"The Teashop"

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While waiting for a train, a woman enters a teashop and decides to act with uncharacteristically reckless abandon. She orders the most unusual tea on the menu: tea with stories. In this story, which represents Serbian writer Zoran Živković’s use of the fantastic, both the woman and the reader receive more than they expected.

Teapot
Photo by Maks Karochkin

Miss Greta was delighted to see a teashop across the street from the entrance to the railway station. The train she’d arrived on had been a quarter of an hour late, but the train she was meant to take for the rest of her trip had left on time. The next possible train wouldn’t leave for around two and a half hours. She could have spent that time reading in the waiting room, but that didn’t seem very appealing. She’d never liked waiting rooms, and then what would she have to read on the train? About eighty pages were left in her book, just enough to shorten the last part of the journey. It would certainly be much nicer in the teashop. And in any case, it was time for her afternoon tea.

She stood at the main entrance to the station for a few moments, uncertain about what to do with her suitcase. Although it was heavy, she had only to cross a small square to reach the teashop. Even so, there was no reason to lug it along, particularly since the drizzling rain was now getting harder. She turned this way and that until she found a sign that directed her to the left luggage window. The short, oldish man behind the counter had an extremely red nose, typical of people inclined to tipple, but he didn’t smell of alcohol. He effortlessly lifted the bulky suitcase with one hand and gave her a baggage check.

Miss Greta opened a large umbrella with alternating triangles in two shades of brown that matched her coat, shoes, and handbag. She waited for two cars to pass so they wouldn’t spray her and then headed across the square with swift little steps. Even though she carefully chose where to step, it was inevitable that she got splashed. When she reached the arched roof covering the entrance to the teashop, she turned around and shook out her umbrella, returning a flurry of drops to the rain.

Standing in the doorway, she looked around the long room. The waiter at the counter on the right, a heavyset man in his early forties with bushy sideburns and a pencil-thin mustache, was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a green vest. The slender cashier with bright-red hair and oversized glasses, writing something down at the cash register, was also dressed lightly, in a white blouse and the same green vest.

There weren’t many customers. The elderly man sitting in the corner to the left of the door was reading a newspaper. He briefly raised his eyes when Miss Greta entered, then went back to his reading. A young couple was sitting next to the large window. They were leaning over the table toward each other, their noses almost touching, talking in low voices. At the back of the room was a woman in a navy blue suit wearing a hat of the same color. Her elbows were on the edge of the table and her head was resting in her hands as she looked at the steaming cup in front of her, lost in thought.

Miss Greta headed for an empty table away from the window. She didn’t like to expose herself to the gaze of passersby. She took off her coat, hung it on the coat rack, and put her umbrella in the brass stand underneath it. When she sat in one of the heavy armchairs covered in green plush, she seemed to be sucked into it.

She didn’t have to open the long, thin menu with a cover of the same green. In the afternoon she always drank chamomile tea. Suddenly, though, she decided to make an exception. The circumstances were unusual and there were so few deviations from daily routine in her life. She shouldn’t have been there at all, but since chance had brought her to the teashop, why not make good use of it? An impish desire filled her to do something reckless in a place where no one knew her. She would order the tea that seemed the most unusual.

The menu had four densely filled pages. She’d never heard of most of the teas and had tried only a few, even though she’d been drinking this hot beverage in the morning and afternoon regularly since childhood. Reading through the splendid selection, she wondered, with a tinge of sorrow, why she limited herself to the humdrum. This had once seemed a virtue, but now she could not remember why. She shouldn’t be inhibited, at least as far as tea was concerned. Now was the chance to make up a little for what she’d missed, albeit belatedly.

Along with the names of the teas was a description of their beneficial effects. Some astonished her, others brought a smile to her lips, and yet others made her blush slightly. She didn’t even know there was tea made of cabbage (a “salutary digestive”), spinach (“relieves the pain of spondylosis”), and carrots (“helps fight anemia”). Nettle tea was thought to improve one’s memory and moss tea purportedly calmed tense nerves, while papyrus tea rekindled the flames of desire.

The fourth page offered teas that were preposterous. Had circumstances been otherwise, the levelheadedness that made Miss Greta proud would have forced her to frown at what she read. Just now, however, it did not seem to be tasteless frivolity. What difference did it make if they were preposterous when they sounded so nice? She could have asked what the teas were really made of, but decided not to because that would only dispel the magic.

Tea made of wind chased away apathy, tea made of clouds brought a yearning to fly, moonshine tea inspired lightheartedness, spring tea made you feel young again, tea made of night led to sinful thoughts, tea made of silence filled you with tranquility, tea made of mist brought great joy, snow tea offered hope. She could have chosen any one of these teas. The best thing would actually be a mixture of them all. She was deficient in everything they promised.

But, in the end, she didn’t order any of them. She chose the last one on the menu—tea made of stories. This was partially influenced by the brief recommendation next to it: “You need this.” The decisive element, however, was that she adored stories. She read them every day, as ritualistically as she drank tea. Whenever she was in low spirits, she would scold herself for living a better and fuller life in the world of stories than in the real world, but this dismal conclusion never dissuaded her from reading, and as soon as she got caught up in a story, her depression disappeared. Since she was already determined to try the most unusual tea, this was the right choice.

She closed the menu and put it on the table. That was a signal for the waiter to approach.

“Good day,” he said with a smile. “May I take your order?”

“Good day,” she replied with a fleeting smile. “Tea made of stories, please.”

She didn’t say it very loud, overcome by an embarrassment she would not have felt had she asked for an ordinary tea. Even so, in the silence of the teashop, her soft words seemed to reach everyone’s ears. The cashier stopped writing and turned toward her table. The man next to the entrance looked at her over the top of his newspaper. The young couple with eyes only for each other turned their heads toward her in unison. Even the lady in the navy-blue suit stopped staring at the cup on the table and looked at her with interest.

Miss Greta blushed and lowered her head. She felt like she’d been caught committing a crime. She alone was to blame for this predicament. Had she ordered chamomile tea, as she should have, no one would have batted an eyelid. It served her right for having no self-control. Tea made of stories, indeed. What must they think of her?

She was rescued from this discomfort by the waiter. He bowed, his smile broadening.

“Of course, ma’am. Right away.”

She didn’t raise her head when the waiter left to make her tea. She stared for some time at the folded hands in her lap, almost physically feeling the inquisitive and scornful looks. When she finally mustered the courage to glance quickly around the teashop, she noted with relief that the others had ceased to be interested in her. They had all returned to what they’d been doing before.
Several minutes later the waiter put before her a white cup in the shape of an inverted bell, its handle resembling a mouse’s ear. The tea was the same green color as the vests of the teashop staff. She smiled at the waiter, thanking him with a nod of the head.

Instead of leaving, he stood there next to her table. Embarrassment filled her once again. She didn’t know why he was still there or how she should react. In the end she concluded that the best thing would be to act as though he was nowhere near her. She would start to drink the tea. That was why she’d ordered it, right? What else could she do, in any case?

She brought the cup to her lips and blew a little on the steaming green liquid. She tasted it cautiously, anxious about the heat and the unknown taste. The tea was mild with a suggestion of bitterness. She had the feeling she’d tasted it before, but was unable to identify it. It seemed to be a mixture of almonds, dogwood, and something else that escaped her. She put the cup back on the saucer.

“Is it to your liking?” asked the waiter.

“Yes,” she replied after a moment’s hesitation. “Very much.”

“That’s nice. So, now we can move on to the stories.” He indicated one of the two empty armchairs.

“May I?”

She watched in bewilderment as he sat down without waiting for her permission.

“The stories?” she repeated after he had settled in his chair.

“Yes. The stories that go with this tea. You took the tea made of stories, didn’t you?”

She wanted to say she hadn’t imagined it would be like that, but then it would look like she hadn’t known what she was ordering, and this would only compound her distress. She had no idea what was to follow, but there was no turning back. Just see what the desire to do something reckless had brought her.

“Of course,” she agreed.

The waiter coughed slightly, like an actor clearing his throat before going onstage, and then began.

“Up until the thirty-third execution, the executioner had successfully performed his duty. He belonged to a respected family of executioners that had been doing this responsible job impeccably for six generations. There had never been any complaints about their work; they had even been decorated for their exceptional devotion and diligence during periods of great social upheaval. Families of the convicted would sometimes write and thank them for the skill with which they’d dispatched their loved ones from this world with the least possible suffering.

“A veil of secrecy surrounded the reason why the youngest scion of this honorable family tree suddenly decided to break with their glorious tradition. He refused to offer any explanation, thus his reasons could only be surmised. The last execution he’d performed was thought to have influenced his choice, although he couldn’t have been particularly affected by the elimination of a baby-faced hardened criminal who had mercilessly killed eleven librarians, first forcing them to put on firefighting uniforms and read the same excerpt from an ancient epic while he accompanied them on the harp, wearing diving equipment.

“It was also conjectured that the fact that he’d recently joined an association to protect white bear cubs had influenced his decision to leave his profession. This had allegedly dulled the insensitivity that is a characteristic of every good executioner, but that wasn’t very convincing either. It is a well-known fact that compassion for animals usually does not go hand in hand with compassion for humans. Haven’t most of those who’ve left the bloodiest trails behind them been remembered for their touching gentleness toward some cat, dog, horse, parrot, or crocodile?

“Be that as it may, the executioner withdrew to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains even though he was perfectly healthy. That is when he started to collect rare mountain flora. The head nurse supported him in his efforts, as she herself was an amateur botanist. Sometimes, when she was not on duty, she would take long walks with him across the slopes and peaks, and they would return with a multitude of new specimens for their herbariums.

“Rumors about a sentimental attachment between them inevitably spread through the sanatorium, but they paid no attention, offering no grounds for this gossip in their public behavior. Nothing can be said for sure, of course, as to whether or not anything happened when they were out of the doctors’ and patients’ sight. If it did, it was very discreet, as befits such a highly dignified institution. Everything might have been disclosed in the end if it weren’t for an unfortunate incident that thwarted the would-be lovers.

“When one of the patients, a retired mining professor, found out that, in spite of everything, there was no hope and he had only a few weeks left to live, he became gravely concerned about the fate of the large hoard of napkins that he’d been collecting since he was a schoolboy. Since he had no heir, he had no one to leave it to. He wrote to various museums, offering his collection free of charge, even including his considerable savings to maintain it. For the most part there were no replies, and those he did receive hurt him with their indifference and often unconcealed disdain.

“In the throes of a nervous breakdown, without considering the consequences, the professor put all his napkins in the middle of his room and set them on fire. The fire blazed into a fury and quickly spread to the neighboring rooms, then engulfed the whole floor and finally the entire sanatorium, an old building without proper fire precautions. In the chaos that ensued, all efforts were focused on saving the helpless patients, so what the executioner did passed almost unnoticed.

“When it was already too late to stop him, he was seen rushing into the flaming building. By some miracle, he made his way to his room on the first floor and threw a bunch of herbarium folios through the closed window. In spite of everyone’s exhortations to jump and save himself even at the risk of injury, he went back for the rest of the herbarium folios, although tongues of fire were already flickering all around him.

“Nothing else came flying out the window and he did not appear at it again. The sanatorium burned to the ground. The remains of eight bodies were found in the charred ruins. This, however, did not agree with the number who had disappeared, which was nine. After great effort, when they had identified the burned bodies, it turned out that the only one to disappear without a trace was the executioner. It was concluded that his body had been vaporized in the fire, and he was officially declared dead.”

Finishing the story, the waiter bowed briefly. Miss Greta was tempted to applaud but held back, returning his bow with a smile. This was the kind of story she liked best—romantic and mysterious. True, there had been too much violence in it for her taste, the hero shouldn’t have been an executioner exactly, and many people had died in the fire, but she shouldn’t grumble. After all, it was only a story.

She was no longer sorry she’d ordered this tea. What a wonderfully clever idea it was to offer a good story along with an equally good drink. The only pity was that it had been so short. She wondered what would happen if she ordered another one. Did the waiter have a new story for every new cup of tea? First she had to finish the one in front of her as it would be inconsiderate not to do so, even though it had most likely cooled off while she was listening to the story. She lifted the cup and took a long sip, surprised to find that it was still quite hot.

“Wonderful,” said the waiter when the cup was on the saucer once again. “So now we may continue.”
Without giving an explanation, he got up and headed back to the counter. Along the way he passed the cashier, who was headed for her table. Without even asking for permission, the tall woman sat right down in the same armchair as the waiter. She took a green handkerchief from the breast pocket of her vest, removed her oversized glasses and started to wipe them. This made her chestnut-brown eyes look smaller. When she put her glasses back on, she didn’t start the story right away. She gazed at Miss Greta for a few moments, as though looking through her.

“After the calamity in the sanatorium, the head nurse decided to change her profession. Not even the avalanche of attractive offers she received after winning recognition for saving the patients from the fire could dissuade her from this decision. She withdrew from the world for several weeks, and when she came back she was like a different person. Everything about her had changed: the raven-haired woman had become a blond, her classically cut dark dresses were replaced by striking leather suits in bright colors, and instead of being modest and gentle she was sharp and gruff.

“But the biggest surprise was her choice of new profession. She became a stuntwoman, showing an acrobatic agility and courage that were unimaginable even to those who knew her best. She was undaunted by the most perilous assignments, and soon the best film directors started to ask for her. A brilliant career awaited her, but then something happened that made her cut it short.

“The assignment was to shoot down a dangerous waterfall with two other stunt people in a rubber boat. All protective measures were taken and the scene had been gone over in detail, but the security cable snapped during filming. Instead of being held back, the boat and its occupants ended up on the rocks at the bottom of the waterfall. By some miracle, the former nurse was the only one to survive, suffering just minor scratches.

“The investigation that was conducted established that it had not been an accident, as first thought. The cable hadn’t snapped; it had been cut. Who had done it remained a mystery, although the two people who died turned out to have a motive. They were actually part of a strange love triangle. He was obsessively in love with the new stuntwoman, even though she rejected his advances unrelentingly, while the other woman was jealous of her, convinced that the stuntwoman had stolen the man she loved so desperately.

“Once again, the nurse-turned-stuntwoman withdrew for a long time and came back drastically changed. Her blond hair was now red, light sportswear replaced the leather suits, and her behavior changed accordingly—she was cheerful and coquettish. The change in profession was also a surprise. She had joined a traveling circus.

“First, she tried a number of secondary jobs. She took care of the books, looked after the trained animals, and was the makeup artist for the clowns. She might not have advanced if it weren’t for two young illusionists who came to the circus and needed an assistant. They said they were brother and sister, although their behavior was suspicious from the outset. They were demonstratively tender with each other and often held hands, so rumors started to circulate that they were lovers who had a reason to lay low or, worse yet, that they were having an incestuous affair. But since their act soon became the hit of the show, no one made an issue out of it.

“All of their acts were brilliant, but the one in which the former nurse took part won the greatest acclamation. A glass box resembling a sarcophagus filled with water was placed in the middle of the circus ring. The assistant, dressed in a turquoise one-piece swimsuit, would take a deep breath and plunge into the water. The box was closed and locked with huge padlocks, and then the two illusionists threw a turquoise cloth over it. The suspenseful moments that followed were accompanied by appropriate tension-inducing music. When the audience was already fidgeting fretfully, the cloth was removed, revealing the empty sarcophagus with the padlocks still in place. That same moment there would be a fanfare of trumpets, the curtain would open, and the assistant would run into the ring, completely dry, to the audience’s thunderous ovation.

“Unfortunately, after the seventeenth performance this act, along with all the others put on by the young illusionists, was removed from the program. Something inexplicable had happened that made them leave the circus. After their departure it was said that just before the strange event, relations between the brother and sister had suddenly cooled. They stopped holding hands and were overheard quarrelling in low voices. It was even said that tears were seen in the brother’s eyes. These stories, however, were not to be trusted.

“One thing set the seventeenth performance apart from the previous ones. When the fanfare sounded, no one appeared from behind the curtain. Everyone, except the illusionists, was surprised. They alone remained unruffled, as though everything was perfectly fine. There was another fanfare, but again no one ran out before the audience. The failure might not have been so complete if news about the act hadn’t spread, with the result that the audience knew what to expect. The mysterious disappearance of the assistant from the sarcophagus was certainly striking in itself, but her absence at the end caused first a commotion and then a great chorus of whistles. It almost closed the entire show.

“After the show was over, everyone set out in search of the former stuntwoman, but in vain. She had disappeared as though the earth had swallowed her up. The brother and sister were questioned but claimed to know nothing of her fate. They denied having anything to do with the unpleasant event, indicating that the assistant might have been dissatisfied with her secondary role, and this had led her to leave.

“The ringmaster briefly thought of notifying the police, but in the end he didn’t because this would have merely saddled him with greater worries. His ears were still filled with the whistling; if the police were to start sniffing around the circus, his audience would disappear entirely. In any case, no offense or crime had been committed that would require police intervention. Everyone had the right to leave the circus whenever they felt like it. In the end, the two illusionists were forced to abandon the troupe. The circus lost a highly popular act, but this was the price that had to be paid.”

The cashier bowed at the end just as the waiter had. This time Miss Greta had to clap, although she did it almost soundlessly, barely putting her palms together. The story seemed tailor-made for her—full of romantic suggestions and secrets, without too much violence. True, two of the main characters had died in the stunt episode, but this seemed unavoidable. If it was any consolation, love had guided them to their deaths. Love was also in the background of the circus event. She was curious to find out more about the relationship between the brother and sister, and of course what had happened to their assistant.

She thought of asking the cashier, who remained at the table after the end of the story. There certainly must be a continuation, particularly since the first two stories were connected. And then she remembered that she hadn’t had to ask for anything the last time. If she was not mistaken, it had been enough to take a sip of tea to get a new story. Perhaps it might work again. It wouldn’t hurt to try. And she had to finish the tea anyway.

Swallowing a new sip, she wondered who would talk this time, probably the waiter. The easiest thing would be to take turns until the customer drank all the tea. After all, they weren’t professional actors accustomed to giving long performances, although they certainly were deserving of praise. They were very skilled at storytelling, letting the listener enter easily into the spirit of the tale. They must have acquired this skill through frequent repetitions. Tea made of stories was undoubtedly a favorite in this teashop.

But when the cashier bowed once again and headed back toward the cash register, Miss Greta had a surprise in store. She watched in bewilderment as the young couple sitting at the table by the window approached her instead of the waiter. Smiling, they sat in the two armchairs without saying a word. There was no time to think about this unusual turn of events because the young man started the story right away.

“After they left the circus, the two illusionists split up. He found work as a cook on a luxury ocean liner. During one of the cruises through tropical seas, he met the rich young widow of a notorious arms merchant who had died when a stray golf ball hit him clean in the temple. For some time the tabloids played up the story, claiming it hadn’t exactly been an accident, but if there were any conspiracy it was soon covered up.

“The cook attracted the widow’s attention with an excellent soup composed of mushrooms, figs, and snails that he made from an ancient recipe, which was said to have a strong aphrodisiac effect. She asked to meet him, and when he was brought before her, he captivated her at first glance. She continued to see him under various pretexts, always leaving large tips, even when there was no reason.

“Her attempts to lure him into her cabin, however, met with failure for a long time. The ship’s crew was strictly forbidden from any sort of fraternizing with the passengers, and entering their cabins was considered a particularly serious offense. Nonetheless, on the penultimate evening of the cruise, the widow’s intentions finally succeeded—thanks to her cunning and to alcohol, which the young cook was unaccustomed to drinking.

“No one knows for sure what happened that night in the cabin. When the maid entered in the morning she found him sound asleep on the floor, while the widow lay dead in the bed. The ship’s doctor established that she had died of a heart attack, so he could not be blamed for her death. Even so, he lost his job on the spot and disembarked at the next port.”
At this point, the young man turned toward the girl and nodded. She nodded in return and took up the story.

“After leaving the circus, the sister illusionist found work as a restorer in a museum. She soon caught the eye of the director, who had a bad reputation as a womanizer. Behind him were four broken marriages and seven daughters as well as numerous adventures, but this did not stop him from new entanglements, even though he was no longer a spring chicken.

“The restorer coldly rejected his advances, but this only made the director more resolute. In the end, when it was clear that he would fail, he resorted to the last means available, something that had yet to let him down. He accused the restorer of doing an unprofessional job and threatened to fire her unless she satisfied his desires.

“She protested, informing him that she had just made a discovery that would not only prove her professionalism but also make her famous. Working on a late Renaissance canvas, she had come to the realization that it was some sort of palimpsest. Underneath it was a considerably older work by a famous master from the end of the Middle Ages that had been considered lost forever. She invited the director to be the first one to see this painting under a painting.

“Not suspecting anything, the director rushed to see it, already devising plans on how to take credit for the discovery. But what he saw turned him numb. The original painting portrayed a scene from hell. A monstrous devil was taking great relish in torturing a sinner who had spent his life in vicious debauchery. When he looked at the sinner’s face more closely, it was like looking into a mirror. By some miracle the old master had depicted the director’s face to perfection.

“At that moment something seemed to break inside the director. Instead of firing the innocent restorer, he resigned immediately and soon retired to a remote monastery where he lived in extreme abstinence from all physical pleasure, outshining many of the ascetics in this regard. As a sign of recognition, the restorer was offered his position, but she refused without an explanation and left the museum too.”

The couple nodded to each other once again, then he took up the relay.

“The former ship’s cook soon got into trouble in the port. He was sitting by himself at a table in a disreputable tavern when a bunch of noisy, drunken sailors burst in. They started to pester the guests, pouncing in particular on the pretty, young, and timid tavern maid. They heckled and pinched her aggressively, and when one of them, who was exceedingly arrogant, grabbed the girl by the hand and pulled her onto his lap, trying to kiss her by force, the former illusionist could no longer sit there indifferently. He jumped up to protect the poor girl.

“Everything happened in a flash. Blows were exchanged, jugs and chairs went flying, knives flashed. When the skirmish was over, the arrogant sailor was twitching on the floor in the throes of death, his stomach skewered, while everyone else had fled. The terrified girl begged her savior, who had an oozing wound on his upper arm, to escape as well, even offering to hide him in her room upstairs, but he refused and waited for the police to arrive.

“Although the girl and all those who witnessed the tavern brawl testified in his defense at the trial, he was still found guilty of murder and sentenced to twelve and a half years of hard labor. In prison he was put in a cell with an older convict who was soon to be released after being locked up almost a quarter of a century. A crime of passion had put him there. He’d found his wife in bed with his best friend, and in a moment of blind rage killed them both with one single shot from a crossbow.

“The old man turned out to be very well read. Since the young convict was also proud of his erudition, the two of them began spending long hours in stimulating conversation, amazing each other with their knowledge and sagacity. When the day of his departure was quite near, the old man decided to tell his last cellmate, in whom he had infinite trust, something that he had not confided to anyone.

“In the prison library, which was surprisingly well stocked and contained some truly rare editions, he had come across a book that mentioned a secret society with a strange belief. All creatures capable of thinking were nothing more than cells in the gigantic brain of a cosmos that was striving to grasp its own meaning. The former cook found this very interesting and wanted to read the book without delay. But this, unfortunately, was not possible. The old man told him that the book had disappeared from the library after he’d returned it and all trace of it had been removed, even from the card catalog.

“Luckily, however, the old convict had a photographic memory, so he was able to pass on faithfully everything he’d read, including the part about the complex and dangerous rite of linking with the cosmic mind. Wonderful possibilities opened up for those who survived it, for they would acquire almost divine abilities. The old man reluctantly admitted that he had started the ritual once but stopped at the last moment, lacking courage. He asked his cellmate whether he might have the necessary bravery, and he agreed without a moment’s hesitation.

“The next morning when the guards came to release the old man, they found him sitting in the corner of his bed, terrified, shaking his head, mumbling something unintelligible. There was a wild look in his eyes and his hands trembled uncontrollably. There was no trace of the other convict. It was impossible to learn what had happened in the cell during the night. The old man never emerged from his stupor, so instead of finally finding himself free he was locked up again, this time in a mental asylum for the poor.”

Finishing the story, the young man bowed toward Miss Greta, but there was no time for her to return the bow, because the young woman started right away.

“Leaving the museum, the former illusionist/restorer joined an expedition into the jungle, where the ruins of a temple from a previously unknown ancient civilization had been found. The team was led by a famous archaeology professor, a tall and learned man with graying hair that only made him more attractive. She fell in love with him immediately but had to hide her feelings because the professor’s wife was present. She was also a prominent scientist and still lovely, although no longer in her prime.

“On the other hand, suspecting none of this, the professor’s two assistants had their eyes on the former restorer. They competed for her favor, even though she made it perfectly clear that their efforts were in vain. Who knows where their rivalry might have led—a duel with machetes was only avoided by a hair—if it weren’t for a discovery that pushed their aching hearts into the background. Underneath the temple they found a network of underground passages filled with priceless treasure. In addition, unknown hieroglyphics covered the walls.

“They all threw themselves enthusiastically into their work, but not for long. The three male members of the team soon came down with a mysterious disease that brought shivering, high fever, exhaustion, and vomiting. Something in the stale air of the passages seemed to affect only the men. The expedition had to be suspended so the ailing men could be urgently taken to the hospital.

“Although the professor tried to dissuade the two ladies, mentioning an ancient curse in his delirium, they decided to take their last chance and go down below the temple one more time before the helicopter arrived. Just as they reached the passage, everything around them started to tremble and give way. It looked like a strong earthquake, but later it turned out that the trembling had not been natural. They rushed toward the exit, but only the professor’s wife was saved.

“When she had recovered a little from her shock, she confided to the professor, alone, what had happened in her last moments underground. Both of them could have been saved, but just when they reached the stairs there was a powerful flash of light in the chaos behind them. She was blinded an instant, but when she regained her sight she saw the young woman going back down again. She screamed at her to come back; the passages were liable to collapse at any moment, but she paid no attention. She continued, arms stretched out in front of her as though spellbound. There was no time to try to rescue her, because that’s when the granite walls around her started to crack, as though made of plaster. She was barely able to make it to the surface.”

Just as the young man had done before her, the girl bowed after she had finished. This time Miss Greta applauded without the slightest hesitation, unconcerned that she was disrupting the silence in the teashop. She had to express her delight and in return received one more bow in unison from the two young people. The other stories had been wonderful, but these surpassed them. Particularly the girl’s—so full of passion, tension, and mystery. She didn’t like the episode in the prison very much in the boy’s story. It had been interesting, but she was bothered by the absence of female characters, although she knew it would be hard to have them in a men’s prison. The episode in the tavern, though, had been perfect in all respects.

Not only were the stories superlative, they had also been told with such inspiration. These two could not be just customers in the teashop, as she’d mistakenly assumed. They were most certainly professional actors. Only actors were capable of presenting events so skillfully and convincingly, as though it had all happened to them, each one picking up where the other left off. She felt like clapping again when she realized this. It was beyond all expectations: keeping two actors on standby just so one of the customers would be able to order tea made of stories.

And then a thought made her stiffen. She hadn’t paid attention to the price of the tea she’d ordered. She hadn’t thought it necessary. Tea didn’t cost very much. But there was no way that this one could be inexpensive. Perhaps the waiter’s and cashier’s stories had been free, but actors had to be paid. Who would perform and hang around, wasting time between performances without remuneration?
Unable to control her impatience, she opened the menu again with a mixture of dread and embarrassment, even though she was not alone at the table. She hoped that the two actors sitting there smiling at her would not figure out what she was doing. Her eyes flitted down the fourth page. What she saw brought relief along with confusion. The only place where the price was not listed was for tea made of stories.

She closed the menu and, in her bewilderment, almost unconsciously, just to occupy her hands, raised the cup and took one more long drink that emptied it. The color seemed to have turned a darker green and it was now tepid, but strangely enough this did not lessen the flavor. On the contrary, it seemed to have acquired an additional quality. As she lowered the cup, the young couple stood up, bowed one last time, and returned to their table by the window.

Miss Greta wasn’t sure whether the performance that went with the tea made of stories was over or not. It seemed to her somehow unfinished. Perhaps the waiter or cashier would return to the stage, or both of them together. It wouldn’t be surprising. What did happen, though, was the last thing she expected. A new couple headed toward her table: the woman in the navy-blue suit and the man who had been reading a newspaper.

He bowed, she smiled, and then they settled into the armchairs. There was no introduction. The woman started her story at once.

“The archaeologist’s wife left him soon after he recovered from his fever. The illness seemed to have changed him. He blamed her without letup for what had happened when she’d gone underground for the last time. He seemed to regret the loss of his assistant more than the disappearance of an ancient civilization’s shrine. She felt doubly betrayed, as a wife and an expert.

“She gave up archaeology and joined a charitable organization that sent its members to different parts of the world, where they helped the unfortunate. Her first assignment took her to a desert region hit by starvation and contagious disease. There she met a handsome missionary who helped her get accustomed to the terrible conditions. Working selflessly with him day in and day out, she started to feel an attraction for him, although he could almost have been her son.

“She would have kept this secret to herself, of course, if the young missionary had not contracted the disease. Its course was unremitting: it led first to blindness and then death. Conscious of the fact that there was nothing to be done, he refused to go to the hospital, wanting to stay at the mission until the end. She never left his side, particularly after he lost his sight. When his end drew near, she finally confessed her love for him.

“He refused to believe her, however, claiming that she only felt compassion because of his condition. Overcome by despair, she thought of catching the disease herself in order to prove her love, but failed in this intention because death was faster. The missionary died in her arms, unconvinced of her love, and she, totally crushed, decided to return home.”

There was no pause. As soon as the woman in the navy-blue suit finished, the man adroitly picked up the thread.

“The old man spent three and a half months in a mental asylum for the poor. He finally recovered, although it was impossible to get anything out of him about what had happened that fatal night in the cell. A free man at last, he found work as a cemetery guard in a small, provincial town. He soon caught sight of a young woman who came every Monday morning right after eleven, when there were usually no other visitors.

“Dressed in elegant mourning and always wearing sunglasses, she would go to the spot where a retired ornithologist had lain in rest for more than eighty-five years. She would spread out a gray blanket on the grave, sit on it, and then take a chess set out of her bag. She would line up the pieces, always putting the white ones in front of her, and the match would begin. After she made her move, she would look toward the tombstone and then, as if receiving instructions, play a black chess piece. Sometimes the games were drawn out. Once it was almost five before she left the cemetery.

“The old man was a devoted chess player himself, so it was no wonder that he was compelled by the unusual rivalry. In the beginning he kept his distance, watching surreptitiously, but since his eyesight was already poor, he gradually came closer, though fearing that the woman in mourning might chastise him for disturbing her. But there was no word of reproach, not even when he approached quite close and stood right behind her back.

“He was rather surprised to learn that this was not amateur chess, as he’d expected for some reason. These were sophisticated matches between players of equal stature. They always ended in a draw, which was reached after a great battle. Each time before she left, the woman would take a queen’s chess piece made of marzipan out of her bag and put it on the tombstone. The birds would devour it by morning.

“Several months passed before the cemetery guard mustered the courage to ask the woman in mourning if she would play a game of chess with him. He was convinced she would refuse, but she agreed without a moment’s hesitation. Without a word, she indicated that he was to sit on the blanket across from her. Three hours and forty-two minutes later he got up from the blanket the loser. Even worse than the defeat was the fact that he was certain he hadn’t made any mistakes.

“Then, for the first time, the woman took off her sunglasses and spoke. She told him that if he wanted to live he should never play chess again, that he should quit his job at the cemetery and leave town. He hesitated not a moment about whether to do as she said. He went straight to the cemetery office and resigned, then went to his rented apartment, packed his few belongings, and headed toward the train station. He bought a ticket to the farthest destination that could be reached by the next train.”

“All that remained was for her to take a train on the last part of her arduous trip from the desert regions and the dismal memories that tied her to them. She was alone in the compartment for a long time, and then she acquired a traveling companion at the station in a small town with a pretty cemetery next to the track, full of tall cypress trees.

“She was pleased to see that the elderly man kept to himself. He greeted her politely, sat next to the window and gazed out pensively. She certainly would not have liked to engage in small talk. She went back to reading the archaeological journal that she’d bought at the airport.”

“Two stations later another passenger entered the compartment. He was on the brink of middle age, heavyset, with bushy sideburns and a thin mustache. He bowed and sat down next to the door without a word. Silence reigned in the compartment until they stopped unexpectedly in a tunnel. An announcement came over the P.A. system that there had been a rockslide nearby and the rails would be cleared in about fifteen minutes. No one got up to turn on the light nor did anyone suggest it.”

“When the train came out of the tunnel, only the passenger who was last to arrive was sitting in the compartment. He was in the same place, staring straight ahead. The darkness had hidden what had happened to the other two passengers. There was no trace of them, not even their luggage.”

“The passenger got out at a large station where several lines intersected. Just as he stepped onto the platform, out of the blue he made the most important decision of his life. He would no longer be an executioner. He would interrupt the family tradition of the past six generations, and he would not tell anyone why. After all, it was none of their concern.”

“As he left the train station he almost ran into a woman who suddenly started to turn this way and that, looking for the left luggage window. Although she hadn’t noticed him, he mumbled something in apology and then continued on his way.”

The stories were over, but Miss Greta did not clap. She sat there without moving, watching the woman in the navy-blue suit and the older gentleman stand up, nod briefly and return to their seats. When they sat down, she lowered her eyes to the empty cup in front of her.

She stayed like that, staring for some time, as though seeing something on the bottom that other eyes could not discern. She finally turned toward the coat rack, reached into her coat pocket, and took out the baggage check she’d received at the left luggage window. She turned it over several times and then raised it a little as though wanting to show it to everyone. Then she tore it up. She was delighted to receive the resounding applause that greeted her after she placed the pieces of paper on the saucer next to the cup.

Translation from the Serbian
By Alice Copple-Tošić

Editorial note: Copyright © 2009 by Zoran Živković. From Impossible Stories II. Republished online with permission of the author.

Editorial note: To read more about Zoran Živković, see Michael Morrison’s essay, “The Metaphysical Fantasias of Zoran Živković,” in the November 2011 issue, along with Živković’s story “Rendezvous in front of the House.” For more online, read a bibliography of his works available in English and Morrison's interivew, "Fantastika and the Literature of Serbia: A Conversation with Zoran Živković.

Zoran Živković (b. 1948, Belgrade, Serbia) is the author of twenty-two books of fiction published in twenty-three countries, in twenty languages. With more than one hundred foreign editions, he is one of the most translated contemporary Serbian writers. Živković’s writing was featured in the November 2011 issue of WLT.

Alice Copple-Tošić is a professional literary translator from French, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian into English. She has translated nearly one hundred books, including seventeen by Zoran Živković.

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