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Camellia Tea

Dylan Johnson

 

This is the story of Arthur Morning, who could not remember where he was born. Since he had lived his whole life in Boston, he assumed that he had been born there, and would also die there. He was correct about the latter.

Arthur Morning told me this story over the course of many years, though how many I can no longer recall. It may have been only one. As he told me his stories, he would sometimes pause to read out of the small, indigo book that he carried with him everywhere. It smelled like him, like fresh air, moss, and camellia tea.

Arthur Morning could not speak. He did not know why, but any attempts to communicate with others would fail. This is not to say that Arthur was stupid, quite the opposite in fact, but throughout his early years he was trapped in his head, looking out at the world.

One day, as Arthur Morning was screaming and the sun was rising, A nameless cat joined him on the roof. It sat and stared at him blithely, mottled ginger tail twitching. It smelled of charcoal and acrylic paint. When he had finished his breathless screaming, Arthur slumped backwards into a panting pile, cheek pressed against the cold, dew-covered roof tiles. He remembered thinking that he would be okay with falling off that roof. The cat sauntered over and curled up onto his chest.

What did I do to deserve this? Arthur asked the cat, voice catching in his throat.

“When you were small,” said the cat, who Arthur now decided was named Gus, “a man came and took your voice away.”

Why? And how could you know? You couldn’t possibly have been there.

“I know because it is my business as a cat to know things.”

Then do you know how I can get it back?

“Well, there are two ways; you can find the man who took your voice, and take it back yourself, or you can receive a new once.”

Receive? From who?

“From a god, or yourself.”

 

Arthur Morning had no wife, no girlfriend, and no lovers, but he had his daughter, Ellen. He had met her on the street one winter outside of the building he had grown up in, as she was sitting on the stoop, watched by one of the innumerable mothers. He seemed to recall that it had just snowed, and when she approached him her nose and cheeks were a deep red, and her hair smelled of thyme. Author believed their conversation went something like:

“Are you my father?” she asked him, voice only slightly louder than the falling snow.

That’s unlikely . Arthur replied, running his fingers through mahogany hair.

Who’s hair? He couldn’t remember. Was his hair brown?

“Will you be my father?”

“Absolutely.”

She clutched his hand as hard as her mitten-lined fingers would allow. Or was he clutching her?

She sometimes left no footprints in the fresh snow when she walked beside him.

 

Arthur Morning told me he had met the man who stole his voice in a small coffee shop after work, quite by accident. Or was it a man? Arthur couldn’t remember. The man sat at a table by the window overlooking Commonwealth Avenue, slate grey suit hugging his body like a straightjacket, mug of coffee clutched tightly in his slender fingers. He smelled like burning hair. Uninvited, Arthur sat down across from him, and for a long moment they silently appraised each other. The man licked his lips, and Arthur felt centipedes scuttle across his back.

After a moment more, the man spoke.

“I know what you’ve come for.” His breath smelled of vinegar. “And I’m afraid I can’t help you unless you’ve something to offer.”

Arthur cocked his head.

“I don’t know what kind of benevolent god you think I am, but your voice is now my property. Unless you’ve found your thing of equal value, I will not be returning it.”

Arthur and the man stared at each other again, pupils locked. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw the man’s third hand skitter towards his coffee like a spider, long spindly legs moving in perverse arrhythmia.

Something about what the man had said caught Arthur’s attention. He took a small pad of paper from his pocket and wrote “Found?” on the top, sliding it then across the table to the man’s waiting fingers.

“Oh yes. What purpose would it serve to take your voice otherwise? A curiosity to be sure, but of no real usefulness. Except as leverage.”

A moment more passed. Arthur could not look away from the man’s eyes. They were dark, so dark they seemed to lack an iris of any sort, a bottomless pupil, cold and empty. The air in the coffee shop suddenly seemed uncomfortably hot.

“Since you don’t seem to have caught on...”

Arthur cocked his head.

“Give me your… Daughter? Is that what you call her? The girl that smells of thyme.”

Arthur mouthed the word “Ellen” and the man nodded.

Arthur stood and gathered his things, preparing to walk away. As he did, the man’s third arm reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled forth a small pill bottle, with the word voice messily written in thick letters over the original labeling. He placed it on the table, and Arthur found himself unable to avert his gaze. His eyes began to feel as though they were burning.

“We will come for her. Soon. Decide before then, or you will not have a choice.”

Arthur stood and left the coffee shop briskly, head swimming. He had taken the business card the man had offered him, the name “Janus” written in plain letters on the front. It felt like lead in between his fingers.

The wooden walls of Arthur Mornings apartment creaked heavily as he stood from his desk and walked silently up next to the armchair by the window on which Ellen was sitting. The blanket draped around he shoulders rose and fell with her breath, pumping life through her body. He reached out and placed his long, thin, pianist’s fingers on her cheek, feeling the warmth from the vessels below her skin. She smelled of moss and earth and cold mornings. He withdrew sharply, as though stung, as he heard a sharp rapping on the window. The man who stole his voice was hanging from the roof by his third arm, peering through. “Tick tock,” he mouthed, and faded away. Arthur felt the story ending around him.

Arthur fell asleep that night in the chair by the window, with Ellen resting in his arms, as he listened to her breathe. He remembered that she smelled of shion. She remembered that his eyes were hazel. Or were they hers?

The day after was the first time I met Arthur Morning. He walked into my office at the scheduled time precisely, not a minute early or late. Quieter than leaves in the wind he said: “I need to find my voice.” Arthur Morning smelled of cocoa and dust and camellia tea.

“Well,” I laughed, gesturing to the armchair across from mine, pulling my pad of paper to my chest and clicking open the pen in my hand, “let’s not waste time then.”