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Netflyer 34

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Tea Leaves


The voice cut through his reflections. It had grown dark outside, he realised, the way it did so quickly in the cold winters of this country. He kept forgetting how quickly it happened, that the days swung from short to long and back again in long, even strokes like a pendulum keeping track of the seasons of his life.

Yiping was standing quietly before him with folded hands, waiting for him to look up. When he did, she bowed. "Grandfather, it is time for tea."

There had been no need to disturb him to tell him that. "You have a question for me?" He shut the book, one finger crooked inside the pages to keep his place.

"Yes." She lowered her eyes uncomfortably for a moment. "It has been many years since we came here, grandfather. Yet the children were laughed at today when they were given tea by their friends and complained of the taste and colour. We are not in the old country now. Will you not allow us to drink black tea, or even oolong? It is uncomfortable not to follow the customs of this place where we live now."

"No." The old man's voice was gentle, but his refusal absolute. "I know it was the children who asked you to say this to me. Go send them in to me, and bring us a pot of Lung-Ching, made as I like it, with much water."

Yiping lowered her eyes, seeming ashamed. "There is no Lung-Ching, grandfather. It was finished yesterday, and I have been able to find only Sencha."

The old man sighed gently, but with sorrow. "Then I will drink the tea of the islanders, but I will not drink it again tomorrow. But make it weak, Yiping, weak as the blood of the emperors who fell to the Red Army, and bitter with the tears I weep for the passing of the old times."

He waited until she had bowed again and gone before taking the scrap of paper from inside the back cover of his book and placing it between the pages his finger had kept from closing. He then shut the book with care, and placed it softly on the table beside him.

"So you wish to drink black tea," he said quietly to the table as he removed his spectacles.

"Yes, grandfather," chorused a pair of subdued voices from behind.

"And you will put milk in it, and sugar, and rot your teeth in company with your friends, yes?" He turned back and settled comfortably in his chair, squinting slightly in the dim light.

"No, grandfather." Shaozu was almost fifteen now, the old man remembered, and dared to speak his mind to his elders. He would never have done so in the old country.

"Then you will not rot your teeth," he acknowledged gently, with a smile. "But you will drink the fermented tea of the West and make your ancestors sorrow."

There was a silence, but not of acquiescence. The respect the boys held for their elder would not allow them to disagree with him openly, but their lack of response told him all he needed to know. He sighed.

"Tea was the medicine of emperors long before Rome was more than a village of shepherds. And that was green tea, not black. It was made pale, pale, as you will never see it now, and one leaf would last many boilings. So it was made after the fashion of the great emperor Shen Nung. You will remember Shen Nung?" His voice was gently ironic, one eyebrow marginally raised.

"Shen Nung discovered tea when a leaf fell in his water. We know this, grandfather."

"And so you remind me of my point, like a dutiful son. Well, no matter."

The tea he had asked for was slow in coming. He knew, without looking up, that Yiping stood in the doorway, listening. He raised his voice a little, for her.

"Yes, it was Shen Nung who found the leaf in his bowl of water and drank it. But do you never wonder why he did not throw away his water, beat his servants, and ask for another bowl, without leaves?"

"Because he was wise?" The younger boy was uncertain, and it showed in his voice.

"Yes, he was wise," the old man acknowledged. "But even a wise man may choose not to drink dirtied water. But the emperor Shen Nung was not only wise but also good, and he had spent much time searching for medicines for his people. His magicians said of him that he had tasted so much medicine that he would live forever. So when he saw the leaf floating in his bowl he realised that the Jade Emperor had sent an answer to his prayers, and he did not throw the water out, but drank it as it was, flavoured with the leaf, as Heaven had sent it. And being wise he needed only to taste it to know that it was a strong medicine."

"If it's so good, then why don't we get it on the NHS?" the elder boy muttered, not quite quietly enough.

"Shaozu!" Yiping hissed from the doorway, unable to keep silence in the face of her son's disrespect for her ancestor.

The ancestor in question, however, feigned a deficiency of hearing and went on. "For many, many years tea was drunk as the Light of Heaven had instructed. The sages drank many bowls a day, and lived for a long time, becoming wiser with every year. Some joined the ranks of the Immortals. But when the Westerners came they could not appreciate tea and so they demanded that the taste be made coarse, and fermented the leaves until they were black. In doing so the leaves lost their ability to heal, so that the Westerners drank the black tea every day but had no benefit from it. And those who grew the tea were enslaved to the poppy the Westerners gave them, and made their tea black, so that there was not enough green tea, and many of the sages died."

There was a long moment of silence, while Shaozu and his brother bowed their heads in a reflection of the sadness in the old man's gentle voice. Over their heads he looked gravely at their mother and nodded. She lowered her eyes and disappeared from the doorway.

"So if you wish you may drink the black tea with your friends, with milk and even with sugar," he concluded, his voice gently chiding. "But here you will obey the wisdom of the Light of Heaven Shen Nung and drink green tea every day, and it will bring you health and fortune as Heaven decreed. And if you obey your elders and do honour to your ancestors, then it may be that you will even live forever, like Shen Nung and the Immortals. And here is the tea."

Yiping brought the pot in silently, and poured it into four china bowls, one for each of them. The boys took their bowls with a subdued air, and the old man smiled at their mother over their heads.

"Thank you, grandfather," she said quietly as she handed him the delicate china, warm with the heat of the tea within. It was pale, its straw colour scarcely tinting the white bowl.

The old man raised it to his lips with reverence, the subtle taste of even this bastard tea, cultivated by the island people for only five centuries, familiar on his tongue with all the sweetness of the one leaf in the water. Sometimes it seemed to him that all that remained of the mighty Chinese civilisation he had loved was this taste of the medicine he had asked for those thousands of years ago.

Sarah Blake