Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mrs. McGillicuddy's Magic Tea Set

By the side of the sea, overlooking a cove of briny tide pools, stood Mrs. McGillicuddy’s little cottage. Before she acquired it it had been a home for a local fisherman, and once she bought it, she set about making it uniquely her own. She covered the walls with Swedish lace and her shelves with a million chotchkes acquired in a lifetime of travels. Of all the things she had gathered, however, there was one in particular- her Irish tea set- which she held in the highest esteem.

    On certain occasions during her pensioner’s week she would take it down and polish it, fill it with hot water, and pull down a large pound-sized packet of Darjeeling imported by her tradesman husband, Ralph. Setting the hot water pan on the gas range, she would turn the gas cock, strike a kitchen match and boil the water for her special beverage. The prices she had to pay for biscuits were something else these days! Why, she remembered when a full pound of ginger biscuits sold for only one dollar. Now they had achieved four or even five dollars- and they never did go down.

    Once she had boiled the water, set the loose tea leaves in her bamboo strainer, and left it to steep a good four or five minutes. She liked her tea strong – nice and deep ocher, and drinking it with a little sugar (not too much, as that only detracted from its taste)- and when she was satisfied with that, she’d pour out enough into one of the china cups, and settle into her easy chair, and look off toward the sunset, where endless waves marched shoreward eternally, and contemplate the finer days of her past.

     Now it just happened that the tea set was more than just sentimentally valuable to Mrs. McGillicuddy. Within the teapot lived an ages-old genie, who just happened to make himself unnoticed whenever she would disturb him, long enough for him to slip out over the lip and hide behind the cookie jar each time. Since she would usually move the tea pot and cups and saucers from the shelf to table first, he always knew he had enough time to duck from the cookie jar to the canister that held her various spatulas, stirrers, corkscrews, ladles, and such, before she’d (inevitably!) return for her handful of ginger biscuits. He always knew when she was on her way, because she’d knock her ring against the blue glass canister that sat beside the tea pot.

     This particular afternoon, however, she had left her ring sitting in the living room. She had been having trouble with her reading glasses and got the chain stuck on the immense stone that sat on her middle finger, and needed to grab it and twist it and pull it off in order to work at freeing the chain. Let alone that she also had to remove the chain from her neck! So she was not in a particularly good mood, when she decided “Oh, enough with this fussing!” and went off to make tea…

     So it was a shock to both of them when she began pouring water from the sink into the teapot! The genie hadn’t been wet for centuries, and found this all very much beneath his normal mien, and so he was forced to scramble out up over the side of the pot, when of course, Mrs. McGillicuddy discovered him.

     “Who, or rather, what, are you?” she asked him

    The genie stood in the sink, arms folded.

     “Y’might well ask! I am Salaam Alam Mosambiek, protector of this teapot and genie of the seven seals!” 

     “Oh, so you are”, said Mrs. MicGillicuddy. That everyday one does not always encounter a genie did not fluster her the least. She peered at him intensely. “And just which of the seven seals are you representing today? Do you know Lou Seal?”

     “ I don’t play baseball” said the genie, standing back, now arms akimbo, deciding to turn the tables. “I suppose you think now that you have caught me I should grant you some wishes, don’t you, silly mortal?”

    “I have heard that is part of the contract,” she said. She squinted to get a closer look at him. Without her reading glasses, she was somewhat at a disadvantage. But she noted he was wearing a caftan crafted from wool, patterned in a traditional Scots tartan.

“If you are a genie with such a name as that, why do you wear plaid?” she snickered.

     “If your asking is meant to take the form of a wish request, I regret I am unable to fulfill that.” He puffed. “Can’t you ask for the normal stuff, like, fame, fortune, or a winning ticket in the Lotto?” He might have been a genie, but living in a teapot with a lady who listened every day to baseball games had pretty much kept him in touch with the mortals and their social customs.

    “Don’t think you can hang that on me, buster, I have not yet decided just what my wish is.”

     “Very well. You have just 24 hours to tell me. Meanwhile, I will sit here on the shelf and observe you at your cooking.”  All those sounds he heard whenever he wanted to get back to sleep each evening when she had washed and set the tea service back on the shelf (how he hated those long waits behind the utensil canister!) had been a mystery to him. He knew she was always cooking, and now he wanted to see exactly what.

     “What are you going to eat tonight?” asked the genie.

    “Well don’t think I’m going to be sharing it with you! Besides, I’m not even hungry. Once this tea is done I’m going back to my chair, stare at the ocean, and listen to the ballgame.”

     The genie was sad. He sat thinking for a few minutes, watching her every move. When she had completed the tea, she took her cup to the window seat, switched on the radio, sat down in the chair and sighed. The Giants were getting beaten, but it was yet early in the game.

     The genie was curious at the kinds of things she spent her days out in the living room with, since he kept to himself most hours inside the teapot. He climbed up the side of the chair and sat on her arm.

     “Hey! Who do you think you are, the cat?”

     Salaam had forgotten about the cat… He weighed his chances, since usually around this time, or an hour or so later, the cat would come in from prowling the cliffs near the cottage, and take his usual place on Mrs. McGilliicuddy’s lap. The cat would be likely to think of him as nothing less than another bite to eat, and Salaam gulped.

      “You could make the cat stay away until we decide what your wish is’” he said.

      “And if I don’t, he could make you a tasty morsel. Don’t think I’ll let that happen to you, genie. Here, come sit on my shoulder for now.”

     Salaam climbed up her arm and sat on her shoulder, dangling his feet over the side. Mrs. McGillicuddy weighed her own chances. What exactly could she wish for? To have her Ralph, back alive again? No, love him though she might, he was best yet in his final rest.  It had only been a few months since he passed. She’d be meeting up ith him soon enough. What could she ask for that would be impossible otherwise? She didn’t want for money, she had a healthy pension, and she didn’t care for fame- that was for the immature. She didn’t want her youth back, although…

     “Well, let me think a minute, Mr. Mozambiek… When I was a young girl, my friends and I would sit on the swings at school and see if we could pump ourselves up high enough that we could- not only see beyond the schoolyard fence- but we would wonder if what lay beyond it was real… Mary used to say it was just one step beyond the Be-Good Fence- that’s what she used to call it anyway. So I was wondering if you would be able…”

     “Able, able to do what?” asked the genie. He wanted to get this over with so he could get back to sleep, and maybe, find another human to disregard.

      “If you would be able to send me over the fence just for a little peek? I remember when Mary used to talk about it she said it was always going to be just beyond what we could perceive- and even after all these years, and my years as an artist, I still don’t really know how to get there. We knew we couldn’t just swing over it… but we knew it was somehow to be had. Couldn’t you just let me see it, and then, I could come back and paint it for everyone?”

    “That does sound like a sincere wish”, said Salaam. “However, before I grant it, I need you to approve a waiver…”

     “A what?” Mrs. McGillicuddy wasn’t aware that wishes come with strings attached.
     “A waiver. Of course, you should be aware that we genies cannot guarantee that the wish we grant will be necessarily satisfactory for the person we grant it to. We only grant the reality behind the question- we can’t help you, you see, if you choose to go over the fence, responsibly guarantee you would even have the ability to come back, or that by going where you want to go, you would not return in some fashion… essentially changed.”

     “But change is what I want, change is what I need, I haven’t made a painting I like in six years now, I need some new horizons!”

     Again, Salaam Alam Mosambiek felt pity for her. He pointed to the ocean outside her window. “That’” he sighed, “isn’t good enough for you?”

     “All things considered, Mr. Genie, I would like some sort of transforming experience. I am an old lady and nobody cares what happens to me, whether I even come back from my adventure or not. The rent is paid and I have enough tuna fish in the pantry to hold the cat over, though maybe I ought to call just one more person and let them know…”

     “You can’t tell anyone about this,” said Salaam. “We genies are not about to let other people know just what all our clients are involved with. I hope you will understand- it is like being part of an artisans guild- after all, you don’t want uninvited apprentices, or people that could reveal the wizard behind the curtain.” His eyes twinkled as he gave her a wink.

    “Well, you know, I hope then I can leave and get back before later tonight.”

    “ I think we might manage that. But like I said, you may not be the same individual you were beforehand”-

     They both gave a start- the radio announcer was going into hyper-mode now, “Outta here!” he was yelling as he described a towering three-run homer by Pablo Sandoval. The Giants now had the lead, and would be going into the top of the ninth with two to spare. She nearly knocked him off her shoulder as she clapped and sat upright.

    “Listen, Salam Alam Mosambiek, things sound pretty good in the only part of the universe I really have to care about much longer. So if you don’t mind…”

     Once more, he gave a world weary sigh. “As you wish…”

    Mrs. McGillicuddy found herself in a startling new environment. All around her were varicolored trees,  jungle vines, small monkeys and squirrels regarded her from behind tree trunks and upon branches. A macaw screeched, and it’s cry echoed like ripples. It was otherwise very quiet in the forest. She had just awakened the all to her presence.

Stepping forward cautiously, curiously, she regarded with each step the animals staring at her from their lookouts. None of the monkeys or squirrels made a sound, but their eyes remained fixed on nothing but her.

    “You’re creeping us out,” said a monkey, from the branch directly above her.

     “Oh my!” she said. The shock of a monkey speaking was almost enough to give her apoplexy. “I must say, it’s creeping me out to hear you speaking to me!”

     “Well, you know, continued the monkey, we don’t really get many humans visiting us over here. They could come over if they wanted to, but, really, we don’t mind a bit that they don’t.

     “Yeah”, said a squirrel, holding a nut in his paws as he had been since she arrived, but now chewing off a piece and speaking with his mouth full, continuing. “All you humans do is consider us unimportant and spiritually numb. Have you never considered we might have souls ourselves?” He spat flecks of nuts off in the other direction.

    “Well of course I have. But I did not come here to rout you out, I came here to learn.”

   “ I’ll be the judge of that!” said the monkey.

    “ I have a lot of things- back over there- that entertain me, but I came here to figure some things out..”

     The squirrel looked at the monkey and the monkey looked at the squirrel.

     “just what is there to figure out?” asked the monkey. “things are just apparently so, aren’t they”

     “No not necessarily or I wouldn’t be here looking for answers, now, would I?”

     “I’ll be the judge of that” said the squirrel. “Look, lady, you can’t just come traipsing through our forest loud & noisy and all and think you have anything to find out from us. We are here because we need to be. You, you don’t. You have all you need back there with the rest of the humans. If you want something, maybe you should see a Wise Man.”

     Wise Men have nothing to show me. I want to see new horizons, see everything in a new light, and go back home tonight feeling fully refreshed and ready to get back to work.”

     “Work? What’s that?” asked the monkey.

     “Force and distance applied to one’s intellect or capacity to endure pain, so some tell me. I am not convinced. Even you are working right now.”

     The squirrel threw down his nut, spitting more chunks out of the side of his mouth and sneering.

     “Sounds pretty stupid to me. I don’t need to work- look at how rich I am!”

     “Ah”, she said, “but you are working. Look at yourself. You are eating a nut. And you needed to do something to get it, didn’t you?”

     “Not much. No bother just run up the tree here and grab it.”

      “But it was work to pull it off.”

     “Nah, lots of times, all I need to do is run down to the bottom, grab one, and run back up.”

      “But your running is work! You applied force, and distance, and your result was, you had a nut to eat.”

    The monkey scratched his head.

    “So you think I could work too?”

     “Of course you can, said Mrs McGillicuddy. “Now you like fruit don’t you?”

     The monkey smacked his lips. “You betcha!”

     “Of all the kinds of fruit you like, what’s the easiest for you to get?”

     “Well, probably bananas, I guess.”

     “And the hardest?”

     “Maybe that’s the coconuts.”

     So even over here in your paradise, you little guys are working! You see? Nobody gets out of it.”

     “She’s got a point,” said the squirrel.

     “Well why the heck do these humans always have to make everything so complicated! We were just content to be sitting here and doing what we do and along comes another one of them and now she insists we have to make work of everything! Hey lady, way don’t you go back where you came from?” The monkey now sat there sullenly, his face in an exaggerated pout, his arms folded across his chest. “We didn’t ask for you to drop in over here anyway.”

     The squirrel dropped his nut and ran over to the monkey, whispering something in his ear Mrs. McGillicuddy could not hear.

    Now a smile slowly spread across the monkey’s face.

    “I have some regrets that we have taken this introduction so amiably,” he said.
“I think it might be a very good idea for you to experience a few things the way we experience them. After all, didn’t you say you want new ways to see your world?”

     Mrs. McGillicuddy wasn’t offended at all by this, but she had absolutely no clue where the monkey was going with it, either.

     “As I recall, you are here because some genie dropped you off here, and expected us to teach you a few things. Is that correct?”

     “More or less,” said Mrs McGillicuddy. “Although I hardly expected a prosecution.”

     “I’ll be the judge of that!” piped up the squirrel. His bushy tail was bristling, and he had somehow brought up another nut and began to work on the shell. From the look on his face, he was nearly snarling at her.

    “So”, said Mrs. McGillicuddy, turning to the squirrel, “you are the predominant judge around here?”

     “Hell yeah!” chirped the squirrel. “Monkey see and monkey do, but only Squirrel know how to two make two!” he chuckled. He had finally gotten one over on Monkey, but that competition of theirs predates this story by several months.

    Now it was the monkey’s turn to take up umbrage. He had finally decided on a good test for Mrs. McGillicuddy…

     While the other squirrels and monkeys had retreated far off away from the new face on their scene, the two engaging Mrs. McGillicuddy in this suspicious banter were far fro the only ones interested in the outcome of this battle of wits and words. Keeping their distance, yet ever cautious they began little discussions amongst themselves about just what might be happening. In one such group, the squirrels decided that they must be talking about giving Mrs. McGillicuddy directions to the Big Treasure- something even they hardly knew the whereabouts of. But they knew there must be an awful lot of nuts there.
     One group of monkeys, on the other hand, had decided that Mrs. McGillicuddy must be after the Answer to the Big Mystery, since that was usually the other thing most humans who came to their Other Side jungle were concerned with. So each group sent another member back to eavesdrop and discover just what it was they were discussing. Both returned rather disappointed, and with differing conclusions.
     But as the animals were busy with their argument, a great light began flashing. It was as if the sun itself had suddenly gone pulsar- it had not grown a speck in size, but it was flashing intensely, rythmically, and within seconds, all of the animals- monkeys and squirrels both- were prostrate before it, jibbering and squetching and shaking in fear.

    From the monkeys-“It’s the Great Glimmering!”

    From the squirrels- “it’s the Great Dimmering!”

    From Mrs. McGillicuddy (standing, not trembling, but her lip quivering in wonder)-“Oh my! They can’t even agree… In my opinion, I’ve never seen such a light! Oh, how will I ever describe this?”

    The head monkey looked up, sheepishly, with one eye. The other he kept hid behind his palm. “You can’t. We can’t either. But it’s like this… Every day this happens.”

    The head squirrel was now sniffing about the bottom of a nearby tree. With the other squirrels he had backtracked around once the light began flashing, to hopefully get a little protection of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s meager shade. He whimpered to her, “Yes! Every day it makes us all shake and tremble!”

     “Why Oh how silly! It’s just a light. The sun! The sun!”

     “But so much more than the sun,” said the monkey. It’s like it shines deep down into each of us, we have no place to hide!”

      “Yes, deep into each of us,” added the squirrel, nd we have to tell it everything! Where all our nuts our, how our kits are doing, everything!”

     “Well it’s certainly nothing to fear, that I can assure,” said Mrs. McGillicuddy. She cast a long shadow under the sun, which had stopped flashing, and had now been somewhat relieved by a passing  fluffy blue cloud. And at that she fished around in her handbag and brought out a small pocket mirror, and handed it to the monkey.

     “What do you see?

     “A monkey. …And he looks just like me!”

     “And, why see, yes, he is you!”

     The monkey turned the mirror round and round between his fingers, expecting to see another monkey hiding there, somewhere behind.. . “But it’s not me.”

     “Quite correct. It is your reflection.”

     The monkey scowled, and tossed the mirror to the ground, and began to stamp upon it with his angry feet. But as he did so, the reflection of the sun bounced off it and hit him full spot on in the eye.

     “Owww!” he howled.

     “You see,” said Mrs. McGillicuddy, standing a little taller, looming larger in the eyes of both monkeys and squirrels, who all shrank back just a little in return, “there are limitations to our vanities, dear sir, and yet, the Great Glimmering holds no grudges. Didn’t you notice that when it showed itself to you just now, it shone on both you and the squirrels?”

     The head squirrel squetched and hissed. “She’s being tricky again! I think she’s nuts!” And with that, he hitched up his tail and ran off, with all the other squirrels chasing behind him, running off deep, deep into the dark interior of the jungle, farther and deeper behind them already.

     Mrs. McGillicuddy bent down, picked up her pocket mirror, placed it in her handbag and sighed.

     “I suppose it is time to go home now…”

     And –pouf!- just like that, she was sitting again in her chair, the Pacific stretching endlessly ahead of her to China, and the game on the radio was over. The announcers had already begun their post-game wrap-up. (It helped that the Giants had won.)

     The genie sat on the arm of the chair, smiling.

     “Well, it looks like I’m off the hook now, doesn’t it. I can go back to the tea pot and not give a hoot about what you think of me. I might just go on a magic carpet ride somewhere… Maybe go see my cousin Sam Alaam Alama in Istanbul… You’ll be OK then, now? I trust you must have learned something over there!”

     “Most assuredly,” said Mrs. McGillicuddy, in a weary voice full of resignation.

     Two weeks later, Mrs. McGillicuddy took up her paintbrush again. She began painting a portrait of… a monkey… looking into a mirror… and scratching his head.


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