The leaves were tinged like blood, their grip on the branches weakening with each new burst of fresh young color. Frozen wind scraped the red barren ground as the people huddled at home and under coats and wraps.
Down on the corner in a dirty house made of crumbled bricks, Mme. Bug stared at herself in the mirror. Her thick red lips were cracked and revealed brown neglected teeth when she attempted a smile.
Mme. Bug touched a stain on the mirror and rubbed at it. “Morning,” she told herself. “Morning,” she said back.
Mme. Bug turned to the kitchen, a dim little room with cracked and peeling red paint on the walls and strange slender stripes on the floor, as if a madwoman in a slavering frenzy drew her nails across the tiled floor. A thin ray of mottled sunlight fell through the sooty window onto the splintered table and threw dust onto the bench with a broken leg.
The sink was piled high with delicate blue china, chipped and scratched like the kitchen tile, with brown and black and red rings dried at the rims. Mme. Bug took two mild-looking teacups with red rabbits painted on them, ran hot water over, and set the cups with a matching teapot on the table. The pot was missing its spout and therefore only held about half the allotted amount for tea.
Mme. Bug laid two red napkins and two clean blue saucers from a slanted cabinet next to the cups. Then she poured water into the kettle on the stove and dangled a rather dried-up, old teabag in the pot, and stirred.
She began to whistle.
Under the dogwood tree
I couldn’t help but take it
Tea of madness, can it be
Leave me to my mind
The tea of madness
You gave it to me
Under the dogwood tree
A knock at the door. She opened it and shook away the mailman like he was a little fly. “Not now, Joe, not now.”
“But, Mademoiselle Bug! I have—”
“No. Leave me be.”
She slammed the door and a lightbulb above the frame fell out and shattered at her feet. Mme. Bug kicked at the pieces halfheartedly and then turned back to the table. She rested her fingertips on the shredded wood and looked out the window. The view fell upon an emaciated tree, starved and withered into a misshapen pose, standing bravely in a dried piece of land beside the road.
The sun shone down fiercely on the ice slicking the pavement. Not a soul stirred. Not a cloud moved. The sun froze. The wind halted. Silence. Her breath was torn away. Not a bird, not a passing car, not a pedestrian.
Then Mme. Bug snorted as she watched the tree shiver in the wind and life resumed.
“Good morning, Sylvia.”
She jerked. At the table sat a very white man in excellent white dry dress, breeze flowing about his ears. Even his irises and pupils were blanched, the tips of his fingers, wisps of hair under his chin, and cheeks were all pasty white.
“This is a nice spread, thank you for having me again.”
“Of course, Monsieur Tetty,” she said rather archly.
Tetty looked stiff. “Please refrain from nicknames, Mademoiselle Bug.”
“As you wish.”
She set dry slices of bread from the cupboard with a bit of jam all scraped onto a platter. The kettle on the stove began to whistle gaily.
Under the dogwood tree
The tea of madness, can it be
You gave it to me…
The high cold whistle matched the mad tune unerringly.
“What kind today, Sy—Bug?”
Tetty reached for a piece of bread.
“The same,” she replied indifferently, transferring water from kettle to teapot.
“Azmataz? Why do you like it so much? But it’s the tea of—”
“Because it is good,” Mme. Bug said angrily. “Why do you wear that damned outfit every teatime?”
His brows contracted, looking pained. “Sylvia, you know why I have to wear this.”
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “Yes, yes.”
“Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine. I won’t.”
Mme. Bug let the water drip leisurely into Tetty’s cup, a dangerous red color, like thick blood, like flaking paint, like essence of insanity. He watched the drops and watched the woman with madness in her tired eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, taking a sip. Mme. Bug watched as the red tea slid through his white throat. His eyes rolled in his head as he swallowed. He coughed. “Er—excellent. As always.”
Mme. Bug grinned at him and downed her tea in one gulp. “Yes, it is. As always. Always.”
“So, Sylvia.” Tetty looked around the dismal room, running his finger distractedly around the rim of his teacup. “Are you alright, Sy?”
He gazed at her earnestly, concern etched in every white wrinkle. “Sylvia, you know I love you. Why don’t you take care of yourself? Why are you so hopeless?”
The kitchen’s darkness draped around her shoulders, like the cowl made of spirits drapes around the goddess of the dead. The demons flocked in her mind, howling, shrieking, screaming for Sylvia to say nothing. Nothing. No hope. Never. The fool.
Her eyes fixed the floor. “Hope?” she said dazedly. “Hope. I take care of myself.”
“No. You don’t. Look at yourself. Look.”
Tetty watched her and drank the rest of his tea, both cups now with just a red ring in the base.
Sylvia Bug looked at the tree outside the window. “Hope is dead. I’ve got my Azmataz, that’s all the hope I need, thank you very much.”
Tetty touched her hand very gently. “Azmataz. Sylvia, wake up.”
She stared up at him. “Azmataz. I love. Um. Yes.”
“The tea of madness,” said the ghost of Tetty.
“Sylvia—” he started to say, but then he stopped.
Mme. Bug sat in silent stupor, alone in the red peeling kitchen, holding hope far away from her with one hand.
On the table, one of the teacups held only a red stain at the base, but the other was cold and still untouched, the chair opposite her tucked under the chair, the window shut tightly. Wind outside the room roared balefully and finally the little shriveled tree on the pavement cracked and toppled over.