Granma’s room; always dark. Silence, stillness, nothing touched.
Nine years old, the oldest, not the favourite.
Is Granma alright? Maybe tea?
Two cups of bitter, peaty liquid; no milk, no sugar.
The leaves drift into symbols.
“What do you see?”
The word stains like nicotine.
This is an abbreviated version of a longer piece which you can read below.
Tobacco and Tea
By David Rae
Granma’s room was always dark and cool no matter how hot it was outside. Shaded by aspidistra, ferns, ivy, begonias, she sat on her armchair. Jaundiced light slipped through the tobacco-stained fabric of the sun blinds she kept pulled low. Silent as a mouse you enter into silence. It seems as if she has not spoken for a hundred years. As your eyes adjust to the dark, you see the heavy wooden furniture, stained with maybe a century of pipe smoke; grandpa’s long ago pipe smoke, a century of smoking, a century ago, settled on to century-old wood. Embroidered tablecloths, wicker-backed chairs, silverware sitting on the side table; all arranged to let her know if one thing had moved. Still as a mouse, you are surrounded by stillness. Not a shell backed comb, not a silver thimble, nor pearl handled opera glass moved without her knowing, without her permission. Nothing touched without going back to where it was, to where it belongs. Everything arranged in its proper place like votive offerings, offerings to a different god completely from one that looked down with flaming heart from the picture hanging on her wall behind her.
“Don’t touch, put it back,” her mantra.
How can someone so old be so beautiful? How can someone so beautiful be so terrifying? She sat in her chair, and her long hair flowed down over her black gown like a witch. Do witches have beautiful long silver hair; this one did. This one had long silver hair brushed a hundred times every night and every morning.
“How old are you?” her broken voice breaks the silence.
She knew, but you still answered; nine years, the oldest child, but not the favourite, or at least not her favourite, far from it. Her eyes, well, what does it matter, she could barely see., but yet saw everything. You breathe in and together with scent of violets and tobacco, inhale anger, her anger. Old and cheated, her husband dead an age ago, long before you were born, she has sat waiting for him to come to her for maybe a century. Her true love stolen by death.
“He will come, for me.” But he had not come. Her strength has kept her alive; living kept them apart. Morbid; that was the word your child brain could not voice. Obsessed with death, her death, at night she prays to die, – her prayers not answered.
“Is she about?” Angry, especially angry with Mother; a husband lost and a son stolen. Mother was at least half to blame.
Mother was out; you had been sent to make sure that Granma was alright, to see if she needed anything, maybe tea?
“Yes, bring tea.” Mouse-like you scurry to obey.
When you return, she makes you pour two cups of bitter, peaty liquid, no milk, no sugar. The tea leaves swirled and settled, as the water flowed from the teapot.
She hands you a pearl-handled teaspoon, lifting it from its place on the table by her side, between a silver pill box and a studded pin cushion. You swish the tannin coloured water back and forth and then return the spoon. It is wiped and cleaned and returned to its proper place.
“Drink,” she commands and hands you one of the two white, bone china cups.
The tea tastes of resin; you drink it as quickly as you can, and when you have finished, you place it in her outstretched witch-fingers. The tea leaves drift into fateful patterns
She places a saucer over the top then turns it upside down. She moves the cup away, twisting it this way and that, muttering to herself. She frowns.
“What can you see?” you ask, putting yourself in her power. Her witch eyes staring at you. What did she see; did she see birds, or flowers, or hearts? Did she see a sword or a windmill? What could these things mean? What could they tell you; love, success, fortune. In your mind, you imagine the tea leaves settled into a flowing script, writing out the story of your life.
“Tell me.” Breathless.
“Just as I thought,” Granma says. “Nothing.”
How did she know, how could she know even then?
That moment, the light shining through tea-coloured blinds, turns to amber; trapped forever. You are nothing. You will always be nothing. Her words stain like nicotine and do not wash off.
First published in MacrMic