Tameshi was like a red crow, Miyo finally concluded. She remembered those crows being smaller than most other birds, with a patchy black and red appearance that matched the many repairs on the over-sized jacket Tameshi wore over her small frame. Miyo had last seen red crows darting around on the Silver Road, fitting considering that Tameshi was from Red Island on the Silver Road.
That revelation, however, had only been given after Miyo had asked three separate times. Miyo didn’t think that Tameshi had been ignoring her out of spite, though. In fact, she understood now why Tomo had described Tameshi as “focused.” Because for the past half-hour, Tameshi had been inspecting just one tea bush, turning over each leaf with a gentleness that was both heartening and yet maddening to watch.
Miyo held back a sigh. She still wasn’t sure what had prompted Tameshi to inspect this particular shrub out of all the others in the … garden? Miyo frowned, not sure what to really call the space. It certainly wasn’t as big as the sprawling plantations on Green Island but it also wasn’t quite as small as the gardens on Diamond Island. At the same time, however, it really wouldn’t do to call it a tea farm. Miyo had been to dozens of farms over the course of the pilgrimage and they had all subscribed to the tea farming standards established after the war. The similar ordered layout made it easy for tea specialists to orient themselves when visiting different farms. She had been grateful for that bit of predictability during what had been an unpredictable pilgrimage.
But Tameshi did not follow those standards. There was no order, from what Miyo could tell, having tried to make sense of the chaotic layout of tea shrubs, banana trees, flowers, and even a pond that she would have fallen into had Tameshi not pulled her back in time. If there was reasoning behind the layout, it was one that only Tameshi knew.
‘Like when she was serving tea,’ Miyo thought. She shook her head as she recalled Tameshi serving tea after Miyo had given Tameshi one of the lunch boxes Tomo had made.
“Is this a soup bowl?” Miyo had asked, staring at the tea.
Tameshi had tilted her head, like a bird peering down at the world, nonplussed. “Yes.”
The tea, admittedly, had been delicious, and had prompted Miyo to ask about Tomo’s tea. Tameshi had turned thoughtful, nodding and mumbling softly to herself. Miyo had only caught bits about “Tomo” and “blends” before Tameshi had abruptly stood and walked out the back door.
A crash from somewhere behind them made them both jump. Tameshi immediately stopped her inspection and dashed over to the source of the sound. Miyo had barely moved before Tameshi reemerged, a bunch of bananas in her hand.
“Why do you have bananas anyway?” Miyo finally asked as they each ate one from the bunch.
“The tea needs friends,” Tameshi said. She looked up at the trees and nodded. “And shade.”
Miyo paused, both out of surprise in getting a prompt answer and the answer itself. Tameshi finished her banana and started picking several leaves off of different shrubs she came across. Miyo hastily swallowed down the rest of the banana to follow her.
“But the standards don’t mention anything about banana trees.”
Miyo stopped and stared. “That … You don’t care?”
Tameshi shrugged, snipping off several leaves in rapid succession. “This is how I grow tea.”
Miyo was a stuttered step behind when Tameshi moved to the next bush. She watched without looking, replaying both Tameshi’s words and the tone in which it had been spoken in her head.
There was a simplicity to it, that handful of words. But it also had a directness she couldn’t recall ever hearing before from anyone else. While there had been plenty of times that Miyo had been told how to make a tea – “This is how to make this tea,” some professors would announce during specialist training – she had always assumed that the phrase was an instruction, rules to be adhered to.
But with Tameshi there was no instruction, no explanation. Her words were a statement of fact. It was the world as she knew it, life as she had lived it, distilled into a single phrase. Something in the tone tugged at Miyo’s memory.
The clang of metal against metal brought Miyo out of her thoughts and she jerked, finally noticing that they were no longer outside. She turned slowly to take in the room. It was a small structure, more like a garden shed what with one wall dedicated to gardening tools. But the rest of the space housed equipment much more familiar to Miyo, though much older and simpler than what she had seen before when studying other farms’ tea processing equipment.
“You process everything by hand?” Miyo’s words were less a question and more an incredulous observation. Tameshi didn’t answer – not that Miyo had really expected her to – and continued to light the stove holding a large wok. The fire surged to life with a rush of heat and energy that Miyo could feel from across the room.
Miyo frowned as she watched Tameshi prepare the leaves she had collected. Was Tameshi really intending to use such high heat to roast the tea? Miyo was certain this wasn’t listed as a processing technique in any of the standards, nor in all her travels had she ever seen anyone do something like this –
Tameshi’s last words echoed in Miyo’s mind, stopping all of her thoughts. She took a breath. And simply watched.
Tameshi was stood like a stone in front of the flame, her features a mixture of dark and light as the fire moved restlessly under the wok. Then, without warning, Tameshi tossed the leaves into the wok, and there was an eruption of motion and sound.
The fire soared as Tameshi used her whole body to move the huge wok, the two of them seemingly fused together in a blur of movement. The tea leaves leapt and danced in the air, always just outside of the fire’s reach.
It was done within minutes, the echoes of the metal clanging ringing in the sudden silence. Only the smell of roasted tea was evidence of the symphony that had so swiftly been conducted. Unable to help herself, Miyo stepped towards the smell.
“Wait until it cools down before putting it in here.” Miyo turned to see Tameshi finish writing on a dark cylindrical container that she handed to Miyo. Miyo peered at what Tameshi had written.
She drew in a breath of realization as the memories pulled free from their confines and flooded her mind. “Here is your tea.” So many masters had told her this during the pilgrimage, and she had taken up the cup served without question, never once noting that steady cadence, that tone of warm invitation.
Because those words had never been just a fulfillment of a person’s request. It was a sharing of every heart that had a hand in making a tea that only they could make, for that person.
Miyo looked up with words of thanks on her tongue but they were swept away in a short laugh. Tameshi, of course, was no longer in the room. Looking out the open door, Miyo spotted Tameshi crouching down low to the ground, inspecting yet another tea shrub.
‘She really does look like a red crow,’ Miyo thought with a smile, watching Tameshi disappear into her tea forest.