1910, eyes were pointed towards the sky as Halley’s Comet made its return on April 20th. It won’t be seen again until 1986. Many months later in October Professor Robert Williams Wood will publish the first infrared photographs in the Royal Photographic Society’s journal. However, Caleb Castell cares nothing about what has passed or what is still to come because he is on a quest to find the most precious and rare of flowering teas. A quest that started many, many years earlier.
Tea had always been a big part of Caleb’s life as tea was a very important thing to his mother. His father had died when he was just a little boy and left him alone with his mother. She worked very hard and long hours as a seamstress for an uptown men’s suit shop. It was barely enough to get them by so treats were few and far between. When his mother wanted to treat them it was always with tea.
Now his mother and tea were almost like a sacred experience. She kept a small tea cabinet that held the very best pieces of china that she had either inherited or managed to purchase over the years. On their tea nights she would make a special setting at the small table where they took their dinners. She would light candles and drape everything in beautiful scraps of material she had managed to sneak from her work. It was all about atmosphere for her and creating a warm and intimate setting for her and young Caleb. For each one of these special teas she picked a different flavor. She would brew the tea and put it in her special silver tea pot and go through great dramatic gestures serving her son. Then she would sit, serve herself and together they would slowly sip their special tea. Then, with the tea warm in their bellies and the air smelling richly of its aroma, his mother would tell him old fairy tales that had been told to her in much the same way by her grandmother and mother…
The teas they drank were always the best. This was by lucky chance for his mother. She often went into a small tea shop and moved among the tins of tea and drank in their wonderful smells. Then she would, as discretely as possible, slip towards the door and leave the shop hoping that she went unnoticed. She felt shameful to indulge in the richness of the shop without being able to actually invest in it by buying something. This had not gone unnoticed by the old woman who ran the shop. She caught his mother at the door one evening as she was about to slip out and very casually asked the woman what she was good at. His mother had replied that she was quite good with needle and thread. So the old woman asked her if she thought it a reasonable trade to help mend clothes for the old couple in exchange for a ration of tea (any of their teas) each week. His mother thought it was more than agreeable. So what little free time she had after coming home from work she often devoted to keeping the old couple’s aging wardrobe from falling apart. This made the mother son tea times possible.
When Caleb was on that strange cusp of still being a boy and so close to being a young man, the old woman had died and the husband was left alone. He was a quiet man who never talked. He tended to most of the herbs and plants that were dried and used for his wife’s secret tea blends. He found himself unable to work the shop alone and worried that he would have to close it. So Caleb’s mother suggested perhaps her son could help out and she assured the old man he would be more than happy to do so. And she was quite right. The first day Caleb went to help the old man at the tea shop he was in heaven. He only wished it was his mother who was able to be there as well.
Caleb would work with the old man for three years, learning everything there was to know about the art of making tea. The most special occasion for this came when the old man finally taught the young man how to make a blooming tea. Caleb was beside himself with excitement for this. It was like having one brief moment where a small bit of his mother’s fairy tales was coming true.
The old man took a bundle of leaves meant for the tea flavoring and arranged them into a circular bundle on his work table. He placed a chrysanthemum in the middle of this circle and slowly and carefully pulled the leaves around the flower until they were all folded into a neat little ball. Then it took a length of thread and wrapped it around the ball and tied it up. “This we will put in cupboard and let dry for a time. When it has dried you may take this one home for your mother as a surprise.” then he smiled and patted the young man on the head.
Caleb thought he would go crazy keeping this secret from his mother. To distract himself he thought about the special tea he was going to make for her. He had saved up enough to buy a small, clear glass tea set he’d found at a small grocery shop. He’d also been able to buy two yards of very pretty material he was going to use for the table cloth. Strawberries would be in season and he planned to buy four of the plumpest ones to put on the plate next to her tea. He could see it all in his head. The day could not come soon enough.
It was a Thursday night when he came home from the tea shop and would wait for his mother to get home only to find she never did. He finally went out and walked to the dress shop where she worked but it was closed. These were the times were communication was not so easy a thing and he didn’t know where to go or who to ask about his mother and he was worried. So he went back home and stayed up all night waiting. When the morning came he rushed back to the dress shop and the owner was able to tell him his mother had fallen ill while working. She was taken to the hospital across town and he knew nothing more about it.
It took him two hours to make the walk to the hospital and when he got there no one would let him go to his mother. He feared the worst. Had she died and they weren’t telling him? What would he do? He was nearly out of his mind when a kindly old doctor finally came out to talk to him. His mother was not dead but she was very very ill. And it was an illness that she would not likely recover from. The doctor did his best to ready the young man for what was to come. Only when Caleb said he understood was he finally allowed to go see his mother.
The memory of seeing his mother in her hospital bed was not a memory Caleb often allowed his mind to wander back to and he never described the scene for anyone he spoke to about it afterwards. He preferred to remember the good moments that he managed to salvage from the sadness. He remembered going to the tea shop and telling the old man what had happened to his mother. He remembered the old man presenting him with a small box and telling him their special tea was finally ready. Lastly he remembered pulling the hospital table close to his mother and putting his special, pretty material over it and placing the clear glass tea set on it. A nurse warmed water for his kettle. He placed the dried tea ball into the glass cup and poured the steaming water into it and handed the tea cup to his mother. “Watch the little bud momma. Just watch it. Just like the fairy tale…”
There was a very special type of joy that washed over his mother’s weary features as she watched the first of the dried tea leaves begin to expand. Her eyes became wide and excited as the flower within was slowly exposed. “My sweet boy… you’ve made me a flower from tea. So precious… so very precious. Just like my mother’s tales…” Caleb would keep that moment close to his heart and remember it when any other memory tried to come and take it away. It mostly kept the fear away.
As the years passed and he grew into a man he would eventually lose his best friend in that old tea man. The old couple had no children of their own so the tea shop was passed onto Caleb. Being a clever man with a passion for his shop, he came up with a variety of different idea and schemes that saw the small business bloom. He would expand into a second shop and then a third. Soon he would go on to have his own name brand of tea and his specialty would be flowering tea. People would know him as the Tea Man. A drawing of his mother’s eyes would be at the center of his ornate tea logo.
The Tea Man had traveled far and wide to better understand the focus of his passions. He’d sampled teas from every corner of the world and learned all the different traditions that went along with them. And as he started to move into the twilight of his own life he had one special tea left to find. One special flowering tea that he wanted to find and taste and learn all the intimate details of so that he could answer a question his mother had left haunting him.
The small town Caleb now found himself in was strange, though not in an off-putting way. The main street was incredibly quaint, but it offered some of the strangest store fronts he’d ever seen. He would have liked to have explored but he was looking for one store in-particular. As he walked down the main street he realized this store was not to be found among the small ones neatly built along side of one another, but at the end of the street in a very large Victorian style house. The first floor windows were painted to denote it as a dry-goods place and not a home. Etta Diem’s Attic Shoppe the painted glass proclaimed.
Cautiously Caleb opened the front door and stepped inside. He’d heard all manner of rumors about this particular place and the woman who ran it. He wasn’t going to let gossip and tall tales keep him from achieving his quest. And he certainly wasn’t going to let the strange aura of the store get to him. If anything it was encouraging.
Inside the main store area was empty. There were all manner of strange items lining the shelves, many set along side books that look three days older than ancient. The lighting was soft and warm and gave the place a very cozy autumn type of feel. He realized it was not so much strange as it was like stepping inside the spirit of Halloween and he was not bothered by that in the least. It actually made him feel happy.
“Hello?” he called into the quiet store. “Ms. Diem? Are you here? It’s Caleb Castell. You wrote me?” Absently his hand moved to his inner coat pocket and he retrieved the worn letter he had read so many times now. “I had hoped you would be expecting me…” his voice trailed off. He was fearing his long trip was not going to end as he’d hoped. He chalked this up to nerves and being so close to what he wanted. He desperately wanted this to go smoothly. He had come so far.
A deep, slightly husky woman’s voice called to him from somewhere deep within the store. “Oh but I have been expecting you Mr. Castell. Just follow your nose and you’ll find me.”
Caleb sniffed the air and caught the scent of a very aromatic tea. It had to be tea. His nose knew every little detail about the smell of any type of tea. He followed the scent and passed through a long hallway (with an overwhelming number of portraits of very strange people lining the walls) until he came to a doorway with closed curtains. He took the curtains in hand and opened them to the unexpected scene of Etta Diem’s tea room.
The walls of the room were nothing but an endless series of shelves and on those shelves was a prized tea collection. Each part of the collection was a tiny shrine. There was a tea cup that fit the style of the tea, a container (also fitting the style of place of origin of the tea) housing the tea and finally a trinket or two to suggest the culture it came from. There were more than a hundred of these tiny tea shrines in the room. At the center of the collection was an eccentric looking women who looked young but her gray hair with thick white streaks suggested someone older. She was dressed in no modern fashion that he recognized but it suited her.
“Indeed. Was the shop hard to find?”
Caleb nodded. “This has been one of the hardest places I’ve ever tried to find in my life. Every time I thought I was getting closer it just seemed that much farther away. But I knew, I just knew you would have it. Everyone else told me it was a legend and I was silly to be spending so much time and money trying to find it. They called me foolish and said I was unable to let it go because I could never let my mother go. But I heard of you and what things you’re able to find and I knew… and when you wrote me…” his voice trailed off. He was finding his head was feeling somewhat light and giddy. He didn’t quite know why he was saying some of the things he was saying but it felt very confession like. It felt good. “Please tell me you found it?”
Etta Diem smiled at Caleb and reached down to her side and brought up a small tea stained box. It had a thin bit of twine holding it closed. “Of course I did Mr. Castell. It’s what I do. But first… we barter.”
For a moment Caleb felt a panic setting in and for the first time he feared that he would not have enough money to appease this strange creature. He nodded his head and started to tell her money was not an object to which the woman told him money was not what she wanted and immediately his heart sank. “What is it you want then?”
The smiled left the woman’s face and she looked incredibly serious. “I just want to know why this means so much to you? Give me your story and perhaps it’ll be enough.”
Caleb stammered a little but finally found his voice. Everything spilled from him. “My mother always made such wonderful little tea scenes for us and when she did she always told me stories. Stories her grandmother had told her and then her mother… always over tea. It was a very special thing. And in each of these stories there was always a reference to the pale gold flower of Azele and though no one ever knew what kind of flower it was, everyone somehow knew they’d know it if they saw it. And the story went on to speak of the secret men of the Elkin Glade who grew a special kind of mint, hibiscus and a plant with no name that was known only to them. It is said they would make tiny little bundled balls of tea that may or may not bloom for those who put them in their cups with hot water. Though the flavor and rarity of this tea was sought after it was the bloom that everyone wanted.”
“Why? What was so special about this blooming tea?”
Caleb smiled, thinking fondly of his mother telling him this tale. “If you put the tea bundle in your water and it bloomed it was proof a lost loved one had found their heaven. When my mother was sick and I knew she was going to dye I wanted to comfort her. I brought her a flowering tea that this old man I worked for had made special for her. It was supposed to be for the first tea I did for her at home, but that never worked out. So then I thought maybe if she saw it while she was there in the hospital she would think it was proof of her story and she wouldn’t be afraid of what was to come because… she would know she would find heaven maybe? I don’t know… she loved it though. I never saw her look so happy, so peaceful.”
“And what does this little thing mean to you now?”
A small laugh escaped Caleb’s lips. It was a small, pathetic sound and he felt silly when he answered her. “Now? Now… if it were to bloom for me… I could be at peace knowing my mother is truly in a better place.”
“Thank you Caleb.” Etta Diem whispered. She motioned for him to come sit opposite of her. There was a clear glass tea cup already waiting for him there. She reached over and pulled the twine from the box and its sides fell open and inside was a ball of tea that looked almost common but that he could see the slivers of pale gold peaking out from behind the dried green leaves.
Caleb reached over and took the blooming tea and placed it in his tea cup. Etta Diem took a steaming pot of water and slowly poured it into his cup and whispered: “Watch the little bud Caleb. Just watch it. Just like the fairy tale your mother told…”
Caleb held his breath as the small ball did not move. Then slowly, oh so achingly slowly, the leaves started to unfold and beautiful beams of soft gold shot through the hot cup of water. A smile crossed the man’s face and in that moment there was no sadness or doubt in him…
On this day in 1910 Caleb Castell discovered the truth in the fairy tale and he was finally able to let his mother go knowing she was alright. — Pagona Talbot
is copyright 2016 Bethalynne Bajema. All Rights Reserved.
*Flowering Tea photograph from http://randomwallpapers.net