Chinese Tea and the Bone Cup


by Danielle LeClerc

Within the seed of every apricot lies a small, soft kernel. Just a few of these pack enough cyanide to stop your heart in minutes.
Jasmine flowers, a popular Chinese tea ingredient, benefit the immune system and lower cholesterol. Jasmine berries, however contain a powerful neurotoxin.
Goji berry, known in China as gou qi zi and in Europe as wolfberry, has recently gained much attention in the West as a naturopathic herb. In small doses it improves circulation and aides the kidneys and spleen. Higher concentrations were used by Germany to poison Nazi bullets, stopping the hearts of victims with remarkable efficiency.

* * *

Wen hu tang bei
(warming the pot and heating the cups)

At least it was a beautiful warm day. Exactly the kind you would ask for. XiaPeiFen’s liquorice twig hands lifted her kettle, letting the whistle die in its throat. Even RuiFei had been happy for a bit of dry air, and she always had something to complain about. PeiFen’s lips spread in something like a smile, but her eyes held fast to the task of tipping critically hot water into pot and cups. How RuiFei dealt with that grumpy old husband of hers, she didn’t know. Water trembled in the cups as she lifted them to the old sink and emptied them.

Jian shang jia ming
(appreciating the excellent tea)

PeiFen’s fingers poked around her little bag of ginseng roots. Not poor man’s ginseng, but real ren shen, and no small expense. Today she selected the largest piece, the one she’d been saving. She held it between two fingers in the dust-speckled light of the window. Her eyes went wide at the extravagance, but after all, what did it matter now? Her heart began to race and without meaning to, she was reciting:
“Ren shen for organs, bai shao for pain, gu ya keeps the rice down, jasmine clears the veins.” Saying each herb aloud was as calming now as taking them would be.
PeiFen spent much time choosing among the tangle of peony roots, setting aside only the whitest slices, just as her mother had done in the years when owning and brewing such teas was illegal. The bai shao left a familiar scent of Sichuan clay on her fingers and she felt again as though she were taking hot cups to her father, helping him to drink them. She felt a sudden chill, despite the heat from the kettle.
And after all these years! She scolded herself. Last month marked 17 of them since Mama died. Poor Mama. Shaking her head sharply, PeiFen opened the cupboard that belonged to she and XiaLiangLiang. Now where was her gu ya? Her eyes and hands had measured the correct amount of little brown kernels a thousand times as she was off day dreaming, they didn’t really need any of her concentration, yet today she took special care sifting and selecting them.

Wu long ru gong
(the black dragon enters the palace)

“Ren shen for organs, bai shao for pain, gu ya keeps the rice down, jasmine clears the veins.” Peifen took a deep breath and gazed without focus into the small porcelain of herbs, hesitating, touching the pieces.
“Pei Pei! Is the tea ready?” Her shoulders stiffened as he finished his sentence with an awful tide of coughing. It was getting worse every day, had been getting worse for months.
“Almost.” Peifen’s fingers came to life again, pushing the herbs into her teapot.
The same small, brown teapot that had been in her family for so long. The same teapot, stained so dark inside, that was almost ready now to be passed to their own daughter. At last she added loose jasmine flowers and filled the pot to half with green tea leaves.

Xuan hu gao chong
(rinsing from an elevated pot)

Water sizzled over the loose tea as she filled the pot, the warm, fragrant steam smelled just as it always had. Funny it should smell this way today, she thought as the water pushed leaves to the tip of the spout.
“Dinner was very good, thank you, wife!” called LiangLiang. He sounded happy. Peifen closed her eyes and indulged a small flat smile: he’d had a good day. She’d seen to that.
In the TV room LiangLiang was coughing. It could be heard anywhere in the building. She stood alone in the centre of her dark, shikumen kitchen; the one they shared crowded among bottles of spices, old pots and dust mites, with three other families. It was better this way, she told herself again, holding the warm teapot in her hands with stones in her eyes.
Enough, enough! PeiFen decanted the tea into two clay cups and let the rest drain away into the sink. Quietly, she crept past LiangLiang and into their bedroom. Though he’d once been strong and quick, able to hack apart a whole lamb with just a knife and rolled shirt-sleeves, sickness had now leeched all strength from his muscles; leaving only the quiet kindness she had treasured during difficult years of making a family and keeping their little butcher’s stall. Now it seemed a live pig could walk in and he wouldn’t know until its nose was in his soft belly. Her breath grew ragged in her throat and she had to count long, slow lungfuls to keep the quiet: yi.. er.. san..
In the little crack under their marriage bed, Peifen’s hands found at last an unglazed bit of porcelain. On it, the red berries had dried into hard little knots. They’d been so easy to get, not difficult at all, as she’d expected. And light as a puff of air clutched in her fist. Stepping gently back to the kitchen, her old fingers brushed each familiar thing on the way; their ragged chair, their faded lampshade, their knockabout table she’d stubbed her toe on so often; all of them as steady as anything, but her disorientation only continued to swell. Those fingers that had sewn a million buttons, cooked countless dinners, and spooned soup into the mouth of her daughter, and now her husband. Perhaps this was all natural.

Chong xi xian
(bathe the immortal twice)

Peifen turned on the kitchen light against the coming sunset and emptied the cups for the second time. In the harsh light, she added water again as before. Everything was just right. After a moment, she filled one shallow cup with the brew and set a smelling bowl over it. She refused to hesitate before slipping the jasmine berries into the pot, but as she let go they clung to the dampness of her hand. She shook violently to release them, nearly knocking the pot onto the floor.”
“Is everything okay, PeiPei?” LiangLiang rattled from his daytime bed.
“Yes… yes!” PeiFen took a sip from her cup to steady herself.
“Well hurry up! Win In China is coming on TV!”
“Coming, husband.” Just a moment longer… PeiFen thought of her mother, poor Mama, and looked at her old hands: just the same as the ones she remembered. Finally she poured tea into the last cup.
“Ren shen for comfort, bai shao for pain, gu ya keeps the rice down, jasmine clears the veins.” With a deep breath, PeiFen took the hot cups to the TV room, and helped LiangLiang to drink.