I watch as Ama plucks kumquats from the tree in her backyard and places them inside a plastic bucket. Leaves, twigs, and dandelion petals are nestled in her hair, a shrub of gray age decorated with a gardener’s touch. One of the fruits is still green; she brushes the dirt off, then pops it in her mouth, chewing slowly. When she sees me, she beckons for me to follow her inside.
There are three identical teacups. They are white, glossy, imprinted with cornflowers that snake across the outside. The rims are crowned with gold bands. I avert my eyes as she fills the cups with tea. When I look back, each is filled with a different steaming liquid. Without peeking at the contents, I select a cup and drink with both hands. The liquid is hot, bitter, it runs across my gums and drips down my throat, pooling a deep well in my stomach. Oolong. I turn the cup upside down and shake out the dregs into my mouth. A single nickel catches in my teeth, and I bare it for Ama to see. She smiles and claps. This is our ritual.
Every time, one cup holds a coin, while the other two are empty. If I choose wrong, Ama fishes the prize out of the appropriate cup and wags her finger. She says I need to pause before making a decision, that if I think hard enough, the proper cup will call out my name. If I choose correctly, Ama dries the coin with a paper towel and places it in a white envelope. She writes my name on the back and passes it to me. After I’ve stashed the envelope in my backpack, she turns around and begins cooking, charred squash or vermicelli noodles or cucumbers marinated in chili flakes.
The flavor of tea varies. Sometimes it’s your standard tea: green, white, black, herbal. Sometimes she explores tea from other countries: butter, rooibos, chai. Sometimes she creates her own tea with plants found in the woods near her house, and I do not know if the tea is technically tea any longer. There are roots, daisies, chopped scallions, mushrooms with shriveled heads—she stirs them all in a chipped kettle over the stove.
One day Ama welcomes me into her kitchen and begins pouring the tea. The TV is set to the weather channel; it anticipates rain for tomorrow. She takes longer than usual, but eventually she calls my name and I select one of the cups in front of me. I drink; this time it tastes floral and sweet, rose petals etched with a trail of sugar. I catch the coin in my mouth, except this time, it is not a coin. It is a tooth.
Ama is wearing a checkered flannel the day after that. She flashes me a splintered smile before pouring the tea. At the bottom of the cup, swimming in a pool of calm yellow, is a finger. Ama’s finger.
The next day, I find an earlobe in my cup. The next day: a wrinkled pinky toe. The next day: a nose, punctured with holes that aren’t piercings. A different tea each time, dandelion, barley, lemon lavender. Every afternoon, Ama is unpacked in porcelain, a skeleton of brittle sacrifice, caught in the liminal space between water and mouth. As Ama stands in the kitchen, fading away, I drink, drink Monday, drink Tuesday, drink Sunday, until finally, Ama is gone, and I pour the tea myself. There is nothing at the bottom.
MATT HSU — Matt is a student from San Francisco, California. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he’s published or forthcoming in Roanoke Review, (mac)ro(mic), Longleaf Review, and The Lumiere Review. Currently he’s querying his first novel: a twisty, thriller-mystery about a crafty assassin. You can find him on Twitter at @MattHsu19 or at his personal website matthsu156538437.wordpress.com.
JACQUELINE STAIKOS — Jacqueline is a largely self taught contemporary artist living in Quinte West, Ontario. She has exhibited her work in several Ontario galleries including shows in Toronto, Kingston and in New York City. Her creative process involves working with inks, acrylics, oils and mixed media. She is currently working out of her home studio in Trenton, Ontario. More of her art can be viewed on her website, jstaikos.org or on Instagram as jstaikosart.