In the Tearoom by Tara Campbell
The narrator in Tara Campbell’s “In the Tearoom” introduces us to Horace, a prominent, well-educated, lecturer and author who also happens to be a water buffalo. When the couple visits a local tearoom it soon becomes evident to the narrator, and the reader alike, that Horace desperately wishes to fit into a society he fears cannot see beyond his obvious stature. As the host ushers them to their table there is “…a gasp. A clatter of a fork on a plate. A murmur,” which amplifies not only the stakes but the narrative tension as well. One almost holds their breath as Horace attempts to grasp the delicate teacup “festooned with blush pink roses and silver filigree” between his massive hooves.
Overall, there is a nice balance achieved between the known and unknown in this flash fiction piece, or as William Boast calls it “the heimlich and unheimlich,” where the familiar details such as the tearoom’s scents and sounds ground the reader in place and time well enough for them to feel comfortable suspending disbelief. In the end, it seems quite natural for the reader to connect and empathize with Horace, a water buffalo, as he challenges his insecurities.
We hope you enjoy “In the Tearoom” and also consider reading Campbell’s short story “On the Universal Rights of Ducks” previously published by CRAFT. Also, don’t forget to check out Campbell’s accompanying author’s note where she discusses and shares the image which inspired her to write about our friend Horace. –CRAFT
I followed Horace’s horns as he walked ahead of me into the tearoom. No matter how many times he visited me, I couldn’t seem to keep my eyes off the silky brown pelt of his neck, or the gentle slope of his ridged horns parting ways at his crown, curving down along both sides of his head, then swooping upward again until the tips were almost the same height as the top of the skull from which they’d sprung.
The host met him at the door with an expression equal parts wonder and anxiety. “The usual table, Mr. Manning?”
Horace nodded, his horns dipping gracefully with his massive head. I had to admit, there was something about how he seemed to know my own city better than I did. A sense of bigness. Power.
“I’ll take your coats.”
Horace pivoted slowly in the close entryway, straightening his arms for the host. When he faced me, I turned away to hide a blush—I’d been thinking about reaching up and touching the elongated flaps of his ears nestled beneath the arc of his horns.
The host slipped off our overcoats and took our hats, all three of us moving with unspoken awareness of the curio cabinets chock full of bone china surrounding us in the small vestibule. He handed our garments off to another employee and bade us to follow him.
We entered the tearoom with its welcoming mélange of sensations: fragrances of teas from around the world; the scents of sugary pastries, hearty quiches, and meat pies; the clink of cups on saucers; a piano minuet tinkling over a burble of conversation, punctuated by a trill of laughter.
Then a gasp. The clatter of a fork on a plate. A murmur.
And Horace, tall and slim in his dark grey suit, moved serenely through it all as though wading calmly through a river in the—
“Is this to your liking?” he asked me, gesturing to a window table overlooking a riotously vibrant rose garden.
I shook my head free of an image of Horace with a large brass ring in his nose, grazing in the grass on hands and knees. I’d never seen him do anything remotely like that. “Yes. Yes, this is delightful.”
The host settled us into our chairs, and we selected our tea: I, jasmine, he Earl Grey. While I still mulled over the menu, Horace generously ordered the top-tier tea service, with the full complement of sweet and savory treats.
“Why choose when we don’t have to?” he said to me, his eyes and muzzle crinkled in mirth.
While he gazed out at the roses, I snuck glances at the other patrons sneaking glances at us. As usual, people peeked and whispered, but didn’t take pictures or otherwise interrupt. Horace always managed to find places where decorum reigned. Still, as they looked at him, at us, I felt a familiar force pressing in on us from all sides. From inside myself as well.
The tea arrived and, embracing the distraction, I poured for us both.
Horace leaned over the cup and breathed deeply, eyes closed, enraptured. He opened his eyes and positioned his hooves gently around the teacup, angling them to align with the cup’s delicate downward slope.
Steam curled up from my untouched teacup. The murmur of neighboring voices trickled to a halt.
Horace’s teacup clinked softly against its saucer as he lifted it. His maneuver was a matter of balance, of holding the cup firmly enough that it wouldn’t shift and tip tea over the rim, but not so firmly as to crush it. My hands clenched as I watched the cup, festooned with blush pink roses and silver filigree, approach Horace’s muzzle. His lips parted in anticipation of a sip. I held my breath.
Then it happened. As slow and smooth as planetary spin, the cup rotated on some axis between Horace’s hooves and the brim tipped toward me. He shifted one of his hooves but overcorrected, canting the cup in the other direction and sloshing tea onto the table. With his habitual calm, he settled the cup onto the tablecloth, avoiding further spillage or chipping of the set.
“Oh dear, I’ve made a bit of a mess, haven’t I?” Head down, he brushed a few droplets of tea off his vest. I handed him a napkin, and he blotted at the stain seeping into the pristine white cloth. I caught one of the servers rolling her eyes and shot her an evil look.
“They have my card on file,” Horace murmured, leaning forward to slup his remaining tea with his tongue. “They’ll charge me for cleaning.”
I watched him finish and place the empty cup back onto its saucer. My tea hadn’t gone cold, but I pretended to warm mine with a splash after refilling his cup. “Horace, can I ask you something?”
I lifted my teacup, almost guilty with the ease of it. “Why do you keep trying to do this?”
He shrugged in his elegant, understated way. “I like to challenge myself.”
“Yes, but you have a doctorate, you’ve written books, you lecture around the world. And look at you, strong as an…”
I cleared my throat. “All I’m saying is, you don’t have to be just like us.”
Horace hovered over his tea, breathing in its warmth before lowering his tongue into it. “Just like us?”
My fingers tightened around my cup. “I mean, you’re… you’re…”
He looked up at me, and I lost myself for a moment in the wry intelligence of his large, bovine eyes.
“You don’t have anything to prove,” I told him.
He raised his head and ran his tongue across his muzzle to catch an errant drop of tea. My cheeks flushed as he stared at me; as all the room, all the world, stared at us.
Slowly, gently, he shook his head. “Neither do you.”
And he placed his hoof on the table, within reach.
TARA CAMPBELL is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University. Previous publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Booth, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and four collections: Circe’s Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, Political AF: A Rage Collection, and Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her at www.taracampbell.com or on Twitter: @TaraCampbellCom or IG: @thetreevolution.
Featured image by Louis Hansel courtesy of Unsplash