There are two kinds of people in the world: those who call him Ringo, and those who call him Reginald. His mystery seemed to grow, his story was woven into every moment. He was ahead of us and behind us, making plans, having them blow up in his face. Where he was at this moment we had not a clue. Nothing, not one bloody thing on God’s Green Earth, would have surprised me.
“You know him?” I asked, unsure if we were still welcome to the trays of food.
“I know him,” she replied. Suddenly her casual levity had congealed into a kind of pensiveness. We were not just late-night door-knockers to her anymore but an important connection of some kind. Suddenly I had new questions I wanted to ask, about Ringo, about herself, and about this hideout we were supposed to be looking for.
After a long silence, I was about to ask how she knew him, but she spoke before I could get it out.
“Quite a remarkable man, your uncle.” She absently tapped an incisor with her fingernail. Her eyes were far away and crackling with electricity. And then suddenly, “Would you care for some tea?”
We looked at each other and then said simultaneously, “yes please,” and she rose and left through a swinging door into a scullery.
I took this opportunity to meander about the room. The crystal decanters on the bar looked disgusting—murky substances with leafy sediment in the bottom, apparently with some mild effervescent properties that kept the bottles active and shimmering with a glittery light. Bottle after bottle, large and small. But nothing like Bailey’s Irish Cream or peach schnapps unfortunately.
A secretary desk contained a high back with quiet little drawers and nooks. Nonchalantly, I peeked into a few drawers finding assorted collections of odd bric-a-brac: pocket-sized religious trinkets and iconography, watercolors and molding clay, tiny bound sheaves of weeds and flowers, all completely mundane and at the same time eccentric.
On the desk surface was an old-fashioned ink pot and stylus, and a few sheets of stationery inscribed with a backward, loopy script so ornate and apparently in a foreign tongue so that I could not make out a single word. The same was true for many of the books she had on the bookshelf and strewn on the coffee table before us.
With a start I noticed what neither of us had noticed until now: a Great Horned owl standing on a brass perch, its head buried under a wing. In one silky movement, it awoke, stood upright, and looked at us with withering disapproval. We began to get the impression that our hostess was no courtesan, somehow more at home in the forest than anything we’d seen. She returned with yet another tray, this time with a tall slender kettle, cups and a plate of shortbread fingers.
“You may find this unfamiliar to your palette but I trust you’ll like it.”
It was like nothing I’d ever tasted, smooth and cloying, gamey like venison, earthen, and producing a scalp-tingling sensation of peace and bliss.
“What kind of tea is this?” I asked.
“Tell me why you are here.”
“We’re not supposed to say. Ringo told us not to tell.”
“Of course he did. Now, tell me why you are here. Why are you in this forest.”
“We’re looking for Ringo’s secret hideout.” She seemed to transform into my own mother. I felt complete and utter trust in her.
“Bo, hold on a sec,” Dimity tried to interject.
“Is Ringo going to meet you there?”
“Yeah. He said he’s coming real soon.”
“Has Ringo been mixing up any unusual concoctions lately, by any chance?”
“Yeah, how’d you know? Last night he made a batch of bottles that got destroyed, and then this morning we made another batch—”
“Bo, maybe we should slow down…”
“—but it wasn’t any good because we didn’t have the magic spoon, so I drove his car, his Lancia D24, back to the house to get it—”
“Madam, excuse us. We’ve had a crazy day,” interrupted Dimity. “I wonder if you have a spare bed in this house? We’ll be out of your hair first thing in the morning.”
“What kind of tea is this?” I asked. I was feeling as if I’d just awakened from—or was ready for—a long, deep sleep.
“It’s a kind of butter tea. Yak’s butter.”
“Wow, well it’s delicious in a horrible kind of way. What kind of butter did you say?”
“Yes, yak’s butter.”
“Yak. I don’t even know what you’re saying. What’s a yak anyway.” I was so pleased with myself. “Oh, say, um, I didn’t get your name, your real name. You’re…it’s not…” I was fading fast.
“A conversation for another day,” she said. “Tomorrow perhaps. Please follow me, we have some very soft beds. Very warm and comfortable.”
I know my mind was altered somehow. I felt exquisitely happy and drunk and thankful to all the world for being so beautiful. When the woman led us to a room, I reached to hug her, but she eluded my embrace. I know I was hallucinating as well because I saw now that she had fairy wings, and that she was cute and perky just like a fairy, not like the dark vixen who had recently greeted us at the door.
My mother would have been shocked because Dimity and I shared a bed that night. But we fell instantly to sleep and didn’t rouse until the sun shone brightly through the window next morning.