“Chicken Tea” by Melinda Smith

I’m sipping chicken tea from the mug with a chip in it. This bothers me but I put on my smile because it is impolite to frown as guests arrive. Clive, Judith, and Owen sit in one corner. Judith is making small talk about the new exhibit at the Broad museum. Something about lights and pain. Seems interesting and I nod politely as I pour more chicken tea. Rich stock that smells of steeped sinew and bones sure makes a chilly day shine.

“Darling, I could use a refresher,” Beatrice coos from the other side of the room. Of course she is chitting and chatting with Deborah and Flora. They’ve worn their best hats and a small piece of my stomach roils with resentment that I have not yet gotten mine back from the specialty cleaners. I must attend to that before the next gathering.

“Of course, moonbeam,” I say as I pour the thick broth into her cup. I let her have the purple one with the daisies. It’s perfect for Beatrice because she likes to wear both purples and florals, though neither today. Today her fuzzy skin is bare. But she’s still cute as a button and I tell her so.

The silver tray clinks as the tea cups move with each of my steps. I notice my distorted face in the tray. My lipstick has been smeared around my lips and now I’m mad. Don’t let it show don’t let it show don’t let it show. Not now godammnit. My final guest is coming.

A knock at the door and I almost drop my tray. It’s you! At least I think it is. I met you yesterday at the library. You made eyes at me and I invited you for tea. You will be surprised that it’s chicken tea. I hope it’s a good surprise. I also hope you don’t mind the others. They’ll be quiet, I promise.

I fix my lips and pinch color into my cheeks. Angry vessels break and now my skin is an ugly mix of white and purple. Goddammit. Smile Smile. I open the door.

“H- hello,” I say, a little nervous. The others turn to see who I’ve let in.

“Hi,” you say, a bouquet of daisies in your hand. What are the chances? I’ve just given the daisy cup to Beatrice. This is so funny. I will tell you all about it once I hang your coat. You look around the room and your face falls.

“Are you ok?” I ask. Dammit, you look concerned. I want this to go smoothly. I know it’s because I’m not wearing my good tea hat. I know it. “It’s awfully chilly out there. Why don’t you come in?”

You step through the door and I lock it tight. I slip the key into my apron. At least I remembered to press it this morning. Did I unplug the iron? Wouldn’t that be a disaster, I think to myself and I laugh heartily. You look at me and wonder why I’ve laughed. I explain that is nothing to worry your pretty little head about.

“I see you have some dolls…?” you say. They are not dolls. What the hell must you think of me?

“They are stuffed animals. They are not dolls. They are having the chicken tea. Is that a problem?” I fear my tone is a little high and charged. Not polite for a hostess. But my entrails are burning with anger at your error.

“Liver. Liver. Liver,” they begin to chant.

“Not now, goddammit,” I seethe.

“Not what now?” you ask. Your face is white. The white face reminds me and I laugh at my white and purple reflection from the platter earlier. Your eyes grow wide. I do hope I haven’t alarmed you. Once you get to know me, you’ll understand that I just replay scenes in my head and laugh a little. It’s honestly nothing to ruffle your feathers about. Mother used to say it’s one of my silly little quirks. Then she gave me my chicken tea and I would go to sleep for hours, like a good good little girl. I do look back fondly on those tea parties. Same stuffed animals, would you believe? They live forever and that’s why they’re magic.

I assure you it’s all nothing, and show you a place to sit. The chair is a bit small, and it groans at your large frame. How absolutely dreadful. You don’t fit and I am so very sorry. Goddammit. Why did I not think to get the big chair out for you? I take my notepad out of my apron and jot down one hard slap on account of the chair to remind me of my punishment for later. There, now I can let it out of my mind for now.

“Liver. Liver. Liver,” they continue. They are so rude. Now I am starting to get very angry. You sense it and back away from me. My embarrassment swims through and I scramble to the kettle.

“Uh would you,” I say, my voice stuttering and shaking, “would you like some fresh chicken tea?”

You ask what that is and I explain that it is bone broth in a mug and that it’s delightful and that it may not be what you had in mind but it is lovely and warming. You sigh and agree to try. Now I am all happy again and I know it will all be right. Beatrice and the others have gone back to their tea and I am so very relieved.

I put out a cheese plate and you sit. Some color has come back to your cheeks and it pleases me. Nothing like cold skin on my fingertips. Not that I should be so presumptuous. I don’t know what your intentions are. Parts of me burn under my Sunday dress and I yell at them under my breath. Not now, just like I keep the animals at bay, so too must I keep parts of me in check. But I am hungry.

Ever so hungry.

I look into your eyes and I lick my lips. I can’t tell if you are smiling out of fear or pleasure. The best kind of uncertainty to have. I watch, nearly aroused in my hunger as you put my best china mug to your lips and drink.

I look at you expectantly. I am hoping you’ll love the flavor as much as I do. You smile and sigh. It has indeed warmed you and I am so very happy. You take another few sips as I share some tales of Owen and Judith and their encounter with a real live unicorn.

The pupils in your eyes grow wide and you sit and listen. You are such a good boy. Mother would have been proud of you had you grown up in our house. Your lids droop on account of the chicken tea. The friends have noticed and they lick their furry lips. Beatrice cranes her long giraffe neck over and tries to nibble on you a little. Half-conscious you bat her away. Don’t you touch her that way, goddammit.

“Liver. Liver. Liver,” they all chant.

I giggle. “Oh, all right. My goodness,” I say. “I suppose it’s time.”

The knife from the cheese plate hasn’t even been used yet. I won’t even have to wipe its cold edges on my tea towel before I use it and that gives me endless pleasure.

Melinda Smith, Author.

Melinda is a scientist with the heart of a writer. After being immersed in academia studying the neural circuits that make us, she retains a love for creativity, for questioning the reality that our minds create. Are we real? How do we know? What signals from the outside world make it into our minds and how do our minds infuse these inputs into a narrative? How can we understand the motives of others, especially those who are evil or not of this world? You know, little things like that. Melinda lives in sunny California with her husband and two little girls.