San Francisco, California, USA
San Francisco University High School
I watch as Amah plucks kumquats from the tree in her backyard and places them inside a plastic bucket. Leaves, twigs, and dandelion petals are nestled in her hair, shrubs of gray age decorated with a gardener’s touch. One of the fruits is still green; she brushes the dirt off, then pops it in her mouth, chewing slowly. When she sees me, she beckons for me to follow her inside.
There are three identical teacups. They are white, glossy, imprinted with cornflowers that snake across the outside. The rims are crowned with gold bands. I avert my eyes as she fills the cups with tea. When I look back, each is filled with a different steaming liquid. Without peeking at the contents, I select a cup and drink with both hands. The liquid is hot and bitter; it runs across my gums and drips down my throat, pooling a deep well in my stomach. Oolong. I turn the cup upside down and shake out the dregs. A single nickel catches in my teeth, and I bare it for Amah to see. She smiles and claps. This is our ritual.
Every time, one cup holds a coin, while the other two are empty. If I choose wrong, Amah fishes the prize out of the appropriate cup and wags her finger. She says I need to pause before making a decision, that if I think hard enough, the proper cup will call out my name. If I choose correctly, Amah dries the coin with a paper towel and places it in a white envelope. She writes my name on the back and passes it to me. After I’ve stashed the envelope in my backpack, she turns around and begins cooking, charred squash or vermicelli noodles or cucumbers marinated in chili flakes.
The flavor of tea varies. Sometimes it’s your standard tea: green, white, black, herbal. Sometimes she explores tea from other countries: butter, rooibos, chai. Sometimes she creates her own tea with plants she’s found in the woods near her house, and I do not know if the tea is technically tea any longer. There are roots, daisies, chopped scallions, mushrooms with shriveled heads—she stirs them all in a chipped kettle over the stove.
One day Amah welcomes me into her kitchen and begins pouring the tea. The TV is set to the weather channel; it anticipates rain for tomorrow. She takes longer than usual, but eventually she calls my name and I select one of the cups in front of me. I drink; this time it tastes floral and sweet, rose petals etched with a trail of sugar. I catch the coin in my mouth, except this time, it is not a coin. It is a tooth.
I roll the tooth in my palm. It’s cracked slightly, with splotches of grey staining the bottom. I make a mental note: I’ll put this in a box when I return home. A silver box, decorated with green ornaments, clasped shut by a glistening jewel. It’ll look nice there.
The day after that, Amah is wearing a checkered flannel patched with home-sewn squares. She flashes me a splintered smile before pouring the tea. At the bottom of the cup, swimming in a pool of calm yellow, is a finger. Amah’s finger.
The finger goes in the same box as the tooth. They shake in the container together, a soothing drum that matches the rattle of my heart.
The next day, I find an earlobe in my cup. The next day: a wrinkled pinky toe. The next day: a nose, punctured with holes that aren’t piercings. Each new body part fills the box a bit more, the lid beginning to burst as the vessel overflows. A different tea each time, dandelion, barley, lemon lavender. Every afternoon, Amah is unpacked in porcelain, a skeleton of brittle sacrifice, caught in the liminal space between water and mouth. As Amah stands in the kitchen, fading away, I drink, drink Monday, drink Tuesday, drink Sunday, until finally, Amah is gone, and I pour the tea myself. There is nothing at the bottom. I return home to check the box and find a single item inside: a heart, red, plump, pulsating, dripping blood, warmer than a summer day.
This piece was previously published in Flash Frog, July 2022.
“茶茶茶” is a piece laced with magical realism and mystery, and rich with scent and sensation. The seemingly lighthearted premise — a game played between the narrator and their amah — delicately shrouds undertones of loss and grief. The piece’s hauntingly sharp prose and potent conclusion linger in the air, like steam from a cup of tea.
Matt Hsu is a student from San Francisco, California. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and he’s published or forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Flash Frog, Longleaf Review, and The Lumiere Review. He is in the process of querying his first novel: a twisty, thriller-mystery about a crafty assassin. He currently attends Stanford University, where he hopes to study mathematics and creative writing. You can find him on Twitter at @MattHsu19 or at his personal website matthsuwordpress.weebly.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR