For context, READ THIS FIRST.
For once, I thought I’d get a full night’s sleep. The work week had been murder, and for some odd reason, I couldn’t stay in bed for more than six hours. Well, this time I had an excuse. A loud roar jolted me from sleep. When I opened my eyes, standing in front of me was the Bodhisattva of Compassion herself – Guan Yin – standing atop a rubber ducky (???). And she looked pissed.
How did she get in my room? Wait…where was my room?! I was greeted by blackness all around me as I sat straight up. The only occupants in this void/nullspace were me (still in bed), the ducky-perched Chinese goddess, and a third shadowy figure.
“Are you the one they call the Lazy Clitoris?” the bodhisattva asked.
“That’s…Literatus,” I corrected her. “Ma’am.”
“Silence!” she snapped.
“But you asked me to speak,” I reminded her.
She did not take my dry comment well, bringing a lightning bolt down within an inch of my bed. The smell of ozone wafted once the crackling ceased. I didn’t even know she had that ability.
“You have wronged me greatly,” Guan Yin said, lowering her duck.
“Is this about the story?”
“Of course, it is!” her voice boomed and echoed.
“But it was all true,” I replied.
“True or not, you have sullied my name,” she said. “And now, you must make reparations.”
“Why are you on a duck?” I had to ask.
“My dragon – Ao Bing – is…on vacation,” she replied, flustered.
“But why a duck?”
“A mutual interested party provided him,” she said, motioning for the shadowy figure to step forward.
A youthful man in dated formal attire approached in a carriage…pulled by two very imposing Bengal tigers. His attire was a mix-and-match of Victorian and Georgian influences, his cravat was flashy, and his top hat seemed to glow with its own aura. The man’s visage bore a striking resemblance to American actor, James Franco.
The Faux-Franco bowed in my direction, “Viscount Petersham, at your service.”
I cocked an eyebrow, “Petersham?”
“Who is Peter, and why is he a sham?” I asked with a half-smile.
He simply looked at me for a moment, then spoke, “Oh! That was an attempt at humor. How precious.”
“And why are you here?” I asked of him again. “Wherever here is?”
“The lovely Bodhisattva and I have come to an arrangement,” the viscount explained. “One that involves you.”
“What for and why me?”
“My, you’re annoying quizzical,” Petersham sighed. “You wronged her and an associate of mine. She brought you to this ‘space between spaces’ where you will be subjected to a Trial by Tea.”
“Tea!” Guan Yin finished for me. “If you pass, you live. If you fail…”
As if on cue, one of the Bengals roared. I gulped. No one wanted to die in their pajamas, especially not out-of-season Santa Claus pajamas.
“The idea, my good chap, is this,” the viscount said, dismounting from his grand tiger-chariot. “There are two teas in my repertoire that need testing. One was tailored specifically to me, the other – well – named for my feline friends over there.”
“So…what do I have to do?” I queried.
“Simply try them,” Petersham said with a grin.
“And if I don’t like them?”
“That won’t be possible.”
“Get on with it,” the goddess said impatiently.
“Yes, m’dear,” he said with a roll of the eyes.
He stretched out his hand. A platter, a teapot, a metallic kettle, two transparent 8-ounce teacups, and an hourglass perched above his hand.
“How did you-?” I started.
“I’m a dead man with two pet tigers,” Petersham stated flatly. “What can’t I do?”
“Fair point,” I nodded.
“Now, how do you take your tea, lad?” he asked.
Me? A lad? I look older than him! I said inwardly.
“1 teaspoon of leaves, boiling water, three-minute steep,” I replied.
“Only three minutes?!” Petersham looked aghast. “What are you, some kind of dandy?”
“You asked,” I shrugged – an odd question coming from a man with a lisp.
He sighed dramatically. “Very well.”
With a wave of a few fingers from his other hand, steam rose from the kettle – bubbling was heard from within. I wondered where the water had come from, but this was a magic void. Wondering was pointless. The kettle, then, poured the water itself into the pot. I guessed the leaves were already housed within. The hourglass flipped itself over independently and remained suspended in mid-air.
Three minutes passed by with awkward silence. Guan Yin had dismounted the rubber ducky and crouched down to pat the head of one of the tigers. It bellowed a loud purr in response. Petersham made unique use of a snuff box in the interim.
When the hourglass ran its last grain of sand, there was a loud chime. The tigers perked up in alarm. The source seemed to resound from all over. Petersham was unperturbed by it, gingerly waving a finger, and levitating the pot.
The liquor that poured into the clear cup was an even copper with a light gold ring on the periphery. It was a lovely looking beverage. I put cup to lips. On introduction, there was a bit of a citrus bite, followed by a slight tannic lean in the middle. Then it snapped at the top note with a presence of peppers, allspice, honey and Keemun sweetness. So many different flavors were at play – all vying for steeping supremacy.
“Damn,” I said with approval.
“Poetic, isn’t he?” Guan Yin said dryly.
The viscount, however, appeared overjoyed. “And, now, the Two Tigers blend.”
He repeated the same songless dance with a new set of “tea”-quipment. Water boiled, apparatuses flew about, and another clear cup was magically filled. The smell of the rising steam was strong on the nostrils.
The liquor had brewed only a slightly deeper copper than Petersham’s namesake blend with a very even and sweet aroma. Malt was also there but understated. Flavor-wise, it possessed a very crisp forefront, which transitioned to a strangely floral middle. It tapered off nicely without much lingering bitterness.
“A strong morning cup, for sure, but one polite enough to call you a cab afterwards,” I said.
The viscount looked puzzled. “I don’t quite follow.”
“It’s a sex reference,” Guan Yin growled, arms akimbo. “He does that.”
Again, Petersham was un-phased. “Splendid! You passed!”
“All I did was like the teas,” I said.
“That’s all that was needed,” Petersham said, clasping my shoulders. “You live to drink another day.”
With that, the youthful – and possibly immortal – lord retook the reigns of his tiger mounts, bid a gloved farewell with a “toodleloo ” of his left fingers, and rode off into the darkness. The cups of tea and brewing equipment, however, remained suspended in place – hovering. All that remained were me, the tea, an ill-tempered goddess, and a rubber ducky.
“Okay…” I started. “I passed. Guess that means I get to go now?”
“No,” she said.
“No?” I gulped – voice a little higher.
“You get to live, yes,” Guan Yin agreed. “But I get to determine the ‘where’.”
I said nothing, but my gaze narrowed.
“Here in the void,” she said with arms outstretched. “This suits you perfectly.”
“So, it’s like that, then,” I said, taking the cup with the Petersham blend.
“It’s like that,” she repeated.
I also grabbed the cup of the Two Tigers blend. “You’ve never read my work, have you?”
“You work?” she chuckled.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
I held out both transparent cups so she could clearly see them. At first, she appeared puzzled…but then her eyes widened. I bore a toothy grin as I poured the contents of one cup into the other.
“NO!” she screamed.
“You forget, Bodhisattva,” I began. “When I blend, I don’t think of the consequences. And when I drink…”
One of the cups began to glow. The copper liquid bubbled and churned from other. Out of thin air, a third cup appeared. No, not a cup. A mug. I moved the three together. The shape looked…oddly (but appropriately) phallic.
“This. Is. MY CUPPA!!!” I bellowed, taking a swig.
Both blends combined tasted like all the things that men are made off – earth and smoke with an astringent stubbornness that couldn’t be quelled. I relished in the power. This was true tiger’s blood.
Cracks and fissures of glowing light pierced the pocket void-realm. The “ceiling”/sky/whatever flaked and crumbled. Shadows retreated and the intruding rays of luminescence penetrated ever-inward. Guan Yin screamed as her handiwork unraveled in mere moments. Without a means to retaliate, she retreated to the solace of the rubber ducky and made a hasty retreat.
As the last of the shadows receded, I found myself back in my haphazard room. All was in shambles, but it was the mess I had made – not the goddess. My bed was as I left it. Yet I still held the combined, phallic-looking tri-teacup.
“This isn’t over, Clitoris,” boomed a disembodied woman’s voice. “Those blends were his, and he still owns you until you finish.”
“His? He who? Finish what?” I asked the ceiling.
There was no response, only the echoes of tittering laughter.
“That’s LiterATus!” I corrected…to no one in particular.
What had she meant by being owned? Who was I indebted to? Who owned and/or made those blends? Not Petersham, he said they were commissioned. Then whom?
The realization hit me when I looked down at my computer.
The rubber ducky? Petersham? I inhaled sharply. HIM?!
I was in someone’s debt, someone for whom I owed a writing project. So long as it went incomplete, he owned my soul. Without further thought, I fired up the computer and went to writing. Shivering all the while, imagining his eyes (and ducky) were looming over me.
Thanks are owed to Jackie, one of the co-pilots of Tea Trade, for passing the two Devotea blends my way.
Thanks, also, to The Devotea himself – Robert Godden – for making them. They were superb. (As if there was ever a doubt. One of these days, I’ll have to pick his brain for the recipes.)
You can buy the Lord Petersham blend HERE.
You can buy the Two Tigers blend HERE.
And, lastly, thanks to Jason Norman (my cousin) for helping me out with some last-minute Photoshopping. Much obliged.