Dawn had only begun to touch the sky, but behind the tea shop’s closed doors, Miyo had already drained her first pot of tea and finished her morning magic drills. When her mother had first taught her the drills, her pre-teen self had always felt exhausted afterward. Now, however, the drills filled Miyo with an energy that hummed through her body.
Beside the tea master’s notebook was a smaller booklet in a much more worn out condition after having weathered Miyo’s pilgrimage. She had started keeping the notebook after her second trial, taking careful notes not only at each island, but also a list of all the techniques and ceremonies that she learned along the way.
Some of the masters had applauded Miyo for her diligence, though there had been a handful who had deemed it unnecessary. That handful, however, were masters who had been born into their lineage, who had grown up with tea and masters as their closest friends. To them, the hard work that Miyo had learned to cultivate was simply foreign to them. But for Miyo, it was a way of life.
While none of the tea masters had given her the same kind of mentorship about tea that her mother had given her about magic, Miyo had developed a similar process to keep her skills up to par. After all, as a tea master, she could be called by anyone to do any ceremony, at any time.
Because of this, Miyo dedicated each day to a different ceremony, practicing the intricate lacing of techniques that made up that ceremony from morning to evening in between serving customers. Each ceremony was drastically different, leading to some being easier for Miyo to perform than others.
Today’s focus, however, was the Ceremony of Knotted Leaves from Lagoon Island, and it was one of those that were certainly not easy for Miyo. Perhaps it had been due to the pressure of the ceremony itself. It was one of the most important ceremonies a master could perform, one that had its origin in bringing peace to warring lands, and led to joinings in modern times.
Unbidden memories from the pilgrimage instantly came to Miyo’s mind. And rightfully so – it had been the first trial she had failed during the pilgrimage.
The key technique during the ceremony was pouring the tea evenly into a minimum of five cups. It had seemed easy enough, but each time she had performed the ceremony under Master Mirai’s sharp eyes, she had been found lacking.
When self-doubt and discouragement started to weigh on Miyo, Master Mirai had given her a blindfold. “What is the most important skill a tea master should focus on cultivating?” Master Mirai had asked her in the stillness of her tea room.
“Taste?” Miyo had ventured after some hesitation.
Master Mirai had clucked softly under her breath, then guided Miyo’s hands around a chilled form. “How much water do you think is in there?” asked Master Mirai from somewhere in front of her.
As her fingers brushed along the smooth surface, Miyo realized it was a teapot. She grasped the handle, tilting the pot back and forth as she felt the water follow inside. “About enough to fill a teacup?”
“Did you need to taste it to know that?”
Miyo flushed and set the teapot down. But Master Mirai’s next words were kind.
“I will tell you what I wish someone had told me when I was a specialist: The most important skill a tea master can cultivate is their imagination. Not only is it the difference between a disastrous ceremony and a successful one, it’s also the difference between serving tea that quenches someone’s thirst and serving tea that heals someone’s soul.”
It had taken Miyo several weeks before she had finally passed Master Mirai’s trial but afterward, it had felt like a whole new sense had opened up to her. It was an ability to see where her eyes could not go and know the joining of leaves and water, and their transformation into tea. It was only much later in the pilgrimage that Miyo learned to use her magic to aid in that sight, but it had been in the blindfolded darkness of Master Mirai’s tea room that the foundation had been set.
Miyo opened the tea shop to the sun bright in the sky. The regular morning visitors trickled in one by one per usual. Among them was Shinya riding a scooter, the back of it laden with boxes marked with the logo of the town grocery.
“It’s been a month now, hasn’t it?” Miyo asked after accepting the groceries she had ordered, as well as a thank-you fruit basket that she had not.
Shinya nodded as she took up a seat at the counter. “Yeah, old Shinji did a month ago this day in fact. The pastry shop was just a week later.”
“Time flies doesn’t it,” Miyo said.
Shinya nodded, a distant look in her eyes. “A lot of things have changed, that’s for sure.”
While the most obvious change was Shinya’s outer appearance – a neatening of the hair, a uniform that fit – there was new calm that surrounded her as well. To Miyo, it was as if the heavy helplessness that had weighed on the young woman had been washed away. Not that there hadn’t been hard days when the past had threatened to pull Shinya back underwater. But even on those days, Shinya had maintained her duties and was now at the point where Shinji had come by bragging that deliveries were at an all-time high.
“What about delivering? Do you still like it?”
Shinya smiled. “Of course. I think it’s because I’m able to do both, see. When I deliver for the pastry shop, I get to bring a box of happiness. Because it’s usually some kind of special occasion, you know? A surprise or a party.
“For the grocery, it’s a regular thing. Every Monday it’s bread and milk for the Aragaki couple, or every Thursday it’s milk for you. I like it because I get to see people as they’re going through life, doing the best they can everyday. It inspires me to keep doing the best I can too.”
Miyo set a steaming teacup in front of Shinya. “It’s funny you say that, because I was going to say the same thing about you.”
Shinya’s hand stuttered on her way to pick up the teacup, pink rising to her cheeks.
Miyo hid a smile, then bid Shinya goodbye to continue her rounds a few minutes later. Shinya’s description was similar to the tea shop. Today in fact was a perfect example with the ebb and flow of customers. The morning was predictable, what with people stopping by to start their day with their particular cup of tea.
The afternoon, however, was less so. Today brought an older customer with the day off, saying that he had always wanted to stop by but had never had the time because of work. He had stayed for several cups of tea and Miyo had shared some of the fruit basket in exchange for a rambunctious childhood story of him and his friends attempting to pick mangoes from the trees around town.
Miyo could never be sure who to expect. Perhaps the next customer would be an adventurous tourist, or simply a curious passerby. Or she could receive a call to perform a ceremony to witness and affirm a life-changing event. Either extreme was possible. The only thing Miyo could do was to practice and prepare for anything, so when that future came, her heart and hands would be steady.
It was with that thought in mind that Miyo laid out the ware to practice the Ceremony of Knotted Leaves once more, although she had performed it nearly a dozen times all the way through. With each piece of teaware she placed onto the counter, the rushing stream of thoughts slowed until there was a deep calm in her mind. She drew from that quiet source and poured her concentration into those things she could see, and those she could not.
Miyo lifted the teapot with one hand, made a presentation to her invisible crowd and taking that moment to memorize the pot’s empty weight. She listened closely as she filled it with hot water to warm it, noting how the teapot’s voice changed as the water level rose.
When the crystals in her timer had drained out, Miyo poured out the water. She lifted the tea tin as she had the teapot, scooped out a generous amount and dropped it gently into the warm pot. As she poured in hot water a second time, Miyo used the pitch changes of the teapot’s voice to tick off where one cup would be measured, two cups, until she had filled exactly enough for five cups.
And now, was the difficult part. When pouring, she had to imagine where the leaves were and gently coerce them towards the filter inside the teapot. Too fast and the leaves would have no time to react, but too slow and the leaves could block the filter.
Miyo had just begun to tip the pot to pour the first cup when a sound at the front steps split her mind. One part instinctively went deeper into that well of concentration, while the other silently came up for breath and took in the world outside of the teapot she held in her hand.
From the spout arced a red liquid, filling the first cup with a deep sunset. Miyo’s heart beat steadily as she moved on to the second cup, closely watching the depth of the tea’s color and the level the tea reached within the cup. Seeming a world away, the footsteps came closer, the rhythm registering in that halved part of her mind as a small child.
Miyo was almost at the last cup. She breathed in deeply, her hand unwavering. The first and fourth cups were always the hardest. While it was the first cup that set the tone for every other that followed, it was at the fourth cup where it was revealed whether or not she had succeeded in keeping everything even.
She poured the fourth cup. And relief swelled within her. The tea was the same gem red as the first, filled to the same height as the others before it.
Meanwhile, Naruko had climbed up her usual chair and was running her fingers along the leaves of the plant at the corner of the counter. But Miyo couldn’t release her hold just yet, not on the pot, nor her concentration. Not until she tipped the last drop into the final cup –
And then she was done. Miyo let the concentration and tension dissipate, feeling now as if she had swum around Crescent Island a dozen times. But she smiled at the sight of the five identical cups of tea in front of her.
It was then that Naruko reached out and took the first cup. Before Miyo could say anything, Naruko sipped it. She paused then offered the cup to the chair next to her. Miyo realized that propped up in pairs on the two chairs on either side of Naruko were stuffed animals, curious eyes peering up at her just above the edge of the counter.
Naruko turned back towards Miyo with a twist in her lips. “Mrs. Bear says she doesn’t like it.”
Miyo gave a short bow in apology. “I can make something new, would that be okay?”
Naruko gave Miyo one of her solemn nods then turned to have a conversation that could only be understood between children and their toys. Miyo smiled at the sight, then paused. She counted the faces in front of her.
Miyo let out a small laugh then began laying out the teaware once more.
While every master emphasized a different aspect of tea-making, there was one thing that they all agreed on. Regardless of the wealth of techniques a tea master held, they still needed to fulfill the customer’s most basic need: A tea that tasted good. And it was up to the master to not only determine what “good” meant for each customer, but to call upon the right techniques to bring that goodness out.
From the remains of the fruit basket, Miyo took several pieces of mango and apple, laying them on the work table placed behind and slightly below the counter. Miyo’s mind briefly went back to the magic drills she had done earlier that morning, picking a lilting song to coax the water from the fruits until they were as withered as the tea leaves that Miyo mixed them into.
Though she had just practiced the ceremony, everything felt completely different. She calmed her mind once more, finding that well of concentration already refilled and sparkling with excitement. It felt as if she had dipped her mind into an electric freedom, where there suddenly were no boundaries between her and the tea. The teapot had become an extension of her own self, and now an expression of her own love of tea.
To Naruko, Miyo pouring out the five reddish cups of tea probably seemed like an ordinary thing. And that was what Miyo had intended with all of her practicing.
Naruko clapped in delight after Miyo topped off each cup with a bit of milk. “It’s a tea party!” She took a careful sip from the cup before her, sharing nods with her friends. She beamed at Miyo. “Mrs. Bear and Puppy said that this is their favorite tea now.”
“I’m glad I was able to make it for them,” Miyo said simply. As she watched Naruko play with her toys, Miyo felt her earlier exhaustion crystallize into a glowing pride.