Ellen Sycamore took great care and tenderness in the making of this tea. The care and tenderness she showed to make the tea came easily because she was a quiet and gentle woman-at least that is what Glenn always said. Her gentleness was one of the many reasons why Glenn fell in love with her. There are many who feel that love is contagious, and that if someone shows love then they are bound to receive love back. Ellen was skeptical of such musings. She had loved others before Glenn. She had her fair share of boyfriends in high school and in college, but she never received love in return-not like she did with Glenn. He gave back every ounce of love she gave him. Too bad he couldn't do it anymore.
Her love for Glenn went way back, back many years. They shared a lot of memories, a lot of struggles, a lot of joys-those were the things she held onto. She fell in love with him long ago; she stayed in love because of that look he would give her while they sipped their morning cup of tea. It communicated all the quiet passion he felt for her. It made her feel alive, like a woman, and ready to face anything. She used the image of Glenn's touching stare to spur her on in the tea making.
She read about this tea in a tea and coffee book that she bought in the dollar store in town. When she read about the tea she thought immediately of Glenn. The book described the tea as having a thick taste with a smoky aroma. He would love this, she thought to herself, and decided that she would make the tea. She bought the book. She walked away from the cashier, her short and delicate frame slightly hunched. Her heart felt like a giant boulder was attached to it. She knew Glenn would never taste this tea and she would never see that loving look of his again. Ellen brushed aside these thoughts and left the store.
That afternoon, she went to the nursery near her house. She wanted to grow this tea and she needed to find a tea plant. She roamed up and down the wide paths between potted plants. Searching and searching. Her blue eyes darted from one green, leafy plant to the next. Her stride was slow. Her mind held up the image of the tea plant from the tea and coffee book. She couldn't find it, so she approached an employee who was unloading bags filled with topsoil.
Ellen's voice was timid and wavering. She asked if the nursery might have the tea plant in stock. The employee couldn't hear Ellen, her voice was so low. Ellen repeated her question. The employee paused with a thinking expression. Ellen reached into her bag for the book and turned to a page with a picture of the plant. The employee suggested Row Ten. Ellen thanked her and walked away-briskly, purposefully-her graying dark hair trailing.
There it was. It was just a fledgling that day. It stood a shy three inches from the soil in the pot but it held itself with a purpose that Ellen seemed to understand. There were a dozen other plants similar to the one she chose but this was to be the one for Glenn's tea. It reminded her of Glenn. He was a little short, a little stocky in build, and when he stood in place he seemed to attach himself to the ground below him. This plant was shorter than its brothers next to it. It was more leafy, more full. It seemed to be more firmly rooted than the others. Ellen picked it up, her pale, thin fingers clutching it like a possessive child, and bought it.
She drove home and found a cozy plot in the backyard near her rose garden. The rose bushes were beginning to leaf and bud. It was March and they knew the chill wouldn't be returning. The bushes were happy to feel the warmth again. Ellen thought that the roses would provide good company for the tea plant.
There was nice black topsoil in the rose garden. It gave way to her trowel willingly. She dug a hole and carefully laid the tea plant in place. Dirt got under her fingernails and on her hands. The dirt was embedded inside wrinkles that were never noticed before. The soil outlined her new, miniscule folds. She felt so old at the sight of these creases in her hands. How much time had gone past? Was it really that much? It didn't feel like it to her.
With the black soil packed neatly around her new friend, Ellen took a moment to admire the plant. A brisk wind was gently whipping by. The plant's tiny leaves waved with the wind as if in greeting to the crowd of rose bushes and nearby weeds. The plant looked so big then. Ellen thought it strange that the plant seemed so small in the nursery just an hour ago. She watered the ground around the tea plant and imagined that it was eagerly lapping up the moisture with tongues out of her sight.
The sun finished its course across the sky and dusk came to Ellen's home. The sky dimmed. Bright red rays tinged the white clouds a pastel pink. Orange hues spilled onto the dark blue of the coming nightsky. The sunset was dramatic but the drama was lost on Ellen. She paid no attention to God's sky paintings. Her attention was fully gripped in the final chapters of her tea and coffee book. She read about the various insects to watch out for while the tea plant grew. She diligently took notes on the bugs she thought might exist in the area. Ellen didn't want any harm to come to her tea. It was much too important to be lost to the tiny mouths of arthropods.
Ellen returned to the plant frequently in the days following. She pretended that it would miss her if she didn't pay enough attention to it. The plant must have felt the comfort of her care because it grew quickly. Part of her didn't want it to grow so fast. Time went by too quickly in her opinion. Time had slowed ever since Glenn's passing, but it still was too fast. She wished to relish every moment and take it all in slowly. The creation of the tea would take time, but not as much as she hoped.
Ellen didn't have many friends. She was always a private woman. The few friends she did have called her sometimes. But Ellen unplugged the answering machine a while back. She would just let the phone ring and ring. This was her private time. She felt like she needed it. She was adjusting to her new life, similar to the tea plant adjusting to new soil. Ellen would take her time before budding and releasing herself back to the world.
The tea plant adjusted faster than Ellen. It was twice its original height in thirteen days time. The book on tea and coffee said that the plant's leaves would have to be plucked when they reached full maturity. Ellen knew that that time would be soon-perhaps in a couple months' time. The fate of the tea resided in the leaves of the plant. She put as much love into their green flesh as she could.
Days, weeks, and months passed by. Ellen hardly knew what she did in this time, apart from the care of her garden. She did do a lot of reading. Mostly classical literature and other books she always wanted to read but never did. She also stared a lot. Ellen would spend hours just laying on the couch or the carpeted floor staring away into nothingness. These were times spent thinking about nothing in particular. She remembered a lot. She remembered about Glenn sometimes but mostly about her life before him. Being productive wasn't important to her. She was numb.
The time came for her to pluck the leaves in the next step of the tea making. The recipe called for a wooden box to store the leaves in. She thought of driving to town for one but then thought of something else. She went to the bedroom closet. She looked up to the top shelf and saw what she wanted. Ellen reached up on her tip-toes for it. It was too high for her short body to grasp. So she grabbed a stool and was then able to get Glenn's old humidor. The humidor would do just fine for the tea. She took in a long inhalation of the smoky smell from the cigars stored in the belly of the box. She sighed a brief moan and paused for an almost imperceptible time, then walked to the backyard with it in hand.
The tea plant seemed to cower with fear and apprehension to Ellen at her coming-like a dog at the veterinarian, or a student receiving their midterm, or a child dreading a bath. Maybe the cowering was just in Ellen's imagination. She felt sadness brimming in her heart. She plucked off each leaf with tenderness, so as to not injure the stem. As she did so, a few tears wetted the black soil. She wiped the tear streaks away and refocused on her task. She placed the leaves inside the humidor to be carried to the fireplace in the house. Ellen felt an emotional pain that reminded her of stories of women giving birth. It was pain that came from places that she hadn't felt before, places that needed to be felt.
Ellen finished the plucking, leaving the plant nearly naked. She went inside to the living room. The pine needles and pine chips lay waiting for Ellen's tea leaves in their spot in the fireplace. Two wicker baskets were suspended above the pine kindling. She took the baskets and filled each of them with an equal number of leaves. The baskets were placed back in the cold fireplace. Ellen lit the kindling underneath.
Flames sputtered and spread but all that reached the wicker baskets and their contents was smoke. This was as it was supposed to be. The smoke was to wilt the leaves so that she could roll the leaves and allow their natural oils to mix with the air. The wilting took a half hour and Ellen removed the baskets from their place.
Her small hands rolled each of the leaves into tiny tubes. The leaves didn't hold their tube shape but that didn't matter. The rolling was done only to release the leaves' inner oils. Ellen's finger joints ached from the beginnings of arthritis. She rubbed her hands, held them to the fire's remaining heat, and took in deep draughts of air to stem the pain.
The tea leaves were returned to the safety of the humidor. She imagined that they were all siblings and she was their mother, tucking them into bed. They kept each other warm when she shut the door on their large room which was the wooden box. They were good children-not a peep. A slight smile appeared on the corners of her mouth.
The leaves rested for a few days. But it wasn't long before they called for their mother with their wonderful scent. They were eager to face their calling in this world but Ellen was hesitant. Pretty soon, the tea would be finished and gone forever. But it was time for the final step.
She returned to the fireplace and prepared the pine kindling once again. This time she used only needles, as she wanted a lot of smoke for the tea leaves to soak up. She had extra needles beside the hearth. Ellen nestled the leaves nicely back in the two wicker baskets. The pine needles were lit. A few seconds later smoke began to gush out of the small flames inside the needles. Ellen fed the smoke with more needles.
Once all the collected pine needles were consumed, Ellen was too tired to do anything more. She left the pine needles smoking their last breath; she left the baskets in their high place; and she left the beloved, dried out, and smoke-infused leaves in their baskets. The bed was waiting to hold her in its arms. It was an empty embrace, but one that she lost her consciousness inside of almost immediately.
She woke in the morning knowing that this was the morning to drink the tea. Her sadness overwhelmed her. Was it time already? Her grief had grown with the mother tea plant; now the pain burned like the pine needle fire. She felt the flames brushing her heart. Her tenderness for Glenn burned; but instead of smoke issuing forth, tears came.
There were so many needles that stimulated the pain she felt and every one of them poked her insides. There were needles in the form of Glenn's face, of his manner; there were needles of their years of their marriage, struggles and joys; and there were needles of her future aloneness. The scalding heat of missing him singed her insides. The fire that was Glenn's death grew to stifling degrees.
She felt herself wilting in the face of the acknowledgement of her loss. Her heart was being rolled up in a tube and abandoned. She felt abandoned. He was gone and she knew it. Ellen got to her feet and went to the kitchen. She turned on the stove with the water kettle and waited. She listened to the stove crackling as the electrical charge surged through the coils of the stove. Soon the water began to roar like ocean waves. The kettle then screamed its shriek to Ellen saying that the water was hot enough. Her arm felt like lead and she didn't want to move to pick up the kettle. But her will exerted its force upon her. Ellen took the kettle off the stove. With the kettle in hand she turned to the fireplace. It felt like she was walking to her funeral and her birth simultaneously. She was afraid to let go of him, of her husband, of her Glenn.
She reached the two baskets hanging in the cool fireplace. She reached in with her small hand and felt the lovely leaves that were a final tribute to what she and Glenn had together. The leaves felt like the piles of leaves in autumn that she used to play in, decades ago. She threw herself into those piles of leaves without hesitation. She didn't hesitate now.
Ellen placed the tea leaves into her cup. Hot water joined them in a steaming torrent. The oils of the mother plant and the smokiness extended itself to every corner of the cup. Ellen shivered from a chill-she was so cold without him. But the warmth of the tea gave her hands comfort. She took a swallow. The water burned her mouth, but it felt soothing going down her throat. She loved the taste of the smoke: it tasted like Glenn's lips after he had one of his cigars. Ellen drank again-it was becoming easier. He was inside of her and she felt refreshed and energized. Glenn spoke to Ellen through the flavors and he said lovely things.
Robert Norris lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and is a Master of Arts candidate for the Critical and Creative Thinking program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He has occupied his time being a waiter, builder, corporate trainer, retail store clerk, barkeeper, interviewer, temp employee, and dock slave. His future career in writing is just beginning. Plum Ruby Review is his first short story publication.