“Annabell Lee, Annabell Lee,
She is a monster who lives by the sea.
What do we do with a monster like her?
Bring her home for tea!”
Jen regarded the thing at her kitchen table and regretted again the rhyme her husband had made up to entertain their son. That son was now kicking his legs at the table, and giggling in delight as the pile of ooze burbled and dissolved a piece of lemon curd cake, while a tendril wrapped around one of the tea cups waved it slowly through air.
Nor was this the first creature to sit at her table. It had begun with a knock on the door and a cry of, “Mama, look who came to tea!” from her son, who she had thought running on the beach. Her thoughts of one of the distant neighbors or one of the old fishermen who occasionally walked the strand vanished as her son led his companion through the door. The seaweed that seemed to be one part of its makeup rustled on the rock that was the other. There was a head, arms, and legs, but no other features, like a giant, half-made doll. “It’s Annabell Lee, just like in the rhyme!” continued her son.
Her mind seemed to freeze. As if from afar she heard herself say, “Won’t you come in? Tea will be ready directly.” A more directed rustle of the seaweed was all the response she got. But the creature let her son lead it to the table.
Habit carried her through the rattling of china, the pouring of tea, the toasting and buttering of tea cake, the transfer of her little daughter from playpan to high chair, but as she sat down to the table her nerve almost failed her. She latched onto something she could control: no one would find her inhospitable.
The form had sucked tea cake into the mass of seaweed, had directed its featureless head to regard her son as he babbled happily about his walk on the beach, about rocks and shells he had found washed up, about a pile of rotting fish guts someone had left, and a pod of dolphins seen in the distance. It was a relief that she didn’t have to speak.
At last tea had been over and the creature rustled up from the chair and turned towards the door. She followed it to see it out. As it stood on the step down to the yard, it turned, and words emerged whispering from the rustling. “Your son extended such courtesy as he could to us. We shall extend it in return. While he is near our strand, he need never fear.” It turned and resumed its slow, gliding gait toward the path down the cliff.
The shock of hearing it speak was quickly overcome by the import of the words. “Thank you,” she called after it, but it gave no indication of hearing.
Since that day her son had brought other things home to tea. Nor had all of them been terrors. The fur seal, though its length took up most of the kitchen when it rested its head on the table, had been entertaining, barking at them all and snuffling up tea and tea cake with great appreciation. It had reared up and given her a very wet nuzzle on the cheek as it had left, humping its way back down to the water. Even the ooze currently running over the edge of one of the chairs and waving its teacup was actually rather entertaining. Others, though, gave her nightmares, though the children never seemed concerned about them.
The creature her son called Annabell Lee had returned once, but not for tea. It had been a calm day, with a modest west wind blowing in from the sea. She had been playing with her daughter on the floor and hadn’t noticed the storm approaching until a gust of wind shook the house. A second followed. She looked up to see massed clouds looming in, lightning lancing out below. She left her daughter waving a rattle to turn on the weather radio, in time to hear “seas of up to thirty feet.” The house was in no danger well back and high up on the bluffs, but her son had gone to the strand. She grabbed for her rain coat, her boots, and hesitated over her daughter’s carrier before snatching it and strapping it on.
She pelted out the door, and came to a sudden stop. There was her son, being born along on the back of a green and grey form. In a flash of lightning she recognized the seaweed on stone, and as it came closer she could hear the hiss she remembered. “Mom!” her son called, and clambered down from the mass. He stopped to turn and she heard him politely thank it before turning and running to her.
He was soaked to the skin. “Go get inside and get those wet clothes off,” she told him. He nodded and scampered into the house. She turned back to the mass. “Thank you,” she said. “I didn’t listen to the weather this morning—” she started to excuse herself, but a clap of thunder cut her off.
“He will always be safe by our strand,” she thought she heard in the hissing sound as the mass started to retreat back down the path. She stared after it. How long she might have stared she didn’t know, but her daughter, craning for a look herself, finally said, “Wet, mama!”
“Yes, wet, darling.” And she had gone inside to dry them all off and feed them hot cocoa and scones while the rain lashed and huge waves pounded the beach below.
After that an anxiety in her had eased. The creatures were often disturbing, occasionally provoked nightmares, but being a gracious hostess to what she decided to think of as eccentric neighbors was a small price to pay for peace of mind, she reflected as the ooze now at her kitchen table finished the cake. It tried absorbing the tea cup, decided it wasn’t edible and placed it back on the table. Then her son hopped down as it gurgled to the floor and went to see it out.
So went their fall. And, when her son called, “Mama, look who came to tea!” in a blustery November gloaming, she smiled slightly and turned to see what curiosity had crept up from the strand today.