked as hard as he could. He barely managed to rip off one of its arms. But the tear was enough.

The monkey wailed. “Don’t do it, boy! Think of the fun we’ll have.”

Nate kept ripping. The dining room filled with fluff and the voices all went silent.

He ran to Gemma and gathered her in his arms. She was limp—empty as the rest of the party. He was too late.

* * *

Gemma’s death had been attributed to natural causes. No trace of poison had been found. “Sometimes these things just happen,” they’d said. “It’s a mystery,” they’d said. Nate didn’t even try to correct them.

Everyone remarked about how brave he was—were gracious and consoling. He had enough casseroles in the freezer to last him six months. Nate had no appetite. He knew the truth, and hated himself for it.

She’d looked so beautiful at the funeral—peaceful, like she was napping and could get up at any moment. The room was lush with greenery and white roses. Her favorites. When Nate had taken his last moment with her, their scent had nearly overwhelmed him. When he kissed her cold lips, he swore he could taste flowers and a hint of tea.

Just before he stepped away, Nate slipped the bones into the casket with her. It was the closest thing to a peaceful rest he could give. He thought Gemma could guard and comfort them. She’d always been generous.

Nate’s days and nights were gray and numb. He couldn’t sleep, and knew only one thing would help him. Only one thing could give him hope again, if he only dared to try.

Nate wrote out the invitations a month later, carefully addressing each before placing them on the mantel.

It was hard to wait, but he made himself do it. It would be impolite to expect guests to attend on very short notice. There were protocols.

Nate was patient. Disciplined.

Finally the day came. He worked on setting the table. The bone china felt strong and cool in his hands.

Nate took his seat at the head of the table. The rabbit and bear were to his left. A new doll with honey-colored hair and deep brown eyes sat on his right. She wore a pink dress and pearls. She was beautiful.

“Today, we’ll be having Earl Grey, watercress sandwiches, and some lovely lemon-verbena macarons,” Nate said. He began to brew the tea. He hoped.

“Would you like it strong or weak?”

* * *


Wendy Hammer  has stories in Urban Fantasy Magazine, The Shapeshifter Chronicles, Suspended in Dusk, and elsewhere online. The first two novellas in the Cross Cutting trilogy (The Thin and The Hollow) are out and the third (The Marrow) is coming soon. She teaches literature at a community college in Indiana and favors mint tea. She can be found at wendyhammer.com, on Facebook,  or on Twitter @Wendyhammer13.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Most of my story ideas come from trying to find connections between things. When something—an image, a phrase, a character, an odd fact or premise—captures my fancy I play around until I can find something interesting to match it to. Sometimes the links come through a shared core concept. Sometimes it’s more like free association. As long as it can go somewhere weird and wonderful, I’m game.

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