Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part II

When the assassin set down her empty tea cup, she was unsurprised to see the tea mistress glaring down at her. The Path never lied, although she’d hoped it wouldn’t be that kind of day.

“Pay and go.” The tea mistress slid a small receiving tray across the table for the assassin’s coin.

The assassin pulled out a handful of coins from an inside pocket of her coat, slowly so no one did something stupid as if she was to pull her sword over rudeness alone. She’d let larger unkindness pass without retribution before and she would again. The coins clinked against the lacquer and gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Even the tea mistress could not contain her gasp at the golden glow, far too much for the poor meal and lukewarm cup of tea.

“Too much.”

The assassin shrugged. “It is what I’ve always paid here.” She stood, stretching her back like a fox before shouldering her pack.

“Peace be on your Path.” She nodded her head to the tea mistress who still hadn’t taken her eyes off the coins, enough to pay for a year’s worth of meals three times over.

“And ten-fold on yours,” the tea mistress replied.

As she slid open the door to leave, the assassin paused. “Trouble always comes in threes and I am not the first.”

The tea mistress looked up, a frown on her face that was touched with concern.

“I’d put those away if I were you and perhaps close before the moon rises. Sometimes trouble will pass by if not invited in.” Sometimes not. She set one foot over the threshold when the tea mistress called.


The assassin stopped, but did not turn around. The silence in the tea room was complete.

“Would you like another cup of tea?”

No one saw it, but the assassin smiled before she turned around. Yes, the moon and the Path were conspiring this afternoon. Someday she would be beyond such tests.

“Only a fool would turn down a cup of tea.” The assassin sat down at the table where her dishes and cup were still.

The tea mistress started as if from a trance and hurriedly whisked them away, returning with a tea pot with steam curling from its spout and a cup covered with delicate, intricate painted flowers. She poured it with an almost steady hand and opened her mouth, but said nothing before turning away.

Trouble would come, as it always did. There was nothing for doing except waiting and drinking a perfectly brewed, steaming cup of tea. And that was what the assassin did.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads

photograph of rock path in Japanese tea garden through a wooden gate flanked by two stone statues, one of a figure and one of a pagoda

“I don’t want any trouble.”

“Neither do I,” the assassin said studying the whorls in the tabletop before her. Her hands were folded on her lap, where the tea mistress could easily see them.

“The Rule at the Crossroads—”

“I know the Rule and I know your duty. Do you?”

The tea mistress’ cheeks flamed red, but not as red as the strand of hair that had escaped from the scarf covering the assassin’s head. The few other patrons in the tea house pretended not to listen, though each had edged closer to the door. They were not so foolish as to antagonize an assassin, even within the protections of the tea house. Rules had been broken before.

“Of course, I know my duty—”

“Then I would like some tea and the house special, please.”

The tea mistress huffed away, muttering under her breath as the assassin feigned indifference to everyone in the room. Service had been more professional the last time she had been here, but that had been a long time ago. Before there was a touch of snow in her hair, before she had a scar that could only be seen in the moonlight.

She truly didn’t want any trouble. But with the north wind might want to blow trouble her way with the darkening of the Path in the doorway. Her tea and meal arrived without another word from the tea mistress. The assassin ate her meal without haste, but also without pause. It was better to have a full stomach when trouble came than not.

Saturday Short: Hearts and Minds

photograph of a glass heart on a wood table

“Heart” by seyed mostafa zamani on Flickr (CC-BY)

“No one believes that anymore. Not even my grannie believes that.” Robyn crossed her arms over her chest and flopped back in her chair as if that settled the argument.

Miss Everlee was used to such outbursts from Robyn and the other children by now. It was only two months into the new year and she was already counting down until the harvest, when her appointment would be over. Her sanity was worth more than her salary; she had done the calculation as she stared at the crack in her bedroom ceiling this morning before hauling herself up and out into the darkness to make it to the schoolhouse in time.

Sometimes she wished the students wouldn’t show up. None of them cared about reading or spelling or math beyond how much they could count on two hands. Sometimes she thought she’d made a mistake. Other times she knew she had.

“Really?” Miss Everlee asked in a way the children heard as an innocent question, but any adult listening carefully would have felt the hairs on their neck stand on end. It was not an innocuous question.

“Of course,” Tym replied, receiving a nod from Robyn. “I saw it when we went to the City last year. My da’ dropped us off at the museum and we saw lots of brains in jars.”

A chorus of icks and awes created a din in the room, which subsided more or less on its own, no one paid attention to Miss Everlee’s motions to be quiet.

“And what does that prove?”

“The person at the museum, she was even older than you, said that scientists showed all our thinking is done in the brain.”

“Yeah,” Robyn picked up after Tym took a breath. “We only need our brains. No one needs their heart for thinking.”

“You don’t need a heart?”

“No!” the children chorused.

“You can kill someone through the heart, but it isn’t the most important thing. The brain is.” Robyn nodded at Tym as if this settled the argument.

Miss Everlee wanted to sigh, but didn’t. Instead she moved on with the next lesson and the next until finally the day was done. Then she walked back home, though even weighted down with her bag, she had a slight smile playing on her lips that caused the foxes to scurry from her path for they were more observant than the children.

When she reached her cottage after locking the door behind her, she reached into her bag and withdrew a specimen jar large enough to hold a brain, but this one held what looked like the shadow of a heart. She put it on the shelf above her bed and considered how long it would be before the children noticed that parts of their hearts had gone missing.

Saturday Short: Morning Glory

photograph of a morning glory flower and leaves against a weathered fenceTo her mother, there was nothing more hopeful than seeing the flowers bloom against the unstained, worn fence that separated their land from their neighbor’s land. Every summer the dead vines sprung to life no matter how dry or wet the winter had been. They turned overnight from brown and dull to glossy green and buds formed as if conjured by magic. Her mother would walk over to the fence every morning as the sun rose to see if any had bloomed.

Moira hated the flowers. She hated how excited her mother became after seeing the first bloom. The delicate white in the center with the deepening purple, like sunsets over the ocean. The flowers mocked her, mocked her family’s life and she couldn’t see how her mother could stand it. The riot of color against their dreary fence. The only color left in the world outside the gated estate that led to the inner country where it was whispered there was still color left in the world.

The flowers weren’t signs of hope. They were jeers of conquest, a flagrant and fragrant reminder of what she and her mother could never have.

But Moira never said such things. They would break her mother’s already fragile heart.

So instead, every winter, she hacked back the vines in secret, on the nights without a moon, when the entire world was dark and she had to navigate by counting her steps from the back door to the fence.

The wind was turning and there was a coldness to the air in the morning. At the first new moon, she could no longer wait for the vines to die and she went to the fence. The still heady scent filled the air as she opened her shears to make the first cut.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Moira screamed and turned to find herself face to face with an old woman whom she’d never seen before, whose clothes were a swirl of colors that did not stand still.

“Do what?” Moira asked hating her quaking voice.

“Cut the morning glory.” The woman stroked one of the flowers with a hand and it glowed.


“It is often the small things, I’ve found, that create openings that we need.” The woman turned her attention back to Moira. “If we know where to look.”

“What? What opening?”

The woman patted her shoulder. “You are smart. Figure it out.” She began walking away, her shape dissolving into the night when she called back. “It’s time that the change hung on a flower. Hasn’t happened in an age.”

Moira frowned and touched her cheek. It was cold. She wasn’t dreaming. But the woman was clearly mad. No one could change the world with a flower. She turned back to the wall and raised her shears to the flower that still glowed faintly, but lowered them and brushed the flower carefully aside.

There was a crack in the fence, a knothole that had fallen out and she could see through to the other side. And the shears in her hand were forgotten as Moira began a plan that felt less like a dream and more like the glory of morning might finally rise again.

Saturday Short: From Here

photograph of two pairs of shoes on a rocky trail

“Which way?”

I shrugged. How was I supposed to know? I’d never been on this trail before and the paths that diverged from the fork were unmarked.

“Well, we have to pick one,” he said, stating the obvious.

Trying to peer further down each path was no help. The woods were thick with undergrowth and the spindly saplings made it difficult to get a bearing. Looking up was no use either. The canopy was thick enough to obscure all but the weakest sunlight that filtered down, not enough to even warrant heavy sun protection.

The map, now soggy from the morning mist, looked more and more like a child’s scrawling interpretation of trails up and down the mountain. I missed the days of precise, large, ordinance maps. When people seemed to care about the usefulness of their work.

“Well, we can’t stay here,” he said, fists on his hips, glaring at the fork in the road as if it was put there personally to offend him.

“I know,” I replied staring at our shoes.

“Which way from here?” His huff reminded me of our cat.

“I don’t know,” I said still looking at our shoes, funny they should strike me as so incongruous on the trail. I almost laughed.

“Fine. We’ll go that way.” And he started up the left fork of the trail.

“We could always turn around,” I called after his back, but I don’t think he heard me.

Saturday Short: Devil’s Club

photograph of the leaves and stalk of Devil's Club plant

Every year, after the first spring rains, the ground recalls that it is more than dirt. And the seeds, hidden deep within the dried cracks split open under the summer sun, learn that there is more to life than sleeping. All manner of plant life sprouts as one being from the ground, thirst for the cool breeze and air and sunshine. The earth sings, not with the sound of birds or rushing waterfalls, but with the pale new green of seedlings who don’t know yet but they will soon erupt in a riot of colors not seen since the last rainbow faded over the autumnal harvest.

And this terrestrial spring swelling is when the children learn the respect that the plants are due. The healer, whose grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, taught her how to recognize the true uses of each plants takes the groups of children into the woods. There, they help her collect the first buds of the season, for her back was not what it once was. And they learn how to identify each plant, in every stage. Later, when the sun is no longer a warm friend, but a hot-tempered intruder, the children will be rewarded with wild strawberries that will paint their faces red.

The first plant any of them learn is the Devil’s Club. A misnomer, perhaps, for those with the knowledge to harness it, who know that rough exteriors often belie soft, giving interiors. But it’s not a kind teacher. The children give it respect and do not shove each other towards it like they do with the giant webs, daring each other to go closer to the jewel-toned spider dangling above. The Devil’s Club’s bite is less kind, festering for days. The healer demonstrates how to handle it, with thick gloves and care. How to clean the thorns from its side and strip out the inner remains, to boil and to cure that which ails some in the village.

She has no takers when she asks for volunteers to try their hand at harvesting it. She is not surprised.

Two of the children, twins, are the most studious of the group. They have the makings of healers and she is glad.

A week later, the twins are in the woods, lounging by a creek, waiting for the fish to bite when a stranger stoops down and reaches out his hand to a plant by the side of the path. The leaves are stretched out, collecting the sun, and look soft. But looks can be deceiving.

“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you,” the girl calls to him as her brother nods his head in agreement.

The man hesitates, but then touches a leaf anyway, drawing his hand back with a start as the underside bites him.

“I told him,” the girls says under her breath. Her brother agrees silently.

The stranger walks on, but will stop at the house of the healer that afternoon, his hand blistering and swollen. And the healer will hide her smile when he tells her that he should have listened to the warning of two children who knew better than him.

Saturday Short: To the Waterfall’s Beginning

photograph of a small waterfall over mossy rocks in a temperate rainforest

Running was not Jekily’s favorite activity, nor were they particularly good at it. While others in their class could cover ground tirelessly, with little more than a sheen upon their brow at the end, Jekily looked and sounded like a wounded moose by the end of any run more than a few yards. Running up the side of the mountain was tantamount to agreeing to torture oneself slowly and willingly.

Yet there Jekily was, on an overcast, damp, too cold for the end of spring morning, running up the mountain. In between labored breaths, or more accurately gasps, Jekily swore they might be mad. No one in town would have sworn differently had they been up on the mountain, too.

But no one else was, not now, not following the waterfall up to its beginning on some fool’s errand, quest, thing that Jekily couldn’t even be sure mattered. They’d awakened to weak light creating a glow around the sides of the curtains in their room and couldn’t shake the feeling to see where the waterfall began. Not any waterfall, although the mountain had more than could be counted on both hands, but the waterfall. The compulsion was an itch that wouldn’t go away.

So they ran. Not packing anything, barely remembering to throw on a waterproof shell as the mountain seemed to whisper, to pull with a strange force they’d never noticed before.

Some care where the waterfall ends… the wind sighed as even the morning bird calls were drown out by the rush of the water. Jekily shook their head.

“Wind doesn’t talk,” they muttered, it coming out in bursts on exhalations that looked like small clouds.

You should care where it begins…the trees whispered with a shake of their limbs.

Jekily tried to ignore the feeling that they were running against the clock up the mountain. They didn’t dare look up to see how much of the steep incline was left, pretended they didn’t hear the very earth grown and the water contort in ways that defied reality. Instead, they focused on the pain shooting up their calves and steadying their breath, pushing the drops of sweat from their eyes.

The waterfall’s beginning…that’s what had been whispered in the dream. That was what played like a jumbled up track in their head and that’s why Jekily, who hated running, now launched into a sprint up the mountainside to find what the waterfall’s beginning had to do with their end.

Saturday Short: The Pass through the Mountain Mists

photograph of a rocky island by the sea with encircling clouds near the top of a mountain

By the time she spotted the shore, if it could be called that, Miranda had half given up on ever spotting land again. The fog hadn’t lifted for over a week and from what she could tell, the mariners were navigating by faith alone. No sky was visible, yet alone a star and there was no coastline to follow. She pretended she hadn’t seen one of the men, the one in charge of plotting the course, throwing runes below deck. It made her question the wisdom of coming out in the fjords, following what some would consider worse advice than that found in runes.

She leaned out over the deck, the land drawing her forward like a magnet as the fog parted, leaving only a sinuous line of clouds that reminded her all too much of a snake guarding its prey. A strong hand on her shoulder pulled her back and she scowled.

“Don’t get too excited, they’ll take you overboard.” His eyes flicked down to the waterline before they went back to scanning the mountains. “Would hate to lose you so close to the end.”

His laugh, low and like scrapping boulders, was joined by a few of his men on deck.

Miranda didn’t find him, or the dark roiling shapes under the sea’s surface, amusing. “Don’t worry, you’ll get paid.”

“I don’t worry,” he replied as he turned. “Waste of time…as is going into the mists,” he added more quietly so only she could hear him.

Everyone said going into the mists was a waste of time. Especially for a woman. Especially for a woman with no sea experience, no business out in the wilds. But she’d studied more than anyone she knew, watched the signs better than anyone had ever recorded, and she knew there was a pass through the mists, one that had to be reached before the siren songs of war reached the edges of her homeland. It was the only way.

Miranda forced herself to look away from the sea demons below the water, to ignore the snickers from the men behind her on deck, and raised her hand as if she could part the mists still clinging to the rough edges of the mountains yet to be climbed. The sky trembled and, after three weeks at sea, she smiled. She would find the pass yet.

Saturday Short: The Worlds in the Dewdrops

photograph of dewdrops on blades of grass

Almost everyone in the world has seen dewdrops on the grass. Those sparkling spheres which make fields shine with light reflecting off facets of jewels. It is a fleeting thing, a gift from dawn, recalled by a jealous noonday sun. 

They are nothing more than water droplets anyway. Pretty but unnecessary, like the changing colors of the trees’ leaves in autumn… 

My teacher looks up from reading my reflections on the dew. Her eyes, all-seeing, never revealing her thoughts, behind glasses as thick as the bottom of mason jars used for canning.

“Is that so?” Her question short, but I know not easy to answer.

“Is what so?” I have no idea where she’s paused in reading or what has caught her attention. Other students still try to interpret her expressions. I do not. Asking is far simpler and more efficient.

“That the dewdrops are merely water beads.” She looks at me and asks, “Is that what you believe?”

“Of course. It’s been proven.”

“Ah. Yes, proof is good. So different than belief.”

I frown, sensing I am stepping into a trap, but not sure what I can do. My heart is pounding and my ears begin to ring.

“What do you think dewdrops are then?” trying to sound as philosophical as her. Answer a question with a question. Always safe.

She stands and hands back my paper as she takes off her glasses with her other hand, hanging them on the beaded chain around her neck.

“Why the multiplicity of worlds, of course. What else could they be?” Then she smiles and walks out of the room.

I look at my paper and should be happy it is marked with a passing grade. I feel failure as I walk home that night and the heat of anger. How could I be so foolish to study under her? Someone who is clearly not all together, at least not anymore.

I glare the next morning at the field covered in dew and walk over, bending low so I am a mere hair’s breadth from the dew.

I gasp and run from the field all the way to my seat in the hall. My teacher says nothing, but simply writes out the next assignment for the day. I know she knows, but will say nothing, as surely as I know I have seen a world in a drop of dew.

Saturday Short: The Island with the Dead Tree

photograph of an island in the middle of the bay with a tree that looks dead in the center

Everyone gets desperate enough at some time to consider swimming out to the island with the dead tree.

Children whisper about it at night, under covers, with windows and doors locked tight, daring one another to swim out to the island. One might even dip their toes in the water the next day to the background of worried tittering from their friends that sounds like bushtits slipping between the hedges. But even when the summer sun beats down making the sand on the beach too hot for comfort and they swim in the bay, splashing each other with the still cold water, none of them swim out to the island. And they stay out of its shadow.

Young ones, not children and not yet old enough to have the cares of the world etched on their faces, talk about the island. After heartbreak, or failure, or deep sorrow that pools in the marrow of their veins. Sometimes one dives into the bay, fully clothed and swims mindlessly towards the island, but their heart turns cold and their eyes clear before they touch the rocky shore. They come back, or at least most of them do.

Adults are more reckless and careless, throwing around the island with the dead tree in conversation like a verbal tick or curse. They think nothing of it, but neither do they pause for long at the shore staring at the island like the younger ones do. Because there is a strange pull in their bellies at the sight of the island. They do not talk about this.

Old ones do not talk about the island. There is nothing more to say that hasn’t been said, no more dares to make than have already been made. They slip out of their houses that no longer contain multitudes in clothes that are more barren than threaded at night, when the moon is half-full, and they come to the shore. And sometimes, one swims all the way to the island, amazed their limbs are still strong enough to fight the tide and the cold.

And every once in a while, one will place their hands on the rocks and climb on the shore to face the tree and ask of it what they will.

And these ones do not come back. But they leave behind a blossom on the tree that is dead that can be seen from shore, though no one talks about that. But everyone gets desperate enough at some time.