“Mrak Tea” by Marina Vaysberg

Reading by the author

The tea in this cup is talking to me. Do you hear it, Grandma?

You ask what it’s saying.

It keeps me awake. I can’t put it away. Let me reproduce the sounds: Prt, drt, brt. Prt, drt, brt. Prt, drt, brt. I have not slept in 12 years, Grandma. I want to close my eyes and shut my brain off for an hour.

You ask what kind of tea it is.

Mrak Tea is written on the bag. There’s a picture of a reddish, twisted, tangled root.

You say you’ve never heard of it.

It’s unlike the Ceylon tea you and Grandpa and I had indulged in every evening with tart cherry preserve, when I had fallen asleep safe and guarded. Mrak tea is darker than coal, an impassable night forest. It tastes and smells like earth. I have been tending to it.

Yes, it’s good to be close to mother earth.

The water in the cup is a hot spring.

Prt, drt, brt.

Where I got the tea, you ask.

A stranger gave it to me.

I know, a stranger can be your best friend—you believe that.

Now, now. I will finish my tea while it’s hot; otherwise I will choke, you say.

Ouch. I burned my tongue. It does not get any cooler. The handle is warm, nice to hold on.

You say tea is supposed to be scorching, make you feel alive.  What do I have with my tea?

I have it plain, no sweets, no fruit preserve. I wanted a bitter taste. Remember, I let your hand go.

Prt, drt, brt.

You don’t remember, you say.

You were asleep. When you woke up I was gone. You had to rely on other people, saint people.

You only remember our time together, you say.

I knew I may have been losing you. We were the citizens of two different countries, aging parallelly. You wanted me to remember you alive. I abided. I should not have. When my plane landed, I was thirsty, a stranger…I will lie down here near you, Grandma. You keep smiling. That crepe de chine dress with blue poppy flowers looked the best on you. The frame does not match though, you will find a new one. You were 46 when I was born, you left me as I turned 46. It feels good to be burned.

What does the root feel like to touch, you ask.

Mrak root in the silky tea bag, I suppose, is cut into miniscule cubes or powdered.

Yes, it may be good for a tincture, my little pharmacist. Yes, it may resemble the Valerian root. Yes, also earthy. Your best friend, Grandma.

Stay awake, the tea says. It’s the opposite of Valerian.

Prt, drt, brt.

Oh, stop that, noisy tea!

Sorry, Grandma. Yes, in the night tales you told me about the woman in the village growing medicinal plants in her garden, often ransacked by the ignorant. But the roots were strong. The bandits could only kill the flowers. Flowers are short-lived, she believed, while the roots stay guarded by earth, hidden from vandals in the dark.

The healer had enveloped the hand of the one in need with her two gnarled hands for 5 minutes and granted the root with power in exchange for a bucket of water, you told. Not many believed. Only the desperate, you said, the deformed, the weeping, the sleepless.

Prt, drt, burst…

You ask what that terrible, crashing sound is.

I’ve opened the window and accidentally broken the lock. I finish the tea. I throw the rest of the bag outside. The autumn wind picks up and carries away the small bag that tortured me. It carries it away. I can no longer see it. Thank you, Grandma. You’ve saved me, you have. You taught me to dream. In the dreamland I have survived and flew up.

No, the window is neither as wide nor as tall as an arched one in our room, where you raised me from being the tabletop tall and up. No seat in this room, no view of the maple tree with the roots protruding by the bench, from under which the cat would appear thirsty for affection, like myself.

You say cats love Valerian roots, that they get euphoric.

I know that. I wonder if Mrak root will bring the emerald-eyed, white-spotted drifter back.

Grandma, you are quiet. I wish I could hold your hand and fall asleep.

Your hand was the source of warmth I no longer feel. You were the light I no longer see. I am lost. The forest has consumed me, turned me into a lifeless tree. In the darkness, with no walls or ceiling, I understood that holding on to, not letting go of the hand is the key. The hand intuits. The hand talks to me. I need to hear the hand. I need to hear prt, drt, brt. I need to hear the root from which I am cut.

Can you hear me, Grandma? My hand remembers the warmth. Grandma, wait!

I am up. I walk out of the building. I run barefoot. I chase the wind. I find the bag stuck by a sharp corner of the brick wall of the daycare, the brick grains ruined by time. I thank time for saving the bag. Red brick rectangular box daycare with flowers in the windowsill is a twin to mine across the ocean. I pause. I stand grounded by the maple tree. I see shy green dots coming out, connecting with the air. The soil is different, but how much different from the soil of Kiev, you and I stood on one last time, wrapped in the foliage. I was only a guest, visiting after 25 years of absence. The soil is the earth, and the earth is awakening. I think I feel tingling from my feet up to my head.

I beg my mind to remember the percentage of the ethyl alcohol Grandma used in the pharmacy to make tinctures. Where would I find ethyl alcohol?

In rare instances, things appear exactly when you need them. Back, I find a dusty half-full bottle of Stolichnaya on the pantry shelf. I am time now. 50% alcohol it is. Spending afterschool evenings in the pharmacy infused many useful procedures in my head. Grandma’s old scissors cut the remaining Mrak tea bags with its bulky blunt steel legs, silky threads of the bags fighting them back. Root crumbs fill exactly one third of a small empty pickle jar. Vodka stings the air and fills the jar to the top, turning pink. I secure the top. I place the jar of tincture in the dark coolness of the pantry. A time capsule.

Marina Vaysberg is originally from Kiev, Ukraine, where she began writing. She completed Iowa University Writers Workshop’s three-week summer intensive program in spring 2020, among other courses. Vaysberg is an adjunct professor of Russian language in Upstate New York. Her writing has been recently published in New Flash Fiction Review

Image: “tea 1”

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