“You’re going to hell Child of Satan, you’ll burn in agony just like the Jews and towelheads God will cast thee down Down into Gehenna Burn, witch!”
That’s how I used to begin my morning. Every morning. I live in the same little townhouse that my mother lived in, and her mother before her, and for as long as I can remember we’ve lived next to Mrs. Thompson, who is perhaps the nastiest person I’ve ever met. Her voice has assaulted my ears since childhood – either she was yelling at my mother or antagonizing me while I played outside. I don’t know how she came to the conclusion that we’re witches, but no matter how kind we were to her, her words were always the same.
Die. Burn in hell. Satan’s spawn. Witches. Bitches.
So, every morning, I’d walk to my car amid her screeching and try to tune it out as I prepared for the day. After all, it’s no good coming into work at a teahouse when you’re stressed. Your foul-mood will poison the tea. At least, that’s what my mother always told me.
Just like our home, the teahouse has been in my family for generations. It is always owned and managed by a woman, and we never take employees – they just aren’t needed. Besides, it’s hard to teach a newcomer the finer points of tea-making. Me? I’ve been studying tea since I was a child, as my mother passed down her secrets to me.
It’s a wonderful job, a wonderful life, and I quite enjoy it. All except for Mrs. Thompson, of course.
Every morning at the teahouse was the same.
I began by rinsing out the cast-iron teapot and teacups – you can’t use soap on them, you know, and you can’t wash the outside. You can only rinse them, and over time they’ll take on the flavor of the teas you brew in them. Which is why I have a separate tea set for each kind of tea – Green, Black, Yellow, Oolong, White, and Herbal Infusions.
I’d set the metal teapots to brew hot water on the stove – you can’t put cast-iron on the stove either. While prepping the water, I’d select the teas I would feature that day. Of course, a customer can come in and request any kind of tea they like, but I always like to give my own recommendations.
I would open the store at about nine o’clock in the morning and I’d spend the day serving tea. I had quite a few regular customers that enjoyed the healing properties of tea – people with stomach problems who liked the Jade Mint Oolong, people with anxiety who preferred the Chamomile Blossom, people who simply enjoyed the traditional taste and brewing process of Matcha.
Well, one morning, someone new came into the teahouse. Someone I never expected to see.
Mrs. Thompson’s grandson, who spent most of his time caring for the aging crony, was standing at the front of my teahouse, watching me serve Mango Black tea to a few elderly tourists looking for something sweet and strong.
“Miss Marni. I see your teahouse is doing well,” he began.
I noticed the elderly women staring at him in open appreciation – he was quite handsome, even I must admit – but I ignored him and went back to the tea preparation. Tea takes all of your attention, all of your heart – if you don’t give it everything you’ve got, it will fail you, because you’ve already failed yourself.
Once the tea was prepared and the women were enjoying it iced, I stood up and approached the conspicuous newcomer.
“Mr. Thompson, I take it. What can I do for you today?” Most of the time, I’d start by asking what a customer likes, what a customer needs, what ailments are troubling them. I like to help people. But I was wary of Jamie – nothing good comes from a poisoned plant, after all.
“Well, I’m actually here to get something for my grandmother. See, her mind is… going. I read that tea is good for dementia, and I was wondering if you had any recommendations?”
It’s true, studies have shown that certain kinds of tea are good at preserving brain mass, but as of yet, nothing in modern medicine is miraculous enough to reverse dementia. Still, nature works in funny ways. I went behind the front counter to examine my selection of green teas.
“You know, my grandmother, she probably wouldn’t drink this if she knew you had prepared it.”
I grunted in assent, none to keen on continuing our conversation. Jamie didn’t seem to notice my reticence, or perhaps he didn’t care.
“But, you know, I’m hoping that maybe this will help patch things up between you. I think she’d really like you if she got to know you. I’ve always found you fascinating.”
I selected some Gyokuro Imperial and turned to face him, appraising his expression. The light in his eyes told me that he was using his grandmother as a pretense to come see… me.
Ignoring his obvious interest, I prepared the tealeaves and rang up his purchase, explaining how they were best brewed and when to drink it for the best results. To his credit, he was very attentive, although he seemed more interested in my lips than the words coming out of them.
“Well, thank you for this. I’ll give it to my grandmother and come back to tell you the results.”
“You needn’t bother,” I retorted, anxious to get him out of my store. But he smiled in return, not a bit perturbed by my attitude.
“Oh, you can’t get rid of me that easily, Miss Marni. I’ll be back.” With that, he turned and strode out of the store, the tourists still gawking at his tall, muscular frame.
That was the start of all the trouble.
Since that day, Jamie started coming in regularly, always asking for my recommendations, always claiming that my tea helped his mother “heal.” I sincerely doubted that, but I didn’t bother correcting his ignorance. After all, it was just a façade.
At the close of each purchase, he would ask me the exact same question.
“So, do you have any plans for the night?”
Most of the time, I declined to answer.
I had to admit, he was patient. And persistent. He never missed a day. He was also sweet, in his own way. He handed out compliments like candy, but only ever to me. Sometimes, he brought in flowers, although I couldn’t keep them in the store – the scent would taint the tea. He brought me sweets, on occasion.
It was really getting on my nerves.
Finally, one day he didn’t immediately ask me out. Instead, he presented me with an opportunity, one that was too good to pass up.
“Honestly, Marni, I’ll do anything you want to just have one date. What do I have to do?”
“You can’t afford a date with me,” I assured, although the wheels in my head were already turning.
“Money isn’t an object. Living next to my grandma all these years, you have to know my family is loaded.” He flashed me his patented, arrogant grin that somehow managed to hold a certain magnetic charm. “Name it, and I’ll do it. I’ll make you understand how serious I am.”
He seemed serious. And I thought maybe – just maybe – he could be the one I’d been searching for. And if he was… oh, I’d never dared dream…
I grabbed out a post-it note and began scribbling the details on it as I told him what I wanted more than anything in the world.
“There is a tea grown in the Fujian Province of China called Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe. It grows so high on the mountains that only a few select tea masters are able to pick it. However, what many people don’t know is that there are two strains of Da Hong Pao – the kind that is sold to the public, and a rarer kind that is used in medicine and religious rituals.” I glanced into his eyes, but they remained impassive. I dared to finish, “I want you to get it for me.”
He smirked, as though he was amused by my reticence. “No problem. Is it expensive?”
I paused to consider that question. “The tea itself… no. If you tell them you need it, if you tell them I need it, they’ll give it to you. Only…”
“Only you have to fly to China and get it yourself. They won’t send it to you, you won’t be able to find a trace of them outside of their own little province. They’re cut off from the world, and that’s what makes their tea so special.”
Jamie paused as if to consider this, making a very serious face and stroking his chin. Finally, he winked at me.
“Consider it done.”
My heart skipped a beat. All this time, searching for the right person, and he’d been right next to me, waiting for me to notice him.
Life seemed to move at a glacial pace after that. Jamie bought the tickets and set the date for six months after I gave him my request. During that half year, he studied Mandarin with a passion that I’d never seen in anyone else before. He also managed to track down a Fujianese native and began studying the dialect. He took very careful instruction from me as to how he could find these master tea pickers.
The day before he left, he came to see me, glowing with confidence as though he had already succeeded in his quest. I knew that the worst was yet to come for him, but he didn’t seem concerned.
Before he walked out of my store, he stood in front of me and requested – no, demanded – a kiss for good luck. I was so excited and flustered, that I leaned forward and pecked him on the lips without stopping to think. He laughed at the blush suffusing my skin and walked out, anticipating grand adventure.
Several of them, in fact. And yet not a word from Jamie. I tried to remind myself to be patient. After all, he had to arrive in China, hike to the mountains, and navigate his way to the secret property of the master pickers. Reaching them would take time, and that’s not to mention gaining their trust. I could only hope that they would be a little more compliant when he mentioned my name.
And then a few more weeks. I noticed that Mrs. Thompson was too preoccupied to harass me – she seemed shaken by Jamie’s absence. Not that it surprised me. He was, after all, her primary caretaker, and though she could still manage on her own at this point, she liked the company.
I was beginning to think that I would never hear back from Jamie when, one morning, I arrived at the teahouse to find a man sitting in front of the shop. He was an elderly Chinese man wearing traditional garb. In his arm he held a black lacquered chest.
My heart stopped in my chest.
When he saw me approach, he knelt in front of me and kowtowed three times. I inclined my head as a gesture of appreciation. Then, I opened the teahouse and let him inside.
We didn’t exchange any words, although I am fluent in both Mandarin and Fujianese. Instead, I brewed him a cup of Golden Monkey Black tea, which he drank for ritual’s sake. Once he finished his tea, he walked out the door and out of my life.
But he left behind the chest.
My hands shook as I lifted it, feeling its severe heft, and carried it to the back room. Locking the door and closing the blinds, I opened the chest.
The first thing I saw were the bones.
Each and every bone in Jamie’s body sat in the chest, neatly packed into a solid mass. I took them out one at a time, spreading them over my worktable, admiring their pristine white color. I had never seen something so beautiful.
Beneath the bones, separated by a wooden slot was the tea. The small, dark-green leaves with distinct golden flecks – that was how I knew they’d given me the right product. The flashes of gold were the ticket.
Yes, Jamie was the one that I’d been waiting for, the one I needed, the bargaining chip that got me my most precious treasure.
He was a perfect sacrifice.
Mrs. Thompson changed after Jamie was officially declared missing. It was assumed that he had died hiking in China – an inexperienced hiker can easily go missing without the proper guide – and, just like that, she found herself alone in the world. Her other children and grandchildren would have nothing to do with her. She stopped screaming at me in the mornings. She stopped coming outside at all.
But I couldn’t just leave her alone like that.
One morning, I brought a special tea brew over just for her. When I knocked on the door, I half-expected her to cuss me out, shouting obscenities and misquoted Bible verses.
Instead, she led me in to her kitchen. And I brewed her tea.
I didn’t say anything – I didn’t have to. After a few minutes, she spoke on her own. About how Jamie had been so taken with me, sung my praises until she herself had begun to come around. About how much she had always loved him, how her whole life had revolved around him ever since he had been born.
She began crying at one point. In fact, she kept crying until I set her tea in front of her.
Almost absent-mindedly, she sipped the brew and gave me a surprised look. “This is good.”
I smiled at her. “It is, isn’t it?”
It only took a few days to get Mrs. Thompson to agree that I should be her new primary caretaker. Of course, she didn’t need much care anymore, not after she began drinking my tea. After a few weeks, her forgetfulness, the signs of her dementia, they began to fade. She was as sharp as she’d always been.
Of course, that was intentional. I do, after all, want her to live a nice, long life, full of memories of Jamie and the agony of never knowing what happened to him.
It’s amazing what a little tea and bone marrow can do to a person.
As for me? Well, I got what I wanted. I got the rare formula I need to give my tea healing powers. I got the sacrifice for those brews that require something… darker. And, without Mrs. Thompson’s ranting and screaming, my mornings became much more peaceful.
Witch? Honey, that doesn’t even begin to cover what I’m capable of.
Read Part Two Here.