Christmas Tea, a short story by George Justice at Spillwords.com

Christmas Tea

written by: George R. Justice

 

The house has regained an air of stillness in the aftermath of festivities so unavoidable on Christmas Eve. I feel wonderfully alone in the solitude and shun thoughts of even the faintest light. The darkness seems to suit me, weigh me with a quieting mystique not found in the overhead light: a harsh, vivid, tinged-with-blue florescent.

It’s here in the kitchen that I find the greatest solace on nights when sleep seems so out of reach; buffeted by memories too long in the keeping, yet powerless against their encroachments. It’s tea that I’m after, and almost as an afterthought, reach for the kettle. It is old and copper and feels all but weightless in my hands. In my most practiced motion, I move it under the tap and onto the stove. The gas flame, smooth and blue, bursts gently beneath it. Done. Simple. Now for the wait; for the boil.

Beyond my faint reflection in the kitchen window, I can see snow beginning to fall. Across my backyard, and as far as I can see, flakes the size of butterfly wings seesaw their way down onto my thirsty lawn, onto my long, hulking, rickrack of a family car, and onto the black cast-iron horses head erupting like some great unmovable Buddha from the corner post of the picket fence.

Behind me nothing stirs but the silent echo of voices and reminiscences of the day. Occasionally a passing car interrupts my musing, my seclusion, spilling its lights across the walls in a web of abstractions, then disappearing in a low dull drone, its tires hissing against the fresh wet snow.

I grow used to the intrusions and learn that in the seconds that follow, nothing is as pronounced as the mantle clock, or as effective for adding solitude to stillness as the steady undulating swing of its pendulum.

I press close to the kitchen window and gather my robe about me. A steady stream of flakes filter in front of the nightlight shining from Mrs. Valentine’s upstairs window. Her image, a robed shadow, purposeful and scurrying, appears out of the blackness time and again. It was her second night tending to Melissa. I remember all too well the nights spent next to my own feverish children, locked into their heavy breathing and fretful dreams.

There seems to be little at such times outside the certainty of darkness, and almost nothing in the way of comfort except for some legitimate attempts at prayer and the faint glow surrounding the nightlight. It will be a lengthy vigil for Mrs. Valentine: in and out of sleep, checking and rechecking, alone with cool cloths and the steady penetrating mist of the vaporizer. Feverish children have a way of extending the night.

Behind me, steam begins to push its way out of the copper kettle. The blue gas flame beacons my way to it. I fumble with the canister of tea until its lid yields grudgingly. A fragrance of apples and cinnamon drift from its deep tin belly. Their blended bouquets are subtle and earthen and permeate with a sense of propriety.

There is a permanence about tea, be it laden with cream or spiked with sugar; be it laced with brandy or candy or fruit from the vine; be it flavored with spices or sprigs, roots or twigs, or the sweet breath of spring. It made no difference. It was always for me the unrivaled healer, imbued with powers to console. If only I could find such attributes in the season.

Through the pines that stretch along the back of my yard, I can see Charlene Butters holding the back door open and calling to her cat. She’s cold and has the collar of her robe gathered up under her chin. Through an adjacent window, her husband, Sperling, is making an honest project out of reading the paper, an element of civic duty posturing him page after page.

Without much surprise, the cat remains unresponsive, choosing, despite the cold, to remain aloof and alone, even on Christmas Eve. Perhaps he will use up one of his lives before morning.

The top to the kettle is loose and rattles against the rush of the steam. I’m careful to remove it with an oven mitt adorned with the happiness of elves in pointed hats and shoes. For a moment I think I may have to turn on the light, but somehow manage to resist despite the intense vapors. Perhaps there is more to being alone with the darkness than I care to admit.

I can’t forego an air of gentility as I add the tea. For some reason, I think it becomes me. I add only about half of my usual amount, enough for my already tired palate. There is something medicinal about brewing tea, something reaffirming, eternal … something that validates my alchemist spirit. I have no problem waiting while it steeps. It is, after all, part of the process, part of the craft. Besides, I’ve been waiting most of the day. First, for the family to arrive, and then for them to leave … for my time alone.

The family. Christmas Eve. We. Us. All of us. Together. Eating. Drinking. Children running, upending and spilling. And the gifts. Dear God, the gifts. Boxes and bags, ribbons and bows, bric-a-brac, mindless this and that; clutter and chattel and clatter. Sisters and brothers, wives and mothers, dads and daughters and Santa. The tumult. The roar.

Off in the distance, the shrillness of a siren emerges against the silence. Its long pulsating cry permeates with a sense of desperation. I wonder about its destination and the uncertainties of what it might find. Images of faces, pained and anxious, flash before me, and I’m reminded of beasts and demons and all that have no place on Christmas Eve. But like the voices and faces of my family, it fades and dissolves, taking with it any chance of sleep.

The tea pours dark and silky … at one with the shadows. Its aroma is faint but rises quickly, blending with the scent of Christmas-tree pine and the ashes smoldering from the living room grate. For an instant, I’m brought to recollecting, and imagine an accord with the season, with its myth and wonder. But then the mantle clock returns, true and triumphant, with a single chime. I feel cheated, as though I’ve been denied the sanctity of illusion.

Steam rises off the tea like mist rising from a marsh. And though the house is robed in blackness—even the blue gas flame is out—I still close my eyes before I taste. I want its intimacy, its bond, but somehow it eludes me. Too acrid … too biting. I sip again … and again. It makes no difference. I find more pleasure in simply holding the cup, hot and real against my palms.

The thought that I am given more to preparation than celebration, more to the anticipation than the actual ceremony, is disquieting. Had I let the same thing happen to the day?

Again, I bring the cup to my lips, but pause to feel its rising warmth against my face. I want to sip but cannot ignore the bitter-sharp trail lingering on my tongue, and, with little urging, offer what’s left to the kitchen sink. For a moment, I wonder about the message left the cup, in the leaves, but then dismiss it as mere figment.

For all its rewards, the late hour begins to fade, to lose its grip. I’m at once given to the thought of sleep and make quick work of bolting the door, something done more out of habit than fear, then pick my way through the maze of nightshades toward the stairs. The staircase is long and steep, and its aging planks creak with a reassuring familiarity. My bones creak in unison, but in tones audible only to me.

With stealth-like precision, I ease my way down the hall, then around the end of the bed past my wife long into sleep. Almost out of some sense of obligation, I pause to reflect on this eve-of-all-eves, its message and significance. I’m fashioned by a belief that there should be joy and try as best I can to conjure some feeling of goodwill, but find myself out of sync with its suggestion … with its spell. Or is it out of sync with me?

I don’t fight it. Instead, I conclude that I’m simply tired and console myself with a silent chorus of Good King Wenceslas.

As soon as my head touches the pillow, thoughts of my family and the day make a surreptitious return. Carefully crafted insurrections, they taunt but soon retreat, no match for my resolve to lay them aside. Thoughts of Christmases past are less compliant, transgressors hanging tight to tradition, obstinate to new breath and refusing to let go. Perhaps they are more substantive than I want to believe, obvious reminders of my restlessness.

From the living room, the mantle clock returns. It chimes twice, and hints that sleep may be closer than I think. But somewhere between the dead and dying levels of consciousness, somewhere along the fringes of approaching dreams, I seem to understand that the tea and its lack of complexity is tantamount to my own.

And though we are as contaminate as what we allow, I refuse to accept that we are without the will that would move us closer to one another, toward brighter lights and sweeter teas and a season aligned with hope.

Slowly I become resigned to the house’s hush. From where I lie, the hypnotic sweep of the mantle clock’s pendulum is barely discernable, yet it reaches to me like an old friend. I’m captive to its rhythm and follow it until it confirms that sleep, tonight of all nights, will be the ultimate gift. But just for a moment, just before its resting cadence fades and disappears altogether, just before I begin my gentle descent, I wonder about Melissa and Mrs. Valentine—even about Mrs. Butters’ cat—and wonder what gift, if any, might come to them tonight.

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This publication is part 90 of 93 in the series 12 Days of Christmas