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Green Tea (Part 7, a.k.a. The End)

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Shelli smiles at me out from under her hat. Not for the first time, her eyes remind me of hard blue marbles pressed into the chalk oval of her face. I set the tray down on top of the desk, needing to be free of the weight of it before it hits the floor.

“No problem,” I say, trying to mean it. “I have some things to catch up on, anyway.”

“See?” Shelli says, tapping your arm, flexing her red talons into the heavy wool of your coat.

She’ll need to change the color of her nail polish if the two of you continue to see each other. If she lasts longer than the ambassador’s daughter, or the dean’s wife, or the grad student with the white Jeep. Of course, the grad student was allergic to Leo and that was a problem. I remember running out of the office to buy Benadryl on more than one occasion when she was sneezing and puffy and miserable.

The two of you move toward the door. You open it with one hand and usher Shelli out ahead of you. I wonder if you will be in tomorrow, or if I should start cancelling your appointments in the morning. You have a meeting with the History Chair at 10 a.m.—he’s interested in pursuing a grant based on your findings in York.

At the last instant, you turn your great lion’s head back to glance at me. “Best cancel everything for tomorrow, Een,” you say.  “Shelli says it’s getting nasty out there.”

Een—that’s worse than ‘Miss Harris,’ if possible. Sounds like a horse or a dog or a faithful old retainer, patted on the head or the muzzle for a job well done. Shelli says something, her voice carrying in from the landing, her tone unmistakable.

“Yes, coming, darling,” you soothe, smiling out into the darkness where she waits. Turning back to me you add, “If it’s not too bad in the morning, you might just come in and get those notes organized for the presentation at Carlyle’s.”

I nod, dismissed, and you are gone. The door settles back into its frame with a wheeze and a sigh, tired of being held open on its elderly hinges. I am drawn to the window, lifting one slat in the blind with one cautious finger, determined to see what I have no desire to see. Scarlet and cinnamon entwined, oblivious to the swirl of snow that dances around them and flashes diamond-bright in the glow of the lamps that line the street.

Nothing left for me but the Morris chair and my solitary tea. Three cups reflect the shimmering firelight, mocking me. I reach for my own, accidentally knocking over the one that I set out for Shelli. It falls, its amber-green contents splashing out in a wet fan to darken the priceless Khibiri rug under the desk. The cup lies unbroken in the midst of the stain, its wide mouth turned to me in a grin.

I look at the cup. The cup looks at me. I think of you, Gil, and Shelli, somewhere together, drinking a hot, fresh cup that some stranger brought to you in a new pot with no history.

Three strokes, with my whole heart and weight behind them, and the fireplace poker makes its own sort of history with Shelli’s cup. You’ll be picking china shards out of your precious Khibiri for years to come, Gil.

Leo appears atop your desk, sure paws unsure atop the sliding stack of papers and charts and notes. After settling his haunches on a diagram of some tomb, he raises one front paw, the white-toed one, and licks it round and round to his satisfaction before raising it to polish his mysterious ‘M.’ It looks more like a salute than his usual self-absorbed bath.


Green Tea (Penultimate or “Part 6”)

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“Be sure to set a cup for yourself, Enid,” you call from the office. 

At least you’ve dropped the Miss Harris business, but I wonder if it’s made any difference. I do not want to drink tea with you and Shelli. I want to drink tea with you and Leo, savoring the sight of your hands wrapped around a delicate cup that once belonged to an emperor. I want to watch you stir your scant half teaspoon of sugar into your cup with the curious motion you use—around and slow, back and around again. I want to see you balance your saucer—Tao Ling dynasty, ninth century—on one knee, Leo on the other.

Lingering in the kitchen, wiping off the tray, finding an extra mug, smoothing the napkins. Not knowing how Shelli takes her tea, I add a sugar bowl to the set. Leo ‘plays his cello,’ which is a whimsical-but-accurate description of the position he’s assumed atop the counter, with one striped hind leg hoisted over his head. He stops grooming for a moment to regard me. No use in stalling, Leo. It’s tea time.

“Here we are—“ I begin, balancing the tray on my hands and negotiating the narrow kitchen doorway with my elbows.

You are putting on your heavy coat, Gil, I see. The cinnamon-colored wool that came from a shop on High Street in Aberdeen, after the airline lost yours. It was the only one in the place that didn’t bind your shoulders, you told me, and you thought you’d get used to the color. (Of course you got used to it; you looked striking in cinnamon and everybody told you so.)  Forget the safety of camel or tan or charcoal—but you do clash with Shelli’s crimson.

“Sorry, Enid,” you say, snuggling the collar up to the edge of your beard.  “Change of plans—couldn’t be helped.” You ease Shelli’s strawberry curls out from under the brim of her hat—scarlet felt, what else?—and smooth them with the tips of your fingers. The tea tray dips forward, wavering out of my control for a minute.

Fleeting Figs…

A fig in the hand...
A fig in the hand…

Fresh figs are some of the most fragile and fleeting fruits I’ve ever seen. One website suggested you have approximately 12 hours from the time you actually dislodge the fig from the tree before you lose control of it (i.e. it turns to mush).

My fresh figs had a lifespan of about 48 hours all together, but many of them didn’t have that much staying power. I ate them, styled them for photographs, shared them with my family, then hit the fig-wall: time to do *something* with the fresh figs before they liquified and ran out of the basket.

I had dreams of caramelizing them and canning the results: tidy, pint-sized rows of golden-brown goodness lining the shelves of my kitchen, waiting to be opened up and spooned out over fluffy buttered biscuits while snowflakes whirl outside the window…but that involved finding canning jars, prepping figs, and dealing with my mother’s hippopotamus-sized pressure cooker, which I always assume will explode, showering anyone in the vicinity with glass shrapnel and geysers of liquid hot “figma” (like magma, only made of figs and sugar).

Freezing, then, was the best option. This still requires prepping the figs, but has no real opportunity to register on the Richter scale of my imagination. (“Asheville locavore blows a gasket–literally–in freakish home-canning accident!”) The fig-related websites (there are more than you might think) suggest boiling figs in a simple syrup before freezing. Hmm…sounds like I should just make fig sauce (like apple sauce, obviously, but with figs) and freeze that. I could still have the buttered-biscuit-snowfall-fantasy, even though freezer containers are 1) not as attractive as canning jars, and 2) even if they were pretty, they’re still hidden in the freezer.

I begin sorting figs, slicing off the stem end and “fig butt” of all those that haven’t either burst their skins or grown cobwebby white mold whiskers. (A fig is really just a fragile little bag of juicy fructose waiting to become a science experiment–eek!) There are still a lot of usable figs, and the ones that scare me go into a separate bag for the neighbor’s hog Brutus. (I’ve seen how and what he eats; I don’t honestly think he’ll mind a few fig whiskers.)

Once all the figs are in the pot, I add a cup or so of orange juice, the juice of one lime, a half-cup or more of brown sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of dried orange rind, and a shake-shake-shake of an orange liquer for good measure (or “innacurate measure,” if we’re being technical about it). I turn the burner to medium and wait, stirring occasionally.

A couple of hours (and some adjustments to sugar and cinnamon) later, I have a pot full of beautiful fig sauce, boiled down to caramel-thick perfection, with a million golden seeds catching the light. So good, so worthy, as it were, of buttered biscuits on a winter’s day. As soon as it cools, I’ll put it in sturdy storage containers and bury it in the permafrost zone of the freezer. Pure fig heaven, waiting to be resurrected from from the depths of its artificially Arctic interment to live again at the breakfast table!