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Chai Tea

The first thing I noticed about the shop was how large it was on the inside. From the outside, the whole thing was barely bigger than a garden shed. But inside it was three times the size of my living room, and on the far wall was an ornate wooden door and to my right was a set of stairs leading down to a basement or cellar door. 


“Wow,” I said under my breath. “Tardis house.” As I wandered through the room, checking out all the weird stuff on the tables, I sometimes had to carefully squeeze between the closely arranged tables. The place was like an explosion of an herbalist apothecary, an antique store, and the lighting display section of a hardware store. Some of the hanging lights’ chains and swooping wires had ivy entwined around them as the plants reached across the ceiling from one dangling pot to another. A lot of the old and dusty pots, pans, toys, figurines, and other antique house items looked like they’d be at home at a steampunk convention or featuring on The Antiques Roadshow. On several of the tables were slumping sacks of spices, ground herbs, and other very fragrant powders and dried plants. As I made my way to the long bench table on the left hand side of the room, I passed by a bag of what I guessed was cinnamon before getting hit by a pungent wall of what smelled like tobacco and formaldehyde on the next table. I doubled back to the canvas bag full of cinnamon and took the deepest breath I could, cleansing my senses, before holding in my breath until I got to the bench along the wall. 


It was like a work bench in a carpentry shop: well used, chipped, faint charred circles of various sizes, and small patches of the wood had clearly been sanded and lacquered then stripped again. It was mostly empty, except for a couple bags of smoky and sweet smelling spices on one end of the bench and the service bell on the end I was leaning against. Taped onto the brown stucco wall was a piece of paper that read in large letters: RING FOR SERVICE. The sign was held up by many layers of scotch tape in each corner. The bell was dented slightly but still had a subtle shine to its brass dome. I tapped on it but it didn’t make a sound. Confused, I rang it several more times, a little harder trying to get it to ring. Nothing sounded until…


“Alright! I hear you!” came a gruff voice from the other side of the wooden door. A second later, a squat old man pushed the door open with his shoulder. He wore a powder blue bathrobe over a maroon velvet tracksuit. He waddled over, almost dancing around all the tables with the tray of steaming cookies high above his head. Placing it on the counter and taking off the thick oven mitts, he looked at me and smiled. “What can I do for you, young man?” I licked my lips and had to clear my throat nervously. 


“I…um…I’m looking for the w-witch? I was told she could help me with –,” the old man put a hand up. His fingernails were well manicured but slightly yellowed. 


“Nah, not a she. I’m the witch you’re looking for, kiddo. No need to be nervous, just what do you need?” I nodded nervously and started again. 


“Oh, sorry. Um, yeah. I was told you could…see I’m, uh, transgender and I was wondering if you could help me…somehow?” It was hard to look at the old man, who stood about a foot shorter than me. I braced myself for the dismissal that almost everyone his age did. But, he just stood there with a kind and understanding smile as I went on. 


I’d realized I was trans about halfway through my first year in high school. As if puberty wasn’t supposed to be confusing enough, I had to contend with the body and identity dysmorphia of growing into someone I knew I wasn’t. The first two years were hell as I realized the friends from middle school that I was clinging to wouldn’t be the accepting type. They quickly drifted away when I asked them to call me by my chosen name. I drifted along for another year, disconnected from anyone I knew and feeling more alienated. It wasn’t until the first GSA club was organized by a couple freshmen that things got better. Under the guise of joining the chess club, I attended every Monday after school meeting. As encouraging as my parents were when I “joined the chess club” - they even got me a really nice chess board and clock the following two Christmases - I knew they wouldn’t be okay with the truth. Every June they’d roll their eyes at everything Pride related and proudly supported  every conservative push against anything LGBT. 


“So…yeah,” I finished, hardly believing I had just rambled everything off to a stranger. The old man’s smile hadn’t faltered as I talked, but his eyes radiated warmth. “I only have a few friends that know and it’s so hard to keep it up. And I was told you could help?” The old man nodded and turned away. He quickly started looking over the stuff on the nearby tables. “I…I got money,” I went on, trying to hide the desperation in my voice. “I’ve been saving to doing it officially when I’m 21, but it’s not looking like that’ll be an option…” I dug the rubber banded bundle from my pocket, “I’ve got about 800. But if that’s not enough –.”


“Don’t worry about that,” the old man interrupted, waving a dismissive hand. He grabbed a cast iron soup pot and dumped a large handful of some black dried flakes in it. He made his way back, grabbing handfuls of some green seeds from a jar, a bumpy root of ginger from a basket beside a couple alarm clocks, and a dull copper whisk. When he got back, he dumped the pot’s contents into a pile on the bench. “Be right back,” he said and quickly took the pot away and exited through the door. I just stood there, a little awkwardly by the bench. The cookies were still warm and their sweet oatmeal and chocolate aroma mixed with the earthy-sweet smell of whatever the old man had gathered, creating an intoxicatingly comforting bouquet. The old man witch came back a couple minutes later. He pushed the cookies aside when got back and put the pot down in its place. In it was half full with a milky, slightly off-white liquid. “This normally calls for water and milk,” he said casually, “but I use almond milk instead of water. Gives a little more body to the flavor.”


“Makes sense,” I agreed. He snapped his fingers and chuckled as I flinched. I’d jumped from the sound, sure, but I was more surprised at the small tendrils of orange tipped blue flames rising up the sides of the cast iron. Like a pot sitting on a gas stove. After a minute the milk began to gently simmer and steam. 


“No need to be surprised, kiddo,” chuckled the old witch. He grabbed a stone mortar and pestle from the table behind him and brushed the pile of herbs into it. “People told you I’m a witch, didn’t they?” I blinked, but kept staring at the pot.


“Um, yeah. Kinda. But I was expecting some Wiccan-like person. Healing crystals and tarot cards, you know?” The witch in the bathrobe grunted as he began to grind with the pestle. 


“And what good would rocks and some playing cards do for your problem? You already know your issue and a shit load of luck a piece of quartz or tiger’s eye’ll do you.” 


“Oh, okay. There was one person that called you a, apellomancer,” I said, hoping I got the term right. He sighed, pausing a moment, then grinding hard at a couple stubborn seeds.


“Man, I hate that term. It’s almost insulting. Means ‘wish magician’. Makes it sound like I’m here willing to grant any wish someone asks. Like I’m some community park wishing well or a seven-year-old’s birthday candles. No, sir. I gladly charge for my services and anyone who can’t pay doesn’t get my help. I’ve got clients, not wishers. Calling me an ‘apellomancer’ is like going up to one of the Arabian Jinn and expecting it to be all friendly and singing like Robin Williams in that Disney movie.”


“I’m sorry,” I said, really feeling bad. “I get the frustration.” The witch smiled and dumped the, now, powder into the simmering milk. That earthly and sweet aroma got richer as it added to the milk steam. 


“And on that,” the old man said, grabbing a small knife and starting to peel and slice the ginger root, “I hope you’ll forgive me for mis-identifying you earlier. Meant nothing by it.” He finished mincing the ginger and plopped it in the pot. Then, reaching over to the slumped burlap bag nearest to him, he took a heaping scoop of finely granulated sugar and slowly whisked the milky concoction as he poured in the sugar. “There. Now that’ll stew for a bit while we get to business.” I looked at the old man quizzically. 


“Wait, what is that then?” I pointed to the pot and the old man chuckled. He pulled out a piece of paper and ballpoint pen from the pocket of his bathrobe. 


“Chai-tea,” he said simply. “Goes best with the cookies. Now, young lady, what do you wish to call yourself?” I couldn’t help but smile at being addressed like that.




“Ah,” the old man witch said, “she’s beauty, she’s Grace. Call her a man and she’ll knee you in the face.” He gave me a impish wink and I laughed. “And you can call me Charlie, kiddo.” Charlie ripped the paper in two and passed it and the pen to me. “Now, write your old name on one of those and your true name on the other.” I nodded and did so. 


As I wrote out my old name, my dead name, it looked foreign. As if I was seeing a word written in Dutch or Arabic. It was like it really was a dead thing - devoid of meaning and substance. Then, when I wrote Grace, it felt like I was writing an indisputable fact  - like “the sky is blue”. I’d never thought of having a ‘favorite word’ - not since I was a kid and discovered the word ‘giraffe’. But looking at it, I knew that Grace was mine. I smiled.


“Atta-girl,” Charlie grinned, nudging me playfully. He took the papers and held one with my old name in one hand and placed the one with Grace on it in the mortar. I flinched with surprise as the one in his hand vaporized in a flash of bright blue flames, leaving nothing behind. I was about to say something when Charlie put his finger to his lips and winked. With that impish old man smile, he snapped his fingers and the paper in the stone mortar burst into flames. 


This one kept burning with a small pinkish-red flame. Charlie took the pestel and began to grind at the paper and flames. Even though the tips of the fire licked at his old knuckles, he didn’t seem bothered by it. As he ground the smoldering paper down, the flames slowly died and when they went out, he ground down the last of the cinders into a fine ash. When he put the pestel down, I was surprised at how much ash was in the stone bowl - it was certainly a lot more than that little paper could have produced. Charlie dipped two of his fingers into the ash and raised them to my forehead. 


“This may feel strange,” he whispered, “but don’t wipe this off. It’ll go away in its own time.” He wrote what felt like a “G” or maybe a “Q” on my forehead. I nodded when he was done and he held up the mortar. “Dip your finger and dab a little on your tongue. Then repeat after me: I’m beauty, I’m Grace, and this is my true face.”


I did so. He had me repeat it three times. It felt strange and I smiled and felt my face get warm as I blushed nervously. What was stranger than the phrase was the fact that the ash on my tongue tasted like powdered sugar and not bitter ashes. Though, of course, I was standing in a weird room with a little old man wearing a bathrobe and a tracksuit. Not much would be weirder than this. Charlie grinned widely when I finished repeating the phrase. 


“Done!” he proclaimed happily and handed me a cookie. “Do you have time to stay and chat for a while or would you like your tea to go?” I smiled and said I’d love to stay. He clapped his hands and a pair of stools rose from across the room and flew over all the tables and settled beside us so we could sit. 


The tea was rich and creamy and like nothing I’d ever tasted before. And Charlie was right, it went perfectly with the cookies. We sat and talked about my interests and friends and family, then Charlie talked about his life. It was fascinating to hear about this man’s travels across the country - setting up in RV parks and campgrounds and doing small magic favors for people. When he felt he wanted to retire from the traveling, he set up shop here and lets word of mouth bring him business. 


“Only people who really need my help can find me,” he said when I asked him how he isn’t swamped by people all the time. “I’ve got my ways.” When I left a couple hours later, I took the last cookie and a mug of tea to go - at Charlie’s insistence. When I took out my folded stack of hundred, Charlie shook his head. “Tell you what, it’s thirty dollars for the tea and cookies. And you can come by next week and we can chat some more and call it even.” 


When I got home, it felt different - I felt different. For years I’d dreaded coming home, always feeling like I was a stranger there. But now, as I opened the door and went in, it felt like…home again. 


“Michael?” came my mom’s voice from the kitchen as I closed the front door. I grimaced at the name as my mom peeked into the entryway. “Mike - oh, Grace, it’s you. Honey, have you seen your father?” I looked at my mom, unsure if I’d heard her correctly. “Grace? Have you seen your dad?” my mom repeated.


“Oh, uh, no. Sorry. I just got home.”


“Okay then. Why don’t you wash up and come help me with dinner.” 


“S…sure,” I smiled and my mom went back into the kitchen. Heading to the bathroom, my heart was pounding fast and my chest felt warm. Looking in the bathroom mirror, I saw a young - almost fully developed woman staring back at me. I smiled and she smiled back. I tucked my long hair behind my ears and washed my hands. I had the taste of chai-tea and powdered sugar on my tongue as I whispered to myself, “I’m beauty, I’m Grace. And this is my true face.”

Text Copyright © Maximillion Almgren-Bersie 2023

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