The Secrets of Tea

by Brent C. Smith


Agnes propped her elbows on the scarred Formica table, and rested her chin on laced fingers. A pungent, earthy smell wafted from the teacup placed in front of the empty chair opposite her. Russet liquid pooled within sipping distance of its delicate, porcelain rim, and sunlight from the kitchen window played across the surface and sank into its depths.

Would it be enough?

She'd pored through a lifetime of notes, experimenting with different ingredients, different quantities, different blends. Nothing had worked. In the knowledge she'd allowed herself there was no brew that would create what she needed. Dark magic. She'd turned her back on such when she'd turned her back on her mother's teachings, refusing to pay the costs such power required. She'd found happiness with the simple charms and meager income her brews provided, and from a daughter who provided magic of her own.

So she'd dialed the nearly forgotten number, and begged her mother for help, pleaded for the knowledge she'd needed to save Jessica. Her mother had not denied her need. She never had, even after they'd grown apart, just as Agnes had never refused her own daughter. A lock of Jessica's hair peeled from the pages of her baby book, three drops of her own blood drawn beneath the light of the moon. Valerian, ginseng, comfrey, and damiana in precise amounts. There would be a cost, her mother warned—there always was with dark magic—but Agnes never questioned paying it.

From peeling, ivy-patterned wallpaper, the plastic kitchen clock ticked, a cheapened, not-quite-metallic chik. Time passing. Time that was running out. How long before even this magic could no longer reach her?

Agnes concentrated on the steam rising in slow, twisting sworls, reading the patterns in its movement. Would she see her daughter's face in the vapor, its smoky tendrils shaping her high cheekbones, its denseness hinting at her dark curls and thick eyebrows? Or would the steam fade as the tea cooled, desperate hope lost to the plastic chik of the clock?

Since Jessica had been old enough to walk, she'd been fascinated with her mother's teas, just as Agnes had been enthralled by her own mother's magic when she'd been that age. Jessica would stand on a stool next to the table as Agnes ground and blended herbs. She'd insist on smelling the exotic aromas that leaked from the spout of each steeping pot, able to identify most before she'd turned six. Where other children would've begged for ice cream or candy, Jessica asked for chamomile or hibiscus. "I'm going to be just like you, mama," had been Agnes' proudest moment. Her darkest curse.

Agnes bit her lip and swore off more tears. She'd been foolish to show Jessica so much when she was still so young. Too proud of her daughter's intelligence and interest to realize how fascinated the child had been. Too stupid to not imagine that Jessica was inquisitive enough to want to know every secret of her mother's teas. Secrets that could harm, or even kill, if blended incorrectly, if tasted in secret while her mother slept. Secrets that should've been locked away from curious little fingers. Secrets with consequences that Agnes was determined to undo, dark payments be damned.

The steam eddied in counterpoint to its previous pattern, heaving in a lazy tumble. A rogue breeze from the fan in the other room? A cautious tendril drifted sideways from its rising path and faded, as if drawn into a breath. The motion paused, and then resumed. Slowly, so slowly she couldn't be sure at first it wasn't her own desire, the steam painted a face, pooling in the mouth and eyes, each moment adding definition.

Jessica.

"Take a sip, my love," Agnes whispered, afraid that her daughter's spirit might flee like a startled doe, or that the very breath of her words might disrupt the hint of pattern taking shape.

The wisp-painted face descended through the rising steam until its churning white lips met the edge of the porcelain rim, and just beyond, their edge stirring the slightest ripple across the glassy brown surface.

Even that mere touch seemed to lend solidity to her daughter's features. The barest hint of umber infused the steam, defining the curve of her chin, the delicate slope of her nose.

"Another, my love. You know how Mama's tea makes you better."

The lips dipped again and Agnes watched drops separate from the whole, defying gravity to slide upward and disappear, each an offering to the dark gods of her mother.

The steam hinted at tanned arms, the curve of slender shoulders, dark against the white of the mist. Four tiny, insubstantial fingers curled around the cup's swooping handle. The lips lowered once more to the cup's rim.

Agnes sensed a hint of the tea in her own mouth, bitter and powerful, its heat on her tongue. She felt the steam warm her skin, its tendrils drifting along her cheeks. Her blood surged in her veins in answer to the magic's call.

Jessica's head raised, eyes darkened whirlpools amongst the roil of vapor. "Mama?" Her voice sighed across the table, weak and untethered, hinting of distance still to cross.

"Drink up, baby. Drink it all." Agnes wondered at the breathy sigh of her own voice.

Two more sips, a third. Jessica's skin colored toward solidity, tea to steam to flesh. The chair beneath her creaked with the growing weight. She tilted the cup, ever so carefully, letting the tea flow to her pursed, coalescing lips, sipping until the cup was half drained.

Agnes reached across the cool table and gripped her daughter's half-solid hand in her own, mist meeting mist, the touch of her daughter's warmth, however ethereal, enough to warrant its cost.

"Mama, what's happening to us?"

"Hush, little one. Finish your tea." Their voices met like passing spring breezes, a brief meeting of winter and summer.

She watched her daughter drink, her form solidifying, becoming part of the world once again with each sip.

Agnes sighed, the worry ebbing from her as the tea drained from the cup. Her daughter would live. She would thrive. Her grandmother would teach her, protect her, present her with the same opportunities that she'd given Agnes. And Jessica would make her choices, just as Agnes had done.

Jessica lifted the cup, finishing the tea, her solid hand slipping through the mist of Agnes' own. Her eyes widened as she realized, with the untinted starkness of a child's understanding, the price this mistake had cost them both. Her eyes welled, and her mouth opened to protest the unchangeable, but Agnes wafted a single finger to her lips and shushed her with a tendril of dissipating steam.

Her words unfurled, a last caress against her daughter's moist cheeks.

"I love you."



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