Nan is very particular about tea.
She orders a personalized blend from an under-the-counter botanica on the wrong side of town, and it gets shipped to her in bulk, a large wooden crate filled with vacuum-sealed packages. Nan decants them one by one into a floral tin with creaking hinges.
Halmoni bought her an electric kettle years ago, but Nan refuses to use it. She fills an ancient cast-iron kettle with rainwater from the tank outside the back door and lights the gas burner with a match.
Nan doesn’t ask if I want tea. The kettle is already on, with curls of steam and faint whistles escaping from the spout. I have made the journey downstairs from my bedroom, now there will be tea. Tea is nonnegotiable.
I push aside five cross-stitched cushions, Nan’s knitting basket, and two cats to make a space on the couch, and sit down. Princess Bari stalks away, offended, her tail twitching, but Gwion Bach clambers into my lap and starts kneading my thighs. His claws sink through the thin layers of my dress and the brand-new stockings that Halmoni bought me just for today. I imagine the pinprick holes widening and splitting into ladders, and I feel a brief surge of wicked satisfaction. But these stockings are fancy enchanted ones and will not ladder, so I will remain neat and respectable. Put together
is how Dr. Slater would put it. Today, I have to be put together, even though I’m falling apart.
Nan takes a pinch of tea from the floral tin and leans out the back door to sprinkle it on the doorstep, over the deep engraved marks of overlapping circles and daisy wheels that keep our house free of mischief. She opens another tin and fishes out a handful of thrupenny biscuits, which she plunks onto a china plate without ceremony.
“Orright, Miss Maude?” she says to me.
Gwion Bach finally deems my lap sufficiently molded to his requirements and settles himself into a furry brown puddle. I rub behind his ears, and he purrs.
She reaches up to an open shelf cluttered with canisters, vases, and ugly little figurines of big-headed shepherdesses and frogs playing musical instruments, and takes down cups and saucers, painted with pink and yellow roses. A reading, then. When it’s just tea, Nan uses Halmoni’s Buncheong stoneware cups, but white porcelain provides better contrast for reading tea leaves.
The kettle on the stove begins to whistle in earnest, a plume of steam billowing to the ceiling. Nan briefly holds each cup over the steam—to cleanse them of any deceit—then lifts the kettle and splashes boiling water into the teapot.
Nan’s teapot is the stuff of family legend. It’s large enough to hold up to ten cups, and it is truly the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen. It’s pastel-pink china, in the shape of a soppy-looking cat’s face. Huge baby-blue cat eyes stare unblinking, fringed with curled painted lashes. An open grinning mouth leers beneath feverishly rosy cheeks.
She replaces the kettle, which resumes its shrill whistling, then swirls the water in the teapot to warm it before emptying it over the sink. After that, she takes her tarnished silver caddy spoon, its handle engraved with entwined pennywort and milk thistle, and measures out four spoons of tea leaves—one for her, one for me, one for Halmoni, and one for luck. She fills the pot halfway with boiling water—it’s too big to fill all the way, unless we have company. Then she pops on the lid and leaves it to steep.
“Now, then,” she says, smoothing the front of her tweed skirt, which flows neat and somber over outrageously pink Lycra leggings. “How you feeling, love?”
Her crinkled, watery eyes see too much, so I look away, over toward her workbench, where bunches of drying rosemary and sea holly hang over row upon row of little jars—crushed eggshell, salt, rusty pins, feathers, bits of bone, rowan ash. There’s a half-finished poppet there, button-eyed and bound with red and silver thread. A love charm, probably, for some moonsick client. Or maybe good luck for a student—exams are coming up soon.
Nan’s still watching me. “Fine,” I tell her. “I’m fine.”
She is clearly not satisfied by this answer, but she doesn’t say anything. She pulls a bottle of milk from the fridge, and Hangul and Huw appear as if from nowhere, winding themselves silkily around her ankles. Gwion Bach twitches an ear but doesn’t move from my lap. Princess Bari slips in from the garden and positions herself next to the milk saucer and makes loud, yowling demands. Nan bends creakily and splashes milk into the saucer, and Gwion Bach leaps heavily to the floor and pads over to join his siblings, his fat belly swaying below him like a furry pendulum.
Nan carefully pours milk into the teacups. Milk goes in before tea, to protect the drinker from any malicious contaminants that may have found their way into the tea caddy. Always whole milk, never skim or almond or (good people forbid) soy. Sugar, lemon, and honey are strictly forbidden. Also banned from our house is Earl Grey, decaf, herbal teas for anything other than medicinal purposes, and those fancy charmed tea bags where the brew doesn’t oversteep and the little paper tab never falls into the cup when you pour the water in.
Nan does allow Halmoni a canister of hyeonmi-nokcha, which I secretly prefer, but Halmoni drinks mostly coffee anyway.
The cats’ saucer is emptied, and Gwion Bach leaps back up to my lap and settles down, then decides I’ve gotten all out of shape again and rises to his feet to knead me back into position. Hangul and Huw tumble out into the garden to chase mice, while Princess Bari cleans her whiskers and watches, aloof.
“Are you ready for today?” Nan asks.
I don’t know how to answer that question.
Nan lifts the hideous teapot with two hands and carefully pours tea, first into my cup, and then her own. No tea strainer, of course. A little splashes onto the kitchen counter as she sets it down, and she twitches a smile.
She presents me with my cup and saucer, and offers me the plate of thrupenny biscuits. I take one and dunk it into the tea, pausing to inhale fragrant steam. The biscuit crumbles soggily in my mouth, warm milky tannins blending with sweet apple cider and caraway.
“What even is a vigil anyway?” Nan says conversationally. “Is it like divination? Are they expecting someone to have a vision of her?”
“Dr. Slater is going to lead us in contemplation,” I tell her.
Nan makes a face. She’s not fan of Dr. Slater and his well-being regimen. “What right does he have? He isn’t her family.”
“He’s the school principal. A community leader,” I offer.
“As if anything that man does is going to bring the poor girl home. And doing it on the eve of an egg moon too. People just don’t have any sense.”
My mouth is too full of biscuit to reply.
Nan falls silent as she sips her tea, and I glance out the window toward Halmoni’s stained-glass studio, wishing she’d come in.
“You don’t have to go, you know,” she says. “You and Odette haven’t been close for years.”
Four years. Four years since I got my period, my magic dried up, and my best friend broke my heart.
I’ve reached the bottom of the cup, the tea turned bitter and lukewarm. A few tea leaves wash into my mouth, and I press them between my teeth.
Nan puts down her own cup. “Right, then,” she says, and reaches over to pick up my cup in her left hand. She swirls the dregs three times sunwise, then inverts the cup over my saucer. Muddy liquid seeps out around the rim. She taps three times on the base, then lifts the cup again and examines the remaining tea leaves clinging to the white china.
I shift uncomfortably, and Gwion Bach pauses his rumbling purr and flicks an irritated ear. I look around the little room bursting with overstuffed armchairs, cushions, and luridly colored crochet rugs. The walls are crowded with framed pictures—flowers, more big-headed shepherdesses, and family illustrations. I see Nan and Halmoni’s wedding portrait, the oil paint faded with age. There’s a watercolor of Halmoni visiting her parents in Pisi-Geiteu. Mam, wearing cap and gown as she graduated from university. Me in pen-and-ink as a fat-cheeked baby.
“Something has been lost,” she murmurs, squinting into the cup. “You have a wild road ahead, Maude.”
I didn’t need a reading to tell me that.
“But there are good things too.” She turns the cup so I can see it, and points. “See there? That’s a rose. Love is waiting for you. And here? This is the sun, which represents power.”
She goes small and silent, and I know she’s thinking about Mam. Power only leads to trouble. Power is illegal magic, wild and unpredictable. Power makes you end up in a detention camp, your mettle—magical life force—drained to make commercial potions and glamours until there’s nothing left and you return as a mindless husk, or a corpse laid out cold on the front door.
Nan lets out a faint, breathy sigh and turns back to the cup. She frowns, and despite myself I lean forward.
“What is it?”
“It’s . . .” Nan’s eyes dart to mine, as sharp as thistles.
I peer into the cup. “It looks like a bird’s wings.”
Nan purses her lips but doesn’t respond.
I have a sudden, vivid flash of memory, of the chirping song of leaf warblers and the trickle of Cygnet Creek.
Copyright © 2023 by Lili Wilkinson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.