At the Lingnan Tea House
Liu and Lin were staring blankly, out of the wide kitchen window with frail timberwork which gave a broad view of their back yard. Farther beyond the peony shrubs that lined their courtyard, Liu could see the vast expanse of the empty patch of land under dispute between the two feudal lords in Guangzhou (Canton). Both had passed away and the land still lay waiting to be claimed by the legal heir. There the tall silk wool tree still stood bare, tall, spiny, cold and would continue to stand so until spring. Not a single of those beautiful, vibrant, red and orange five petal flowers with white silky-cotton in their folds was in sight. The elegant emblem of Guangzhou was still to bloom. Liu felt one with the tree, devoid of emotion, standing solitary in its own steed, on a no man’s land but she never mentioned this to her younger sister.
Most of the Chao Chan family members hadn’t survived the war and neither did they have their own ancestral home in Fujian. Their father, their brothers had all marched away into oblivion, never to come back. What had come back, in 1937, was the news that the Japanese had trampled all of them in the heartland of China. Their mother did not live for very many days after, leaving eight-year old Liu behind, lost and lonely, nursing a sixteen month old, Lin. Years later, now with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, they were slowly recovering from their financial, moral as well as psychological set back.
Lin watched her sister’s face from the corner of her eyes. Light seeping through the louvers in the top ventilators of the window was banding her face. Lin’s teenage mind started imagining it as the war paint Liu might have used to ready herself for combat. Lin noticed that Liu’s eyes had that steady gaze. Liu’s face would assume a wooden look only at times of grave impending trouble. She was otherwise a very kind and amicable person to be with. Today, Lin was sure that memories and turmoil of the past were resurfacing, which Liu was trying to conceal behind those steady eyes. Lin had never seen Liu shed a single tear that could give away her deepest feelings. Liu had always maintained her composure, coolly tackling all the hardships that came their way while Lin remained a silent spectator, never allowed to be party to any kind of suffering. This time, however, Liu needed all the support she could get.
Lin was brought out of her reverie by the sound of Liu’s hands, now working again, mechanically chopping the meat with a huge, sharp knife, on the butcher’s island in their kitchen.
“I don’t want your complaints if you can’t give me a solution!” Liu sternly reprimanded Lin without looking up, regretting it later.
The sisters were now pondering again over the calamity that was to visit them today, predicted a week ago. Lin knew it was time for her to do something.
Silver Stream village was a picturesque site, kissing the foot of the mountainous range with a small, melodious waterfall streaming down its western side. The front porch of their maternal uncle Chou Yang’s dilapidated ancestral home was often sprinkled by the clear water from the stream. Uncle had escaped to Hong Kong after bringing Liu and Lin to reside here, in 1943.
With the help of some elderly neighbors, Liu had revived their ancestral business as soon as she’d arrived even though she was just a teenager then. Cha Dao, the art of making tea, ran deep in her blood. After all, generations and generations of her family were at the centre of the massive tea trade that existed between China and Europe during the 19th century. Liu set up her own Lingnan Tea House aptly named after the colonial quarter of Guangzhou it was located at. And six years later it was hustling and bustling with patrons all through the day. 1950 was a very good year for Peurh, aged tea and Liu was expecting tremendous business.
On the wall facing the doorway, she hung a paper scroll on which was a Tang poem written by Lin in her long, slender, slanting, calligraphic hand that said “...One bowl soothes your throat. After two, loneliness and boredom disappear. With the third, you will find rising from your bowels enormous volumes of poetry and literature. The fourth bowl leaves you in a light sweat and all of life's despair will seem to be floating away, out of your pores. After five bowls, your muscles and bones are cleansed of all impurities. Six bowls and you will be communicating with the spirits. Beware of the seventh bowl! You may grow wings and find yourself flying with the winds…"
“Is this communication with the spirits drawing the Cantonese to our tea house?” Liu wondered in proud admiration.
Her personal favourite was the Red Heart Ti Kuan Yin Tea, considered the mother of all Oolongs. One king had done justice to the tea by describing it as heavy as iron and as beautiful as Kuan Yin, The Goddess of Mercy, and thus the name was given. This year’s tea was not tightly rolled and that meant after the first two brews, the toasty roasted flavour with the rich bready notes would completely open up, giving a warm aroma, bright taste and a comforting feeling to the patron. Liu particularly felt that notes of honey lingered on after the tea was set to brew and there was also an unmistakable soft and heady scent in the air like that of red roses on a hot summer day.
“This Tea will definitely elicit romance!” she had giggled to herself unaware that the same magic of the tea leaves would spell trouble for the sisters the very next day.
The Lingnan Tea House seemed like a tranquil oasis that morning. The quaint bamboo furniture and the tinkling sound from the waters of the small fountain placed near the South window, added to the serene and peaceful ambience.
Liu looked on as Lin served at a table with a sharply acquired skill and artistry. She had selected the White Needle Tea and was treating an old customer to cup after cup of the superbly made tea. The full fragrance was wafting across to her and the sweet notes of the white tea were evidently satiating the guest. Lin carefully picked up the covered Gaiwan, the tea caddy, on its plate with the left hand and placed it on the up-turned fingers of her right hand. The lid was positioned slightly askew and held in place with the thumb, just enough to allow the tea to pour out while retaining the leaves. The tea was then lovingly poured from the pitcher into individual, tiny, tasting cups. Lin was sure to be attentive enough and refilled it when emptied.
The Indian guest who accompanied the old man was happily observing and unable to contain his awe exclaimed, “That’s amazing! There’s neither a timer nor a water thermometer employed and yet each cup has the amazing consistency of the one prior to it. It’s simple, graceful perfection at its unparalleled best!”
At that very moment of exhilaration entered he, who Lin and Liu would dread later. After being dutifully served a series of cups of Ti Kuan Yin Tea by Liu, “Yum Cha, the culture of tea drinking, runs deep in my veins.” boasted Ming Hsien. “We complement each other so well, Liu. What a handsome suitor I will make!” Ming Hsien had declared to Liu, proclaiming his infatuation for her. This haughty, stout man seated before Liu seemed to be in his late 30’s and was laden with Jade ornaments, strongly reminding her of the malicious feudal lords. His eyes didn’t laugh when he flashed that toothy smile. A fear gripped Liu’s heart at the sight of this admirer because he looked as if he was faking it. The very first feeling at his appearance was that of instant abhorrence and she couldn’t fight it at all. Even Lin had mentioned later that she couldn’t imagine her demure, petite sister standing besides the husky man at the betrothal ceremony. “His receding hairline makes it worse to imagine!” Lin had bitterly observed.
Ming Hsien had not only proposed love but had also issued a death threat after sensing probability of rejection from Liu. His fiery eyes clearly said that he meant every word he’d spoken. Each word of love was as sweet as nectar but each word of retribution also dripped venom. Before leaving the Lingnan Tea House Ming Hsien had menacingly slammed two freshly minted, coffee coloured, twenty Yuan bills on the cashier’s table, promising to return the same day, same time, next week.
Money meant nothing to Liu but their safety did.
A week of worrying and despair had gone by. He was to arrive again today. Lin knew she could help her sister. She watched Liu chopping away at the meat randomly. Liu’s mind was elsewhere. She was obviously bothered by the abominable proposal.
Meanwhile Liu was searching for a specific reason to refuse. She knew that turning Ming Hsien down would mean another term of loneliness besides the threat to their lives. “He’s definitely not the one!” Liu had finally, bravely decided.
“I have a solution!” offered Lin, trying to sound as convincing as possible. Liu looked up in an instant, searching her younger sister’s face for an explanation. “Don’t ask me how but I will send him away. You just wait and watch!” assured Lin.
When Ming Hsien entered the Lingnan Tea House punctually, Lin and the tea house staff surprisingly welcomed him. He was astonished at the hospitality and almost celebrated this obvious favorable change of mind with Liu. He was ceremoniously led to the table where the lissome beauty was seated in the choicest corner of the tea house that granted a fantastic view of the building’s surroundings. Hsien studied her face, searching for any trace of the bitter hatred he’d seen in her eyes the last time he’d voiced his emotions. Liu had no clue about Lin’s grand plan, but was playing along for she trusted Lin’s intelligence.
Soon Lin appeared from within, bearing a pot of tea on a tray which she proclaimed had been specially brewed for the prospective couple to partake. “Let us pray to the great Kuan Yin, before you share the Tisane. However, I warn you Ming Hsien that the spirit of this tea will tell you how your future together will be. That’s the power of the goddess of the Oolong and Peurh!” Lin declared in a formidable tone that would display her immense knowledge of the magic of brewing.
Liu had been warned not to drink the tea. The gullible Hsien, very religious at heart, promptly gulped down the first cup of the magical tea placed before him. No sooner had the first swig traveled down his throat than his face contorted to look like a dried prune. He sprung from his seat like a jack-in-the box, shaking his head in mixed feelings of dismay and disbelief and headed for the exit without another word to Liu. When he halted at the door, Lin feared the worst. Would he turn back? Had he realized she’d pulled a trick? He, however, only turned for one last glimpse of the kneeling, immensely beautiful Liu and then disappeared around the bend.
Liu could not control her emotions. For the first time, tears rolled down her cheeks, blazing a red path on the fair skin. She wrapped her arms around Lin out of relief, gratitude and the immense amount of love she felt for her. “…But what magic did you do, Lin?” inquired Liu.
“It was Che Dang that very bitter tea, dear Liu. Three pearls of the Ilex leaves must have made such a sour brew that he ran away in fear of a future likewise!”
The sisters hadn’t enjoyed such a hearty laugh in ages!
This story has been brought out of the archives specially for my readers. This is an attempt to revive my creative writing days and this Blog which enjoyed a great readership. Hope you enjoy this story that opened my published collection of short stories titled "Not Totally Unbelievable'.