Tea and Oranges

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

It’s raining again – the storm woke her –  and she wants a cup of tea. Needs it, really. Most days are coffee days, but tea is better during thunderstorms. Especially at night.

Tea and oranges, actually. The perfect combination. One hot, the other cold. One dark and astringent, the other bright and quenching.

She remembers a time when she was a child, waking to the sounds of thunder and the flashes of lightning creating shadows and afterimages in her room. She remembers screaming in fear, and her grandfather coming to calm her because her mother was on a business trip and her grandmother always took sleeping pills on stormy nights.

Grandpop helped her into her fluffy pink bathrobe and let her brace against his strong shoulder while she slid her feet into her lion-head slippers. She remembers the way his huge hand was all calloused and rough against her smaller when they walked so, so quietly down the stairs.

The power was out, but he’d had his big green flashlight with the handle on top and the button her fingers were never quite strong enough to press, and it made a wide swath of light so she didn’t have to be afraid that something would grab her ankles through the open stairs, or that someone was lurking behind the louvered doors that separated the dining room from the kitchen.

“Sit here, honey,” Grandpop said, and she did, scooting into the chair right next to his, with her back to the window so she couldn’t see the tree branches turning into monsters with every burst of lightning.

The stove was gas, and she could hear her grandfather fill the kettle and light the burner with a match and come back to the table with six or seven of Grandmom’s saint candles – tall frosted white jars with different saints painted on.

The candlelight had made her feel safer. It was only a few minutes, but her grandfather returned once more with two mugs of tea. “These have to steep,” he said. He disappeared into the kitchen once more and came back with a paper plate and a bowl of oranges. The kind with a belly-button, except you didn’t call it that.

They had sat there sipping sugary tea and eating oranges until the storm blew itself out. Then he took her hand once more and led her back up the scary stairs (there really weren’t hands reaching through; it was only her imagination) and tucked her into bed. “The power will be back in the morning,” he promised, and left her the candle with St. Mary on it to guard her sleep.

But that had been when she was little, and now she is awake in the middle of the night, while her husband and dog snore in chorus, neither even aware of the light show beyond the windows. Awake, and craving tea and oranges.

She didn’t wear bathrobes anymore, but she pulls on a pair of fluffy socks and buttons on her husband’s flannel pajama top, and creeps out of their bedroom and across the living room to the kitchen.

The power is flickering, so she turns on the electric kettle then lights the candelabra on the dining room table. Oranges are always in the fruit bowl on the counter, well, those kid-friendly halo things, anyway, so she piles a few in a blue ceramic bowl and places it on the table with a paper plate.

When the kettle clicks off, she fills an infuser with loose black tea and arranges it in her favorite mug, then pours the steaming water over it.

The power flickers again and goes out to stay.

She carries her mug, a spoon, and the squeeze-bottle of honey over to the table.

“That’ll have to steep.” A familiar voice observes, and when she looks up from her mug, the infuser removed, the honey stirred in, she is startled. “Grandpop?” she breathes, because he’s sitting directly across from her, and, okay, he’s a bit see-through, but he looks good for a ghost.

“Felt the storm begin. Knew you’d be awake. Couldn’t resist the chance to see you… and try these new-fangled easy-peel things.” And he picks up one of the oranges and peels it, sending the tangy-sweet scent wafting across the table to tickle her nose. “How are you sweetheart?”

She brings her mug to her lips for a sip, formulating her response. “I’m good,” she says. “My book has gotten a really good response, my husband just got a promotion, Mom and Dad are loving their retirement. I miss you and Grandmom, of course, but there are times it feels like you’re still here, watching over me.” She laughs. “I was making tomato sauce the other day, and I swear I heard Grandmom’s voice telling me to add more garlic.”

“Sometimes we’re here,” her grandfather tells her. “But not in the way you think. We come close when you need us, add a bit of our essence to your own, but we mostly exist as memories. Strong ones when you need support, lighter ones when you’re just feeling nostalgic.”

“And tonight?”

“Well, tea and oranges, sweetheart, that’s how we survive the storms, isn’t it? I couldn’t let you sit through this one alone.”

“Is it going to be bad?”

“The storm? Not so much. But… you have a bit of a personal storm coming and I wanted to make sure you knew: your husband loves you, and we love you, and it isn’t your fault – it just happens – and you’ll get through it.”

She lets that information sit still inside herself for a while, and instead of pressing for details, asks him, “I don’t suppose you could tell me what it’s like for you?” As if it’s perfectly normal to ask a ghost for a description of the afterlife.

“Actually, I can’t,” he says. “Non-disclosure agreement. But… you don’t need to worry. Everything’s fine. Eat your orange, it’s dripping.”

She looks down, to see that she’s squeezed the section of fruit a little too hard, and juice is running down her palm and wrist. She eats the wedge and licks the juice away, and when she drops her hand, her grandfather has disappeared.

* * *

The miscarriage happens in the middle of another storm, this time in the middle of their morning routine. Her husband calls out of work and takes her to the emergency room, but there’s no fetal pole, and even though she hadn’t even known that she was pregnant, she’s sad about the loss.

Home again, she bundles herself into her husband’s pajamas and crawls into bed.

“Can I get you anything?” her husband asks, and she can tell it’s as much because he’s sad, too as it is because he needs to make her better, at least a little.

She glances out the window, and watches the rain fall for a long moment. Then she turns back to him. “Could you make me some black tea with honey, and bring me some oranges?”

“Tea and oranges?” he asks. “That’s it?”

“If you want… you could share them with me.”

And they spend the rest of the day in bed, with the dog at their feet and the pouring rain outside, drinking tea and eating oranges.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Tea and Oranges by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.