She had a rodent on her shoulder. I couldn’t be sure if it was a rat or a ferret, as only its head poked out from under her collar. I supposed there were ways of telling the difference between the two from the shapes of their skulls or whatever, but my knowledge of rodent anatomy didn’t extend that far.

She stank, too, that rich and loamy stink of rotting leaves and moss, like the dirt-covered underside of a stone. No, not a stone: a boulder, one that a forest giant, while looking for rabbit warrens, had turned over. It wouldn’t have been fair to call her a hippie. She was some kind of survivalist, a spirit of the wood, maybe a dryad. She’d woven a crown of thorns into her dreadlocks just in case there was any doubt about how much she was suffering.

Despite her wild demeanor, she still conducted herself with politeness, and didn’t sit at the table like a scared animal. I’d half-expected our luncheon to turn into a missing scene from Tarzan or the Iceman, but she held herself with regal uprightness, and had ordered in one of the clearest voices I’d ever heard.

“This is a lovely place you’ve chosen,” she said, and the rodent stared at me.

“Thank you,” I said. “My wife and I used to come here all the time.”

“What happened?” She didn’t miss a beat.

“She left me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s been almost five years. I’ve moved on,” I lied. Her eyes were saucers full of curiosity.

“I’m sure you believe that,” she said. “Given enough time, it will come true. Ah,” she looked up, and the waitress was there with our drinks. “The tea.”

The waitress put on a solid mask of professional disinterest, but I could tell that the aroma of my companion bothered her. I noticed that she hadn’t seated anyone around us, and I wondered what she’d do if the place got busy enough to foil her strategy. She placed the teacups and accompanying pot on the table, keeping a wary eye on the little furry head that was now giving her its full attention.

“Will that be everything?” she asked.

“We’re fine for now,” my guest replied, patting the waitress’s apron with dirty fingertips that left clear prints dripping crumbs of brown earth. The waitress’s smile was so tight I thought it would split her face in two. She nodded and turned on her heel, no doubt calculating how much of a tip she’d need to make the experience worthwhile. “Now then,” the dryad said, taking a quick sip of her tea, “shall we discuss your initiation?”

2015.03.10 – 2023.10.03

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