Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Story: The Chinese Teacup

I have not written any fiction for years, but today, during lunch, I found the precurser to this story on my hard drive, and rewrote it, inspired by the picture above. It was far more than a mere revision, because it was practically a whole new story when I was done.

I hesitated, but decided ultimately to share it here, as something different from my normal fare of poetry and pictures. I hope you enjoy it.

The picture is from Newport, Rhode Island. You can click on it for a larger version.


The Chinese Teacup

Mrs Otani arrived at our doorstep holding a simple white teacup in her hand. There was some sort of symbol on it. Something I could not quite make out in the early morning light. A small black roll around suitcase stood on the sidewalk behind her. She evidently had no car, but I saw the a rusted yellow taxi stirring up dust as it drove down the road past the farm to the main highway.

“Please” she said. “I would like to rent your cottage.” She was fidgety but firm.

“But you haven’t even seen it.” I said.

“No matter. I am sure it will be fine. May we go there now?”

Calling the boathouse a cottage is something of an exaggeration. It’s really just three rooms in an old boathouse my grandfather converted in the fifties, looking on the outside like a small pagoda, green with dark red trim and a tile roof now crusted with moss.. Small and rectangular, there is little space, but a spectacular view.

Dad remodeled it into the cottage a few years before he retired and moved into it the day of his retirement. Mom had died years before so it was just him. “This is all I need now,” he told us when he asked us to move into the sprawling ranch at the top of the hill overlooking the river. We jumped at the chance to move into the house on the waterfront, and had lived there with the kids ever since. Dad lived there until he died nine years ago. Eight years ago, after I got over the worst of the grief, we began renting the drab boathouse cottage with the sparse furniture.

Mrs Otani did not fit the mold of tenant that normally wanted to rent the boathouse. Most of our tenants had been college kids from town, artists of various stripes, or recently divorced women, none of who ever stayed long and none of which we had ever become particularly attached to. It seemed that ever since Dad died, there was a constant parade of unstable bohemians that came and went every few months, paying their rent for a while then disappearing.

Mrs Otani looked to be about sixty. She was tiny, not even five feet tall, and dressed in a black cotton dress, far too formal for the wilderness that surrounded us. She was shy, barely looking up. And she fidgeted as she stood, a nervousness pervasive about her. But there was something about her I liked. Well, why not? I thought.

I got the key to the cabin and we walked down to the waterfront. She pulled her suitcase behind her and held her teacup gently in her right hand as he walked down the hill. I unlocked the door and we went in. She put her suitcase in the closet inside the door as soon as we entered, and walked down the narrow hallway to the kitchen overlooking the water.

If the drab boathouse and it’s sparse furnishings had a saving grace inside, it was the windows all along the wall of the kitchen and the bedroom. They opened up the rooms to the river and let in the late afternoon sun, filling the rooms with light and the glorious view of sun shimmering on water.

Mrs Otani walked to the kitchen and looked out the window. From behind her I could see her nod slightly, and she placed her teacup on the windowsill over the sink, perfectly centered along the windows. “Very nice” she said in a quiet voice. “We will like living here.”

I left the key on the kitchen table and left her alone, gazing across the water. It was not until I got back to the house that I realized neither of us had discussed the rent. It was not until later that I realized she had say "we", and yet, there was only her.

Mrs Otani was a seamstress, and worked at a local cleaner’s, doing alterations and fixes. Each morning at six, a cab arrived and picked her up, and each day at five thirty, another cab would let her out. I am an early riser and would wave to her from the back porch and she would bow slightly. I would generally hear her come back, rather than see her, as I prepared dinner. I sometimes saw her walking down the hill out my own kitchen window, and disappear into the boathouse. She never seemed to come out again until the next morning.

Saturdays were different. On Saturdays she walked up the hill and down the road early in the mornings, and came back about mid afternoons. I asked her once what she did on Saturdays and she smiled. “Yard Sales.” she said, with a shy smile.

She had been here for about two weeks when one evening after dinner I was down by the riverside. I liked to watch sunsets down there, and she spotted me. She waved me to the house and invited me in.

Nothing had changed since the day I took her down and showed her the cottage the first time. There were no decorations, no pictures and no personal items. Just the teacup on the window sill, exactly the same place she had left it that first day. She got the teacup down and set it on the table in front of me. She got a tea kettle from a cabinet and made me tea in the small white cup.

I had a chance to look more closely at it. It was a typical chinese cup, small, with writing on one side in what looked to be hand calligraphy.

“Nikko.” Said Mrs Otani.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“Nikko” she said. “I call the cup Nikko, after my husband. It is all I could bring from China when I left. It is all I have..”

“Where is he now?”

“Dead.” A sadness engulfed her face. “Killed in China.”

I didn’t know what to say and so I said nothing, sipping my green tea from a cup named after her dead husband as the sun set on the river bank across from us.

Two weeks later, as I cleared limbs from a summer thunderstorm, she once again waved me into her kitchen. Funny, I thought. I had never thought of this room as anyone but Dad’s before. And now, after just a few weeks, and with almost nothing personal on the walls or counters, I think of it as hers..

She made me tea again, but this time she joined me. There was another tea cup on the window sill this time, blue with more calligraphy. She got them both down and began to make us tea. I asked her where she got the new cup. “Yard sale” she said, with a smile. Joking, I asked her if this one had a name. She nodded. “Makko.” She said. “after my daughter.” I said nothing but she answered my question anyway. “Yes,” she said sadly. “Also killed in China.”

Mrs Otani’s schedule never changed. Five days a week she left at six and returned at five thirty. Each Saturday she walked into town and looked for yard sales, coming back in the early afternoon.

The only thing she ever bought at these yard sales was the occasional Chinese teacup. Each one named after someone she knew who had died in China, setting them on the window sills overlooking the river. Sometimes, once a week, we shared tea. Over time I drank from cups named after a dizzying array of relatives: aunts, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents and a host of distant cousins. After her first year with us, the window sills were covered with cups, each with a name and a history. By the end of her second year, everyone in my family, even my six year old boy knew each and every one of those cups, knew their names, their relation, their passions and joys and personalities.

They may had died in China, I thought, but something of them lived here. I said as much to Mrs Otani one day, as I sipped tea from a cup named after her sister and she smiled the warmest smile I think I have ever seen. She looked across the windows at the cups she had bought over nearly a year’s searching through yard sales and beamed. “It is good,” she said, “to have one’s family close, when one is so far from home.” I looked at her closely when she said that, and realized how calm she was, compared to that first day she knocked on my door.

Summers here are known for the storms, and this past summer was particularly tough. When the tropical storms from the gulf sweep up the coast, the river grows wild. Often we will go years without such storms, but in time, they always return. It was August, two years and a bit after Mrs Otani first showed up on my doorstep with her teacup named Nikko, that one after another the storms ran up the coast. I shuddered When the first one struck. Looking out the window, I could see how the storms stirred the water and shook the boathouse with the winds and the waves. The boathouse had weathered many a storm, still, it was unnerving seeing it weave in the wind.

The next morning, a Friday, Mrs Otani did not walk up the hill. A taxi arrived precisely at six and after waiting ten minutes, left. She never came out. I was worried and walked down. I knocked on the door and heard nothing. The door was unlocked and I let myself in, terrified at what I might find.

Mrs Otani was there. She sat at the kitchen table, staring at the floor, which was covered with thousands of shards of porcelain, During the storm, each and every chinese teacup had been shaken from the window sills and had shattered on the hard tile floor of the kitchen. Not one had survived. Mrs Otani said nothing. I didn’t know what to say. We sat there together for over an hour before I got up, and went back up the hill. I had things to do, but my spirits were heavy that day. And the next, and the next.

In fact, I did not speak to Mrs Otani for weeks afterwards. She was back to work the next morning, greeting the taxi at six and coming home at five thirty each day. Bit other than watching her come and go, we never spoke. She never looked up in the mornings and afternoons. But I could see the sadness in her face, which was was grim each dawn, and exhausted and empty each night as she returned.

She skipped weeks of her yard sales too. I got so I stopped watching for her comings and goings. I never saw her in her kitchen window. Then on Sunday of the fourth week, late, almost at dusk, I saw her again. I was cleaning out storm debris outside the house when she came to the kitchen door, and waved me down the hill. I really did not want to go, but she was insistent and so I walked down and into her kitchen.

The tea kettle was boiling, and there, in the center of the table, was a new chinese teacup. It was unlike any she had owned before. Yellow and with a crackled glaze all over. I looked at her and she smiled her shy smile. “Yard sale.” She said. “His name is Nikko.”


Ann said...

Excellent short story, Tom! I was immediately drawn in to the story. Your main character was very believable and I was crushed when her teacups broke. Thank you for sharing!

gingerhillery@mac.com said...

I could smell the green tea and feel the heartbreak and then the redemption, all in a simple cup of tea. Thanks for sharing your story. I smiled when we were introduced to the "new" Nikko.

Leonora said...

Wonderful story! Perfect.