Tanya Alvers

 

Animals in Formal Wear

In the early afternoon, Alette returned to her cabin, surprised to find her worn little mailbox hanging open. In the many years she had lived there, this was only the second time she had received a letter. The mailbox was neatly encased between two droopy honeysuckle bushes, the wood base overgrown with moss. There were very few things she had brought with her when she had left, but the red metal mailbox was one of them. By now, you could hardly tell it was originally shiny metal; it now had the dull glow of red tin and rust, barely distinguishable from the plants around it.

Inside was a neatly pressed letter, cleanly printed and addressed to her, Alette Branestein. The address read ‘Hemlock Trees South, East Woodland Lake Corner,’ which Alette had mostly made up in lieu of a real address. She had no idea how long it had taken the postman, likely coming from the distant eastern town, to find her small home. Only special directions could lead to her modest one-person cottage, which was well hidden between the trees and nestled near the lake. She saw the name of her aunt on the return label; likely the only person who still knew where she lived. Before that, only her mother had known, but Alette knew it was likely that her mother would tell her only sister where her daughter lived before she died, even as much as they did not see eye to eye.

Nestled also in her mailbox was a soft package, wrapped delicately in thin paper. Taking the package and the letter inside, she ran her fingers over the letter’s black seal, distinctly marked with her aunt’s initials, and gently popped off the hard wax and read the letter. It was surprising to her, but Alette had been invited to a fancy gathering of highly esteemed humans. Perhaps her mother was wrong about her sister’s strong sense of pride, perhaps she was making an effort to reach out to her, the strange child of the family.

Below the invitation’s location, date, and time, there was a quick mess of cursive added at the bottom. ‘I will arrange for you to be picked up on the main road on twenty of November at approximately five o’clock.’ Out of some strange impulse, or mostly curiosity, Alette felt a small pang of desire to attend. After over five years, she had forgotten the strange vibration of the human voice, which was quite different from the soft voices she was accustomed to here. She wondered what it would be like to listen to them once again, what it might be like to return to that world. Setting the letter on her short wood table, she gently unwrapped the package, setting aside the paper for safekeeping. Inside was a glimmering calf-length dress in soft lilac, with a translucent sash around its waist, tied neatly in a bow. It was elegant with a v-neck and half-length off-shoulder sleeves. Alette ran her hands over it, stopping to pinch and rub the unfamiliar smooth material between her fingers.

Alette packed for the day’s walk and left at daybreak, slinging the fragile dress and provisions in a bag over her shoulder. She had taken care to take a swim and scrub off in the lake, knowing the displeasure her aunt would likely show at her smelling strongly of the woods and of animal. She had an approximate idea of the time – she knew well how to tell time by the sun’s location in the sky – and had arrived early to the pickup location. She sat and ate some of the fish she had smoked over the fire early in the morning. Eventually the car arrived, and she was sped quickly away from the darkness of her woods and after an hour or two began to see the bright unnatural lights of the town.

The car stopped in front of her aunt’s towering home, a dark mass made of meticulously placed stone and tall glass windows. Her home made the trees look bewildered, like oversized bushes. Maybeline looked out the window at the sounds of tires stopping on her gravel street, and observed that the car with Alette had finally arrived, a striking five minutes late. She walked smoothly down the carpeted staircase, and opened the wide front doors. As Alette’s feet touched the gravel, out stepped her clean-faced aunt, who quickly ushered her to the house, into a shock of warmth against her skin. Maybeline avoided looking at her. Alette looked like an animal, a dressed up woodland creature, just as she had feared.

Inward and up the stairs, Maybeline firmly guided her to the powder room, where she had set out a fresh wash basin and many soaps and powders just for this occasion. She moved efficiently, keeping her red lips pursed. “I know where you live you don’t have the proper…supplies” she said, frowning at Alette’s grass-woven shirt and deer-skin skirt “But please feel free to get tidied up before the guests arrive.” She stretched a smile, and Alette could see in her face how unprepared she must have been for the level of wilderness sitting in front of her. “It is good to see you, Alette…” Turning, she exited quickly. Alette heard the door shut gently behind her.

Maybeline paused to let out a sigh. Alette was a terrible mess. Her hair was uncombed, her clothes handmade, and her face dirty. Maybeline hoped with all of her might that Alette at least remembered how to use the soaps and, with luck, perhaps even the hairbrush.

Looking in the mirror, Alette giggled to herself. It had been a while since she had seen her reflection clearly. Only in the mirror could she see her hair with its secret knots of green. In pictures, her hair and eyes were mahogany, as it was when she looked down at the hair hanging softly against her shoulders. But if she stared long enough, she could see the leaves that crept down, tangled in the messy waves, as she could easily see them now in her reflection. She looked at the mostly human face looking back at her, shimmering with ethereal shades of green, and found she could almost feel the sloshing, fragrant sea behind her dark blue eyes.

She used the basin and carefully washed her face, remembering the motions of soap and rinse, lather and rinse. The soap smelled sickly, like dead things, like dead flowers sweet and rotted in the sun. She awkwardly gripped the large hairbrush sideways in her hand, tugging gently on the waves and vines, smoothing them until they appeared acceptable. She powdered her face, carefully covering the green that only she could see. Looking in the mirror, she laughed at the ridiculous powdered white against green, tears seeping up like the bubbles frogs would make in the narrow ponds.

When she eventually came downstairs, her handmade deerskin shoes contrasting against the quiet color of lilac, many of the humans had already arrived. They stood stiffly and were conversing in a similarly rigid formality. She passed carefully through the large room, looking at each of their animal-faces and smiling politely. Coming within close quarters, she could smell their perfume, but no scent could cover that slight smell of fur. Alette found a dark corner and stood to watch. Animals in dresses and dark pressed suits. Animals standing with their first hooves crossed, staring into space. Animals entangled awkwardly in embrace with disproportionate heads aligned shoulder to shoulder.

Passing an attractive young doe of a woman wearing a revealing sheath dress, Alette sat tentatively, wondering if the delicate knob-legged couch could really support her weight. As she relaxed, she watched as the humans arranged to dance, ‘arms’ entwined as they looped and waltzed merrily. Their black eyes gleamed in the light of the fireplace. Their clothes appeared infested with many unnatural colored fireflies, small colored lights reflected, as they twirled past the sad looking grandfather tree. It sat modestly near the staircase, covered in heavy baubles that weighed down its strong old arms. The hooves tapped rhythmically, a sound that could put Alette to sleep, creating a slightly off feeling of home. But she kept her half-lidded eyes well focused on the scene, absorbing the moment, thoroughly entertained. The music softly sang the taps onward, gently masking the floor’s echo.

Watching their jubilant play, she could only stifle a giggle each time their antlers would nearly bump the delicate chandelier. Her aunt stood among them, giving her a half-glanced glare, oblivious to the appearance Alette could see. She could catch the mirror-image of human faces, ones like her aunt’s, as they passed by the windows, reflective with light against the darkness outside. Normal, as they see me, Alette thought.

As the dance slowed, a few of these men and women felt obliged to approach and make polite conversation. As she spoke she found herself having difficulty lying about hobbies and activities, so different from hers in this world. It would take hours to explain the voices, the methodical lifestyle of reason, the things she went about within her daily life. These social creatures would not be able to understand the intricacy of spotting and avoiding the hunter’s net, the skills required to disarm and dispose of them. They could not relate to the fun in listening to interesting conversations between the fish or the scavengers of the night. So she spent much of the evening sitting reclined in the pompously soft sofa, trying the different cube shaped snacks on the crystal platters, sipping the fresh bubbly apple juice that made her nose itch. Early into the night she grew impatient and crept outside, calmed by the cool air. She could hear the ground squirrels getting cozy in their nests, and the opossums hunting for food, comfortably hidden within the thick cover of shrubs.

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