by Serena W. Sorrell
Drinking tea at a quarter past one was an important part of Valentina’s daily routine. Of course, Winifred drank her tea as well–though being a hippopotamus calf she drank mangrove root tea. After tea time, Valentina would tend to her garden. It was one of her greatest joys, aside from tea time. In neat rows in her garden grew all kinds of plants; each showered with water and care. With that chore accomplished it would be time for her botany studies. A plant witch of her tender age had to start learning early in order to know every bloom and bark there could be. After studying, it would be time for tea once again, then dinner, followed by a bath for Winifred (who used such a large tub), and finally bed for the hippo calf. Valentina would stay up a little later to look at the stars. From the roof of her cottage it was quite a sight, then she’d join Winifred in their bed of heather and lavender.
Every day went much the same way and Valentina was glad. She had moved away, far from the bustling cities with their lights and their noise and their never-ending crowds. They frightened Winifred terribly, and Valentina too, had to admit they’d made her uneasy. Life in the valley was more splendid by far. The valley was the place proper a young witch could study in peace, and grow her plants without worry, aside from Winifred’s occasional frolicking. Out in the garden, in their neat, little rows grew chamomile and mint; roses and lilies; jasmine and peonies; thistle and catnip; nettles and clover; even skullcap and yarrow. All around the garden, like stationed guards, stood trees of all sorts: the tea tree, of course, along with willow, spruce, and birch, and even some red fynbos bushes spread in between. They were all meant for the blending of tea. For nothing relaxed her nerves more–and young Valentina, you see, was very experimental.
Her porcelain teacup half-emptied Valentina was just pondering what sort of tea she’d prepare for dinner when there came a great thump! Bump! Galumph! And even a whumph! Winifred scurried from her bowl of mangrove tea, hid under the lacy tablecloth where she shivered like a nervous bride. It was very clear whatever was outside Valentina would have to face it alone. Though a little scared, she didn’t worry terrible much, for she knew all of those living in the (usually) quiet, peaceful valley. Valentina set her teacup down and stood. She straightened her pleats and her plaits and went for the door. The witch took a deep breath and opened the door. She very nearly closed it at once for what she saw on the other side. For all of those who made home in the valley this was a thing, a creature of terrible size, she’d never seen or known.
The doorknob shuddered in her small shaking hand. The thing rampaged on the meadow, not so far from her front gate. It was covered in long white hairs and speckled in black, fuzz grew along its spine and there was no face to discern. Valentina, who had at least some practice with creatures of terror, gave out a small greeting and asked for its name. At this the beast raised up one end, maybe its head, turned for Valentina’s cottage and crashed through her gate. It tore through the roses and tramped over thistles. Well, that did it. Valentina’s fear snapped like the petals and stems. She grabbed up her besom and waved it about hurling curses and plagues to drive it away.
Valentina’s curses bounced off the beast like wet sponges. Her plagues sparked off the white wiry hair and black spots like little fireworks. Well, she had only herself to blame really. Valentina never studied curses and plagues, only plants and all of their uses, primarily tea. Still this creeper and crusher of plants had to go! She raised her willow branch broom again and caught sight of a green eye under all the muck. She stopped and watched. The monster trampled her plants, but it went for the trees. There it rubbed and it scratched as though it itched all over on every bit. Valentina saw a tail, fat and spongy, still a little green not turned that ghastly white. It was– but how!?
Sphag the moss dragon was her dear friend, but he was usually covered from snout to tail tip in plush, squishy moss, most soft. He had shown her this plot, for it’d be best to grow plants, being so near the river. Sphag had flown to gather the saplings she needed. Why, he’d even given her some moss to try to make tea from the back of his horns. Long, thin, white drooping fibers now hung from his horns. The stuff covered his ears and his eyes, it grow in fluffs from between his toes and scales. Sphag quieted his rampage while he itched all his itches along rough bark and Valentina leaned in. Sphag had a terrible case of mildew it seemed. And, Valentina owed it to him, and her studies, to see that he was cured. Her very self, as a plant witch, was at stake.
Although it unnerved her to see Sphag in such a monstrous state she inched ever closer, over snapped branches and stems, crushed petals and stamens, and tried awfully hard not to cry. Sphag, the infected, lifted his head when she was in reach. Again she saw that green eye, undoubtedly Sphag’s, but ready to rampage all over again. She entreated to Sphag with her usual greeting, a curtsy and wave. It seemed to placate him, perhaps somewhere, under all of the mildew a remnant of the moss dragon remained. The thought gave her hope, even as crepuscular rays filtered through the pollen and debris from the trees. With twilight upon them she’d put Winifred to bed, no bath tonight. She asked Sphag in simple words and a spell to his mind to please wait, only a short while. She’d return in a moment and she cure this dreadful ail. The words and the spell seemed to reach him at last, for he slumped the ground, all energy spent.
Valentina went to work at once. First, there was Winifred who had to be fed and put into bed, she moaned once she realized she’d get no bath that night, but after a kind explanation Winifred went to bed as the brave hippo calf she was, knowing Sphag needed help more than she needed suds. With Winifred tucked away into dreams Valentina scoured her books for some cure. While she read a book she began a kettle of water boiling with the wave of a hand; without even looking she mixed the tea blend Sphag always loved best. Several ideas now floated in her head, there were a few possible reasons which might explain Sphag’s dreadful condition. So she called him inside to her tea service, all beautifully spread. There were buttery crumpets with marmalade made of star snapdragons and, of course, clotted cream for the scones.
Sphag dragged his bulk through the front door she magically enlarged to save her poor walls from crumbling. The end of his snout all covered in white, scraggly hairs sniffed to find the tea. There came a moan from inside the mass, Sphag must recognize the sprig of cinnamon, she gasped in hope. A single black speckled claw touched the delicate teacup’s thin handle and, like a wave, mildew rippled from Sphag to the tea, all of it spoiled, and the cup too, left covered in white hairs and black specks. Valentina did her best not to show her disgust, although she did not take up Sphag’s paw to reassure him she’d make this all right. She declared aloud, instead, she knew it was a curse. And that was a start, somewhere, somehow, at the very least.
Gathering her most prized tea leaves, harvested by the moon rabbits and sent from the stars. This time she gathered water from the river outside, where the moon was reflected, for the best effect. The moon leaves steeped in the moon reflection water for precisely three minutes and thirty-three seconds, not a tick more, and not a tick less. While the tea cooled, for it had to be for its purpose, Valentina searched for her tea-telescope, a personal invention. She unscrewed the lens, making the tealescope look more odd than before. It was long and cylindrical of course, but with none of the segments, for that’d let the tea out. So her work began! With tealescope in one hand and a cup of moon tea in the other Valentina was never more careful. She poured the precious moon tea down the long tapering neck of the tealescope. It was filled to the rim, leaving only a spoonful of moon tea left, she lamented. Sometimes friends were more important than tea, she told herself as she screwed back the lens.
With a quick sip of the last of the moon tea, divine even cool, Valentina lifted the tea-filled telescope and looked not at the sky, but at Sphag instead. Though her classmates and teacher had mocked her tealescope none could deny it was wonderfully useful in finding the nest of a nasty curse. Unblinking, Valentina looked through the porcelain tealescope and through the moon tea from Sphag’s tail to his back, from his throat to his snout, and from– there! In his lungs was the source. And what a terrible curse it was for one of Sphag’s kind: Draco Pulmo Spirare. More simply, dragon’s lung mildew, the more Sphag breathed the farther the mildew grew. Why, his lungs were full of the stuff! Valentina would have to work fast!
Out to the poor garden she ran, basket on arm. She gathered the crushed chamomile heads, valerian and lavender, skullcap and lemon balm. These she crushed up, the tea would taste a bit grassy, but it’d do its job quick. That job, namely, was to put Sphag to sleep. In a blue glass bottle she gathered oil from the tea tree and shoved a handful of fresh peppermint into her pocket. Back inside Valentina took little time to prepare the sleeping draught and Sphag took it without any fight, nice but concerning and no doubt the mildew to blame. Water diluted the tea tree oil and she set the bottle in front of Sphag’s snoring open mouth and popped on an odd cap with a coiled string off the top. Then, mask tied to her face and stuffed with minty leaves, Valentina began to fold herself up, smaller and smaller.
Witches, you see, are by law required to choose two area of study. Valentina had chosen plants, and for her second she chose paper and all the ways to use it, the simplest was folding. Though folding oneself was not nearly as pleasant, she folded as small as she could and grabbed a great toothbrush as a knight wields his sword. Brush in one hand Valentina grabbed the hose she’d attached to the blue bottle and ran into Sphag’s mildewy mouth. Inside on his tongue black spots lined the walls and white hairs grew from the floor, making it difficult to wade through. Yet, still she went on, down and down and down his long throat until at last was a door she could scarcely make out the plaque that read: Left Lung.
Her first battle was freeing the door of all the little roots hairs that held it firmly closed, when working these doors swung free to and fro. Oh, poor Sphag, how difficult it must have been to get this far. She decided at once she’d really forgive him for mussing her garden. At last the door opened with a quick snap and noxious air rushed out to choke Valentina. She was ready! She had come prepared! She flipped the switch on the nozzle and the hose sprayed and Valentina breathed through her mint-filled mask. The inside of Sphag’s lung thoroughly soaked the Draco Pulmo Spirare shriveled and broke, but it wasn’t enough. She’d have to scrub every corner of Sphag’s enormous lungs to make sure neither hair nor spot were left.
And so, she did. Valentina batted strings of the clumpy mildew down from the lung roof overhead. She scrubbed the ceiling first, for it would be most difficult. Once cleared she rinsed it with the hose and washed it clean. Then she trudged through the muck that came up to her knees. She began in the farthest corner and scrubbed hard with the toothbrush. She pulled all the mildew out, sweeping and sloshing through the boggy water until she brushed it all out the Left Lung door and out through Sphag’s snoring mouth. Well, that was half her work done, she admired as she wiped sweat from her brow, but one doesn’t leave a war half won.
Back inside she tromped, right up to the Right Lung door. She began the whole process right over again, all the way from the start. By the time she had scooped and pushed all the mucky water out the right lung and down off Sphag’s tongue the black spots had faded and the white hairs gone. Once outside again Valentina washed her brush with a bit of the water and then decided, just to be safe, she ought to flood his whole system. So, although, no more mildew she saw she rinsed each lung once more. It’d be even more awful, negligent even, if she left any spore to sprout again. Satisfied at last, and overwhelmingly tired, Valentina left Sphag and unfolded herself. She burned the toothbrush over the stove and poured what little water was left down the sink’s drain.
Tired and sore she turned to look at Sphag, still sleeping, but his moss had returned and was lush, soft, springy, and plush. No remnant of the dreadful mildew remained. She had saved her dear friend and the dragon was again healthy and green. Valentina conjured up some paper and scribbled a note. She set the table for two and prepared the tea leaves for hot water and then outside she stumbled.
Sphag woke at half ‘fore nine and drew a deep breath, amazed there was no more pain. He searched the room to thank Valentina, who he knew he could count on to know just how to save him. Instead the table was laid with dandelion jelly and apricot scones, two cups waited with clover tea in their strainers, and a folded note was tucked under the kettle that sat cold. Sphag took out his spectacles for he was very near sighted and read Valentina’s letter, which read:
Dearest Sphag, my dear mossy friend,
The mildew is gone. Never fear, I cleaned every corner. As of yet I am very tired from being so small and cleaning so much, so, if you’ll please have tea and breakfast with Winifred. I will be asleep on the roof outside, please don’t wake me until just before noon.
All my love,
So, Sphag turned on the kettle and caught himself in the mirror. True to her word all his moss hung long where it ought, and was short and fuzzy where it should. Winifred came tottering in at precisely nine o’clock and squeaked a happy laugh to see Sphag whom she knew. Sphag in turn did his duty well, preparing tea and scone for the hippopotamus calf. While Winifred ate Sphag tried to create a satisfactory story of how he’d been cursed, for Valentina would definitely ask. And though Draco Pulmo Spirare had been utterly dreadful, if Valentina found out he’d cheated at cards and got cursed by the old warlock in the northern cave she would definitely devise something much worse. He had less than three hours to worry and fret, and think of a way to thank the small tea witch.
[This was my first madlib writing challenge: I ask people for three random words and have to use those words to make an original story. My words were: tea service, moss, mildew, calf, lily, valley, drive, placate, unnerve, telescope, toothbrush, and crepuscular rays.]