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vol v, issue 6 < ToC
The Teaseller
B. B. Garin
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Leave the Myths,Mondo Mecho
Leave Home
The Teaseller
B. B. Garin

Leave the Myths,
Leave Home


Mondo Mecho
The Teaseller
B. B. Garin
previous next

Leave the Myths, Mondo Mecho
Leave Home

Leave the Myths,
Leave Home


Mondo Mecho
The Teaseller
 by B. B. Garin
The Teaseller
 by B. B. Garin
I met Kat on a summer evening. That wasn’t a given when I was young and all the factories still ran graveyard shifts. People worked all hours, met at all hours, lived their lives out in the dead of night, and the smokestacks kept the sky glowing orange around the clock.

Chemical City seemed brighter back then, though everyone burned fickle tallow and there were few gaslights on the streets. None of these new electric contraptions sizzling the night away everywhere you go.

I can’t remember who took me down to the basement, rank with sweat and rotgut whiskey. I had a pack of such friends in those days—fellow adventurers in petty transgressions. Boys who faded, grayed into their fathers. Sometimes, I imagine one comes to my stall for a flask of tea, though time and smoke has robed us of recognition.

Yet Kat, when I think on her, remains as bright and crisp as the paper flower she wore in her hair that first night. It would be easy to say she was beautiful. That she danced like the sparks my samovar curls by the fistful into the snow.

Perhaps that is why they outlawed music all those many years ago. It makes it so easy to tell a lie. To make it all sound so simple.

But it wasn’t simple. Kat was fire as fierce as any factory furnace. She scorched my lungs and cooked me up from the inside.

When we walked in the street, she had all the grace of the barges docking in Quarter Quay. I had to guide her round carthorses and darting chimneysweeps with a firm hand on her elbow.

“So much noise,” she would say.

I shook my head. “It’s nothing out of the usual.”

She laughed, desperate, braced on her toes.

“How can you stand it?”

“Just watch your feet.”

She laughed again, deflating back to her heels. Tension coursed in her limbs. Too soon she’d be gone. To some basement to spin herself dizzy. To come home fevered with it.

“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked, one of those young nights with autumn closing in. “They hanged a guitar man just last week.”

“They won’t hang a woman,” she said.

But they had before. And they will again.

Councilors Upright and Umbrage died a cloudy century before I was born, but they still hold Chemical City by its neck. My grandfather used to say they must’ve been large men made for large matters and it was better to be selling tea day by day. I suppose I believed him. How could I not? Imagination breeds sin, or so the Sunday Man always told us.

So, I sell tea. Like my grandfather. In Stone Grove Square, to men on their way to the factory, to mothers with their shopping, to girls off to work in the big houses across the river; even to the little ones, with extra honey and milk, when they’ve begged a few coppers.

They bring me tin cups with hinged lids, I fill them, and they hurry on their way. Sometimes they forget their cups and I sell it to them in waxed cloth flasks for half a penny more. Then they have to drink it quick, before the heat seeps out.

I sell tea from my grandfather’s samovar, a great steaming beast in hammered silver, perched over the glowing belly of a copper brazier. I’m proud of it. I keep it clean and polished. It keeps my hands busy at night and my mind from wandering, as an old man’s often does.

Chemical City can boil and brood, but she’ll always drink tea. When Councilors Upright and Umbrage passed their morality laws and chased music underground on the heels of whiskey, tea became the only permissible indulgence left in the city.

The very fine might sip at chocolate. The very rough, down on the docks, may crack new coffee beans between their teeth. But the rest will always favor tea; not too bitter and not too sweet.

They say Stone Grove Square was built when Chemical City was young, long before the good councilors became concerned for our souls, or the sky was ribbed with smokestacks. I can remember when shoppers bustled and sellers squabbled over the best stalls. The trade laws whittled them away. Now only the very sturdiest remain.

The aimless drift in the empty spaces. Boys, mostly, who can’t find work in the factories. Some are missing limbs. Some have the sand-etched scars of the Foreign Wars. They lounge against the sculpted tree trunks, playing at cards and stealing nips from dark glass bottles.

Occasionally, one buys a flask of tea. I find it hard to smile at them, though they’re always polite, call me grandfather. And they bring clatter and distraction to the day, even if their laughter scratches like a knife on a whetstone.

Then there’s the girl, with the long copper braid and big boots wrapped round and round with laces, who likes to climb the trees. I’m sure there’s a law that says she mustn’t, but she swings up without a care. She works for Jack Straw, or so I hear, and good luck to her. She’s thin, looks brittle perched there among the granite branches.

Her name is Cinnamon and she prefers my tea to whatever the others swallow down. She moves her limbs in a loose, graceful way that reminds me of someone I used to know. And because the memory prickles in the back of my throat, I give her tea for half the price.

These days, mongrels wander in the Square with coats the same tarnished gray as the sky, ribs pressing hungrily against their skin. A lucky one will have something to work his teeth on. An empty-mouthed one will eye me. I’ve nothing for them. No use for their glassy gazes.

I’ve always had a round stomach. It refused to shrivel even when I had little to fill it with. The dogs stare, perhaps thinking they’d like to taste something juicier than bone. If there’s a loose stone, I’ll throw it to make them run off.

It’s cruel. I shouldn’t. But I do.

When Cinnamon comes for her tea this morning, her eyelids hang low. Her fingers fumble over the coins. I’m surprised she’s come at all. Sometimes Kat disappeared for days after a performance. Or maybe it only felt like that to me.

“With milk?” I ask.

I ought to ask if it’s worth it. If she thinks about how much it might be worth. If she’ll know the line when her toes brush over it.

She nods.

“Drink it quick now,” I say.

“Always,” she says.

She sips her tea, swaying away as if she’s still dreaming. If I don’t watch too close, she almost seems to dance.

Jack Straw strolls through later and buys a flask.

“Thought you only went in for stronger stuff,” I say to him.

The Strawman smiles; I can tell he’s forgotten most of what’s gone before us.

“Sometimes it’s nice to let something honest warm your bones,” he says.

That makes me laugh. To most people, the Strawman has been selling contraband since before they can remember. His name feels old. Everyone knows it, has worn it into a certain shape in their minds. But I remember how the man came to be what he is.

He blows away steam. I wish I was still young. I might have the strength to hate him then.

He leaves me with an extra coin, at least, before he takes Cinnamon by the ankle and shakes her out of her tree. He’s a good deal taller than her, but she doesn’t look small standing in front of him.

Kat was tall and strong. Straight and fresh as a bundle of tulips I once saw being taken into a grand house over the bridge.

I shake my head, tend my brazier, and watch embers catch the air.

My grandfather died when I was nineteen and I took his place selling tea. So, I never knew a grueling night of fire and steel. I never knew a factory. I suppose that seemed exotic to a girl like Kat. Besides, it left me a room all to myself. Even if it was a sixth-floor room on Tinner Alley, near where it crosses the head of Tobacco Row.

How my legs used to ache. Sometimes, I thought I’d rather sleep in the stairwell than finish that climb. But I always kept going, maybe on my hands and knees, but I always made it home.

I keep a modest place on Wayfarers Street now. Not too far from Stone Grove Square, and not too near the docks. Really, the best that can be got this side of the river. It was all Kat’s doing, of course.

One evening, she came swinging through the mist to my stall and proudly handed me an iron key.

“What’s this?” I asked. The metal felt rough and cold after my glowing samovar.

“Come and see.”

I caught her delicate wrist. A loop of silky brown beads dripped from her coat sleeve. Even in those days, wood down from the North Country cost dear. Girls this side of the river wore stamped leather bands if their sweethearts were dockhands, or steel hoops in their ears if they’d married a factory boy.

The wood clicked softly when Kat pulled her arm back from me.

“That boy’s selling them. Aren’t they charming? He’s a clever thing.”

I hadn’t paid the boy much mind until Kat waved to him. He’d been about the Square since early in the summer. Jack Straw was a gangly limbed thing then. His loose hair growing out of a once neat cut. He lounged against a granite trunk winking at ladies and producing trinkets from the pockets of an over-large coat.

“He must’ve stolen them,” I said.

“You sound like such an old man. Anyhow, I’ve a better surprise.”

I took my time with packing my samovar for the night. Kat brimmed with impatience, but it made me feel gruff and stiff to have her laugh at me; to have that boy tip his jaunty hat when we finally strolled away.

Her surprise was a low tin door. She took the key back when I didn’t turn it quick enough. Her hands led me into a pair of rooms, warmed through by a black-bellied coal stove and cast in clear light from two real beeswax candles on a dented steel table. She stretched up on her toes. Her fingers didn’t even brush the plaster ceiling. She let her arms drift down and grinned.

“Do you like it? I think it suits us.”

“Oh, my dear, but how?”

She had wanted praise or applause. Her foot tapped twice in disapproval.

“There’s a bar man down Penny Lane,” she said. “He’s paid us to dance for a week.”

I was too much the coward to tell her a roof wasn’t worth such a risk. Too grateful at the thought of never climbing another stair after a long day standing watch by my samovar.

“Thank you, Kat,” I said.

She turned again, plucked a tin from between the two tarnished candlesticks, and presented it to me with a flourishing arm.

Under the lid was a heap of orange colored scraps, wrinkled and dry and smelling sharp, like something lurking beneath the dust in an apothecary’s shop.

“They’re from the Foreign Cities. Steep them in your tea, grandfather,” Kat laughed. “They’ll keep you from worry.”

I tried them for her sake. But they turned my tea sour. So, I hid them away at the back of a shelf. I have them still.

*     *     *
Cinnamon’s up her tree today, legs dangling free, heels thrumming on the stone. She’s hard to miss. Hard to look away from once you’ve seen her. There’s a burst of white at the end of her braid; a paper flower.

I wonder who makes them. All those clever folds and twists look just the same as the blooms Kat used to wear. How has a person with such a talent survived all this while? Not to mention the miracle of acquiring such sums of paper.

I never asked Kat where the flowers came from. I knew she didn’t make her own. She worked in a laundry, scrubbing her hands as ragged as her feet. My tea eased her pains. I was young enough to be pleased by that. To think caring for her would be enough. Still, I should’ve asked about the flowers.

Perhaps they come from Jack Straw. I’ve known his fingers to move with undue cunning. Yet today, when he stalks to the base of Cinnamon’s tree, he doesn’t look pleased by her ornamentation. I hear her voice rising against him. He tries to pick the flower from her copper braid. She yanks it back behind her shoulder, out of sight and his long reach.

I can’t say if he’s satisfied, or if he’s caught sight of the pair of Guards watching from a few trees away. Jack slips into the mist while Cinnamon continues to kick her heels against the unforgiving stone.

I do not recognize the Guards, though I have to admit, most of the faces above the high black collars look the same to me. The tall one scowls in a familiar sort of way. The other one coughs with a harsh note that makes me want to offer him a flask of tea, no charge.

They’re just boys, really. And from the set of their shoulders, I’d wager these two have been in the wars.

*     *     *
Kat used to tease me for all my grandfatherly ways. The truth was I used to worry I wouldn’t grow old. But a week becomes two, becomes a month, years. I remember when the steel rails around the Square bristled with shine. I was just about eye level with them, then. Now, they barely hold a smudge of reflection.

Kat teased, because she knew it would lure me out on damp evenings when I’d prefer to be polishing my samovar by our little stove. She went dancing most nights that autumn. After their success in Penny Lane, bar men quietly clamored to host the Ballet. They were even willing to pay for the privilege.

When I watched, I almost understood, if only for an hour or two. The way my Kat could spin, limbs shaping the shadows in those rooms with their reeking candles and whiskey-slicked floors ... she didn’t seem to be made of this cold, hard earth.

But those were silent shows, not nearly so risky as the night Jack Straw appeared in a corner, cradling something all curves and polished wood.

“What’s that boy doing here?” I asked.

“He’s brought a violin.”

Kat’s eyes caught the dull light and reflected it with blinding force.

“That’s reckless,” I said. “This ceiling’s too thin.”

“You haven’t heard him play, yet. It’s a marvel.”

She spun off to her companions. Jack Straw struck a silencing note. I left with the cry of that single string in my ear, knowing I’d never be rid of it.

*     *     *
I’ve never trusted winter. It doesn’t settle. It thickens in the air and hovers. Dulls the senses, chokes the blood. It makes all this steel and stone so bitter it feels dangerous to touch.

Even young bones must be twinging with it. That tall Guard’s been watching Cinnamon for weeks now. She’s been pretending not to see. Until today. She slides from her tree and brings him to my stall, their breath clouding together as I fill their flasks.

I give the man’s face a good look. His eyes are coal dark and clever. Suddenly, I remember that look.

“You’re Hart Var’s boy from over Tobacco Row,” I say.

He nods. I’ve surprised him, I can tell. I’ve surprised myself. Hart’s long dead, of course. I bet his son hasn’t been near Tobacco Row in years. But he’s the same eyes as his father.

Cinnamon’s looking at him as if she’s just noticed who she’s holding on to. I shouldn’t have said it. What good ever comes of the past?

I ought to warn Cinnamon, once he’s gone. If she’s going to be caught between Jack Straw and a Guard, she’d be better off to run now. To disappear into this city of smoke and soot. There are a thousand ways to do it. But she won’t. Not on the word of an old teaseller. Not when her blood is whispering with songs.

Once, when Kat was counting out coins at our battered table, half asleep, half drunk with a night of music, I asked her to go away with me.

“The last barges are leaving for the season,” I said. “We could take all that and buy passage north.”

“Don’t be an old fool.” She didn’t even look up, just shifted aside the week’s rent.

Perhaps it was foolish. If anything, travel papers were harder to come by then, though that wasn’t why Kat dismissed it without a glance.

Perhaps, it was selfish of me to ask it of her. To continue to want it.

I bit the words from my tongue, after that night. But I couldn’t forgive her for loving the dance more than me. For deciding it mattered more than me. For not making it home in the end.

Jack Straw comes looking for Cinnamon the next day. She’s not in her tree and he pretends like it’s not what he’s come for. Like he just wanted a flask of tea to stave off the chill wind curling up with the river mist. And perhaps it’s true.

It might be a little thing, a flask of tea, but people have come to rely on it. I told Kat once, if she really wanted to see a revolution, she should ask me to close up my stall for good. She only laughed and went away to dance.

Before that winter was done, she was arrested three times for colluding with musicians.

The third time, they hanged her.

I remember it was a rare sunny day. How wrong that seemed in this city of gray-eyed heavens.

I didn’t watch. I should have. But I didn’t.

I never asked Jack how he got away. I never will. Knowing won’t alter the shape of it. But now I’ve lived longer than I ever thought I could, and just maybe the Strawman has too. So, I ask the one thing that seems to matter, a thing I never thought to ask Kat.

“Who taught you?”

He looks up to the empty canopy of stone. “The fiddle?”

I nod. He does remember.

“My mother.”

He says it in a way that tells me she’s dead. I remember that skinny boy, in a grown man’s coat, grinning until his face must’ve ached with it.

Snow catches on his eyelashes, dragging them closed. He flicks it away with an impatient hand, scarred and calloused.

“Winter be damned,” are his parting words, raising his flask in salute to me.

Another man might tighten his knuckles in reply. But I’m old. My hands swell and stiffen in the cold. I blow on them to ease the pain, and reach for a new waxed flask.

I sell tea. That’s all. To rusty-haired dancing girls. To Guards in polished black jackets. To orphans with rag-wrapped feet when winter begins to steal their toes. To hollow-eyed men devoured by the factories. To faces I have seen many times before. And ones I may never see again. I take their coins, give them a brief swallow of warmth, and pretend I know forgiveness.

Mondo Mecho