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Garden of the Tea Fish, by Galen Dara ©2020

CONTENT WARNING:


Elja’s tea-fish was aging, and with it, she withered.

Her branches creaked as she walked the outer gardens of the temple, checking that all was in readiness for the ceremony. The leaves on her forearms, now gone brittle, shivered in the morning breeze. Her tea-fish lay quiet at her core, conserving its dwindling energy–until a scream broke the stillness.

The tea-fish twitched, mirroring Elja’s alarm. More shouting followed from the direction of the tea gardens, and the voice was Aidjiri’s.

Elja started to run, but her ailing tea-fish could not sustain such an effort, and she couldn’t risk its strength running out, not even so close to the ceremony, so she slowed to a brisk walk along the stone-lined paths, limbs rustling with her haste. Nothing should be amiss, not today of all days. Not on the Day of Renewal.

“Mother! I mean … Animator Superior.” Aidjiri met her at the entrance to the tea gardens. Even without the scream, the fact that she slipped and said ‘mother’ would have been sign enough of her daughter’s distress. Determined to earn her title of Animator in her own right, Aidjiri was always formal with Elja during their work, doing nothing that might hint of preferential treatment. Now, though, she wailed and clung to her mother. “What do we do?”

“What is wrong, bud of my branches?”

Aidjiri led her, wordless, to the tea-pools. Elja gasped at the sight.

No welcoming gush of heat rose from the pools. No tannin-rich steam fogged up the translucent panels of the peaked roof that protected the pools from rain. The tea was so pale Elja could see the rocky bottom. And the surface was littered with floating fish bellies.

“How many?” Elja asked, throat creaking.

“All.”

“All?”

All the tea-fish dead. Without the tea-fish, there could be no Ceremony of Renewal, no restoration for members of the grove, nor for themselves. The Uprooted could not endure without tea-fish.

“It’s my fault,” Aidjiri cried. “Mine and no one else’s. I was on duty last night, I used the sea-gates to adjust the temperature. I must not have latched them securely, because when I came this morning, it was like this, chilled with seawater and all the fish dead. How could I be so foolish?”

“It’s all right,” Elja said, though every word took an effort. “We’ll figure something out.”

“It is not all right! I’ve destroyed us! You should never have trusted me to tend them on the Night of Renewal, I didn’t deserve the honor, and now I’ve brought ruin upon the entire grove….”

“No, Aidjiri.” Elja caught her daughter’s wrists. Withering leaves crackled under her grip. The child of Elja’s own cutting, Aidjiri had always taken her responsibilities as seriously as Elja herself did. “I entrusted you with this duty because you had earned it, no other reason. Accidents happen, and we demonstrate our character by how we fix them, Animator. Help me now.”

Called thus to duty, her daughter steadied herself, as Elja had known she would. Together, they searched every corner and crevice, and in the farthest corner of the farthest pool, they found one surviving fish. One, out of hundreds, and badly shocked.

From the outer gardens of the temple drifted sounds of conversation, punctuated by the laughter of children playing. The grove members were already arriving. Today, hundreds of Uprooted would come to the temple to receive new tea-fish, and with them, renewal for another year.

One tea-fish. Enough to restore vitality to one Uprooted only. Elja would have to tell them all: there would be no renewal today.


“We must restore the shoal. That is our foremost priority,” Elja told her fellow Animators. They’d gathered in the contemplation garden where the rest of the grove would not overhear. “I know how dire it seems, but our people must wait for that.”

“But without the renewal, we’ll all go dormant!” The acolyte who’d spoken huddled against a friend, branches intertwined for comfort. Young as they were, it must seem their entire world was collapsing. So it would seem to the grove, too, and if they did not yet suspect anything was wrong, they would soon taste the Animators’ desperation in the air. Elja needed to reassure them.

“Dormancy is not death. Remember your history lessons: groves of Uprooted have gone dormant before in order to survive.” She weighed her next words with care. “I will not order this of anyone, but I ask it. All of us carry aging tea-fish. They will not animate us much longer, but if you release them, they might yet breed. The more we release, the faster they will breed, and the sooner the shoal will be restored.”

“How long will we wait dormant?” The simple question masked a host of unspoken fears.

“If all goes well, it is possible the shoal can be restored in one full cycle of seasons, by the next Day of Renewal. If so, you should emerge unharmed.” But beyond that, they would begin to fade. Dormant bushes kept memories, too, but they were slower, sleepier things, seasons-long, that could not keep up with the flitting thoughts of the animated. Over time, they’d lose bits of themselves, transmuting into dumb, unthinking wood and leaves.

“It doesn’t matter how much we lose,” said Aidjiri, surprising Elja. She had been quiet, hovering to one side, shrunken with guilt. Now she spoke with certainty. “We must do what is needed to ensure our grove’s survival, whatever the personal cost. This disaster is my fault, so I will be the first to go dormant, and the last to be restored.”

“Aidjiri,” Elja whispered. “It was an accident. Not your fault.”

“My responsibility, then. I am not afraid, not with you to tend me.”

“I would trade places with you.”

“As would I. Tending the grove would be a better penance, if only that were possible.”

So Aidjiri had reached the same conclusion as Elja: with only one tea-fish, there could be only one caretaker to accept the burden of renewal and rebuild their shoal of tea-fish while the grove slept. One caretaker, entrusted with all the hopes and futures of their people. As Animator Superior, the oldest of the animators, keeper of the greatest knowledge, that responsibility fell to Elja. Her memories could not be lost.

Knowing her duty did not make it easier to bear. This would be a hard, lonely task. If she could instead make a dangerous journey, or fight an enemy, or die for their sake, she would. If she could preserve her daughter in her place, she would do that, too. But there were no good choices here, only the one necessary choice, and sometimes duty demanded not heroic sacrifice, but a quieter courage. Sometimes leadership meant recognizing that she was, in truth, best suited to the task she would gladly give to another.

She shifted her feet, ripping free the tendrils of roots that were already trying to stretch into the ground. That would stop with her new tea-fish, but for the first time in her life, renewal did not seem so welcome.

“I will tend you faithfully,” she told her Animators, “and will wake you as soon as I may.”


The grove took the announcement with a dignity that made Elja proud. They were afraid, and rightly so, but nevertheless a majority volunteered to give up their tea-fish to restore the shoal. Those who did not volunteer would dwell here, helping tend the gardens and the pools in what small ways they could, until their fish failed and they fell into natural dormancy.

Aidjiri conducted the Ceremony of Renewal for Elja. She poured the tea with hands braced against shaking, but artfully as ever, so that the lone tea-fish plopped into the cup just as it reached full. Its diaphanous fins swayed, shimmering silver and teal through the too-thin tea. Aidjiri recited the ritual words in a clear voice that quavered only briefly. Elja drank like a prisoner taking her dose of poison, and swallowed the fish down.

Its fluttering tickled, then made her body spasm as the fish panicked at this strange new experience. Finally, it settled into place against her core and grew calm. As with every past renewal, she welcomed the feeling of restored wholeness as it latched onto her. Hello, new friend, she greeted it. Its energy flowed fitfully into her after its recent stresses, but the fish itself was strong. It would do.

Next, she reached through her branches and clasped the ailing tea-fish, tugging it gently from its place and depositing it into the waiting pot. Removing the old fish was not a usual part of the ceremony, but they needed it to help start the new shoal.

“Now me,” Aidjiri said, and Elja’s branches clenched with grief as her daughter stepped to the spot where she would take root. “Are you ready?”

“No,” said Elja. She ran her fingers through the thick leaves of her daughter’s crown. “But I will take care of you, my dear.”

“You always have,” Aidjiri said. “And you’ll do as I asked? You’ll wake me last, after the others are safe?”

“I don’t want–”

“We both know this isn’t about want, Mother. It’s about doing what’s right, the way you taught me.”

“So it’s my fault?” Her attempted joke wilted as she wept inside.

“Promise me.”

“I… I promise. I am so proud of you, my little bud.” She took her daughter’s hands and hummed the Song of Buds Emerging, and Aidjiri’s voice rose to join hers in sweet counterpoint. At the end of the chorus, Aidjiri gently, so gently, pulled her own tea-fish free.

The change began at once. Her limbs grew stiff, reaching out for the teapot to deposit her fish. The earth sighed under her as roots sank into it. Last of all, the gleam left her dark eyes, and then, Elja’s daughter was gone. Left to her long sleep.

 


Elja’s new tea-fish was strong, and that was fortunate. Aidjiri’s loss was hard enough to bear. She needed all her strength for what followed.

One by one, she helped the others to their rest: first the members of the grove, then her fellow Animators, each leaving her with words of comfort or strength or, in the case of Nalri the gardener, reminders about proper soil conditioning and the warning signs of sap-licker infestations. The garden filled up with bushes, small and supple and old and gnarled, arranged in tidy lines. A well-planned annihilation. Her people, Uprooted no more.

That first day saw over half of her people to dormancy. Each coming day saw more, until she was Animator Superior to a dormant, vegetative grove.

Then she was entirely alone.


Elja’s tea-fish was steady, her only companion.

Her newly supple feet whispered through gardens that echoed with the silence left behind by her daughter’s songs, her colleagues’ prayers, the children’s laughter. Would she be the only one who remembered those things?

Each day, she tended the two halves of her people. In the Waiting Garden, she tended the bushes, watering them and plucking insects from the undersides of leaves, harvesting any seeds so they would not fall and grow, storing and labeling them carefully so that, someday, her people could plant new children.

(No one could fault her if she lingered sometimes by the bush that was Aidjiri, if she spent longer checking her over simply for the excuse to run her fingers through those dear, familiar leaves, the same shape as her own, but never quite the same shade of green. It would forever amaze her how a daughter propagated from her own cutting could be so uniquely herself.)

And she tended the teashoal, checking the temperature and saturation of the pools, which now steamed properly again and produced a rich brew, and she harvested and dried sea grass to supplement the tea-fishes’ diets. She had not done these tasks for many years, not since she was an acolyte herself, but she knew by touch the fine differences in temperature that would make the tea brew properly and its fish thrive.

It was too much work for one person, no matter how dedicated or experienced. She had always risen with the sun, but now she worked without rest until long after dark, then fell into slumber too weary even to think. It was fortunate her work kept her in the sun all day, because she often forgot to eat.

At first, the surviving tea-fish huddled in tight formations, and she lost a few that were too traumatized by the separation from their Uprooted. But soon they recovered and began to swim about lazily, brightly-colored fins waving as they explored the reaches of the pool. When Elja was sure of their stamina, she began sprinkling their food with tea-flower pollen to encourage their mating cycle. And she waited.


The decorative gardens went wild. Flowers grew in thick tangles, crowding each other out with brightly colored violence. Vines crept up walls and out into walkways.

She regretted letting it come to this–her fellow Animators loved those flowers. Would Nalri the gardener still know their names when she woke? Would Aidjiri still love to scatter their petals in pretty patterns on the flagstones?

But her people came first, and she was already testing the limits of her tea-fish’s strength. She could not keep up with the flowers’ growth.


There were eggs.

One fish had laid a cluster of shimmering pearls that clung to the bottom of the pool. A few days later, another joined it, and then another, and the first great weight lifted from Elja’s branches. There were eggs.

When it rained, she checked the translucent roofs over the tea pools for leaks, then retreated to the library, where she read again and again the scrolls of animal-hide parchment that contained generations of wisdom on the care of tea-fish. Over and over, she repeated the math: their start, with a few dozen survivors. A season for eggs to hatch and young fish to reach maturity. Ten new adults, on average, per brood. If all went very, very well, she would be able to wake her people on the next day of renewal.

If all went very, very well, nothing would be lost.

But the young tea-fish hatched scrawny, their colors dull steel instead of silver-blue. A result of their parents’ trauma? She couldn’t know, but fewer survived than should. Again she returned to the lore, searching for ancient guidance, but the temple had never suffered such a loss as this before.

She adjusted the types of seaweed she fed them and made the water slightly hotter. The fish-keepers were always experimenting with better ways to keep the shoal healthy, and when they awoke, there would be long talks about how to make their methods more robust and safeguard against such a thing happening again. But for now, she dared not take risks, not with such a narrow path to success. The best she could do was wait, and hope, and that was the hardest labor of all.


Two seasons had passed, and the second generation of tea-fish was healthier than the first. Her existence bobbed on waves of hope and fear, one after another, each threatening to swamp her. The second hatching gave her great hope. Yet that afternoon, while watering and tending her people, her fingers found a bump on Aidjiri’s stem. She often chided herself for wasting precious moments tending her daughter–but if she hadn’t made a habit of it, she might not have found this tiny warning. Its familiarity sent shivers of dread down her limbs.

She bent, peering. She could never have seen it if she did not kn

ow where to look: a round body, its matte shell the same greenish-beige as most Uprooted’s bark. It could have been an imperfection in the stem, but Elja knew her daughter, and she had no imperfections. Only with the closest inspection could she see tiny legs clinging to her daughter’s bark, holding it in place while it drank her daughter’s life-sap.

“No, no! Please, no…”

Parting Aidjiri’s leaves, she found more interlopers and–the horror set her tea-fish flapping within her–a cluster of eggs, like a miniaturized version of the tea-fishes’ egg clusters. On nearby Uprooted, she found more, and the air carried a tang of terror: alarm-signals from the beseiged bushes, subtler than an animated Uprooted’s would be, but loud as a scream to her sleeping people. In her weariness, she hadn’t noticed. She should have been paying more attention. At the farthest edge of the garden, bushes drooped already under the assault.

Frantic, she rushed into action. Shrub-lore told her to call upon the entire temple to help fight off a sap-licker invasion, but there was only her, and so, so many charges. Only her to dig up garlic from the practical gardens, plants cultivated for this purpose–but she’d allowed them to go so wild that she had to cast aside weed after weed to uncover mature bulbs. Only her to mash them with fire-plant pods in hot water to release their caustic oils. Only her to haul the cooled brew and drizzle it over the dormant shrubs, to rub it into their leaves and stems with her own fingers. Only her to check, and check again, and check again, until the sap-lickers were gone.

Unless…

The idea came to her in the dark of night as she hauled another bucket of garlic-brew past the tea-pools: she could wake them. Not all of them, there weren’t enough tea-fish for that, but a handful of Animators, enough to lend their experience to solving this crisis. And to safeguard that experience by interrupting their dormancy before their memories were damaged.

(She could wake Aidjiri to help her. She could safeguard Aidjiri’s waking memories, give her a respite from her long rest.)

With the thought of her daughter, she recognized how self-serving the wish was. All her people deserved to keep their memories, and Aidjiri had been explicit about putting the grove ahead of her own needs. If she woke her loved ones early, she would set back her efforts with rebuilding the shoal, and those efforts were imperiled already.

She stood there a long time, alone in the night, watching the inviting shimmer of fins in the moonlight. Three times she went to retrieve the teapot, once even carrying it to the water, but she stopped short of dipping it in. She could wake them, but it would be wrong. If carrying on alone was possible, then she had to do so. Alone. It was the only responsible course.

With her tea-fish already weary, she shouldered the buckets and returned to work.


It took four days to eliminate the infestation. Four days of hard labor, four days without sleep. By the end, her bark was broken and oozing sap, burned by too much contact with the mash of garlic and fire-plant, and despite her efforts, five of her people might not recover. But she had saved the grove. The sap-lickers were gone.

Though there was no one to hear, she declared aloud: “It’s done.”

Yet her victory had a cost. The effort had burned through her tea-fish’s energy, an abuse that would have appalled her if a member of her grove had done it in normal times. But she’d had no choice. She took a new tea-fish and released her poor companion to join its kin in the pools. After that, she slept a long, long time, and when she woke, it floated dead in the water.

It was not the only one.

She collapsed at the edge of the tea-pools, staring at the devastation of white, floating bellies. For a moment, she feared the morning that haunted her memories had repeated itself, but she soon caught glimpses of fins shimmering under the water. Sluggish, but alive. Merely a minor devastation.

Dipping in a finger to taste the tea, she realized her mistake: it tasted of alliums and spice. During the overnight rains, the brew she’d used to drive off the sap-lickers had drained into the tea-pools and poisoned the fish.

For a time she could only lie there, wilting as she understood that it would be like this, over and over and over. Rebuilding the shoal might take far longer than she’d hoped, longer even than her most realistic predictions.

The ceremonial teapot was near at hand. She seized it and dipped it into the pool, but it caught only dead tea-fish. The live ones were farther down. She dipped again, came up empty, and dipped again. She needed one tea-fish, just one to wake Aidjiri, to hear her sweet voice speaking of responsibility and strength. What mother should ever require such strength of her daughter? But Elja required it now. She swept the pot through the pool, but the skill she’d mastered as an acolyte for capturing tea-fish she needed had abandoned her. She reached, straining deep into the pool until the tea burned her bark, and the teapot fell from her hand.

She gasped, reaching after it, but it was gone. She’d need tools to retrieve it, and she simply couldn’t right now. Instead, she crawled to Aidjiri and curled up around her trunk, intertwining with her branches, embracing her and pretending it was enough. In time, the desperation drained out of her, and she relaxed her grip and breathed.

“You see, my daughter?” she said aloud to the child who could not hear. “I make mistakes, too, and I will keep going anyway.”

She got up, creaking like a tree in winter, and started clearing away the dead fish.


Elja’s new tea-fish was strong, but the shoal was not.

The next Day of Renewal, the anniversary of the disaster, brought no renewal for anyone but Elja. She performed the ceremony for herself not because she needed a new tea-fish, but because she needed the ritual. A symbolic restoration. Sitting by Aidjiri, she swallowed down a fish and rededicated herself to her task. Today, she felt only a little tempted to bring a second tea-fish for Aidjiri. Today, she was strong enough to respect Aidjiri’s wishes.

“I’ll wake you soon,” she promised. “As soon as I can.”

She wondered how much of her daughter would remain by the time that happened.


She performed the ceremony of renewal twice more for herself, each time fighting off the desperate wish to wake someone to share it with her. She tended her grove. She tended her shoal of tea-fish. She fought off insects and blight, predators and bad weather.

And for two more long, lonely years, she waited.


Elja’s tea-fish was dying, and with it, she withered. Yet today, her heart was light.

With the latest hatching, the time had come.

Her limbs rustled as she passed through courtyard gardens where the flowers had become a jungle. Nalri would soon chide her for her inattention to them, she hoped. Aidjiri would cheerfully help tame them again. But how many flower names would they know?

She tore her thoughts away from her fears with the same deep sting that came with tearing her weary feet free of the grass where they attempted to put down roots.

At the tea-ponds she bent, creaking, to check on her shoal. Impulses carried too sluggishly along her slowing limbs for her to gauge the water’s temperature. Instead, she relied on the color of the tea–a rich red-brown, just as it should be. Dozens of tea-fish swam over, dancing ribbons of teal and silver, fat and healthy and sweet, flocking close in hopes of snatching up a treat.

There were enough now. She had done the math many times over, and she was certain: today, her people could safely waken.

She washed the ceremonial tea set until the white glaze and painted fish gleamed. Then she dipped the pot into the tea-pond and caught four fish on her first try. A hopeful sign, she thought, as she carried the tray to the Waiting Garden.

Outwardly, most of her people thrived, smooth limbs stretching toward the sky. A few – too many – had withered and died, and she ached for each person she’d failed. But her grove, as a whole, had survived. Those that lived, their glossy-green leaves gleaming, would re-animate healthy and strong….

But that was their bodies. What would they have lost during their long sleep? She paused before Aidjiri.

Promise me, Aidjiri had said. The thought of leaving her daughter to sleep another minute was like the bite of a saw into her limbs, but Elja would not dishonor her daughter’s sense of duty, not here at the end. A few more hours would cost nothing except the agony of not knowing.

She took the pot to Nalri first and, reciting the words of the ceremony, she poured the tea for her friend. The tea-fish squirmed and flapped on its way down, and finally lodged itself deep within Nalri’s vines. Slowly, Nalri awakened.

“Animator Superior.” Her voice emerged thin as reeds bending in the wind, but quickly gained strength. “You succeeded.”

“Barely. It was too near a thing, and costly.” She wanted to say more, to spill her long-pent-up thoughts, but that could wait for later. “Will you help me wake the others?”

The relief of that first waking, the joy of hearing a familiar voice after so long, bolstered her strength. She tore her burgeoning roots free of the soil and moved with Nalri among the other Animators, waking all except Aidjiri. Each time Elja moved toward her daughter, she stopped, hearing Aidjiri’s reprimand. She had promised. She had to wait.

One by one, her grove awakened. One by one, her people shook their roots and stumbled free, some wistful, some dazed, some weeping to find a nearby shrub withered and gone. They clasped branches with loved ones. And some, Elja noticed, looked more than dazed. They stared about in confusion, not moving until a friend took them by the hand. Some cried out frantic questions, not knowing where they were, not recognizing their own grove-mates.

It was worst, Elja noticed, in the youngest ones, those who had less weight of body and experience to anchor their memories. Children wept and cried for their mothers, but when the mothers came, the children pushed them away, no longer recognizing them. Elja’s heart-wood cracked like kindling.

Aidjiri.

“Go to her,” Nalri murmured, trailing a gentle touch against Elja’s cheek. “They’re nearly all awake now, and we’ve got them in hand. Go to her.”

Moments ago, she had wanted nothing more. Now, she wasn’t sure she could.

Leaves trembling, she came to stand before Aidjiri, as healthy a young shrub as she’d ever seen, but so young. So delicate. She caught the fattest tea-fish and poured it into Aidjiri’s core.

She stepped back. Pressed her limbs together. Waited for the fish to bond. It took a long time, fluttering and squirming, seeking out just the right spot. Then it went still, and Elja could not breathe.

A stirring. Leaves rustled. Vines snaked lazily free. A creaking as the young Uprooted straightened and at last opened eyes of deepest green. Those eyes scanned the garden, taking in every possible sight, before settling on Elja. Eyes clouded with confusion.

“What happened?”

If she didn’t remember that…. It took all Elja’s strength not to deluge her in questions.

“There was an accident with the tea-fish shoal. I had to let everyone go dormant.” Had to, she’d had to. She forced a reassuring smile. “But I looked after you the whole time.”

Aidjiri frowned. “I do not remember that. Perhaps I’m not quite myself, because I don’t remember going to sleep at all. I remember drinking from the soil and from the sun… hazy, though, like a dream. I’m glad you watched over me.” The frown deepened, as if she were searching for something within herself, a memory, a word. She looked up again. “Mother?”

Elja wilted, whether in relief or dismay, she wasn’t sure. Both, perhaps, entangled like vines. She moved to embrace her daughter, but her feet had taken root. Aidjiri came to her instead, their limbs intertwining, and Elja held on tight. “I have missed you so much, my dear.”

“You must have waited a long time.”

“So long. Too long. I fear… I fear you’ve suffered harm from sleeping so long.”

“Could you have woken us sooner?”

“Not without leaving our shoal precariously small.”

“And a healthy shoal is the grove’s future.” She said it like a child memorizing her lessons. Aidjiri looked from the cup in Elja’s hands to the matching teapot and back again, as if remembering what a teapot was, and tea, and fish. “Your tea-fish is aging. Let me attend you. I think I remember how it goes.”

She poured a hot cup of tea containing a single fish. With sluggish hands, Elja reached for it, and Aidjiri’s supple hands steadied hers, but instead of the traditional words of the ceremony, there was silence.

She didn’t remember! The first ceremony every acolyte learned, and she didn’t remember.

Elja was about to pull away, to flee and do the ceremony herself again, alone, when Aidjiri began to hum. Too soft to make out, at first, and then with more confidence. The Song of Buds Emerging.

“This isn’t right, is it?” she asked, watching Elja’s expression.

Joy and grief flooded her veins until she thought she might burst. “Not exactly, but I like it.”

“I’ll learn it the right way again. I promise.”

“The right way doesn’t matter, my sweet bud,” she said slowly, and with her words came certainty. “Not anymore. In fact, we’d best rethink our traditions to make sure this never happens again. Let’s start now.” She’d given that a great deal of thought, these long seasons, and soon the time would come for hard conversations. But not now. Now, she would be with her daughter. “What matters is that we care for each other, always. The very best we can.”

Aidjiri might have lost a great deal, but the core of her was still there: Elja’s sweet, warm, caring-too-much child. She’d always cared so deeply, about everything. Now she was trying to care for her mother as best she could, and Elja wanted nothing more than to let her.

Voice quavering, Elja joined her daughter in song. Together, they lifted the tea-fish to her lips, and she drank it down.



Jo Miles is a science fiction and fantasy writer and a digital marketer from Maryland. Their stories have appeared in Analog, Diabolical Plots, Nature, and Do Not Go Quietly, among others. You can find Jo online at www.jomiles.com and on Twitter as @josmiles.
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