*I wrote this piece last month, and started submitting it right away. It got rejected three times, very quickly, and I realized there was probably something fundamental that wasn’t working. I think, in retrospect, that 1) it’s too on-the-nose, and 2) it probably should have had a slightly longer ending, and a bit more introduction of the main conflict in the opening lines. Rather than rewrite it, I’m going to put it here as it is, and I hope someone enjoys it. : )
I’ve been eating for hours, but the table is still covered with bright porcelain teapots, serving plates, baskets of muffins and scones, and anything else a child could want. I’ve drunk four cups of tea (Lady Grey, hibiscus, chamomile, and mint) and sampled all the snacks within reach. I’m getting full. I study the cream puff in my hand, wondering if it’s all right to put it back. I feel guilty thinking about it, as if I’ve betrayed someone’s expectation of me. In the end, I eat it.
There’s no one else here. I’ve been alone for a while. I keep eating and waiting as others get up (tall, stately, ladylike in their long tea dresses and broad-brimmed hats) and leave the picnic, walking from the party to the garden trails, going to places I can’t see. Nothing keeps me here. I could go, too. But I’m afraid to take those unknown trails, to leave this beautiful table for whoever may come next. The women who’ve left have not come back. I think it might be better to stay here in this soft garden chair, helping myself to tea and sweets while the wind plays with the brim of my yellow straw hat. It’s better to enjoy good things when you find them. If I leave, I might not find such good things again.
The sun has been bright all day. When I first sat down (ages and ages ago), I felt a little hot. I took a seat in the shade of a lush, leafy oak branch that reached its armful of acorns across the table. But now that time has passed, the light doesn’t hurt so much. The breeze that blows the branches of the trees has kept the tables beneath them cool and fresh. I feel a little foolish now to be hiding under an oak bough, when all the other girls who’ve sat at this table have faced the sun bravely with smiles on their faces. One by one, they’ve stood and walked away, tall and graceful and grown. I still wait in my oak-shaded seat for the moment when it will feel right to leave the party.
A girl in red sits down across from me, right in the full sun. She smiles at me as she stacks a plate with scones, sandwiches, éclairs, petits fours, and everything else in reach. Her hat is as red as her sundress. I think she’s around my age.
“You’re the only one here,” she says after a moment.
“The others left.” I am looking at her dark eyes under the scarlet sun hat. They seem a little older than I thought. “People come and go here. No one stays long.”
“Except you?” The girl eats a small bunch of grapes, looking at my plate. “You look as if you’ve been here a long time.”
“I don’t know where else to go.” The paths are easy to see, but I can’t guess which to take or where any of them will lead.
She looks at me, and then at the nearest trail. “Go where you like. Just get up and pick a direction.” Her voice sounds lower than it did a second ago. Her face is sharper, too. The cut of her red dress seems to change by the minute. Looking at her face again, I can see that she’s older than me.
I look at the garden paths again. There are seven or eight of them, maybe more. Trees grow close around their entrances, and the light doesn’t reach far inside. “I don’t know which direction to go,” I say slowly. I know somehow that once I’ve chosen a path, the others will be gone, at least for me. There is only one chance to make this choice. “What if I choose the wrong one?”
She shrugs. She has cleared a few plates of cherries, watermelon, tarts, and little sandwiches. Now she’s looking at her half-empty cup of tea as if deciding whether to put it down. “Just go and look. All you can do is try to make a good choice. Just do your best, and keep doing your best after that.”
I am starting to resent this girl’s coolness, her rose-red confidence. How can she know what’s going to happen to either of us? What gives her the right to advise me? “Is that what you plan to do?” My voice is snider than I meant it to be. I take a defiant bite of cherry cream cake, though the taste is starting to cloy.
The girl nods. Pushing away her plate, she drains her teacup and springs to her feet. She is fully grown now, with power in her broad shoulders, the tilt of her lovely head, the length of her muscular legs. Her dress is short, her hat jaunty, her face exquisitely painted. She glances at each path and makes her decision. Before I can ask her to wait, she runs down the nearest path and is gone in seconds under the trees.
So I’m alone again.
I look again at the teapots and serving bowls, the undiminished cakes and pies, the vast assemblage of butter, cream, and jam. Everything is as lovely as it ever was: the food as fresh and well plated, the flowers as bright and welcoming in their vases as when I sat down many hours ago. Steam still rises from the teapots, and I know that if I pour another cup, the tea will be perfect.
But I’ve lost my appetite. It’s time to go.
I stand up. Then I nearly fall down. I’ve grown much taller since I’ve been here. My dress fits awkwardly, as if it weren’t cut for me. I feel as if I’ve been given the wrong limbs.
I wobble and stagger before finding my new balance. The tables and chairs are far below me now, so obviously child-sized that I’m not sure how I ever felt comfortable here. This is clearly a children’s picnic. Shifting on my shaky fawn’s legs, I wonder where I should go.
I begin looking down the pathways, one after another. They all have a certain beauty, and something draws me towards each one: a branch twined with ivy, a wall of wisteria, a shiver of birds in a hedge. The trees that line the paths are tall and graceful, ancient in their grace. Slowly, I begin to move towards the nearest trail.
A burst of laughter, distant but clear, floats up the trail towards me. I remember that these paths aren’t empty. They’re peopled with people who know much more about the world than I do.
I turn towards another path, and again I hear women’s voices: talking, whispering, laughing. The girls who were my companions at these tables are now far ahead of me. The space I am about to enter is their space. In my awkward dress and awkward manners, I will only be a half-welcome newcomer at the end of any of these trails.
There is little I know about these paths, but I know all at once that I don’t want to take them.
So I begin to look not at the paths, but between them. There are places along the edges of this clearing where the trees grow so close, the vines twine so tightly, that no pathway could be formed. Examining these places, I see, in the darkest and richest intertwining of trees, that the green shades and rustling hollows are as lovely as any garden trail. Though the tangle is thick, there is sunlight to be found there. No human laughter echoes from the woods, but there is other laughter there, softer and more inviting than any I’ve heard before.
I take off my hat and put it on the table. Then I take off my shoes, which are so tight I don’t know how I ever got them on. I shiver gratefully as my toes uncurl, already feeling healthier and stronger. I peel off my lace-trimmed socks and drop them like dead petals beside the shoes. My bare toes burrow in the dirt like the roots of a plant starving for water.
The dress I’m wearing is too tight, so I unbutton it until I can breathe. Then I step back from the table into the shadow of the trees.
The picnic is still spread for company, its child-sized tables bright under the summer sun. I bid the place a nostalgic farewell, and then I walk into the forest. My bare feet find their way surely through the roots and undergrowth. My legs, long cramped, unfold into this new exercise. I wonder what I will be when I come to the end of this pathway, and what tables are waiting deep inside the wood.
Image credit Jill Wellington.
2 thoughts on “Short Story: Picnic”
Aww, I like it! Doesn’t matter that it’s on the nose–it’s still lovely and weaves a mesmerizing atmosphere!
Aww, thank you. ^_^