An updated and revised version of this chapter is included in a collection available for purchase on Amazon: Of Leaves and Water: A mini collection
Rain. Miyo’s steps quickened the closer she got to the city council building’s main doors, the rain’s song becoming clearer and stronger with each step. She had spent the entire morning inside the building walls, bound in her ceremonial robes to celebrate one of the council member’s 10th year of service. While it had been interesting to be called into the rare government service that came with being a tea master, she was glad for it to be over and longed to answer her element’s call.
Others slowed and sighed as they reached the main doors, but Miyo could barely contain her excitement, nearly skipping as she approached. She pushed through the doors and breathed in deep, taking in the cool air and the symphony of water all around her.
Ever since she was a child, even before she had known the depth of her affinity with water, Miyo had found immense joy in rainy days. So much so that there had been many times growing up when she’d had to apologize to her teachers for being egregiously late for school. Only her mother had understood the strength of the rain’s call and how inevitable it was that Miyo answer it, like the ocean to the moon.
With her lungs full and her head clear, Miyo took stock of the time. It was just after lunch and she had no other responsibilities to fulfill. The flashing lights of the market across from the council building caught her eye. Well, she had noted before she’d left that morning that she was running low on some supplies. She might as well take advantage of being in the city.
‘Plus,’ she thought, eyeing the clouds with a grin, ‘It wouldn’t do to be holed up on such a wonderful day like this.’
She only wished that she had brought with her an extra set of clothes. Dressed in her ceremonial robes, she was too conspicuous, and it wouldn’t do to go gallivanting around like a soaked cat, as Master Hayase had scolded her on the Island of Gardens when she had done just that during her test.
While she couldn’t stop the rain from falling (not that she would want to anyway), Miyo could cast a quick spell to keep her from getting completely drenched. The song would redirect most of the rain from her form but not all of it. Gauging the distance, she figured that she’d arrive at the market at most slightly damp.
She had started the opening phrase of the tune and was about to step out from under the overhang when a voice from behind stopped her.
“Master Miyo, do you have an umbrella?”
She turned to see one of the receptionists at her side, holding out an umbrella above her bowed head. “We happen to have an extra one, if you would do us the honor of using it.”
Miyo half-expected the receptionist to start laughing as the level of formality seemed absurd. But when no laughter came, Miyo realized that it was a serious request. It wouldn’t do to refuse someone who went through such lengths to give her something as small as an umbrella.
She glanced at the rain and sighed silently, releasing the spell and taking the umbrella instead. The receptionist backed away, somehow maintaining her bowed stance as she re-entered the building, but Miyo caught a bright smile on her face before the main doors closed behind her.
Miyo shrugged it off and made her way to the market. She had thought it a one-off happening, but then the cashiers at the linens shop offered her a free set. Then the attendants at the bank escorted her to the front of the line. And she realized just how much she was being watched.
The attention laid heavy on her shoulders, and she felt stiff and anxious under all of their gazes. It reminded her painfully of her time in the capital after she had finished her pilgrimage. Reports of what had happened on Mirror Island had arrived at the capital before she had, and even before her pilgrimage was confirmed, the media had hounded her with gifts, thanks, and honor. But all Miyo had felt was pressure to uphold the title of “Tea Master.”
With each gift, each word of praise, Miyo felt her robes and bags grow heavier and heavier. Even the droplets of rain that managed to sneak underneath her umbrella and onto her face brought her no reprieve. She needed to hide, to escape their gazes, if only for a few minutes.
It was while passing a stall of kitchen appliances that Miyo remembered that Chie’s studio was here in the city. Thankfully, a passing postman happened to know exactly where it was and drew her a map on an empty envelope.
She gripped the flimsy paper like a lifeline through the storm. The directions led her to a secluded part of the city, where the streets were wider and the people fewer. In her rush, she ended up actually passing by Chie’s studio twice before noticing the faded mark of ceramics above the door.
The lobby was sparsely decorated, featuring two chairs, a table, a large cabinet, and emptiness. Miyo hesitated, the ball of nervous anxiety insider her making her wonder if she should have entered. She froze when she heard footsteps coming from the darkened hallway in the corner.
Chie appeared, clad in an apron and wiping off her hands. The casual nod eased Miyo’s nerves. “I should’ve known you’d pick a rainy day like today to visit,” Chie said. She smirked at Miyo’s many bags. “Did some shopping, I see.”
“Well, not exactly …”
But Chie was already rummaging inside the cabinet. Miyo put down her things and tried to peer over her shoulder. “Here it is,” Chie said, lifting a large box onto the table. “I forgot I made this set, but having your tea the other day reminded me of it.”
It was a box of equal length on all sides, seemingly of simple cardboard until Chie took the lid off, revealing soft blue velvet lining within. Gleaming underneath a covering layer of cloth was a full set of teaware. Miyo picked up the tea kettle slowly, mouth agape as she studied the intricately carved designs that wrapped around the dark surface. As she turned it to take in the whole scene, she realized the curves made up the winding coast of a beach. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
Chie watched Miyo carefully palm a teacup as well. “I thought it might suit you. Consider it a late housewarming gift.”
Miyo breathed in sharply. A set like this, especially from a ceramics master like Chie, would require a loan to be paid back over the course of several years, if not decades. She bowed deeply. “I’ll work hard to be worthy of this.”
“If that’s really how you feel, than I’ll just take it back.”
Miyo straightened slowly, confusion bunching her features.
Chie shook her head and sighed. “A gift isn’t something you justify receiving. It’s simply something to be thankful for.” She began packing the teaware back into the box. “I’m not giving this to you so you can stay in the past and constantly think that you owe me something. I’m giving this to you because I want you to look to the future and use it to make tea that only you can make.”
Chie placed the lid back on the box and pushed it towards her. “Sorry, there’s a deadline coming up and I have get back to work. I’ll drop by your store sometime.”
Miyo nodded and bowed once more before taking up her things once more. Chie’s words had put Miyo deep in thought, to the point where she hardly noticed the weight of the extra box as she left Chie’s studio. A spot of neon in the midst of all the gray caught her eye, barely making out the shape of a tricycle in the sign. She made her way towards it with steady footsteps, sidestepping puddles as she went.
The tricycle stop was a rough structure made of the bare necessities: a wall on one side, posts on the other, topped by a thin roof. It provided just enough shelter for the row of benches underneath, bolted against the wall for days like this where those waiting wanted to be as far from the open side as they could.
There were already a dozen or so people waiting, and likely had been for a while, considering the number of blinking red delay messages on the far wall that listed tricycle availability and announcements. On rainy days like this, tricycles and umbrellas were always the hardest to find.
Miyo found an open bench and sighed as she relieved her arms of her bags and boxes. She eyed them ruefully, wondering if she could even fit them all within one tricycle. Her intent had been to buy only a handful of supplies. But every person she had met, from cashiers to even Chie, had felt compelled to give her something extra, leaving her now with a pile of gifts she hardly felt she deserved.
The steady rhythm of the rain brought Chie’s words back to her mind, feeling again the conflict when she had first heard the words. She traced the thread of the feeling deeper. For Miyo, the way she expressed her gratitude was in her actions, namely in the sharing of her self and talents. It was major reason why she had chosen to become a tea master.
After all, a tea master’s purpose was simply to serve others. Before she had undergone the pilgrimage, and if she were honest, for a good part of the beginning of her pilgrimage, she had assumed that this service referred to the preparation and serving of tea – the study of leaves and water, no more.
But as her trials had continued, Miyo had learned that while a tea master’s main instrument was tea, it was never only tea that was served. Acceptance, counsel, reprieve – these were things that a master also gave. And sometimes, it was simply their very self that was service enough, to talk to, to give thanks to. ‘Maybe that was all everyone was trying to do…’
A gust of wind brought a misting of rain to her face, and to her ears a childlike urging to play instead of ponder. But out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the woman next to her shivering. Miyo glanced around and noticed that many others were rubbing briskly at their arms, frowning as they curled up within themselves to hold onto as much warmth as they could.
Miyo’s gaze dropped once again to her pile of bags and boxes. An idea began to bloom, and with it, a smile. She took out the kettle Chie had gifted her, the ceramics master’s parting words a whisper in her mind as she left the lid on the bench and walked to the edge of the rugged shelter. She held out the kettle and hummed a soft song to guide some of the rain to fall into it. The rain answered eagerly, swiftly filling it to the brim.
She sat back down with damp sleeves, knowing that all eyes were on her, and set the kettle on the bench beside her. Any other master would have needed a fire. Some others would have needed a table, cushions, or would have outright refused to do their preparations in the middle of a tricycle waiting area.
Not Miyo. This was something only she could do.
Miyo hummed a song to heat the water within the kettle and picked out several bags of tea that she had received that day. She looked up, smiling at the curious eyes around her. “It’s a good day for some tea, wouldn’t you say?” she said.
And as they all gathered around her and the now whistling kettle, Miyo was reminded that sometimes, a hot cup of tea really was the best thing a master could serve.