English Tea and Crawdads
Story and Art by Kristy Gherlone
Old Felix Hicks caught the biggest fish of his life the day he died. He’d been teetering on the bow of his rickety boat in middle of the Mississippi, reeling like mad and grinning like a fool as he fought with it, trying to keep its muddy green head above the surface. “Whoo-wee,” he whistled when he finally wrestled it in. “You sure are a big ole sucker! Gonna have myself a feed tonight,” he said as he patted his belly. He was always hungry, and the fish would make a fine meal.
When he leaned down to take out the hook, the fish jumped up and walloped him right in the jaw. Felix’s prized gold tooth came loose and went flying. “Nooo!” he cried, batting at the air as he tried to capture it. He needed that tooth to woo the ladies! His looks weren’t much to speak of, but they sure went crazy over that tooth. It was the reason Rosalyn Davies agreed to marry him.
He might have caught it if the boat hadn’t sprung a leak. It filled with water, tipped, and spilled him into the river. “Gall dang it,” he spat, slapping weeds off his head. “My tooth!” he wailed as he watched it sink into the depths. He dove under to search for it, but it was no use. His tooth was lost among a maze of boulders and rotting pulp wood. When he came back up again, he found himself in the middle of a nest of Cottonmouths. “Welp, that’s that,” he sighed as the snakes hissed and snapped. “I guess this is how I go.”
And that was how he went. The fish, however, got away.
Four thousand miles away and across the ocean, William Whitby and Lorelei Addington-Whitby were at the hospital waiting on their first child: a son they intended to name Charles. Lorelei, a snobby, proper woman of distant nobility, gave one last gentle push so as not to exert herself, and out came Charles. The doctor examined him. “This is quite unusual,” he said.
“Oh, dear,” Lorelei said, arranging herself into a more ladylike position. “Is something the matter?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s just this birthmark here on his neck,” he said, “See?” He lowered the child for his parents to inspect. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“They appear to be fang marks,” William said, furrowing his brow.
“Hmm,” Lorelei frowned. “Well, he’s certainly not much to look at, but he’ll do. He is half-Addington, so I’m positive he will turn out fine and proper. Let me hold him.”
The doctor wrapped Charles in a blanket and handed him to Lorelei. She put her nose to his head. “He smells like a mud puddle,” she grimaced. “And what, pray tell, is this?” she asked, picking a shiny fleck from his cheek.
“Well, I’ll be,” the doctor said, scratching at his head. “It looks like a fish scale.”
William and Lorelei took Charles home to their house on the hill; an inherited estate built with old money, and did their very best to raise him in a manner befitting an Addington. However, as Charles grew, Lorelei and William found their hands quite full raising him.
Charles did not learn to talk like an Addington, nor a Whitby.
“Can you say, ‘Mummy,’” Lorelei coached. “Come on now. Say ‘Mummy,’”
“Maw.” Charles grinned, trying out the word.
“Hmm.” Lorelei frowned.
“Say, ‘Daddy,’” William urged with confidence.
“Paw,” Charles said.
“He must take after your side of the family,” Lorelei sniffed.
Lorelei’s mother, who happened to be visiting, said, “you’re both doing it incorrectly. Let me show you.” She got down on the floor in front of Charles. “Say ‘Grand-ma-ma’ and I’ll buy you a pony,” she crooned.
“Me-maw,” Charles said.
“Oh dear,” Lorelei’s mother gasped. “Are you certain he’s an Addington? He doesn’t look like an Addington, and I’m quite positive he doesn’t talk like one.”
“Of course, I’m sure,” Lorelei cried.
“Great-great grandfather Addington,” Lorelei’s mother said, rolling her r’s regally, “was a noble, you know. He was the Duke of Oxford. He would never have said anything as distasteful as …” she paused, her face souring, “Me-maw.”
Lorelei had never met her great-great grandfather, but she was sure that was true. “I think there’s something wrong with him,” she said.
“Not to worry, my darlings. He is half-Addington,” William mocked, rolling his eyes. “He’ll be talking circles ‘round us in no time.” It turned out, he was right. And they didn’t have to wait very long.
“Oh look, William,” Lorelei said during an afternoon stroll. “There’s a goose in Hampstead Pond. How lovely. Charles, can you say, ‘See the goose’?” she prompted.
Charles peered into the water, and then back at his mother.
She tried again, “Say, ‘See the goose.’ Come on, now. I know you can do it. ‘See the goose,” she said, louder.
Charles laughed. “Aw, shucks, Maw, that ain’t no goose,” he said. “That there’s a Shitpoke.”
“Well, there we are now, my dear,” William lifted his chin with pride. “His first sentence. I told you he’d come ‘round.”
“Oh, good heavens,” Lorelei cried. She hurried Charles back into his pram and shoved a biscuit in his mouth. “For pity sakes, don’t say anything else until we get home,” she told him.
Charles took the biscuit out of his mouth and dangled it from the carriage. It caught the attention of a hungry squirrel. When it scurried over to take a sniff, Charles grabbed it by the neck and hauled it into the carriage. He stuffed the tail into his mouth and chewed on that instead.
Lorelei clutched her chest, batted at the squirrel, and shooed it away. “An Addington would never do such a vile thing. I must be doing something wrong,” she cried. “I will simply just have to try harder,” she vowed.
Lorelei dressed Charles in rompers and bow ties.
She took him to afternoon tea. “Remember to sit up straight and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” she reminded him.
“One lump or two?” The waitress asked, balancing a tray of fine china.
“I reckon a tall glass of sweet tea and a heap ‘a corn bread ought to do the trick,” Charles said, patting his belly.
“A what?” the waitress gaped.
Charles reached over and pinched her behind.
“Well, I never,” she huffed, hurrying away.
Lorelei enrolled him in preparatory school and sent him to violin lessons.
“Don’t you have ‘somethin I can stamp my feet to?” Charles asked after hearing the teacher play.
“A violinist,” the instructor said, “does not ‘stamp’ anything.”
Lorelei took him to museums and to Buckingham Palace, but it seemed that no matter what she tried, Charles would not act like an Addington.
He wanted biscuits instead of crumpets and hid kidney pie in his socks.
He preferred checkers to chess and refused to play rugby.
“I do agree that it’s troubling, but don’t worry, my dear. He’ll come ‘round,” William said.
“I certainly hope so,” Lorelei said.
She hired a tutor and sent him to private school.
“Charles, what is two times four?” the teacher asked, writing the equation on the board.
“I figure a two by four is a good piece of lumber,” he answered.
And while his peers joined the math league and delighted in cross country, Charles preferred fishing.
Lorelei could barely get him out of the river and into the house long enough to even take a bath. “Come out of that filthy water at once,” she’d protest.
“Let me be, woman,” he’d said. “I’m catching some supper.”
“You’re not acting very much like an Addington. I doubt anyone in our family would ever do anything so atrocious,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t care what a stupid old Addington would do,” Charles would sass. “I like fishing pretty near more’n anything.” He felt at home in the water, where the mud squished between his toes, and the mysteries of river were revealed with each reel of his line.
As time passed, he felt more and more as though didn’t fit in in England any more than he fit in with the Addingtons. He was different on the inside and the out, but it didn’t bother him a much as it did his mother.
“I just don’t know what to do with you,” Lorelei would cry.
As time went on, she and Charles grew more distant. She loved him, but she didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand why acting a certain way was so important to her. They battled constantly about what Charles ought to be doing, and how he should behave. In the end, he was who he was. Much to Lorelei’s dismay, when he graduated from high school, he decided on trade school instead of college.
“Trade schools are for commoners,” Lorelei protested. “An Addington would never learn a trade of any sort. Wouldn’t you rather go into finance or commerce or join the royal army?”
“Nope. I want to build boats,” Charles said, and that’s just what he learned to do.
Lorelei and William saw their son less and less and eventually, he moved to the United States and settled near the Mississippi River. He started his own canoe business and fished every chance he got. For the first time in his life, he felt like he fit in. He missed his parents, but it was nice not having anyone around to point out that he wasn’t acting like an Addington. For once, he could just be himself.
Lorelei was beside herself. Despite their differences, she missed her son very much. She finally realized how wrong she’d been. What good was having a noble family if, in the end, you ended up with no family? “I’ve failed as a mother,” she sobbed to her mother.
“Oh dear,” her mother said. “You haven’t failed. I have. There’s something I need to tell you.”
Lorelei and William made the long journey to visit their son.
When they got there, Lorelei jumped out of the car and ran to hug her son.
“Hi, Maw,” he smiled.
“Good heavens,” she cried. “What happened to your tooth?”
“Oh, I knocked it out cutting down a tree,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I know, I know. I don’t look like an Addington,” he said.
Lorelei was sheepish, “Let’s not worry about that right now. I want to know how you’re doing. Are you getting on okay?” she asked, looking him over.
“I guess I’m all right,” Charles said. “I don’t live like nobility, but I’m happy enough.”
Lorelei smiled. “That’s the most important thing.”
“Have you found a young lady to settle with?” his father asked, cutting in.
“Nah,” Charles said. “The girls don’t like me on account of my looks. I chase ‘em, but I ain’t caught one yet.”
“Nonsense,” Lorelei said, kissing his cheek. “I think you’re quite handsome.”
“Indeed. Takes right after the Whitby’s,” his father said proudly, straightening his collar.
Lorelei cleared her throat. “I wanted to give you this,” she said, handing Charles a photograph album.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Pictures of your great-great-great grandfather. I thought you might like to see them.”
“No, thanks,” Charles said, handing it back. “I know I’m a disappointment to you. I’m sure he’s fine and proper ‘n all that, but the truth is, I ain’t like him and I don’t care to be.”
“Please,” Lorelei urged, quietly, “just have a look.”
Charles sighed. Reluctantly, he accepted the album, and opened the cover. On the first page, there was a picture of a man standing by the edge of a creek, holding a long string of fish. As he flipped through the book, there were several other pictures of the same man. There was one of him frying crawdads, one of him dancing while someone played the fiddle, and one of him kissing a pretty young lady.
“I don’t get it,” Charles said, scratching his head. “You sure this is my pappy? He don’t look like a duke at all.”
Lorelei smiled. “That’s because he wasn’t.”
“So, we ain’t noble?” Charles asked.
“Not even a little bit,” Lorelei said. “You see, during the summer of 1888, your great-great- great grandmother, Rosalyn Davies, went on holiday to America and met a man. She fell in love, and became pregnant, which was quite scandalous, even though they intended to marry. Since she needed her parent’s permission, she had to take the boat back to England to get it. She knew her parents would be furious, and she was afraid they would send her away, so she told them that the father of her baby was the “Duke of Oxford.”
“So, she lied?” Charles asked.
“Technically, it wasn’t a lie. See here,” Lorelei said, pointing to the last picture. “Look at the handwriting underneath.”
Charles read it aloud. “‘Felix “Duke” Hicks. Summer 1888.’”
“That’s right. Your great-great-great grandfather’s name was Felix, but everyone called him Duke. It turns out we’re not Addingtons at all. We’re Hicks! Your great-great-great grandfather was from Oxford, Mississippi, not Oxford, England.
“Well, what do you know about that?” Charles grinned. “That’s just where I live.”
“Yes,” Lorelei said, “and there’s more. Apparently, Rosalyn’s parents were so thrilled with the prospects of having nobility in the family, they gave her permission to marry. Tragically, however, before your grandmother could make it back to America, she received word that your grandfather had died. His boat sank, and it’s assumed that he drowned while fishing on the Mississippi River. Your grandmother ended up marrying someone else, and her new husband, John Addington, insisted that the baby take his name. However, it didn’t stop her parents from telling everyone that your great-great-great grandfather had been a duke. Over time, people just naturally assumed it was on the Addington’s side. No one knew the difference, until your grandmother came across Rosalyn’s diaries tucked away in a safety deposit box a few months ago.”
“So,” Charles said, “I guess I’m more like my great-great-great grandfather than you thought.”
Lorelei nodded, then began to cry.
“I’m sorry we ain’t noble,” Charles said, feeling bad for his mother.
“I’m not crying about that,” she sniffled. “I’m just so sorry for trying to make you into something you were not. I have been such a fool. Can you ever forgive me?”
“Course I can,” Charles said. “As long as you don’t mind that I fish, and drink sweet tea, and like building boats and such.”
“I don’t mind at all,” Lorelei said, wiping her tears. “I’m actually very proud of you. You’ve done quite well for yourself, despite my dreadful parenting.”
“Aww, shucks, Maw. You ain’t all that bad,” Charles said, giving his mother a hug. “Welp, I guess I’d better rustle you up some grub,” Charles said. “I sure hope ya’ll don’t mind, but I’m making crawdads.”
“That sounds delightful,” Lorelei said. “I can’t wait to try one. I bet all the Hicks liked crawdads.”
Charles grinned, “I don’t know about what other folks like and don’t like; I just know what I do,” he said, setting off to the kitchen.
“Well, there we are now, my dear. I told you he’d come ‘round,” William whispered.
“It wasn’t Charles that needed to. It was me, all along,” Lorelei said.
Charles Whitby caught the biggest fish of his life the day his parents went back to England. He was teetering on the bow of a sturdy boat: a boat he’d built himself, reeling like mad and grinning like a fool as he fought with it, trying to keep its muddy, green head above the surface. “Whoo-weee,” he whistled when he finally wrestled it in. “You sure are a big ole sucker!”
When he reached down to take the hook out, the fish spit right in his eye. “Ouch!” Charles yelped, covering his eye. “What in tarnation?”
When he removed his hand, something fell out and clanked against the bottom of the boat. Charles bent to pick it up. “Huh,” he said, looking it over. “Looks like a tooth. A gold one.”
He pondered on that a moment. “Welp, I might as well make some use of it,” he decided. He rinsed it off and stuck it where his own tooth used to be. It fit perfectly.
“Hi there,” someone called out. “Can you help me?”
Charles looked up. The prettiest girl he’d ever seen was standing on an island in the middle of the river.
“My boat sank,” she said. “I seem to be stranded. I’d ‘a swum for shore, but this here river’s full of Cottonmouth snakes.”
“Sure, I can help ya,” Charles said. “Hold on.” He paddled over and helped her into his boat.
“Thank you,” she said, wringing out her hair, “I was s’glad you came along. I didn’t expect anyone to be out here today, especially someone so handsome,” she blushed.
“Aww, shucks,” Charles grinned; his gold tooth glinted in the sunlight.
“I’m real glad you were, though. Thanks again. I’m Maddy, by the way,” she said, holding out her hand, “and you’re my knight in shining armor,” she declared with a grateful smile. “From now on, I’ll call you…” she paused, “what’s your name?”
“Charles,” Charles said.
She laughed, “I shall call you Sir Charles, Knight of the Mississippi.”
Charles frowned, “If it’s just the same to you, I’d just prefer just plain Charles.”
**This story originally appeared in The Hickory Stump Magazine. No part of this story may be copied or reproduced without consent from the author.