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Tale of the Teahouse


[clock] 28-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2008

Seven days before the Khan’s army razed the city, judges presided over their courts, babies were breast-fed, the teahouse clattered with cups emptied and smashed, puppeteers led shadows through the alleyways, men and women made love, and the hum of schoolboys repeating their lessons echoed from the marble-and-granite schools. The bakeries pumped out bread and beggars woke up for yet another day of yellowed nails and coins as if nothing at all would ever happen.

Six days before the Khan’s army razed the city, men and women were making love, especially the captain of the city guard, who squatted his girl on the parapets. Bored, the guards below toyed with the returning merchant caravans, skimming something—a bolt of silk, a barrel of wine, a crate of dates—off the top. The business of the city was business. Off duty, the guards sneaked to the market to hawk their goods, and then took their earnings to the brothels, from which prostitutes took their money to the bakeries, from which the pastry makers went to the butchers, who in turn visited the vegetable sellers, who shared the bloody passions of the cockfighters, who loved nothing more than long conversations with librarians, who tickled the fancy of the scribes, who penned letters in vain for the washerwomen, who clapped in time for the itinerant musicians, who could play songs remembered only by the astrologer, who promised every trader, for better or worse, a safe return to this city of noise from the quiet of the desert. In the teahouse, misty shapes still told their tales. But every so often, the gnarled tea drinkers looked at the young, the smooth-faced looked at the old, and all wondered if somehow the world was passing them by.

On the fifth day before the Khan’s army razed the city, the supply of raisins in the market dried up so suddenly that the fruit seller could only shrug away his queue of customers. By midmorning there were no more dates. The street of the tailors soon shook with indignation. We are running out of silk, where is the week’s shipment? the long hands, plucked from their looms, curved to ask. In the adjacent neighborhood, the scribes sent their pupils to the gates to see whether the illiterate guards were having some fun and keeping the incoming ink to themselves, while in his dewy tower, the astrologer brooded over turtle shells and began to suspect that only bad things could come from lines so thin. A restless muttering filled the schools. Crows flapped irritably about the rooftops. And women and men were still making love, except for the captain of the guard, whose regular tryst with his squat girl was delayed by a mob of bent tailors and watery-eyed scribes’ apprentices.

No, his guards hadn’t taken their supplies, he said, and no, he didn’t know why the caravans hadn’t arrived. Would the kind citizens please not crowd before the gate so? And would they return to their quarters and not disturb the city so with their tantrums? It was left to the younger guards to disperse the mob and, later, as the day passed into the heat, to receive the breathless rider and his foaming horse and the ill news that always comes on the backs of such creatures. The caravans will not come today, nor tomorrow, nor for all eternity perhaps. The routes are blocked by an army the size of which I have never seen—it approaches the city. And truth be told, the guards peered towards the horizon below the sun and for once saw not the heat rippling from the bleached earth, nor the returning black humps of traders, but a faint smudge of dust.

The people were informed: our city is in grave peril, an army marches on us. An envoy was sent galloping into the distance. Jostling along the walls and atop the towers, the people squinted after him and wondered, how strange it is to fear a tuft of dust. Proclamations were issued urging calm and unity in the face of the enemy and nailed to the doors of shops, and banners were raised in the markets and squares that called for strength and patience and denounced the spread of rumors as a threat to the city. Everyone took the signs seriously and agreed, for writing is true knowledge revealed. But the denizens of the teahouse still told their tales. They too understood that truth lives only in the word and never in a single, bitter syllable of their breath.

Four days before the Khan’s army razed the city, the teahouse opened early and speculation began with the calls of the morning crows. The tea drinkers drained their cups in questions: Do they come to pillage and leave? Or do they come to conquer and stay? Should we negotiate? Is there no reasoning with them? Can we even talk to them, or will our words fall on their barbarian ears like rain on the senseless mountains?

And answers took shape in the steam. A tea drinker with a voice as round and rattling as a kettle stood up: They come to conquer, but they won’t stay, because they’ll leave nothing behind. We’d seal our fate if we tried negotiations. These barbarians think of diplomacy as a sure sign of weakness. In any case, they speak no tongue we could understand, instead favoring the language of birds and the grunting creatures of the steppes. But you shouldn’t think mountains are unfeeling, he said in a tinny rebuke; like old women, the mountains store aches in their bowels.

The teahouse tittered. As a fresh batch of tea steeped in the whistling samovar, questions percolated from the misty cups. In the land that they come from, do the men let their hair hang long and straight before tucking it into their belts? Do they stiffen it short with starch and lime? Do their caftans shine golden through the dust? Or do they ride over the land wild and bare-chested?

A sugary voice answered: They come from the cold, windy lands to the north, so their hair has to be thick and plentiful to keep them warm. It also makes a cushion for the many nights they sleep on the open plain. They are meticulous with their clothing, whatever it may be, especially on the warpath. All you men, even nomad men, are as vain as the next.

And the tea drinkers murmured. Nomads emerge every so often from the wilderness. They pour down on civilization, ravage cities, steal women and children, burn books, uproot the cabbages. But then what? They disappear into thin air, back into the unmapped earth, and nobody remembers them.

Not true. My grandmother still sings the old songs about Tukhluk Beh. He came from the roof of the world, smashing city after city after city, until one day, when there was nothing left to smash, he decided it was time to rebuild everything again. She says the spirits of his soldiers live on in today’s builders and stonemasons.

Have you heard the tale, someone else asked, of Timur the Studious? He brought his army down from the mountains to attack monasteries and temples. Surrounded by gold, jewels, and silks, his men were only allowed to steal the written word. Timur then built the largest library in the world, but even till his death, he never knew how to read.

What about Obruk Han? Spurned by the woman he cherished most, he left his disconsolate steppes for a life of war. He plotted his path of devastation from city to city deliberately so that the gods in the heavens could see his devotion to this woman. Obruk had written her name across the earth. From those letters of ash, we get our word for “love.”

I don’t know these stories of yours, rattled the kettle voice. But let me tell you this: we’d best start praying to all the gods we can muster, especially the gods of the nomads. The city guards are dull and fat as old dogs. We’ll have to get the gods on our side.

The sugary voice slipped in. Suppose this army keeps no gods and follows only the rhythm of their horses over the prairie? The question dropped into a tide of silence. The answer was clear. In that case, the tea drinkers had to agree, we are surely doomed.

Three days before the Khan’s army razed the city, the teahouse owner brought out pastries and water pipes, leavening conversation with the smell of jasmine and a thick purple smoke that made it difficult to roll one’s r’s. The teahouse patrons watched the steam rise from their cups in the gray light, while one drinker, between bites that shook her jowls, wondered about food. How often do they eat? Did they pack their flatbread in sacks of jute or linen? Did they cook with cloves or cinnamon? Would they spare our bakeries and bakers if they knew the taste of honey pastries, pistachio and almond, yoghurt cooked through with winter sap from the forests?

And the answers came in swift succession. They eat as often as we do—when the sun is rising, when the sun has ceased to rise, when the sun is setting, and when the stars reign in the night. Only they do not keep the prescribed fast days and, indeed, choose those days to eat in excess.

They keep their flatbread in bags of linen. It must be impossible for them—who come from the west—to get jute since, as it is, the stuff arrives at great price and in small quantity in our markets from the faraway east, from a land of thick jungles and rivers where, in the summer, water floats from the earth to meet the knotted brows of the clouds.

They cook with neither cinnamon nor cloves since they are men of blood, not commerce, and find such tastes disagreeable.

They will spare our bakeries since even barbarians understand the sanctity of the oven. But they will kill the bakers who are all men of craft and discipline, the very opposite of the nomad. So when our city is reduced to ash and rubble, and the crows are pecking out our eyes, and our young boys and girls have been dragged to their unholy tents, they will warm themselves in the glow of the ovens and eat the very last crumbs of our famous cakes.

But if they spare the bakeries for the oven, some asked, why not the potteries for the red kiln? Or the smithies for the hearth and wheezing bellows? Or, for that matter, this teahouse for its whistling samovar?

They won’t bother looting this place, said the kettle-voiced man. What could they want from here? Not our wealth, for we have none. Not our beauty, since clearly even you, my dear, he said, nodding in the direction of the jowls, have seen better days. And not our wisdom, for that, we know, has never been our vocation. The kettle-voiced man let his hands fall to his thighs in a soft slap, as if to emphasize the last point with the sound of a full stop.

The jowls quivered, biting into another pastry. And a buttery-voiced teenager, who preferred the dark soliloquies of the teahouse to scuffles on rooftops or the winks and pinches of the market, spoke. What would happen if the army came and destroyed everything but left this place standing? Would we just sit here like before and drink our tea with ruin all about us?

Most of us would, someone said, but you won’t—people like them hack their way across the world to find tender little things like you. You best start stretching, another said dryly, it’ll make the next few weeks less painful. And the buttery voice broke into a series of clotted sobs. The teahouse rebounded with hisses and reprimands at the boy’s mockers. There was no point to honesty in a time of cold truths.

A voice as smooth as milk swallowed the din. We sow the seeds of our destruction by speaking of it. Let us retreat to the enemy, return to their food. She willed among the tea drinkers a fresh mood of imagination. They know only flesh, one said, hot and red off the bone. They let their cattle roam unwatched, confident that nobody will dare steal from them. They have forked tongues, another said, and when they gather to feast, their tongues snake in and out in wet harmony.

They eat peacock roasted with cashews for virility and drink whale oil for long life. But they get drunk on lizard blood fermented in the horns of the antelope. They cook animals whole with all the organs in place, eating the eyes first, since those are any creature’s most powerful parts, and chucking the ears, since they believe the world of sounds is illusion. Their appetites greatly outstrip ours because in truth they each have two stomachs to fill and two bellybuttons to clean every night. In the worlds of men and beasts, nothing is produced that they have not at some point considered consuming.

How many animals must their army butcher for each meal?

Approximately two thousand, the kettle answered. Behind the soldiers, the creaking engines of war, the dancers, chefs, and blacksmiths, there trail twelve legions of sheep. They have at their disposal a further ten companies of bulls, lowing through the dust, six flights of chickens, a scraggly militia of goats, and one platoon of ostriches.

Who, then, tends to the animals?

The kettle wasted no time in explaining. In formation alongside the animals march squadrons of shepherds and farmhands, milkmaids, gamesmen, and, of course, butchers with shears and fat cleavers. And before the meticulous logic of the teahouse could ask, “What, then, do these attendants eat?” the kettle continued: There follows in turn a caravan of wagons loaded with grain and bread to feed them and a detachment of hoary tailors to clothe them and a gang of blacksmiths to sharpen their blades. At the very end of the line, the army keeps the storytellers, who, though expected to warm the nightly fires with quaint tales, spend most of their time gossiping and lying to each other.

The tea drinkers allowed themselves a ripple of laughter, which slipped beyond the walls of the little shack into the sighs of the evening. Elsewhere in the city, children peeked into their mothers’ kitchens to see what was for dinner. It was aubergine. In the courts, a judge rushed his sentencing of a man guilty of bribery, because even magistrates grow tired of being looked at. A vegetable seller emptied her unsold artichokes into the gutters. The moneylenders packed up their abacuses in clittering clats. And the tanners, knee-deep in pigeon excrement and blood, washed the leathery smell of death from their feet. Bitterly, they slunk away. Amid this folding of day into night, the laughter of the teahouse came as a whisper of that impossible life without creases.

Men and women returning home on their dusk-lit way hissed at the sight of the clay shack, glimmering in the lamplight, with its wooden latch door open and its chattering patrons reclined within. Beggars spat nearer, while the crows now chose its tiled roof for their nightly covenant. Imperceptible from within the cosmos of the teahouse, the city was turning against it. And imperceptible it would have remained for the tea drinkers (nestled on benches, nibbling pastries, tasting visions in tongues of smoke and licks of the candle flame) had not a passing porter (back breaking, body caked with dust and sweat) thrust his head through the window. “This is a time for jokes?” he snarled. “We are about to be destroyed and all you do is make fun of us.” The teahouse grew silent, its shuttered lamps winked out, and slowly the drinkers padded home.

Two days before the Khan’s army razed the city, the tea drinkers invited a shadow puppeteer to preside over the day’s contemplations. While the small stage was built in the darkest corner, the woman with quivering jowls delivered a sermon on the necessity (or the lack thereof) of vocation:

When men came together at the very first, all was rather primitive. We lived like the nomads, devoting our lives to the process of accumulating food. After time, of course, we began to grow plants and grain, and harvest the meat of cattle, and settle in towns, and we became architects, builders, farmers, traders, smiths, warriors, and priests. In all this, it can be said that the crafts distinguish the later phase from the earlier—we are city-dwellers and not nomads for we have in our ranks people who can be described as tailors and cooks, while the nomads do not. But the question can be asked: Don’t the nomads have crafts of their own? Are there not some who raid villages, some who tend the fires, some who make the bows and fletch the arrows, some who draw milk from the mares, some who beat filigree from gold, some who stitch their leather clothes, some who tell stories, some who whisper prophecies? The real difference between the nomad and us has little to do with these men of action; it is precisely because a city like ours has a teahouse, keeps its men of inaction—who produce nothing, whose only responsibility is to the leisure of thought—that the society of the city is different from that of the wild. And so, I submit to you, my colleagues, that we have no reason to feel shame for our work. It is we who give this city meaning.

The kettle-voiced man shook his wizened head, toothless gums parted to let forth the warm sounds of tin. My sister, unfortunately there are others in the city who produce nothing. Think of the philosophers, sitting in their windowless libraries. Or the astrologers watching the stars from their towers. Or the historians growing old in the archives. The teahouse and we are only a few among many of your beings of inaction.

No, not at all, insisted the milky voice. The philosophers instruct the teachers who in turn instruct the children. For bits of coin, the astrologers come down from their towers and ply the people with omens. In their tomes, the historians record the lives of the city, the riots and celebrations, the great heroes and villains, events both pedestrian and extraordinary that make up our days. She sipped tea to clear the gravel from her throat. And us? The city has no need for us, and we have no need for the city.

And some tea drinkers rushed to the obvious refutations: Where is it that you think you sleep, then? Where were you born? From whom do you buy your clothes and fine jewelry? But the woman with the quivering jowls smiled, saying that yes, that was exactly what she had meant all along, we have no relevant function and yet we still belong. Wasn’t that the miracle of the city?

As she spoke, elsewhere in the city a pair of twins plotted mischief in the park, a child spied on her parents fighting in the kitchen, students rose from their recitations and wondered to what use they would put all these words, and a sentry stood atop the wall, framed against the thickening cloud of dust. Hands folded against his chest, he prayed for the miracle that would save the city.

On offer in the teahouse was the miracle of birth. A shuttered lantern beamed onto the canvas screen raised in the corner. Standing dimly to the side, the puppeteer dipped his hands into the flickering river of light. Shadows began to plod about the canvas. At first, the tea drinkers struggled to make sense of the black shapes, mute nothings for minds aged in sound. But recognition dawned from the dark. The shadows swirled and writhed, and as the puppeteer introduced props—paper cutout puppets, gossamer rivers, tissue clouds, bead-glass skirts, a chain of paper birds—the teahouse found itself in the midst of a story known to all, that needed no words: the tale of the founding of the city.

Once upon a time, there were two sisters who had fled from a faraway land to find a new place to live. The first was tall and foolish and the second was short and wise. They searched and searched through deserts and over mountain peaks until at last they came to a lush green valley. Clear streams trickled down from the mountains, watering rich orchards of apple and pear. Flowers carpeted the valley floor. The first sister jumped for joy. “Here we can stay forever, safe and happy!” she cried. But the second sister was less sure, some nagging suspicion gnawed at her (the puppeteer had tiny gauze flies buzz inside her stomach). While the first sister set about building her house, the second went for a walk to calm her nerves.

Elsewhere in the city, atop the parapets, the guards whiled away the dwindling hours with dice. The dust cloud grew lazily through the day, but soon, out of the haze, a black speck appeared, quickly coming across the empty expanse in between. A rider approached the walls. The city’s envoy had returned.

She came up to one of the peaks that flanked the valley, and there she found a hawk. “Little sister,” the hawk said, “do not stay in this valley. Its charms deceive.” And the second sister was not surprised, for she always knew that her instincts were right. “How do they deceive, Hawk?” she asked. “Simply,” the hawk explained. “In winter the mountain passes will freeze shut, the streams will harden, the trees will grow heavy with ice, and you will be trapped. And then the vultures will descend upon you and leave no trace of you behind (the puppeteer sent a phantom flight of long-beaked shadows to peck at the girl’s eyes). You both must leave.”

The envoy no longer had his eyes, nose, or ears. They had left only his mouth in place. He rocked gently on the back of his foaming horse in the town’s open square, where the people of the city gathered, anxious for news. “First they took my eyes, but before losing sight, I saw only the flash of iron, armored soldiers in their thousands. Then they took my ears, but before I lost them, I heard the grinding of their boot-steps, like pounding in a mill. Last they took my nose, but I smell even now the smoke and ash in their wake.” He shook his cratered head. “We cannot resist them. Many cities lie behind them, broken, torn to the ground, their peoples enslaved. We must flee.”

“But, Hawk, where can we go? We have looked everywhere and found no place suitable,” the second sister said. “Go north into the plains. After many days walking you will find a nomad’s horse being eaten by vultures. Chase the vultures away, bury the horse, and make your home there.” The wise sister thanked the hawk and went to fetch the first sister, but she would not be moved. “We’ve walked and walked, then we finally come to a beautiful, safe place, and now you want to leave? No, go where you please, but I’m staying.” The second sister pleaded and wept, but there was no moving the elder. Her eyes brimming with tears (the puppeteer dribbled wax down the doll’s cheeks), she left her sister, promising to return once she had found the spot described by the hawk.

The envoy slumped from his horse to be carried away on a litter. A dense quiet settled in the square. No one spoke. In some nearby street, a woman leaned out a window to beat the dust from her oblivious quilts. Stray cats scratched and shrieked over a bowl of milk in the next alley, while in his clay tower, an astrologer snored in the afternoon heat. He slept through the tumult at his very doorstep, as the crowd finally broke into a gray gust of talk:

What can we do?

Where can we go?

There’s nowhere to go, they’ll catch us wherever we run.

Armies have come before and been defeated.

Yes, this city’s been here forever, it can survive any enemy.

In that case, you won’t need me, I’m off.

What?

Me, too.

You’d rather be speared in the wild than safe behind these walls?

We’ll take our chances.

Such treachery. You’re more useless than the tea drinkers.

At least we know what’s happening outside the walls.

Go outside then, but whoever runs, know that we’ll never let you back in.

So be it.

On pain of death.

The home of my soul is my body, not my city. My home is my own, not the one that would reject me.

God willing you’ll be alive to be turned away.

God willing you’ll be alive to be so stern.

She descended from the mountain passes until after many lonely days through hills and forests she came into the grasslands (the puppeteer had suitable cutouts for each terrain). Then she went north, traveling only when the sun was up, so as not to lose her way. After some time, she found the nomad’s horse that was being eaten by vultures, chased the vultures away with shouts and kicks (the puppeteer had stitched ingenious joints on the paper legs), and with great effort buried the horse. She then surveyed the land. There was a slow, brown river nearby, low hills in the distance, and a forest not too far away. The soil was thin, but still soft and wet. But most importantly, she decided, the place was not hemmed in, and that, she knew, was the great advantage of her future home; it was open to the world.

News chased rumor through the city, and soon the streets filled with the scrambling of refugees heading into certain exile. By dusk, the gates were sealed shut, and the sobbing of those beyond disappeared into that exhausted background drone of the countryside. The exiles hoped: to be forgotten is to become invisible, but to become invisible is not to be forgot.

Those who remained were nervous, but worse, they were idle. With nothing to sell, the fruit sellers gathered in prickly clumps, sharing the last of the grapes and spitting seeds into the gutters. The scribes decided to test their apprentices’ handwriting, so the watery youths yet again drained their eyes on forgotten legal codes and historical almanacs. The tailors looked resentfully at each other’s looms and wondered why another’s looked so much newer than his. The butchers wrinkled their noses at the smell of flesh. The cobblers paced barefoot. The porters slumped their shoulders of stone. The guards carved their names into the walls. The carpenters didn’t see the point in making coffins, while the manuscript illuminators took no pride in the color red. The ring of hammer on anvil sounded hollow to the blacksmiths, and in his dusty tower the astrologer woke from his dreams feeling vengeful—everywhere, he tasted blood.

It began, as most things end, with dogs. Tussling outside the teahouse, a gang of strays caught sight of the lurching shadows within and decided—with irrefutable canine logic—to bark. Passersby looked in. A curious handful soon cocooned into an indignant crowd. In times of stress, people like to exercise their lowest faculties. They whispered:

They’re playing games.

Always the same, no respect.

No time for triviality, this.

(And the tone hardened as word spread.)

They’re making fun of us.

Always the same, do-nothings.

I break my back every day for this city while they sit about drinking tea.

(And the tone darkened as the people of the city shook their fists.)

How can we allow this indolence in our city?

We’re being punished, punished for their decadence.

It’s they who make us vulnerable, they who make us weak.

(And the people of the city found strength in their fear.)

We’d be better off without them.

Bring it down.

Tear it down.

Burn, burn, burn, burn.

From the inside of the teahouse, the crescendo of the street seemed only to echo the drama of the shadows. In her chosen home, the second sister built a strong house made of clay, wood, and straw. And before it she raised stone gates to keep herself safe, but would allow other lonely travelers inside. After some time, and with her new home secure, she decided to return to the mountains and fetch the first sister from the green valley. She journeyed long and hard and soon she reached the high mountains. The wind bit at her ankles (the puppeteer depicted “wind” with streams of silk ribbons), and the frost crunched beneath her feet. And when she had climbed to the entrance of the valley, she could find no way in. The passes were thick with snow; a blizzard shook the ceiling of the world (hands thrust through the windows, feet knocked down the door). She sank down in despair and wept. Seeing her, the hawk whirled down from his mountain perch (tables were flung aside, cups smashed, a fiery brand skittered across the floor). “I told you, little sister, to leave the valley, for its charms deceive. Why have you come back?” The wise sister sobbed. “Oh Hawk, my sister stayed and now I’ve come to bring her back with me. But I can’t find a way inside.” And the hawk shook his head. “You are too late. It is winter, the season of the vultures” (the puppeteer cast away his puppets, and against the rising flame, the mob’s shadows swarmed across the screen).

The hawk flew away and brought back all that was left of the impatient sister: the ears. Then, the wise sister went away to her home, and she buried her sister’s remains with due ceremony. On her sister’s tomb—which now lies beneath the city—she chiseled a solemn epitaph. LISTEN TO YOUR HEART, FOR THE EYES DECEIVE. What she really meant to write was: “In every creation, there is always loss.”

The day before the Khan’s army razed the city, pupils sat down for their geography lessons. “Where the sun rises,” they recited, “and the world begins, there lies the land of Qin. To the south, at the foot of the earth, is al-Hind, protected by mountains and watered by the oldest of rivers. In the north, forests stretch empty to a sea of churning ice. The sun sets over Europe and Maghreb to the west.”

And around us, the teacher asked, which countries do we live among?

“Khorasan, Fars, Gandhara, Bactria, Sogdiana, Mesopotamia.”

And the cities?

“Balkh, Herat, Samarqand, Merv, Zeugma, Otrar, Ai-Khanoum.”

Rivers?

“Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Hari Rud, Aras.”

Mountains?

“Damavend, Sabalan, Elbrus, Ararat, Bam-i-dunya, and the Muztag.”

The teacher didn’t ask about the peoples in their midst, the tribes beyond their walls. Geography is never flesh but stone, water, and clay, names and lines and vacant scratches of the plume. And the students, skeptics to the end, wondered: How could clouds of dust rise from a world engraved in flat relief? Outside the school, soldiers rustled towards the city walls, where they relieved their comrades and took over the chore of playing dice on the parapets. The game lacked conviction. Few of the soldiers had the stomach for reckless wagers or the hunger for their fellows’ rings and wine pouches. Embarrassed, a man returned a belt he had won off another. This was no time for gain. Dust hung high on the horizon, and beneath it, invisible to the eye, tributaries of flesh rolled on to flood the unhappy river of mankind.

Even as the Khan’s army neared, the city continued to drift. In the baths, the slaves untangled their mistresses’ hair with ivory combs. A baker left his cakes to cool in the shade. Wardens patrolled the market for pickpockets, when few stalls remained open and fewer shoppers roamed the quiet lanes, pinching their pennies and mistrusting the onions. Only the booksellers were out in force, possessed of that blind faith in the text. There will always be books to sell. There will always be people to read.

In the gutted teahouse, the tea drinkers gathered at dusk, looking at each other wordlessly, their faces open books. Smoke still lifted off the wreckage, drifting over the streets, a thin echo of the horizon of dust closing on the city. They could not bring themselves to speak. Neighborhoods of rust had overtaken the voice of the kettle, the sugar had grown hard in the heat, the milk gone sour, the jowls cobwebbed and creased. Above the smoldering ruins, the city hummed its commentary. And the tea drinkers knew: the past is read in the sands, not heard. In later years, archaeologists would find no trace of the teahouse or its strata of myth. But the drinkers remained there, silent and unmoving, like stone, until the untold ends of their stories.

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