The Tea Ceremony

The Tea Ceremony


一期一会 (ichie go, ichie e)
‘This will happen only once’

– A Japanese Yojijukugo (four character proverb)
associated with the tea ceremony.


The sound of water. Silent lake, cackling stream, stylized song of winding river that feeds the roaring tides. Kumiko feels them, cleansing. They wash over her one by one, seeping into her, expelling all thoughts. The sound of water, boiling water. Eyes closed, Kumiko sinks into the sound, deep breaths, relaxing as she listens. It’s at a simmer now. Her fingers scan the misshapen mug before her, probe its imperfections. One discovers the long, elegant crack that splits the cup in two, traces its path, delicately. The water grows more excited, Kumiko more calm. Forgets the room. The cold, the dirt, the rattling that seizes each time a train creeps past. None of it finds Kumiko, hidden, in the depths of boiling water. The kettle whistles.

Legs lift Kumiko from her chair and carry her towards the kitchen. Hands rummage through the cupboard, take two bags of green tea, pour two cups. The first, a plain white mug, unnaturally perfect in its finish. This will be hers. Then, the cracked one, now much more comfortable in her hands. She lays it rest across the table, the sacred scar facing an empty chair opposite. Returns to her silence. Now, she feels the soft evening air against her cheeks. A clock that can’t be seen ticks, three hundred times before Kumiko’s palms stretch out to take the drink. Even then they do so slowly, cradling the clay, feeling its warmth crawl into her skin, wriggling towards her bones. The first sip.

Almost scolding the tongue, a familiar heat soothes her lips, throat, chest. A deep breath escapes. She returns the cup to its proper place and unwraps a small piece of chocolate she has been saving. Kumiko never understood people that put sugar in their tea, or held the bag in for such a short time that the water absorbed none of its bitterness. What was the purpose of making tea to then negate its essence, deny the flavour that defines it? Let tea be tea, let it show you how it is. She holds the chocolate between her smooth, slender fingers. Places it just besides her cup.

She moves with ritualized regularity. A sip of tea, a bite of chocolate, tea, chocolate, tea. Bitter and sweet meet only behind her lips, circle one another, like male stags vying for attention, they clash, horns locked in visceral combat, then – peace. Bodies tire, contort, softer now each finds its place. A tentative balance prevails. Another breath. The air sleeps. Kumiko sits, basking in the stillness. It caresses her skin, starting at the hands, moving up the arms, shoulders, scales the neck and soothes the scalp. So close to nothingness.

Only the steam prevents her leaving the room behind. Rising from the untouched cup across the table, taunting the still, the cultivated calm of Kumiko’s hand. It watches her, and she it, leaking unbearable silence.

Samuel Usayd Ilyas is from many places. Born in London to a Jamaican father and a Pakistani mother, he moved to Paris at the age of fourteen and has since divided his time between a variety of countries and continents. His writing is a reflection of this upbringing, diverse in its content yet always able to transcend cultural difference. He is a recent winner of the Oxford Festival of the Arts Prize for Poetry and a founding member of The Radiant Collective. He currently reads History at the University of Oxford.

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