October 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Every afternoon around 3 O’clock Chin-ten would make himself a cup of tea. He preferred Oolong and kept the tender, dried leaves in a red tin with the words Xian Cha printed on the front. On the back of the tin drawn in silhouette, a Chinese junk sailed towards the skyline of an exotic harbor city underneath a brief history of Xian Cha tea. Chin-ten had never brewed nor tasted Xian Cha. The container was empty when he purchased it for a dime at a garage sale some years ago.
Chin-ten had never sailed on a Junk either and the closest he’d ever been to an exotic port was New York harbor. Chin-ten was born and raised in Flushing where he owned and operated a framing shop. He lived above the shop with his wife Chu-li and when she was still alive they would have tea together every day at 3. He always told his wife as he scooped Oolong out of the tin that one day they would have to sample this recherché delight called Xian Cha but they never did.
A few months after Chu-li had passed away, Chin-ten hung a help wanted sign in the front window of his frame shop. While he could legitimately justify the need for an extra hand, he had to admit to himself that he was lonely working long hours all by himself. And despite his interactions with customers he worried that his isolation was having a negative effect on his sense of reality.
Of the several people who inquired only one seemed capable, a girl in her early twenties named Betty Wu. Betty claimed to be a foreign exchange student enrolled in art school and was studying museum restoration although Chin-ten suspected that she was somehow in the country illegally. The young girl was very pretty and reminded Chin-ten of his late wife in many ways but he asserted to himself that his decision to hire her was based solely on her qualifications: an interest in fine art as a career and previous experience.
She worked weekday afternoons to accommodate her morning class schedule and Chin-ten paid her in cash to avoid any embarrassing revelations of citizenship that could result in the loss of his only suitable candidate. Betty proved to be a reliable and tireless helper.
Chin-ten had never changed his afternoon routine and every day at 3 o’clock he brewed two cups of tea. Only now he shared them with Betty Wu.
Despite the positive changes that his new assistant brought, Chin-ten still missed his Chu-li terribly. He often thought the worst thing that could ever happen was to lose his wife and her passing had unfortunately proved him correct until one day when a customer visited Chin-ten’s shop with a collection of photographs to be framed.
On that morning, Chin-ten looked up from the wooden frame he was assembling when he heard the pleasant jingle of the tiny bell above the shop’s front door that announced the arrival of visitors. The doorway connecting the workshop and the showroom was covered by a heavy curtain. Chin-ten pushed it aside and stepped behind the counter where a young Asian man was standing. He wore overalls and baseball cap with the name Dragon Imports stenciled in gold letters on the crown.
“I wasn’t expecting a delivery,” said Chin-ten.
“Actually, I am dropping off some things from my boss to be framed, photographs,” the man responded, holding up a flat parcel.
The photos were sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard. He placed the package on the counter and Chin-ten carefully peeled off the adhesive tape holding them together.
“It is unusual,” Chin-ten spoke as he worked, “Typically I present the customer with a choice of framing options in person.”
The man explained that the instructions were inside as Chin-ten removed the last of the tape.
Chin-ten lifted the top piece of cardboard using both hands. When he looked down at the exposed photographs he heard a loud gasp escape from his mouth. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck were on end and he felt the blood drain from his face. He stood motionless like a statue of a man removing the lid from a crate and amazed at the contents.
A sheet of paper had flown out of the packet and fluttered to the linoleum floor. The delivery person had gone to retrieve it and returned deeply concerned over Chin-ten’s reaction.
“What is it, are they damaged?”
He looked at the man, mouth agape, and immediately tried to compose himself and hide the look of shock that calcified his face.
“No, no. Everything is okay, okay.” He forced a smile as the man handed him the paper.
“These are the instructions.”
Printed on the paper was a list that detailed the type of molding, glazing and the color of mat board to be used to complete the framing job as well as who to contact when the work was finished.
“Do you need an estimate?” Chin-ten asked. His voice had the monotone inflection of a robot.
“My boss didn’t say but he wondered if the job could be done by tomorrow.”
Chin-ten cleared his throat to find a chipper tone, “It will cost extra for a rush the job but yes I will have it done by tomorrow.”
The bell rang a good-bye to the delivery man as he left. Chin-ten went to the front window and watched him cross the street to where he’d parked a panel truck with the company name Dragon Imports on the side. The man climbed in and drove away.
Chin-ten took the photos into his shop and spread them out on a worktable. He rubbed his eyes as if something was distorting his vision. He took a deep breath and looked at the assortment of 8 x 10 portraits once more. Chin-ten had framed dozens of glossy corporate headshots just like these. There were five in total, three men and two women, all wearing business clothes and bright, friendly smiles in front of a plain matte background. These were a product of an uninspired yet professional studio photographer and there was nothing exceptional about them, certainly nothing to provoke the reaction he’d displayed in front of the delivery person, except for the one that had been on top of the stack. Chin-ten held the photo in his trembling fingers and stared in disbelief at the face of his late wife Chu-li.
Why did this customer have a photo of his dead wife? Did she have a secret life of which Chin-ten was unaware, had she been involved in a cult, was she still alive? The questions were swarming in his head like a dark cloud of starlings when he heard the bell above the door. That would be Betty, he thought, and hurriedly collected the loose photos. He put them out sight, saying nothing about the matter when Betty stepped through the curtain.
That night Chin-ten found it difficult to fall asleep and when he did at last he slept fitfully, waking often before drifting off again. Around 4 a.m. he decided it was useless to stay in bed. In the kitchen he let the tap run until the water was cold and splashed a few handfuls on his face before putting the tea kettle on to boil. He walked downstairs to examine the mysterious photograph once more but to his astonishment, Chu-li was no longer in the picture.
Chin-ten was frightened that he was losing his mind and was unduly startled by the sudden, querulous whistle of the tea kettle that fractured the pall of silence. As he mounted the stairs the kettle was silenced as if it had been taken off the heat. When Chin-ten entered the kitchen he saw that Chu-li was steeping the tea.
“Don’t be frightened, Chin-ten. Here, I have made your tea.”
He began to stammer.
“No, Chin-ten, this is not a dream. I am real but I am a ghost.”
Chin-ten felt his knees weaken and he clutched the back of a kitchen chair for support. The legs made a dry scraping sound as he pulled it out from under the table to sit. She placed the cup in front of him and the steam rose from the hot liquid like an apparition. He hesitated, picked up the cup with a shaking hand, blew and took a sip to test the corporeal nature of the drink.
Chu-li took the seat across from him and spoke. Her breath was icy and her words made Chin-ten shiver.
The year she died, Chin-ten was to celebrate his 30th birthday and Chu-li wanted to give him a special present to commemorate this pivotal event. She had given it considerable thought but was unable to think of an appropriate gift until one afternoon at 3 when the two of them were having tea. In all the years that Chin-ten had been using that peculiar tin, he had never once tried Xian Cha tea and Chu-li was determined to find this alluring delight. Covertly, she examined the container and found a label on the bottom that gave the name of a company and an address: Dragon Imports, Java Street, Brooklyn, New York. There was no phone number listed so she went to the business in person.
Dragon Imports was located in a desolate and depressing section of the city surrounded by junk and scrap yards and a water treatment plant. She made the long trip from Flushing to Greenpoint by bus and walked the remaining distance from the bus stop to an unassuming warehouse on Java Street. The company was on the second floor of the building and she climbed a worn, rickety staircase to the office.
The cold, dimly lit room was large and smelled of mildew. It was cluttered with a divergent array of goods including anything from cookware and pottery to lamps and silk garments. The only congruity to this merchandise was that it might have been imported from the Far East. The space was unattended but there was button on the wall to push for service. Within seconds an old gentleman who introduced himself as the owner of Dragon Imports appeared from seemingly nowhere. His appearance was as impeccable as his politesse. At first he spoke to Chu-li in Mandarin but quickly changed to English when he realized by her expression that she did not understand the language.
When Chu-li explained why she’d had come and asked if she could purchase Xian Cha tea directly, the owner assured her that he would be happy to sell it to her but that it was very expensive. It was indeed exorbitantly priced and Chu-li demurred.
Seeing her disappointment, the man suggested another gift. He cited her husband’s appreciation for decorative containers and took from a shelf a Japanese puzzle box with a delicate marquetry that formed the shape of a serpent wrapping itself around the exterior. He commented on the fine craftsmanship and demonstrated the delicate complexities involved in finding the single combination to open the box by sliding hidden panels in the proper order. When he had removed the lid he held it up to Chu-li and she saw her reflection in a mirror affixed to the underside. The moment her eyes touched the glass she felt dizzy but she was unable to look away. She no longer recognized the swirling mosaics of multi-colored glass that had been her own eyes. The undulating kaleidoscopes peering out of the mirror slowly lost all color until they were finally lifeless black. It was over in manner of seconds and as the man withdrew the lid from Chu-li’s vision she saw that his lips were curled into a sinister grin. She left quickly, nearly falling down the staircase as the man’s hollow laugh chased after her.
In the months that followed Chu-li developed an illness that mystified her doctors. She presented with no other symptoms but high fever and extreme weakness. She became so debilitated that Chin-ten had her hospitalized and she was placed in an intensive care unit. Her condition deteriorated rapidly until one morning when a nurse shook Chin-ten awake from where he was sleeping in a waiting room chair. She whispered that Chu-li had slipped away.
“Chin-ten, the man at Dragon Imports steals souls. This theft of my being is what killed me. He uses these souls in Xian Cha tea; he grinds them up and mixes them into the leaves. The tea is sold to people who desire a new life. His customers are the terminally ill, the very old or the hunted criminal who is desperate for new identity.”
Chin-ten blew on his tea. He had wrapped both hands around the cup against the chill that gripped the small kitchen.
“What would you have me do, call the police? And tell them what? Do you know how crazy this sounds?”
“Chin-ten, there are many more like my soul being held prisoner in his puzzle box. We will lose our souls forever unless we can be freed.”
“But, I’m no shaman…witchdoctor…whatever you call it. How do you expect…”
The ghost of Chu-li smiled and said, “Simply find the puzzle box and open it, dear husband.”
Chin-ten woke early the next morning slumped on the kitchen table, the remaining tea cold in the cup beside him. He felt foolish for having fallen asleep in such a place and worried for a moment that he had started sleep walking. He convinced himself that Chu-li’s visit and her fantastic story had all been a dream and he castigated his ludicrous subconscious.
After he’d washed and dressed he went directly to his workshop. The photo of Chu-li was as it had been when it was delivered with her lovely face smiling out at him. Regardless of the odd nature of his situation, Chin-ten knew it would be of interest to the police.
Why would Dragon Imports be in the possession of a photo of his deceased wife? Perhaps something or someone there was responsible for her death. What about the other faces smiling up at him from the work table? Were they in danger, had something terrible befallen them as well. It was, as Chin-tin resolutely decided, a matter for the authorities to investigate.
The phone and the number for his precinct were in the front room. As he started in that direction he noticed something moving on the photos that stopped him short. At first he thought it was light refracting off the paper’s high gloss but instead it was the eyes of each person starting to change. Chin-ten watched astonished as each underwent the kaleidoscopic phenomenon that Chu-li had described before extinguishing to pitch black.
He set to work on the job immediately; he wasted no time in ridding his shop of whatever evil he had allowed across the threshold. He called the contact number in the instructions. The same delivery person as before arrived with the balance due and was gone before noon. When Betty Wu arrived he left her in charge of the shop with instructions to lock up if he hadn’t returned by closing time from his important errand.
By mid-afternoon Chin-ten was climbing the squeaky steps of Dragon Imports. The picture that Chu-li had sketched in his mind was so vivid that Chin-ten felt as if he had made this squealing ascent many times before and knew what to expect on the other side of the office door. The room was deserted and the raspy complaints of the corroded door hinges reported his entrance to no one. The dusky light of an expiring afternoon filtered in through large, grimy windows with chicken wire skeletons.
There was a small hole in the shabby wooden floor that allowed a glimpse of the world that bustled below him. From what Chin-ten could tell the business occupying the ground floor was some sort of sweatshop. There were bolts of colorful cloth printed with the characters of a popular cartoon and women hunched over whirring sewing machines.
Chin-ten surveyed the merchandise mounded on tables, stacked in bins and stuffed on shelves. Had Chin-ten known no different he would have guessed that Dragon Imports was the supplier of ridiculously cliché, Pan-Asian vendibles to every stall in Chinatown. Standing prominently in the morass of second-rate inventory was a bronze statue of a Chinese soldier from an ancient dynasty. Posted as a sentry in the absence of a shopkeeper, it followed Chin-ten’s movements with blind, patina eyes. Chin-ten focused on a wall of Japanese puzzle boxes of various shapes and sizes. They were cheap factory models with poorly applied lacquer and crooked decorative patterns; amid these imitations the object of his search was easy to spot.
The chest was simple but undeniably handmade by a master craftsman. The scales glistened along the back of the serpent coiling around the box. Its hypnotic ruby eyes flashed and its ivory fangs were poised to strike at whoever dared plunder the treasure it guarded.
“May I help you, sir?”
Chin-ten jumped, startled. He had not seen or heard anyone enter the room and he wheeled around abruptly to see an old man staring at him through a pair of wire rimmed glasses with thick, round lenses. He was short, at least a foot shorter than Chin-ten, and he wore a fine silk suit that was perfectly tailored to fit his lean stature. He stroked a perfectly trimmed goatee that was silver with age and Chin-ten could see that his long fingernails were immaculately manicured and tapered into sharp points. His head was bald but the skin was stretched tight across the shining dome of his skull and free of crease or livery blemishes.
Chin-ten was caught completely off guard. In his haste to get to Dragon Imports and find the puzzle box he had failed to invent a believable excuse for his visit, especially to a business hidden away in the nether folds of Brooklyn’s seedy belly. He blurted out, “Tea, I came to purchase Xian Cha tea.
The old man’s spectacles magnified his bright, inquisitive eyes and they narrowed as he scanned Chin-ten from head to toe as if shrewdly appraising the common appearance of a man seeking such an exceptional delectation.
“Of course. I am Mr. Tan. I am the proprietor of Dragon Imports and I perceive you to be a man of exquisite taste. How, may I ask, did you come to know of our tea?”
Chin-ten lied, “A business associate of mine. You understand, naturally, I cannot disclose a specific name.”
The old man grinned, “Naturally. And did he, your associate, disclose the value of our tea?”
“He said it was priced according to its value but no specific price was mentioned.”
Mr. Tan slid a wispy hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and produced what appeared to be a business card and held it forward. At first Chin-ten thought the owner suspected he was being deceived and this gesture politely implied that their business was concluded. The card that Chin-ten accepted was plain, however, except for a price in dollars written in neat script – outrageous.
“Today’s price,” said Mr. Tan.
Chin-ten tried to act nonchalant and handed the card back saying in a voice he hoped sounded insouciant, “That figure will not a problem.”
“Excellent. Please, this way.” Mr. Tan signaled for him to follow and he led Chin-ten to a second door that opened to a long, narrow hallway. “After you, sir.”
The polished hardwood floor that stretched the length of the brightly lit passageway shimmered like the surface of a pond beneath the midday sun. The exposed brick walls on either side had been painted fire engine red and seemed to pulse like hot blood coursing through an artery. Chin-ten heard the percussive taps of Mr. Tan’s spotless wingtips behind him as the two marched forward. They entered a rotunda with plain white walls, a floor of damask colored marble and a high vaulted ceiling finished entirely with gold leaf. A cincture of lights was concealed behind molding that ringed the junction of wall and ceiling illuminating the gilded canopy. The light radiating down washed the room in warm, aureate brilliance.
As in a museum gallery, framed portraits were hung around the entire circumference of the room below an individual brass picture light. There were, Chin-ten counted, 35 in total. Underneath each stood a podium in the style of an Ionic column with a fluted shaft and scrolls carved into the capital. Resting on top were rectangular packages wrapped in simple, Kraft paper. A palsied woman who looked to be in her seventies was the only other customer in the space. She was dressed in Chanel and supported herself with a walking cane.
Mr. Tan spread his arms in a gesture of presentation. “Please. You are free to browse our current selection. Each blend is one of a kind. I am positive you will find a tea to your liking.”
Chin-ten approached the portrait closest to him. It was the same style of photo as the five he’d framed earlier. The work matched his own although he did not recognize the handsome young man smiling back at him. Below the photo was a plaque listing the subject’s age, height and weight. The only other information was a manufacturing date and serial number that matched that which was printed on the packages of Xian Cha tea. He moved to the next, a beautiful young woman with the same information.
The woman across the room summoned Mr. Tan who went to assist. Mr. Tan placed her selection of tea in the shoulder bag she carried. Then he removed the photo from the wall above the empty podium and escorted her out of the room.
Chin-ten went quickly from portrait to portrait. He came to a stop in front of a familiar face. A caustic mixture of rage and bitter sorrow boiled inside him and he felt his eyes well. That there was no name to indicate who Chu-li had been in her past life served as a final ignominy. It was as if she had been a nameless victim of senseless genocide and interred in a mass, unmarked grave.
From far down the hallway he heard the snap of Mr. Tan’s hard soles on the wooden floor. They grew louder as he approached and soon his footsteps were reverberating off the cold marble until the ceased directly behind Chin-ten.
Chin-ten closed his eyes and in the darkness a motion picture flickered on a screen. In the film Chin-ten whirls, delivering a solid punch to the tender abdomen of Mr. Tan who doubles over in pain as he gasps desperately for the air forced out of his lungs. In a single motion Chin-ten grabs the defenseless head and brings his knee powerfully up into Mr. Tan’s face knocking the old man to the floor. Chin-ten kneels over the prostrate body and begins smashing the skull into the stone. The violent act creates wet, crunching sounds as the bone shatters and the insides spray out covering the floor with a gruesome impasto of blood and brains.
Chin-ten opened his eyes. Mr. Tan was waiting patiently with his hands folded in front of his chest and wearing a serene smile. He asked politely, “Have you found your perfect tea, sir?”
Chin-ten answered flatly, “No, none of these will do.”
Mr. Tan, in all sincerity, looked disconcerted that he could not meet a customer’s needs. He said with concern in his tone, “Please, take your time, perhaps another look.”
“No, none of these will do. But I will have that Japanese puzzle box you have in the front.”
This was met with silence.
“The one with the snake wrapped around it. I will have that one.”
Mr. Tan was calm but his polite smile had vanished and he spoke slowly in voice hardened by gravity, “That is not for sale, sir.”
“I will have it.” And Chin-ten was off and running down the throbbing red hall with Mr. Tan’s quick, clicking steps in pursuit.
In the front office Chin-ten seized the box from the shelf and at once realized he had no idea how to open it. When Mr. Tan caught up with him, Chin-ten was holding the box over his head and as the old man lunged to intervene Chin-ten slammed the box down on the sharp apex of the bronze warrior’s helmet. Mr. Tan screamed for him to stop. Chin-ten closed his eyes and the violent film played. He brought the box down again and again with all his strength until it splintered and broke open with a loud crack. He threw the mangled wreckage on the floor at Mr. Tan’s feet who knelt immediately, trying to mend the damage. As he did, shining globs of metallic liquid slithered out like mercury released from a smashed thermometer. Mr. Tan frantically tried to catch them but they eluded his desperate clutches and glided with the twitching hide of quicksilver through the hole in the floor. Tan crawled on all fours to hole and bent to peer into the sweatshop below. He lifted his head and his face twisted into a hideous scowl. He rose to his feet and pointed a lithe finger at Chin-ten and began cursing him in Mandarin and then in a dialect Chin-ten did not recognize. His complexion had flushed to deep crimson and drool oozed from the corners of his mouth as he spit out his inflamed diatribe. The man’s eyes, bright with rage, rolled back into his head, exposing the glistening, translucent whites, crisscrossed with crooked rivulets of grotesque, red veins. He bolted from the room, down the creaking steps in pursuit of what Chin-ten reckoned were emancipated souls.
Alone, Chin-ten returned to the gallery and collected the packages of tea on Chu-li’s pedestal like remains. He looked at here beautiful face once more and was gone.
In the anxious weeks that followed, Chin-ten fully expected to be paid a visit by the police with warrants of arrest for theft and destruction of property. He worried that Mr. Tan himself might come into the frame shop reinforced by ghoulish, satanic confederates seeking some sort of recompense or worse. But nothing happened and Chin-ten’s modest life returned to a normal routine. The only evidence that the absurd events ever took place was the tea. He kept it wrapped in the kitchen beside the tin of Xian Cha that he promised himself he would dispose of but had not.
One afternoon at 3 o’clock while Chin-ten was waiting for the water to boil, he took the tin from its place, flipped the can over and carefully read the back. He’d read the product description many times over the years but always with the detached attention of someone reading the insignificant information on the back of a cereal box while they ate breakfast.
Xian Cha, tea of the immortals…an ancient art of tea making…nourishes the soul…transform into a new person…
How long would it take? He wondered. He opened one of the Kraft paper packages and emptied the tea into the tin. He brewed a cup and took it downstairs to the frame shop where Betty Wu put down her work, eagerly accepting the refreshment.
“Is this different?” she asked after her first sip.
“Yes, it is something new. Something I think you will like.”
Betty Wu shrugged. “It tastes like green tea, Chin-ten. But it’s better than that Oolong you always make.” She winked at him and drank what would be the first of many cups filled with Xian Cha tea. In time all of the tea was gone and Chin-ten was reunited with his wife, Chu-li.