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Funerary Tea

The night after her father died, Anya brought a tea set out of her dreams. How odd, she thought, looking at the cups and saucers scattered on the bed. Cunningly painted golden fish, lifelike, swam on blue glaze that looked like water. It was not unusual for her to dream things into existence--they always vanished at nightfall--but they were never so useful. So domestic. Small red flowers which shed sparks, a painting with images that moved, a set of daggers with jeweled hilts and sickle blades made from glass. Once, memorably, there had been a basilisk.
Then she recalled that her father was dead, and the hollow spot of grief within her opened up again, a well from which only bitter water could be drawn.
She used the tea set in the afternoon when the visitors came. Her mother, dressed in black, face pallid but tearless, greeted people as they entered. The guests bowed at the body, left a remembrance stone in the basket, and moved into the next room, where Anya served them small round cakes of nuts and oats and honey, wedges of sour apple, and tea, dark and fragrant. It was all traditional. Her father had been ill for weeks, and they were prepared for his death.
The first problem came with Katrin the butcher's daughter, a shapely young woman with long hair like silk. She took a bite of apple and followed it with a sip of tea.
"Your father slept with me once," she said.
The tea cup fell from her hand, hot liquid spraying everywhere. It didn't break. She and Anya looked at each other, appalled.
"I'm so sorry," Katrin whispered, then fled.
"I really thought he was a bore," said Ivan.
"He owed me money," said Sergei. "He lied about repaying it."
"Whenever he saw me, I always thought he was trying to imagine what I looked like under my clothes," said Lizaveta.
Olga said, "I wish I had told him how handsome he was."
And on it went, truth leaping from the lips of the astonished guests, followed by an embarrassed silence, nervous laugh, or hasty retreat. Anya could not bring herself to remove the tea set, much as she hated what she heard. There was a horrid fascination to it, leavened with a sharp and sudden joy when someone said a kind thing. "When Sasha died, your father refused to take money for all the work he did repairing the house." "The table he made is the most beautiful thing we own." "I always trusted his advice."
And then, again, "He used to cheat at cards."
The last guest left at dusk. Soon the tea set would disappear. Anya's mother came in and reached for the tea. "I am so tired," she said, pouring.
"Don't," said Anya as her mother lifted the cup.
But it was too late. Her mother drank, and swallowed. "By the time you were born, I no longer loved him," she said.
There was a silence. Then, cautiously, her mother lowered the tea cup to the table and poured again.
"Should I stop?" she asked.
"No."
She drained the cup. "He was a good father, I'll grant him that. And he did his work well. But right now all I feel is relief. He was impatient and selfish and rude. When he drank too much he would taunt me. I was glad when he slept with other women, because then I did not have to lie with my legs spread and wait for him to finish his clumsy rough business. Afterwards he would tell me I was too fat, or too dirty, or too lazy. He was never angry when he said it, he thought he was just stating a fact. It was hard for me."
Outside, crows cawed, streaming to their nests for night. The room where Anya's father lay was thick enough with darkness that she could not see much. Her grief felt like a wounded animal. Her eyes were dry.
"Will you drink?" her mother asked.
Anya lifted the lid of the tea pot. "There's hardly any left," she said. She dribbled the remains, barely a tablespoon, into a cup. The goldfish swam, a truth in glaze.
What would she say? There were no unkind words lurking in her mind. He had not hurt her. She could not deny his imperfections, but for her, he had only been her father, always there, now gone. She held the cup to her lips, thinking, wondering if she dared. Her mother looked at her expectantly.
The cup vanished, the tea falling with a splash onto the table.
Anya said, "Love is not a secret."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 29th, 2019
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