Apocalypse wasn’t supposed to happen. Apocalypse did happen. Apocalypse was supposed to end the world. Apocalypse couldn’t end everything. Seems things that go keep going. Things end but life don’t. Grandmama said, “life is like water. It might get dammed up, but it don’t never stop completely.” Grandmama also said:
“Our Southern sweet tea is more than an infusion, or a tradition; it’s more than a custom — sweet tea is a spell, a ritual, a magic, a conjuring up across distant histories too far for anybody to walk.”
So now I’m out here, living. Ground is ash. Ash is ash. Everything ash to match the sky. And me on hands, knees, scraping through the innards of Grandmama’s wood stove — least feels that way. Gotta find though. Find what she told me. Find what she taught me. Let’s see, I need little-brown-jug ginger. What else she say?
“People will tell you, as people always want to tell others what to do, that there are right and wrong ways to go about making tea. These people are liars. Tea is about place and people. The tools and the ingredients shift. I have known witches who boil their tea in an unwashed pot on the stove, others who buy fancy teapots and kettles, but for my ancestors the tool was the coffee maker. Regardless, the tea must be steeped in something. I like my tea dark and rich, the color of pine tar lightened with burnt sugar. One thing I have found consistent among Southern mountain witches is that we do not wash our tea jugs; they become stained and seasoned with layers of history built up in the chill of spring-house jugs and refrigerators.”
Grandmama knew what not to hear. Good thing she was dead before the world was trying to be. That little-brown-jug ginger is about gone the way of civility — means all gone. But it ain’t. Neither is pine needles. Grandmama said that everything is like a splash bubble behind a frog —no child, I said everything on earth is a bubble in boiling water— I mean, she said everything is boiling. Said we come from nothing and go to nothing —we break off from the whole and return to the whole. I think there’s a pot we got down here in this hole.
“Zen Buddhists have a legend that Bodhidharma walked into a cave determined to meditate until he was enlightened. I hear him, don’t you Darger? An angry old sorcerer mumbling to himself as the holler whispers. They say he sat facing the wall to avoid distraction but when he fell asleep he became so angry at the betrayal of his eyelids that he ripped them off and threw them outside. These became the first tea plants, holding the magic of focusing the mind and keeping the eyes open. We Southern cauldron keepers are working with his spirit.”
That’s right Grandmama, spirit. Banshee sirens hollering bombs or sundown. Can’t tell. Dog off howling. Gun shot. Ash ash ash. Looking for sassafras, like three-toed frog. One, two, three leaves. Three more. They said apocalypse was over. Then they said “one more year.” Then one more year again. Then they said, “oh it’s not over. This is life now.” Three more three-toed-frog leaf. Grandmama said, “things adjust themselves. Water finds a way. Plants lean towards the light.” Grandmama had all the right words. Big words. And Grandmama had the best tea. I remember her talking when she made it:
“There is debate, as always, about what tea is the right tea. A mountain witch has work to do and no time to argue. The right tea is the tea in front of you, the tea that you can afford, the tea that you love. Our family-coven’s recipe called for three normal size bags or two family size bags of Luzianne. I let it brew then sit in the coffee pot to reduce. One witch I know uses a different tea pot for every tea, insisting the flavor and energy of each sticks; he does this even for his sweet tea. He has a sweet tooth like us, but he mixes smoked Tibetan tea with oolong and one bag of Piggly Wiggly store brand. This is made in his grandmother’s antique Victorian teapot.”
Grandmama. Grandmama. They are closing in. Guns and dogs and darker dark sky. Grandmama ash. Ash Grandmama. Think if I can start the fire I can boil the leaves. But has to be soon before all sky is dark, before the fire can give me away. Wish Grandmama was here with her magic.
“My magic is in mixing the sugar. It is my magic because I diverge from the family tradition. My mother taught me to pour the tea and sugar in simultaneously while water filled the pitcher the rest of the way. I noticed that the sugar took a long while to melt and as a child intuited the act of making tea syrup. I put in two cups of sugar and pour the dark hot tea on top and mix it until a tea-flavored simple syrup is made. Regardless of how helpful this step is, I let it sit again. I believe a caramel taste comes out that makes the tea more flavorful and less saccharine. Others, use the techno-magic of artificial sweeteners. Your Granddaddy used to dump all the ice in the freezer into the pitcher instead of water, putting the tea in an even longer state of flux. No matter what, Southerners want this drink cold and sweet. Our summers are hot and muggy and the infusion is a spell of banishment for that discomfort.”
When the world started ending and Grandmama was already under the grass I hid under our house when the guns got closer and the dogs got whimper silent and when the house turned to fire. I laid there and thought Die Darger! Die Darger! Die Darger! But Grandmama came whisper kissing my eye up between cold dirt and hot floor boards. Grandmama said —dogwood bark, blackberry, apple blossom —and she called me out from that grave to go gathering before the fire came down on me. And now I’m poking this fire. Now I’m in my ashes. Now everything is starting to boil. Shots closer. Dogs barking with bad men. Eyeballs watching the sun. Sweetness boiling sorghum. Live Darger! Live Darger! Live!
“I insist on highly processed and refined white sugar. It carries the purity of my childhood; it is flavorless and gives shapeless pleasure; it is sweetness distilled, and while it is the most removed from its source, it has the most hands in its making. While some opt for darker, less processed sweeteners, I feel my decision invites in more workers: from the farmers, to the harvesters, to the factory works, to the delivery people, to the grocery store employees, to me — we do this magic as a community and in the spirit of those who did it before us. I hear them all, I hear them, faintly sometimes, others like the flooded creek rushing down hill from the house.”
Gonna be here soon. Snarl lip. Broken eye. Empty socket. Smashed. Cauliflower heads. Volcano tooth. Spitting hate hate hate and ash on shoulders and in eyebrow. Cancer. Boil. Black dirt ugly and dead face. And chained dog comes snapping too with better fangs than his keeper. Choke collar chokes bark. Hear their bullets. One show like thunder and another, coming on like counting storms miles away. Bang! One two three four five. Bang! One two three. Bang! One —Darger, what do we say about a watched pot? —Never boils. —and what do we say about stirring the pot? —Better let shit settle. Bang!
“Sweet tea, as Southern witches know, does not have a single serving ritual. We do not read the leaves, but rather the tea as it enters ourselves and the faces of our community as they imbibe around us. In the mornings the tea is served in large containers, Big Gulps full of ice, and a mantra of peaceful waking hours is said, though usually this isn’t noticed even by the speaker. Afternoon to dinner tea is served in glasses with heavy bottoms and thin lips, sometimes with lemon, but usually on the side; the ice almost always is near to overflowing. At night, especially in the summer, tea is brought in a yellow milk jug to the porch so others do not need to go back inside.”
She said “steep sweet.” Grandmama said “serve without heat.” But no time for cooling down. What’s left of the world coming over the hill. Fire needs to die. World needs to quit trying. And simmer has to stop it’s bubbles so I can drink from my tin can. Tastes metal like. Metal like when I came out from under the house following dead Grandmama voice to go forage. Metal like mom and dad car burning. Metal like the screen door torn off. And me then was trying to figure out where mom dad dog bodies went is like me now wondering how close those grubby faces are. Bang! Bubbles breaking. Scream and bang! —drink now, Darger. Drink. Remember. —
“Sweet tea in the dusk allows the witch to contemplate the fireflies and the crickets. To greet the moon. It is in the silence of sleeping dog grunts and trees that creak and moan with rocking chairs that the voices of the ancestors are best heard: we hear our parent-teachers learning us this summoning spell, we hear the generations who came before us cooking their tea on wood stoves, we hear the echo of the Boston Tea Party, the howls of sugar farmers from around the world, the angry cry of Bodhidharma ripping off his eye lids for this conjuring, this ceremony, this gathering.”
All dark now. Boil done. Cooling in can. No ice anymore. No fire. Past dusk. Ash world and their torches come like a red snake. Bark choked dogs that smell me. I smell me. I smell Grandmama’s tea. I smell her and this tea I made, she made. And —we drink it together —and it tastes like her tea and not dirty ash water with pine and sassafras. It tastes like — 4000 years of history, of study, of craft, of family, boiled together to make something new from what was before. It tastes like dead leaves from yesterday breathing their life into the future. — And then she becomes we. We are as she said. Now. Bubbles of something into something else. Rolling boil. And when I stand to march out to end the unending apocalypse, it’s broke skull horse men, Grandmama is there:
“I sit on the front porch of memory. I taste my history, the brew of my people. And, one by one the spirits gather among me in the kerosene lantern. Each witch a contributor to my smell. Each witch with their own recipe adapted in mine for this moment, this life. And we do not speak, opting instead to drink together — a communion impeding summer, a revival of our magic, finally named in spell we cast called sweet tea.”