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Tea Notes

by Cheryl Hong about a year ago in grandparents
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The Inheritance

Tea Notes
Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

A soft song of steam decrescendoed as Ariel lifted the simmering kettle. Water bubbled over the pearled leaves, filling the mug with a swamp of gunpowder green. She rested the kettle on a cool, empty burner and glanced at her desk, where a pile of journals in dark burgundy and grey, marked with ribbons and notes, was stacked on the desk’s corner--a project in progress. The singular black leather one was older, marked with the permanent stains of use, weather, and persistent fingers. It was held together with a little stitching on the spine and a cord like a too-tight belt around its bulging belly.

Ariel hugged a shawl close around her shoulders and blew a gentle breath across the tea, sending foggy whisps scuttling like pipe smoke. She placed the tea on an end table and slipped her hand over the soft black leather, gingerly picking it up and settling in her armchair. Afternoon light refracted in golden bars across the sea and caught in the pale lace curtains of the window, diffusing a warm glow. With knobby fingers Ariel unwrapped the leather cord from the notebook and let the pages fall open in her lap.

On each page: an entry in dark and webby cursive, still steeped--who knows how--with the faintest fragrance. Sometimes the aroma was in the words themselves, almost as if the letters were gilded with scent like manuscripts in gold. Small hints of smell wafted from scraps of fabric and sachets of tea tucked between the pages. Drawing the page close under her nose and breathing deep, she could still taste some elusory essence, sense some glimmer of silver, years after it had first been inscribed. She closed her eyes, remembering a time before her current seaswept island world and the grey world of her early adulthood when her days were little more than routine. Long ago when the world blossomed, when color bathed everything, when Ariel was still a child and magic shone at its zenith through her days.

Grandmother Moon spun the best stories. Full-bodied and vivacious like laughing friends, each tale she told drenched the room in the light of story. The air would hang heavy with scenes from far away lands, sultry languages, night markets, barren deserts, and dappled cathedrals. As a child, Ariel was Shahryar, returning night after night to her grandmother Scheherazade’s stories. One by one, her brothers and sisters grew tired of the old stories, but Ariel’s intoxication lingered. Whenever Grandmother Moon visited, Ariel was drawn to her like the tide, curling up at her feet for a story.

Grandmother Moon traveled far, and each time she returned from one of her adventures she brought back a new scent. Sometimes she brought a small swatch of fabric that smelled of warm spices, or a square of yellow paper, or a tiny bottle that reeked of sharp anise. There were no greater treasures in Ariel’s childhood memories than the moments she fondled an object as Grandmother Moon told its story, no greater sorrows than when the objects were tucked away, slipped into the pages of her grandmother's thick and fragrant journal.

As a child Ariel longed to grow up and become a character in one of Grandmother Moon’s stories, a hero her grandmother would discover on her travels. Ariel imagined what battle she would win, what person she would save. She worked hard at her education, harder than most, and she took great pride in her work. As she aged, the spirit of industry ate away at her imaginary adventures. Days spent rivalling others left little time for listening and even less for dreaming. No longer were her fantasies awash in vivid color. She dreamt only of prestige, progress, the next grey day mired in productivity. The more she chased flimsy ideas of a fortune that would free her to live the life she desired, the more miserable she became. Most days she began work long before dawn painted the sky and ended long after it was pierced by the first stars. Fatigue painted deep purple pockets under her eyes.

When Ariel received word that Grandmother Moon had died, the news and the burial ceremony that followed were lone black days that broke her monotonous sea of grey. Her family crowded into Grandmother Moon’s home. The walls of her childhood whispered memories in Ariel’s ears and she was carried through the day on stories. In the front room where the family gathered for the dispersal of Grandmother Moon’s possessions, her grandmother’s visage beamed down at her from the many hanging gilded frames. Here on a small jungle river craft, there on an arctic sleigh, here alone, there surrounded by her family. Her face, so near in photos, would never again break open in laughter, never spin a story. It was gone.

The spoils of a life were divided. Adrift in memory, Ariel was startled when she heard her name and felt a hand drop heavily on her shoulder, the other handing her an ivory linen pouch tagged with a small card with her name. Ariel stole away to her old bedroom, where everything remained as it was in memory: the lavender dresser opposite the quilt-covered bed, her grandmother’s bruised velvet chair softly shining with her light. In the quiet that accompanies death and prolonged time with family, Ariel drew a long, shaky breath. She untied the pouch and a dark journal slid into her hand. The pages were feathered with conspicuous bulges, small pockets made by objects placed with a careful hand. She unwound the tie and opened the cover, the spine cracking to life. Between the pages, like morsels in soft bread, were little packets of tea, fabric, and minuscule charms.

Meandering the pages, Ariel soon discovered the notebook was filled with every story her grandmother had ever told, each marked by sachets of tea or other trinkets. Each little object she knew from the memories lingering in her fingers. Their scent infused the pages and gently rose in the air like mirages until Ariel felt she was in the stories: walking the streets, brushing her hand against the walls, savoring the foods. Every punchline, every landscape, every heart-wrenching adventure had been preserved here with expert care. On the last page, Ariel found something else: a handwritten note on a torn piece of cardstock addressed to her. “Ariel,” the note read, “This is the map to my treasure. You have everything you need to find its hiding place.”

Stillness overcame Ariel, and she was flooded with a peace she hadn’t felt in years. The note was certainly meant for her, but what could her grandmother mean? What treasure? Was it the twenty thousand that had been left to each person in her family? Had she overlooked something in the notebook, some map or clue?

When her family asked for the details of her inheritance, she avoided specifics. Days and even months later, she couldn’t help thumbing through the pages trying to decipher how this notebook held the key to her grandmother’s treasure, or if the treasure was even real. The notes and adventures occupied her mind, pushing her out of monochromatic corporate life and back into a world of vibrant color.

The arrangement of the tea notes was peculiar. Instead of being arranged alphabetically or by country of origin, they seemed ordered by an internal intuition. It was as if one story or adventure were linked to the next by a tendril of fragrance, an object or ingredient that traveled across continents and years. Tracing the origins of a thread of saffron led her grandmother to a merchant with a gold turban, a hall of burnished chandeliers, a soft field of freshly-harvested chamomile buds. After a sip of the most exquisite and hallucinatory absinthe, Moon sought juicy peaches, then broke open prickly pears in the desert heat before trekking through chaparral to forests of evergreen, fig, and bonsai, until on a mountain high above the treeline she witnessed perfect leaves of green unfurl in a jade cup of steam.

Ariel made up her mind to chase the notes wherever they led her, using the money left to her. Whatever the cost, she would pay it. Her journey took her across the world in patterns never traced on any map. At first she stuck closely to her grandmother’s notes, but soon she felt her own intuition taking over. When she let her mind wander, she found herself at perfect intersections of space and time, experiencing exactly what her grandmother’s journal described. Sipping tea or nibbling a biscuit, wafting incense or lighting a candle, Ariel could close her eyes and feel her presence, hear her voice. Without glancing at the journal, she sensed what thread of curiosity to follow, where to go next.

Soon Ariel was walking on grey shores alone, not knowing where her next meal would come from, and not caring. Sometimes the hawkers were so crammed with people and the night markets so sweaty she felt she would drown. And sometimes, the plains would be bare in front of her, a small village fire blazing, and in the distance a chilling choir of hyenas would raise their voices in the night. Once, in a café in Prague, it occurred to her that she had no plan, no itinerary, no exit strategy, and no desire for one. Never had she experienced such contentment, such ease. Travel arrangements and friends fell into her lap like brightly wrapped gifts.

Of course, not every day was smooth sailing. Outside a bakery in Brazil she’d been mugged--and still had a lovely white slice down her palm for her troubles. Monsoon rains once tore her laundry off the line and she was forced to chase her colorful skirts as they floated down the deep gutters of Delhi in the nude. Sometimes Ariel still looked for a timeline or a goal, the ghost of her old self reemerging. But now anticipation and planning made her jittery and anxious. Ariel let the plans drift from her hands like silky fog. Without her full awareness, the future melded with the present and the past. Locations hung together like pearls on a necklace; sliding them between her fingers she could travel to a different place and a different time.

She couldn’t remember the day she resigned herself to the unsolved mystery of Grandmother Moon’s treasure. She never found it, but she had her own journals of tea notes now, stacks of them. Each page drowned in a collection of color, scent, and memory her brief notes could not begin to contain. She settled in a cottage on a small island in a grey sea. From a desk at a porthole window, she shuffled through the dark leather-bound pages of her and her grandmother’s travels, refilling sachets and adding cross references, steeping memories in sunlight.

Her tea cooled beside her. The notebook lay open across her lap. Ariel startled awake at a knock on the door. From across the room, a chair slid on the floor and footsteps shuffled in cushioned slippers. A herd of children spilled in, jostling her and her robed husband. She gathered her shawl tighter as they ran at her, nearly toppling her tea and squashing her legs. One drew close enough to sniff a whiff of tea.

“It smells like Grandmother Moon’s treasure notebook!” Ariel smiled. The children were here for another installment of stories and she didn’t intend to keep them waiting. These days she rarely wondered where her grandmother’s treasure was and who might have discovered it; it scarcely mattered now. Her children’s children cuddled close and Ariel’s voice rose in glowing notes to spin them tales of wonder from her own adventures, ones she knew were worth more than their weight in gold.


About the author

Cheryl Hong

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