“Burdens Are Best Shared.”
Despite Gerard’s encouragement, Sonia waited to hear her husband snoring before creeping into his study to fetch the book. Her furtiveness surprised her until she realized she had lied to her husband.
Sonia did believe.
Retreating to the sanctuary of her kitchen, Sonia sat and gazed at the book. Memories came of long summer days, playing with friends under the watchful eye of Auntie Paulina, who, in the heat of the afternoon, invited the children onto her shady porch for chilled tea, freshly baked sweetbread, and a story. Those were magical times, but nothing compared to the moments spent alone with Auntie Paulina when the old woman would whisper her secrets.
Sonia could still remember when her aunt first spoke about reading tea leaves.
How is it you know so much, Auntie?
The leaves tell me.
Do you talk to trees? I never hear them speaking.
Not the leaves on trees, tea leaves. I’ll show you. Have you learned to count to one hundred?
Good. Think of a number between one and one hundred.
Don’t tell me, dear. The tea will show me.
Sonia never forgot the thrill of watching the old woman close her eyes with a dramatic exhale, pausing briefly before loudly slurping her entire cup of tea.
Best if it’s hot enough to scald your mouth.
Then Sonia’s great-aunt put her saucer atop her cup, turned both upsides down, and set them on the table. After rapping the bottom of the cup three times with her hand, she lifted the cup to reveal a mess of tea leaves splattered across the saucer.
You chose twenty-seven.
Yes. But how…?
Just have to keep an open mind when you look.
Can I learn how to do this?
I wish you would.
The woman had clearly practiced some form of hedge witchery, and Sonia wondered what she would have learned if her aunt had lived longer. Yet, the old woman had died before having a chance to teach her anything.
Sonia soon discovered the rest of the family felt uneasy around the old woman, especially her mother, who warned Sonia of what happened to people who dabbled in the occult. Fear kept Sonia from crossing the line her mother had drawn, and her younger self burned with guilt every time she found herself pondering the dregs of her cup. But time had dulled the sting of her mother’s threats, and she now found herself willing to explore.
Sonia got up and put the kettle, vowing to pull it off before it whistled.
“Don’t need Gerard awake and asking questions.”
Returning to her seat, Sonia opened the book and began flipping pages until an illustration caught her eye. Exploring further, Sonia realized she had stumbled upon a glossary of imagery frequently found in the tea leaves left behind.
“Coins indicate money; that’s obvious. A heart suggests romance, of course. Oh, a wasp. What’s that mean? Ooh… a possible affair or rival lover!”
Losing herself momentarily in the book, Sonia failed to notice the quiet rumble of water building before it was too late. Swearing, she leaped, yanked the kettle from the burner, and paused to listen for her husband. But Gerard remained in bed, apparently still asleep.
Relieved, she threw a couple scoops of herbal tea into her cup. Sonia reflected as she poured the hot water, wondering how to pose her question. When satisfied with the wording, she picked her cup up and, mimicking her great-aunt’s actions from long ago, took a cleansing breath before speaking her question.
“What’s going on between Sabina and her boyfriend, Casimir?”
Sonia slurped her tea, immediately grimacing as the heat stung her tongue.
“Hot! Hot! Hot! How in the hell did Auntie gulp this down? It burns horribly!”
Taking a few deep breaths, Sonia prepared to try again but lost the nerve seeing the steam continue to rise.
“Crazy old woman.”
Frustrated, Sonia glowered at her cup until the sound of the refrigerator cycling on gave her an idea.
“Ha! That’s it! I’ll trade one burn for another.”
Sonia opened the freezer door, pulled out the ice bin, set it on the table before her, rolled a sleeve, and shoved a hand in. As the skin on her hand tingled, she raised the cup with her other hand and carefully blew on it.
“I’ll try again once my hand aches. Tea should be cool enough then.”
Feeling like she had solved an impossible riddle, Sonia waited. When all traces of steam had disappeared, she clutched the cup in both hands and drank.
Surprisingly, the tea still burned going down, warming her stomach and causing beads of perspiration to erupt on her forehead. But Sonia found the prickling discomfort in her chilled hand most satisfying.
Despite pursing her lips at the end to avoid swallowing tea leaves, she had to spit a few back into the cup before covering it with the saucer. She struggled to flip them, but once she got them safely on the table, she rapped the bottom of the cup with the heel of her hand, reiterating her question, and then reverently removed the cup to see what the leaves revealed. She gasped at the exquisite clarity of the arrangement before her.
“A circle? No, a necklace. That’s a string of pearls!”
A ring of dots, spaced equidistantly, ran along the saucer’s outer edge, encircling three other unrecognizable clumps of tea. Frustrated, Sonia rotated the saucer, carefully considering each shape.
“Hmm, a feather. Yes. And that’s an umbrella! Didn’t see that when it was upside down. Now this last thing looks like… a fork? But with only two tines. No, maybe a line dividing, or is it a road? Yes, a road. It’s a fork in the road!”
Sonia slumped against the back of the chair, mouth open, stunned by her success.
“What could all that mean?”
She laughed at her own question.
“Duh! Look it up in the book, silly.”
Rifling back to the list of examples presented in the book, Sonia found entries for; feathers, necklaces, and umbrellas. Jumping from page to page, Sonia slowly pieced together a story of new lovers struggling to save a relationship plagued by uncertainty and signs of insincerity. Her heart ached to imagine the turmoil her daughter would face if she continued to date Casimir, and Sonia resolved to find a way to break the icy silence between them.
The clock in the living room chimed. Startled, Sonia looked at the time on the stove.
“Midnight, already. Sabina should be home now.”
As if waiting for her mother’s cue, Sonia heard the distinct rumble of her daughter’s car.
“Ok, keep cool. Like Gerard says, don’t badger. Oh, this is going to be so difficult.”
She got up, rinsed the cup and saucer, and tucked them into the top rack of the dishwasher. Turning to gather the book and return it to Gerard’s desk, Sonia paused suddenly in doubt.
“Damn! I was going to look, circle, up. What if it isn’t a necklace? What if it’s just a circle. Crap! I don’t want Sabina to catch me with this.”
Unable to resist, Sonia scrambled to turn the pages to read the definition.
“Finding any circle most assuredly signals a time of successful completion or reaping the fruits from one’s toil. If the circle is dotted, this indicates the arrival of a baby.”
Sonia’s heart skipped a beat, calling to mind the line of tea leaves stretching across the saucer, forking at the end. The book contained no relevant entries about lines, forks, or roads. But, she could guess at its meaning. This last piece of information brought everything into focus. Her daughter had fallen in love with an unreliable man, thrown her lot in with his, and now Sabina found herself pregnant without a clue what to do next.
“A fork in the road. Oh, Sabina!”
Sonia closed the book, kissed it, and solemnly returned it to Gerard’s desk, hiding it in the middle of a pile of papers.
“Thank you, Auntie,” she whispered.
Sonia hurried to the kitchen, filled the kettle with more water, and relit the burner. Setting a couple of mugs on the table, she sat, barely managing to compose herself before hearing Sabina’s key scrape into the lock.
“Why are you still up?” Sabina asked.
“Couldn’t sleep. Thought some chamomile tea might help. Heard the car and pulled out a second mug if you want some.”
Not wanting to scare her daughter off, Sonia fought to keep her emotions in check.
“Why can’t you sleep?”
“I don’t know. Lot on my mind, I guess.”
“Your brother’s confirmation party, your uncle’s operation, and I’m struggling to finish knitting this blanket for Anastazja’s new baby. She’s due any time now.”
“Baby? How…wait? Who’s having a baby?”
“A new friend. It doesn’t matter. How are classes going? I suppose you were out with Casimir? You’re spending lots of time together. You really like him, huh?”
“Mom, I don’t have the energy to deal with your prying right now. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
“Wait. Don’t go.”
Sabina sighed and turned around.
“Your father and I had a discussion tonight.”
“Well, actually, it was more about me.”
“Isn’t it always about you, Mom?”
“Please, Sabina. Can you just listen to what I have to say?”
“I know you and I are very different….”
“That’s for sure.”
“I know I can be pushy, loud, and nosy.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Sabina, what I’m trying to say, is I’m sorry. My mother and I were so close….”
“Oh, not this again. Stop. I’m going to bed.”
“Sabina, wait. Let me finish.”
“You’ve said all this before. I know how this goes. You drone on and on, talking in circles, saying the same thing. Unless you have something new to say, I’m going to bed.”
“Ok. I get it. You’re tired. I’ll be quick.”
Sabina huffed but didn’t leave.
“I want you to know I’m going to try harder to respect boundaries, keep my nose out of your affairs and finally start treating you as an adult.”
Sabina stood, listening, appearing surprised.
“I have no idea how to begin changing my behavior, Sabina. But something needs to change because I feel like I’ve lost you, and I know that’s my fault.”
Shocked by her daughter’s silent attentiveness, Sonia continued cautiously.
“Your father thinks things will be better between us if I just let go and let you live your life on your own terms. I’m probably failing miserably at that even now, but I want to try. That’s all. Thank you for listening. I love you. Sleep well. Good night.”
Sonia stood abruptly, scooped the mugs from the table, and turned to put them back in the cupboard. She wanted to say more and ask the questions battering about inside her, but for the first time, Sonia managed to dam it all up.
“What are you doing?” Sabina asked.
Startled by the question, Sonia whirled around to see her daughter standing there.
“I’m not in the mood for tea anymore,” Sonia said.
“Well, I am.”
Sabina hugged her mother and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“I know how difficult that was for you, and I really appreciate it, Mom.”
“Oh. Well, good.”
“Would you make us some chamomile tea? I have a lot on my mind, and I’ll sleep better if I talk it out.”