A month had passed since I came to the startling realization that I wasn’t going to review tea anymore. Days had passed when I realized I didn’t have a job anymore. Mere hours had crept by before I remembered that I wasn’t wearing any pants. Of course, I was still in bed when I pondered all of this.
Why I even had my alarm set was a force of habit – not out of any obligation. Last night was the first where I completely forgot to set it. A sure sign that I had given up on any semblance of a pattern. Unemployed, unmotivated, all I wanted to do was sleep. But something perched on my chest wasn’t going to let me…
“I said, ‘Ahem!’,” a squeaky voice chimed again.
I first thought the annoying, high-pitched hollering was my “smart” phone ringer. When I finally opened my eyes, I found…her. An off-white, slightly-worn, Chinese lidded teacup with a face, and she was staring angrily at me. I didn’t know gaiwans could get angry, nor that they possessed a face.
“For the last time…” she started again with a miniature huff.
“I’m up! I’m up!” I said quickly. “What’s so damn urgent?”
“It’s been a month,” the gaiwan answered flatly.
“Since you promised to go to Darjeeling,” she stated.
“I made no such promise, Liddy,” I said, cradling her in one hand while making my way to the kitchen.
That was her name – Liddy. I received her for a little over three weeks. She was given to me by an undead Scottish botanist for magical teleportation. The fact that I could say that with a straight face proved either: (a) I needed to get out more. Or (b) I got out too much.
“That doesn’t matter now,” she shook her head…er…lid…whatever. “You’re needed.”
“No time to explain!”
And with that, the little, lidded cup glowed white. Before I knew it, the glow encapsulated my tired, thirtysomething, pajama-clad form. (Why did this always happen while I was in pajamas?!) In a flash, we were both no longer in my kitchen. Instead, what greeted us was a large room that resembled a cross between Bag End from The Lord of the Rings and a mole cave.
There were many tables and chairs – some carved with wood, others straight from stone – with many worn occupants. None of them were human. The majority of them were snakes, and they were singing and dancing – if such creatures could do that. And they were, with reckless abandon. The most prominent feature of the place? It reeked of years-old cheese.
“This…is not Darjeeling,” I observed with… obviousness.
“Technically, you’re under Darjeeling,” said a gruff voice behind me.
I turned to face – and stare down at – a brown-bearded dwarf dressed in merchant attire. He looked like every quintessential dwarf I’d ever seen in fantasy movies or brandished on book covers. If anything, though, he appeared more haggard than his fictional counterparts. And smellier. Even his dapper attire was dusty – at best.
“Welcome to The Smiling Subterranean,” the dwarf baritoned proudly. “The only underground tearoom in (or rather, under) Darjeeling.”
“It reeks in here,” Liddy said with a sneer.
The dwarf merely laughed nervously. “C-can I get you anything?”
“Darjeeling first flush,” I said – a little too excitedly. “Er…if you have some.”
“Of course!” the dwarf clapped his hands. “We have several to choose from. We also offer flights of three, if you can’t decide.”
Given my propensity for indecision-making, I said, “I’ll go with the latter.”
Before the dwarf could walk away in a scurry, I grabbed his shoulder.
“Hey, you wouldn’t, by any chance, know where I can find a zombie and a gnome, would you?” I winced at the ridiculousness of my question.
“Oh? Those two? Yes, they’re in the far left corner,” the dwarf said cheerfully. “They – like the rest of us – have been here for quite some time. I apologize for the odor. Many of us haven’t bathed in weeks.”
“That’s alright,” I reassured him. Frankly, I didn’t know dwarves did bathe.
I made my way to the back of the “tearoom”, all the while inhaling through my mouth. As I passed the many different tables, I made brief eye contact with the other denizens of this cavernous tasting room. Some looked like mole-men. Others were dwarves, gnomes, pygmies and gremlins of varying color. All of them wore wan or tired expressions – save for the snakes. The serpentine citizens cheerily sipped there beverages, all the while singing. Some outright danced in their chairs. Their song seemed familiar.
The two patrons I was looking for were, indeed, where the dwarf indicated. Thed – the ill-tempered Greek gnome – looked disheveled, his once-green hat was now a shade of light brown. Formerly Robert Fortune, the slightly-blue-skinned undead botanist – to the gnome’s right – looked even more zombified than usual. His dapper dinner jacket seemed drab.
“Took you long enough,” the gnome grumbled.
“Indeed,” Fortune agreed. “Was a month really necessary?”
“I never said I was going,” I defended.
“You gave us the impression you were,” the once-botanist countered.
“By the time I determined I wanted to, I thought you would’ve been long gone,” I explained.
“No,” Thed returned with a growl. “We’ve been here the whole time!”
“Here, as in, Darjeeling?”
“Here, as in, under Darjeeling!” Formerly Fortune corrected me.
“What’s stopping you from leaving?” I questioned.
“Them,” Thed pointed in the direction of the snake-people.
“Nagas?” I wondered.
“No, worse,” said the gnome. “Nags.”
“The imbecilic cousins of Nagas,” Fortune explained.
“Aaaaah,” I said with mock-understanding. “That’s why this place stinks.”
“We’ve been here for a month,” Thed sighed.
“On top of that,” Fortune began through gritted teeth. “They keep singing the same. Bloody. Song. Over and over again!”
“Nonstop,” came the forced-cheery voice of a dwarf behind us.
He had several Ceylon-style pouring cups on a wooden tray. Each had green-ish leaves to the side. I could smell the spice and muscatel from my seat.
The dwarf set everything up as neatly as he could with slightly-shaky hands. “From left to right: The first is a clonal from the Rohini estate, the second is dubbed ‘Classic’ from Giddapahar, and the third is a ‘tippy’ offering from Barnesbeg. My name is Cisnarf. Ask for me if you need anything.” He looked at my other two compatriots. “Are you two…”
“We’re fine, thanks,” Thed replied curtly.
“I could re-steep your leaves, or…”
“I said we’re fine!” Thed banged the table.
The dwarf appeared taken aback by the emphatic display.
“Apologies,” Fortune spoke up. “We’re a little wound up.”
Cisnarf nodded. “Trust me, we all are.”
He scurried off again toward the kitchen doors. I got a glimpse of five other dwarves in the back. All looked equally worn out. A month of tea imprisonment would do that do a man…or…um…non-man. Whatever.
I dipped into the Rohini offering first. The Rohini tea estate was actually one of the first to kick off Darjeeling’s first flush all the way back in late-February. It was considered a low-altitude estate – a designation usually met with derision among connoisseurs. I couldn’t really see why.
The leaves for this were large and beautiful, and the rolling style differed from some of her high-altitude cousins. There was some of the spice smell to the dry leaves, but most of the aroma was surprisingly fruity – not just grapy.
Brewed up, they yielded a pale yellow liquor with a sweet, fruity aroma. Such was also true with the taste. While the front was a bit harsh, the remaining mouthfeel was candied apples, grapes and a tickle of citrus.
“This tastes like a Darjeeling oolong rather than an OP,” I said aloud.
“OP?” Thed cocked an eyebrow. “Old Person?”
The zom-botanist literally facepalmed. “He means orange pekoe.”
“Those leaves aren’t orange,” the gnome responded.
“I’m not going to explain it to you again,” Fortune said with dejection.
I ignored them and turned my attention to the Giddapahar Classic.
Oh, Giddapahar. It’s been too long, I thought.
This was the first estate that convinced me that Darjeelings could be perfect with their second flush “Musk”. I also tried a bit of their China Classic and loved it with almost equal fervor. The dry leaves for the Classic were unlike any first flush I’d encountered – a strong, earthy and malty aroma wafted from the sample. The leaves were also uncharacteristically darker, looking more like an early Fall picking.
The liquor the leaves produced, though, was on par with other first flushes – yellow-to-amber – and the aroma was muscatel as all heck. Taste-wise, the forefront was a little vegetal, but it rose swiftly to spice-‘n-grape excellence. I couldn’t help but sigh with palate-related praise. The aftertaste finished on a nutty note, but that wasn’t unwelcome. Notes of white wine grapes lingered long after the sip.
I actually poured a second infusion and didn’t specify a brewing time or temp. What I got was an even better drink than the first!
“All chocolate, strawberries and bliss,” I exclaimed ‘gasmically.
“Are you quite done?” Thed asked with a hint of bite to his voice.
The Barnesbeg Tippy was the greenest of the three I encountered. The leaves were almost completely green save for a smattering of beige pieces in the mix – the “tippy” ones that were the drink’s namesake. As for scent, this felt like spring. The aroma was zesty, leafy, fresh and…well…young. As flushy as first flush can get. (Wait, that sounded wrong.)
The liquor brewed to a pale, almost “white tea” yellow. There was no other way to describe the aroma other than “creamy”. Very peculiar. On first sip, the first thing I detected was…vanilla? What the heck?! When did a Darjeeling ever have a vanilla?! How bizarre! The rest of the flavor sensation alternated between Long Jing-ish winy and greenery. This weird taste turntable continued well into the finish.
“Tastes like…vanilla?” I gave a puzzled look.
“That is peculiar,” Formerly Fortune pondered, sipping his own cup of tea.
“What are you two drinking?” I asked.
The botanist answered hastily, “This wonderful China Supreme from the Sungma estate.”
Thed mumbled something that sounded like, “Rushersher”.
“What?” I asked, cupping my ear.
“Risheehat!” the gnome yelled.
“And…how was it?”
The gnome started to sob.
Fortune interjected. “On our first day here, he said it reminded him of his childhood.”
“Is that a good thing?” I wondered.
“Oh yes, very,” Fortune nodded.
The gruff gnome cleared his throat and whiped his nose. “Can we get out of here now?”
“I just got here!” I blubbered, mid-sip.
“A month late!” Thed snapped back.
“Gentlemen, stop!” Fortune bellowed.
We did. Neither of us was used to hearing a zombie with mutton-chops shout.
“Thank you,” he breathed a sigh of relief. “Now then, Thed is right. We need to leave. I, for one, require a bath. A long one. Just because I am dead, doesn’t mean I want to smell like death.”
“What he said,” Thed agreed. “Except the whole ‘dead’ part.”
I finished the last of my Barnesbeg, gingerly set the cup down, and stood up.
“I… think I know a way,” I said reluctantly. “Get Cisnarf over here.”
The dwarf appeared before anyone could summon him. “You called?”
“Wow,” I said. “Er…yeah…does this place have a sound system of any sort?”
“An old one that runs on elemental aether, but it can tie into most frequencies,” Cisnarf offered.
“Can it tap into a smart phone?”
“As opposed to an unintelligent one?” Cisnarf asked – confused.
I groaned. “I mean, a computer. Can you link it to a computer?”
“Human ones? Oh, that’s easy!”
“Perfect,” I said with relief. “Prep your…uh…system. I’ll take care of the rest.” I motioned to the gnome and zombie. You two, follow my lead.”
While I was tasting the three first flush Darjeelings, it had occurred to me what song the Nags were repeating over and over. It was “Kaho Naa Pyaar Na Hai” from the Indian movie of the same name.
If these snake-folk were anything like their less sentient kin, then all one had to do was charm them with a new song. Preferably from a better Bollywood movie; one that sounded like an ending. I had just the one. All we needed was a dance to go along with it.
I was no choreographer, and my two left feet were evidence of my lack of rhythm. But there was a “meta”- Bollywood movie called Bride & Prejudice that gave some sound advice for European-ish appreciators of Indian musicals. One simply had to pretend they were screwing in a lightbulb and petting a dog at exactly the same time. I had no idea if this would work on snake-men, but it was worth a shot.
After removing my Android phone from my pajama pocket, I cued up my playlist. From the kitchen door, Cisnarf gave me a thumbs up. I tapped the Bluetooth setting, and prayed to Vishnu that it had a tenuous connection to…magic(?). There was a loud thumb throughout the cave-like tearoom. A connection was made.
I hit play.
“Yeh Fizayein” from the movie Main Hoon Na resounded through The Smiling Subterranean. The Nags froze in mid-song-‘n-dance and took notice of the tune. There was a bit of commotional hissing between the varied factions, but – in no time at all – all succumbed to the scaly sway of the beat.
“Time to dance, gentlemen,” I said. “Toward the exit.”
Off our motley trio went toward the front door of the tearoom. All the Nags fell into step behind us – all Pied Piper-like. I stopped at the large, wooden door, opened it and continued to “dance” beside it. The gnome and botanist went to the other side and copied my motions. Truth be told, they kept better rhythm than I.
When the last Nag had left, I pushed the door shut behind them. I signaled Cisnarf to cut the signal. There was some emphatic hissing from the other side of the entrance, followed by some hasty knocking. Eventually, that died down. Silence met the cavern.
The tired tea-folk within stood up and cheered. Robert Fortune bowed; I nodded to the mini-crowd awkwardly. Thed hid behind us.
Cisnarf came up to us and shook each of our hands. “How can I ever repay you?!”
“Do you have a backdoor?” Thed asked brusquely.
“Through the kitchen.”
“Splendid,” the gnome finished. “See ya.”
As we went to make our hasty egress, I felt around in my pockets. Something felt off; I couldn’t put my finger on what. It didn’t occur to me until we were well away from The Smiling Subterranean. I cursed openly and colorfully.
“What’s with you?” Thed asked.
“The gaiwan,” I said shakily. “Liddy…”
“What about her? How is she?” Fortune grilled.
My face was pale. “She’s gone.”
Trailing behind the dejected group of Nags, a Chinese woman in purple robes held the off-white gaiwan to her face.
“Oh great, it’s you,” Liddy spat with disgust.
“Come now, that’s no way to treat your maker,” the woman said with a purr.
“Whatever you’re planning, Guan Yin, you won’t get away with it,” the gaiwan growled.
The bodhisattva practically cackled, “I love it when cups turn to clichés!”
Her laughter echoed throughout the tunnels, chilling even the snake-folk.