Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Tea Time

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Begin at the beginning:

His many hats. Felt derbies in charcoal and camel and black. Sporting caps and straw boaters. Gibuses covered in corded silk for nights at the theatre. Domed bowlers with dashingly narrow brims. The ratty purple silk top hat, banded with russet brocade, that he keeps by his bedside.

The march hare, each foreleg as strong as an ox’s, bucking and hopping and twitching his whiskers. Here, there, somewhere else, leading his hatter a merry dance between tables. Rogering by the mahogany slipper chair. Knocking by the marble bust of the Queen of Hearts. Upending rose-patterned porcelain so that it smashes on the grass, white and pink fragments scattering like brittle leaves.

Fur, soft and lush. Warmth like spring. That prey-quick heartbeat, thump-thump, thump-thump.

As he pushes into that plush passage, the hatter finds himself wondering what kind of hat might be made from the pelt of a hare. He imagines stretching out this glorious fur to be pulled until only the finest hare wool remains. He would brush it with long, liquid strokes of mercury nitrate, that crystalline solution which drove him mad long ago.

A pair they were:

The hatter, twitching and tottering. His muscles no longer obeying his mind.

The hare, biting and buckling. Wild as any animal in spring.

Intemperate, the both of them. Foolish, feral, barmy, off their heads. Imprudent. ’Round the bend. Daft.

Spent.

• • • •

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder where you’re at!

Up above the world you fly,

like a tea tray in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little Hare!

I have caught you in my snare!

Hop on down my bunny trail;

I could use a piece of tail!

Twinkle, twinkle, Hatter dear!

While some men may find you queer,

You are just my kind of chap!

Stick your feather in my cap!

• • • •

The girl in the blue dress has been gone a measureless while. Her brief, uncivil interruption left its mark like a tea stain on the tablecloth. Abrasive as she was, the chit, she was the most interesting thing to happen in a while.

The caucus races are over. The white rabbit has been bustling about. The caterpillar has grown even more insufferable than usual. Of late, a strange pig has been spotted wandering the woods, in search of pepper.

The girl ought to cut her hair. Also, she’s much too large, or much too small, or at any rate, definitely the wrong size. She demonstrates no aptitude for recital or croquet, and she never did show a proper appreciation for tea.

But interesting, briefly, yes. Though insufficiently mad.

• • • •

It is never polite to go out-of doors without a hat. One’s hat should remain on one’s head no matter the extremity. Even if the rest of one’s clothing should happen to be removed by some improbable whim of the weather, such as a particularly dexterous gale with a penchant for buttons, one must be sure to hold one’s hat fixedly on one’s head.

The hatter is a poor man. He has no hats of his own. Those he keeps on his head or in his house are merely inventory, soon to be shuffled away when a purchaser is found.

• • • •

The hatter sits by his hare, the animal’s head lying in his lap so that he may stroke his long, satin ears. The dormouse has gone, seeking less tumultuous environs in which to nap. All is quiet but for the sound of cheshires hunting in the woods, all absent stalking and sudden teeth.

“Thank God for tea!” says the hatter by way of initial venture. “What would the world do without tea? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

The words once belonged to Sydney Smith, but they’re the hatter’s now. He and the hare have taken to speaking entirely in quotations as one of the many diversions that occupy their endless tea time.

The hare seems unmoved by the hatter’s adoring exclamation. He stares morosely into his tea cup. “’Tis pity wine should be so deleterious,” he says sadly, “for tea and coffee leave us much more serious.”

The hatter takes affront. “There is a great deal of fine poetry and sentiment in a chest of tea!”

The hare gives a delicate, prudish sniff. “Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.”

“Tea tempers the spirit,” answers the hatter, “and harmonizes the mind.”

The hare, all conciliatory now, hops to his feet. He takes his lover’s hand in his paw and tugs him toward the tea tables. “If you are cold,” he says with lingering sweetness, “tea will warm you.”

March hares make better lovers than white rabbits. Ask Mary Ann. She’ll tell you the same.

• • • •

Q: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

A: Because they both have quills.

Q: Why is a vain woman like a hatter?

A: Because they both love their hare.

Q: Why is tea time like eternity?

A: One begins with tea and the other ends with it.

• • • •

Let us be clear about this:

When the Queen of Hearts accused the hatter of murdering Time, she was telling the truth.

Did the hatter kill Time? Yes. Is that the reason why the hatter and the hare are forever caught in this interminable tea time hour? It is.

But is a soldier in the wrong when he dispatches an enemy of the empire? Is a father guilty when, in protecting his daughter from highwaymen, he resorts to his rifle?

No. A man should not be excoriated for self-defense.

Time provoked the hatter. No man can question it.

Tell the truth—have you not felt the indignities of Time? The way he rushes when you wish to linger with a lover, but dwells stagnantly on the endless sprawl of an agonizing wait? Have you no gray hairs? No twinges? No creaking joints?

Admit it. Time has provoked you, too.

• • • •

A hatter should never be forced to construct hats at the behest of a deck of cards.

So many hats.

Hats for winning and hats for losing. Hats for playing Old Maid and Old Bachelor and Our Birds and Dr. Bursby. Rain hats for days when shuffling threatens to leave anyone exposed. Debut hats for when the pack is first opened and funeral hats for when everyone has become too wrinkled to go on.

Hats, always red and black, black and red. The hatter tried to give them vibrant yellows and restful blues, verdant greens and shimmering purples. When that failed to appeal, he offered hues only slightly off-true. Why not wear a scarlet bonnet or a crimson coronet with wired vermillion lace? A gray bowler, perhaps? A silver derby?

Certainly not, the cards replied, clutching their hearts and diamonds, brandishing their clubs and spades. We want red and black and nothing more. Black, true black, as black as respectable ladies in mourning. Red, proper red, as red as the first summer roses (and we will not tolerate facetious remarks about roses that bloom in other colors).

We like what we like and we want what we want and if you will not provide it, then we will be forced to take our custom elsewhere, and then how will you earn your tea?

Who would not go mad from monotony as much as mercury? Day after day, an endless scape of red and black, black and red, black, black, red, red, black, red, black, red, black. Pulling, carroting, mixing, carding, weighing, bowling, basoning, planking, blocking, dyeing, stiffing, steaming, lining. Dawn to dusk, only seeing the sun at tea time, that brief six o’clock break for Ceylon and cucumber sandwiches.

• • • •

In nature, even rabbits do not have sex like proverbial rabbits, and so by extension, logic dictates that hares do not have sex like proverbial hares.

The tea party, however, is not nature. The march hare wears a pocket watch and a striped Arlington waistcoat and a cravat. His crimson wool frock coat is double-breasted with a pointed front. He sips Earl Grey from a rounded pot that faces his host, using a moustache cup to spare his fur.

Gentlemen do not importune ladies with unseemly urges, but neither the hatter nor the hare are gentlemen (or, for that matter, ladies). So once their verve is replenished by the restorative properties of Darjeeling, the two mad creatures return to their lustful adventures.

Now, you may find yourself overcome by distaste—or even disbelief—that a tea party, no matter how protracted, could eventually degrade into the kind of scene best left for a bawd house. But have you ever found yourself trapped in a single afternoon for a ceaseless, innumerable progression of what would be hours if Time were alive to account for them?

In truth, such scenes can occur even if Time is only sleepy. Try it for yourself. Host a tea and block the way out. See how long it takes your trapped guests to go to grass.

The normal amusements suffice awhile: small talk, singing, making personal remarks to young girls in blue dresses. But soon enough, if your gathering includes individuals of some sophistication—gentlemen who’ve traveled in foreign lands, ladies who double as cockish wenches, that old scoundrel everyone suspects as being the anonymous author of the blue editorials that turn up occasionally in the post—soon enough, someone will suggest a bit of knock and dock. First the knock. Then the knockers. By the time someone’s about to answer the door, you’ll have to pause to fan the dormouse with a napkin. Whoever knew the drowsy rat was such a prude?

The hatter and hare have always known theirs were restive souls—Move along! One place on! New chair! New tea!—but before they began this seeking of each other’s flesh, they’d never realized that the secret to dispelling their disquiet was exertion. Exorcise with exercise. Move down! One more time! Switch sides! Switch ends!

In and out, up and down, across tables and under them. Sometimes sipping Lapsang Souchong. Sometimes lapping marmalade.

The hatter succumbs to cackling. The hare, overcome by delectable sensations, chews mindlessly through his frock coat, the hatter’s derby, two embroidered tablecloths, and a linen napkin.

Parts previously known only by their anatomical designations earn salty soubriquets. The hatter’s whore pipe blows the grounsils into the roundmouth. The hare’s snip of a plug tail prigs and waps and tups away. Arbor vitae in blind cupid, gaying instrument in the nancy, bawbles on the belly, fist around the lobcock, playing the back gammon until it’s a dog’s ride, hatter and hare both worn to nubs.

• • • •

There is a secret to making tea time last forever.

One must not necessarily murder Time—although if one is possessed of a distressing enough singing voice, this provides a good start to the endeavor. One must simply prevent the moment from ever reaching fruition.

Sit at the table. Fold your napkin. Tip your hat. Select a sandwich. Lay it on your plate. Pour milk. Decant your tea. Lift your cup. Let its brim touch your lower lip. Tip the porcelain until a hint of steam enters your mouth. Close your eyes. Inhale the scent of warmth and Indian leaves. Press your tongue against your lip. Imagine the rush of hot, dark, sweet liquid.

New tea! Change places! Start it all again!

• • • •

“The time has come,” the Hatter said,

“To talk of many things:

Of white—and green—and flow’ring blends—

Of spiced tisane that stings—

And why the mad are hot to trot—

And whether love has strings.”

“But wait a bit,” the Hare replied,

“Before you make a peep;

You’ve had fun chewing my bun,

But now I need some sleep!”

“No hurry,” the Hatter agreed,

“I guess I went too deep.”

But love has strings, the hatter knew,

Though they remain unsaid.

They’re tatters, tears, and arguments,

And cheeks left wet and red.

Perhaps he should have stayed alone

And buttered his own bread.

• • • •

Many lovers have believed their trysts provide sanctuary from Time. Their yesterdays forgotten and their tomorrows unimaginable, they picture themselves frozen in the moment of mutual embrace.

They are wrong.

Even the hatter and the hare, living in their chronological isolation, know that such things only last forever in the technical sense.

Time will eventually resurrect itself, as it always does, slicing the world back into metered moments, ordering the sun across the sky, pushing everything relentlessly onward, forward, skyward.

Outside the moment of tea time, the hatter must return to his hats, the hare leap back to his hutch. Everything will change.

The return of Time will swiftly tear away the remnants of the hatter’s sanity. He thinks of this as he watches his hand, even now shaking so that his teacup rattles in its saucer. When Time is reborn, his hands will flail without volition. Raucous, inappropriate, he will bark and guffaw to keep the cards from guessing how far gone he is. His ears will register sound but not meaning, his tongue numb as he tries to form words. Another beaver pelt laid out, the nitrate of mercury applied to it, and the hatter will tatter. Eventually, mercury will kill him. It is an occupational hazard.

As for the hare, he does not know what to think of Time. Long ago—or at any rate, before they understood that, as Time was dead, he had forsaken them—the hare had pulled the pocket watch from his vest and gazed at it appraisingly. Time had never halted before in his experience, and he was inclined to blame mechanical failure. The tea table was woefully undersupplied with watch-making tools, but it was well stocked with butter, so the hare decided to substitute the latter for the former. He crammed as much butter as he could into the gears, aiming to grease them along. Alas, its only effect was to kill the watch as thoroughly as Time himself. The hare slipped the watch back into his pocket and did not look at it again. Now he wonders if he might, in fact, have made the problem worse. Is Time trapped, unable to force its way through clogged gears to wind himself up again? What is the relationship between Time and timepiece?

At any rate, in retrospect, he is glad to have buttered Time. He does not wish to retreat into the woods, where his Arlington vest will become soiled and his pocket watch will be lost the first time he must bound away from a cheshire’s leap. Even the white rabbit, traveling under the queen’s protection, cannot hold onto his gloves and fan.

Worse than that, the day will end, and soon the week and then the month. He will become an April hare, a May hare, a June hare. Who knows what kind of personality he will have in July? What does an August hare feel? Are September hares kind? It seems a poor risk to regain his sanity at the cost of losing himself. Madness is a comfortable garment, though not so comfortable as his Arlington vest.

• • • •

The hatter is a poor man. He has no resources to squander. Still, by dint of frugality, he has managed to scrounge a few extra swatches of felt from extravagant royal orders.

At night (when there was still Time to lead to night), after the hatter completed his work, he would delve into his meager stash of candle nubs and work for the minutes he could buy with scavenged wax. Velvet for his hare, the only material worthy of his plush pelt. He treated the hat with special care. He spent evenings over perfect stitches. He pricked his fingers to bleeding, and worked his eyes to tears, but scrupulously ensured neither could stain his work. He even cut two perfectly shaped holes in the brim, one for each of the hare’s silken ears.

Not even a hare, he believes, should be without a hat.

• • • •

You may think that it’s fair to conclude that since the hatter loves his hare, it’s clear that the hare loves his hatter.

You are mistaken. It’s not the same thing a bit!

You might as well say that dressing a wound is the same as wounding a dress.

You might as well say that to like whom you tup is the same as to tup whom you like.

You might as well say that the heart knows what it wants so therefore it wants what it knows.

• • • •

In the garden at the outskirts of the tea party, floral prudes gaze with dismay at the sight forced upon them by their regrettably placed beds.

The Daisy blushes red. The Rose curls her lower leaves to block her view. With a gasp, the Tiger Lily wilts into a faint.

When the hatter and hare are done with this round, all exhausted, the hare curls beside his beloved. The hatter sits with a cup of Assam. Light slants between branches, the lazy golden of a summer that can’t decide whether six o’clock is afternoon or evening.

The hare stares restlessly up at the leaves. He has not been biding well; boredom has begun to rumple his fur.

Oh, he fears the return of Time as much as the hatter does; he has much to lose. However, he also feels a longing for what it was like to leap and hide, to smell fresh soil, to discover lettuces in unexpected places. He recalls the terror of a predator’s chase, the thrill of elusion, the joy of new moments unfolding like the scandalized flowers.

“Old Time,” mutters the hare, “his factory is a secret place, his work is noiseless, and his hands are mutes.”

The hatter sits straight in apprehension. His hand withdraws from his partner’s plug tail.

He recognizes this quotation as an expression of dissatisfaction, a rebellion against their idyll. He demands his lover’s meaning. “Speech is the mirror of the soul,” he says. “As a man speaks, so is he.”

The hare recognizes an edge of bitterness in the hatter’s voice. He does not want to argue. He knows the hatter will never admit that while there are benefits to timelessness, there are detriments, too. He holds his tongue and savors the tumbling light.

Acidly, the hatter says, “Silence is the wit of fools.”

The hare ripostes. “Wit without discrimination is a sword in the hand of a fool.”

“Wit is cultured insolence.”

“Don’t put too fine a point on your wit or it may be blunted.”

“A paltry humbug! Those who have the least wit make them best.”

“Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning.”

“Bah!”

The hatter’s hands are quivering now as much from rage as from mercury. The conversation has slipped its rails; it has become something else entirely. And still the hare will not reveal his meaning.

In anger, the hatter discards their prohibition against original speech. “Our wits,” he sneers, “are worn too thin for witty exchanges.”

Lulled by their return to familiar assay and counter, the hare has failed to notice that the hatter is blisteringly mad, and in more than his usual sense. Lazily, he replies, “Many that are wits in jest are fools in earnest.”

The hatter whips to his feet. “Can’t you hear?” he demands. “Is there a whit of use in those enormous ears? No more wit! Not a witty whit more! Our witless twittering is done!”

• • • •

The hatter parted with his heart

When tea time made him gay:

The hare (that tart!), he stole that heart,

And took it quite away!

Oh, hare, my dear, though you appear

Contented with our tryst:

Boredom, I fear, has made you queer,

And you’ve begun to list.

• • • •

You might as well say that to lose what you love is the same as to love what you lose.

You might as well say that we meet then we part is the same as we part then we meet.

You might as well say that I’m undone by love is the same as my love is undone.

• • • •

The tea has gone cold. Crumpets ossify on the platter. The pastries are more stone than scone.

The hatter has gone off to sulk at the far end of the tea table. He’s pulled the tablecloth over his head. He makes a strange lump; the cloth, over his hat, looks as though it’s covering some bizarre mushroom. The tea set is all askew, scattered by the yanking of the tablecloth. The teapot slumps on its side, spout jutting obscenely upward.

The hare lopes over to the flower bed. He nibbles restlessly on the violets until he becomes bored with their tiny screams.

He’s almost drowsing when suddenly his prey senses twitch. He springs to his feet.

Whoosh! Thump. Sharpness. The hare’s heart pounds as teeth close on his nape. He paws the ground, scrambling to get away, but it’s got him fast.

“Murr hurr, ii aa oo?” comes a full-mouthed inquiry.

The hare sprawls on the ground, spat free.

Above him, the queen’s pet cheshire stares down. “Sorry, March,” he says casually, licking a paw. “Didn’t recognize you.”

The hare’s heart beats the rapid tattoo of near escape. He stutters. “Wo—would you like some tea?”

“Kind of you to offer, but no,” Cheshire says. “No time for tea.” His grin beams. “Get it? No Time?”

The hare thinks it best to ignore Cheshire’s attempt at humor; after all, the animal’s teeth remain on gleaming display.

“What would you like then?” asks the hare.

“Diversion,” says Cheshire. “A chat. A nibble.”

Fangs glisten. The hare trembles.

Cheshire curls his tail around his paws. “Have I ever told you what it’s like to walk away from here?” Without waiting for a reply, he continues, “To leave here and go back into Time is like watching the sun rise and sink a thousand times in the blink of an eye.”

Diffidently, Cheshire turns toward the tea table, surveying the scene with the aura of ownership that cats can cultivate when they wish. His ear twitches back toward the hare, signaling that he is still ready to leap.

“Except nothing like that, of course. The sun wouldn’t stir herself on account of what beasties are up to. But inside. It’s like that inside.”

The cat turns back. He licks his chops.

“Not a bad arrangement. Staying here. Drinking tea. Never getting older. Some might envy you.” The feline leers. “But then, some envy the dead.”

The hare shrinks. “The dead?” he asks, wondering if it’s a threat.

But Cheshire does not advance, all claws and teeth. Instead he fades away, leaving his grin behind.

• • • •

A raven is like a writing desk because the notes for which they are noted are not musical notes.

A raven is like a writing desk because Poe wrote on both.

A raven is like a writing desk because they both slope with a flap.

A raven is like a writing desk because there is a “B” in both and an “N” in neither.

• • • •

It is strange to make a decision outside Time.

There is, first of all, the difficulty that it is impossible. A decision must have a cause; in turn, it must spur effects.

How is it possible for Time to die and yet for events to continue occurring in sequence? How may girls in blue dresses come and go? Tea be drunk and yet never run out? Love affairs ripen and spoil? Curiouser still, how can Time be dead in one locale, and yet continue to rule the affairs of those who are not stuck at interminable tea?

If you want rules, look elsewhere. This is Wonderland; we are all mad here.

The hare has made a decision. He stands at the table, beside a cup of tepid oolong, pocket watch in paw. Musingly, he looks between the tea and the watch, the tea and the watch.

The hatter perceives something has changed. It is a sense hatters have.

He pulls the tablecloth off of his head. Porcelain clatters about. The teapot falls and cracks.

The hare glances up at him. The hatter’s face is drawn. The brim of his hat casts a long shadow across his features.

“The primary sign of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place,” the hatter says.

The hare replies, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy.” His tone is layered with both grief and expectation. “But growth is the only evidence of life.”

The hatter’s hands quake upon the table. He cannot control them.

“Friendship often ends in love,” the hatter says, “but love in friendship—never.”

The hare looks back down at the watch. Butter shines on motionless gears. “Love can do much,” he murmurs, “but duty more.”

The hatter gives a sigh like the wind that blows through a vanished cheshire. He stands, his hands still trembling at his sides. “Wait here,” he says.

“Strings of tension—” the hare begins, but the hatter isn’t listening.

He’s walking toward the garden of talkative flowers, beyond which lies the small house he calls his own. The hatter has not entered there since tea began, but now he opens the door and disappears inside.

When he returns, he is all hunched and sad, his jacket pinched around his shoulders. His bowtie droops. He can’t quite look at the hare; he looks away, mouth twitching with unsaid words.

In his hands, he holds a top hat that’s a motley of the Queens’ red and black, according to what he could scrounge. Each piece flawlessly felted, smooth and almost shining. Immaculate stitches circle the bicolored brocade band. Two round holes sit on either side of the brim, cut perfectly for long silken ears.

The hatter offers the hat, but the hare is afraid to take it. It is too beautiful, too clearly an artifact of affection. Besides, the hare’s paws are full, the buttered pocket watch open in his palm.

With another sigh, the hatter sets the hat down carefully on the hare’s head, mindful of his ears. The hat gives a formal, finished flair to the hare’s gentlemanly attire. One could almost imagine him at a garden party, offering his arm to a lady before they go to play croquet. Even a hare should not be without a hat.

The hare’s nose twitches. He can hardly think what to say. He stumbles a thank-you. “Gratitude is the memory of the heart—”

The hatter interrupts. “Look to your conscience then,” he says, folding his arms across his chest. He gives the pocket watch a dubious look. “Do it if you must.”

• • • •

What is Time anyway?

Time is a question. Time is the fire in which we burn. Time is local. Time is limited. Time will not take a beating. Time is lending, borrowing, crashing—and recovering. Time is petty jealousies and perverse grudges. Time is neither here nor there. Time is an unfair dilemma.

Time is a dream . . . a destroying dream. It covers the face of beauty and tumbles walls.

Time is but a phantom dagger that motion lifts to slay itself.

Time is a handful of sand.

• • • •

The hare picks up his cup. His paw trembles as he tips the brim. Dark, sweet liquid rushes into the gears. A swish, a rinse, a tilt. Tea flows out again. Diluted butter runs onto the grass.

• • • •

Time stirs.

You might as well say that timing a run is the same as to run out of time.

A hatter should never be forced to construct hats at the behest of a deck of cards.

Have I ever told you what it’s like to walk away from here?

A raven is like a writing desk because love is like loneliness.

It is never polite to go out of doors without a hat.

The time has come, the tea set said, to talk of many brews.

You might as well say that falling silent is the same as silently falling.

To tell the truth, a raven is not much like a writing desk at all.

What is Time anyway?

• • • •

Twinkle, twinkle. One, two, three:

Swallow then set down your tea.

Wipe your mouth. Return my heart.

Time has come to make us part.

• • • •

Time regains his unrelenting feet.

• • • •

The girl in the blue dress, walking to the queen’s croquet grounds, spending her time in conversation with men and women who fancy themselves cards (in more than the literal sense). Going to meet the griffin and the mock turtle and to sing the lobster quadrille (no, she will not, won’t not, will not, won’t not, will not join the dance). Becoming a towering presence at court. Waking beside her sister who is still reading from a book without pictures. Living her life in a land full of only ordinary wonders.

The hatter, returning to his felts and pelts, slipping, sliding, sluicing into mercurial madness.

The hare, off in the forest, risking the mutability of April.

• • • •

Go on until you reach the end: then stop.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award among others. She’s also twice won the Nebula Award, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” and again for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, is available from Aqueduct Press; her second, How the World Became Quiet, came out from Subterranean Press in 2010. Visit her website, chat with her on Twitter, or support her on Patreon where she posts one new piece of fiction or poetry each month.