Your Online Cup of Tea
“Come brave souls, so far who’ve have made it. Dare to take one final step. Better to have not started building the house, than midway leave it. A few more gulps of hemlock left.”
There came a point where Countenance stopped counting the days. Why number forever? Number for what? To what? Each day everything was new. But nothing ever changed… you see, the books she had, in them was written everything long forgotten in memory. Like thoughts stored on shelves. Her only comfort. But not always. Some things are best forgotten. At times too when her minute was up, and she hoped for the outside world, Countenance would look to the windows. For the terrible red light to show her horrors almost as dreadful as the house was beautiful. Convincing her never to open the door. Until once again the hour glass would turn, ready to count the minute of freedom she was given. But every day it was the same fight with fear. Every day, as if it were the first. As well, you would think that one would get accustomed to the chill of the house. Indeed as the day went on, so did her tolerance. But every time that clock brought forward a new day, it was though she had never been there at all. As though for the first time Countenance had stepped foot into this house. And that is how it always was with anything here. Everything was new. But nothing ever changed…
Until it did. Another day came, as read, weeping quietly to herself, footsteps were heard. Coming up the stairs they seemed to head for her study. Alarmed she stood up and hid behind a desk. All at once she felt the dread of the unknown, whilst nearly overcome with the hope of seeing another person. Perhaps it was the stranger who had changed his mind? Or maybe he came only to show her something worse? Could it get any worse?
Slowly the door opened, and there she saw… herself. At least, how she used to be, before that day she met the man and drank the drink which intensified her appearance. How she wished that it were possible to go back and warn herself.
“Why are you hiding?” came the voice, sounding very much like her own. I must be going mad. Thought Countenance. So long I’ve been without people that mind has conjured up strange things.
“Aren’t you going to answer me?” she asked again. But Countenance was too careful to speak. Nothing so far had been like it seemed. What good could come of this encounter?
“That’s fine,” said the girl, “I can leave.” Before she was out the door, Countenance found herself jumping around the desk, falling short of grabbing hold of the girl’s dress.
“No wait!” Countenance fell on her knees and with her eyes beg the apparition to stay. Even if this were her mind playing tricks, it was the most company she’d had in a long time. How desperate she was just to talk with someone else. The girl turned around with a most uninterested. As though one dull word would drive her away. Countenance knew that face too well. This must have been how others felt when they came to her for help.
“Please don’t go, I have been here in this house for a long time with so long that I’ve lost track, and I’ve not seen another soul in ages, please don’t go.”
“Why don’t you just go outside?”
“I have tried! O how I have tried! I have but one minute outside. And there I run and run, as far as my legs will take me. But when the unmerciful clock decides my time is up, I find myself again inside. Waiting till again I’m free to leave.”
“How dreadful, “said the girl. Not with pity, but like someone stating the colour of the sky.
“At any rate, I don’t like it here. It is far too cold. Seeing as you have no one, I can come talk to you, outside. For a minute each day.”
“Stay a little longer you will you not?” begged Countenance.
“I’m not the one who decided this,” the girl responded. Countenance opened her mouth to blame the stranger for this situation. Till she remembered how often she gave those in great need only a minute of her day. Consistently. Simply because she could. Had she have been more generous with her time, perhaps she would have had a lot more of it now. And with that her mouth was shut.
“I will be back tomorrow. You will hear me knock.” Saying this, the girl walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. Countenance rushed to open it again, following her out.
“I forgot to ask; what is your name?” she said to the girl.
“I don’t know it yet,” she replied.
“No, I don’t mean your true and fitting name, I mean, what do you call yourself?”
“Why would I call myself anything but my name?”
“What then, do others refer to you as?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. And with that the girl was out the door.
When the hour came for when it should have been late in the night, Countenance found herself awake. The excitement of being able to see someone else once again keep her up. But also the doubts. What if she does not come back? This could all be part of it too. What if every so often new people come, promising return but they never do? What if I don’t hear her knock? What if I’m asleep when she comes? What if she’s not even real?…
Back and forth like this for hours it went. Until at some time, early in the morning a knock was heard. Countenance ran, making wasting not a single stride towards the sound. Almost as if she knew, the girl was standing back far enough that they did not collide, when Countenance fell out the door. Too happy to be embarrassed, she stood up, full of joy, tear filled and arms ready to embrace. The girl however stepped back, avoiding contact. And with shame Countenance stood back.
“Forgive me,” she said, “I did not mean to invade your space. I just did not know if you would return. I sound ridiculous saying it before you now, but I did not even know if you were real.” By now her tears blurred any vision, as with trembling voice she tried to make out her words.
Without explanation, the girl wrapped her arms around Countenance. Saying nothing, but also saying much. Countenance overtaken with emotion, cried. The moments going by like an eternity.
“I will be back tomorrow at noon. And every day that same time. So put your mind at rest.” And with that said, Countenance found herself alone in the house. Except this time, it was little warmer than before. And Countenance for the first time in a ages, fell into a deep sleep…
The next day at noon, and many noons following, the girl would come to visit Countenance. There they would talk, Countenance would have her tears dried, and sometimes even share in laughter. For a while too, the minute she had each day would feel longer. Until eventually she noticed that a minute would turn to five. Then five to ten. Ten twenty. And twenty to half an hour. And so on and so forth until eventually an hour was found each day to enjoy being outside. Other things seemed to change as well. The house at this stage was far warmer than before. Brighter too. The windows not as scary. Even the food begun to taste better.
But still the house was still a prison. What surprised her most however was the room full of mirrors. Being to her the least pleasant place in this large house, Countenance had barely ever gone inside. Even when she did, the moments were rather brief. However deciding to face herself at some point, she noticed something that she didn’t see before. Behind the mirrors the room was actually full of pictures. Pictures of people she had known. Or pictures of people she had just seen. These were like the books, except instead of thoughts, they seemed to carry with them the feelings of different moments she had with these people. Some insignifanct, others mundane, a few here and there filled with joy. Fewer still with pain. But what stuck out most was just how little feeling there ever really was. Or how of herself, rather than the other person she could sense in the various moments. As if they were mostly about her. Or rather, she had made them so. Those moments were largely cold. She almost began to think that perhaps they were the source of the ever present chill that swept this house.
As usual, the knock came at around noon, and Countenance went out to meet her friend. In fact, if she were honest, this girl was the only friend that Countenance could ever remember having. To her shame, even more of friend than Prudence had ever been. Laying in the tall grass, which seemed to flow and rock them like a gentle sea, they talked looking up at the cloudless rich blue sky, spotted with shiny red stars.
“Sometimes I imagine,” begun Countenance, “that the hourglass just keeps giving me more and more time. So much so, that I even forget it exists. And I have years and years to spend. Walking away, anywhere I want to go. Spending time with anyone who will have me for company. Doing the things I loved. With people who cared about me. That I could grow well aged, spending my days doing this. Before the time runs out.”
“People already have that,” said the girl, “they call it life. And when the hourglass runs out they’re left with themselves. Or rather left with whatever is left of themselves.” Silence took over as Countenance let the words sink in.
“This will be my last day visiting here,” said the girl. Frightened, Countenance stood up holding on to her friend’s arm.
“What? You can’t leave me!”
“I have to go.”
“Then take me with you.”
“You know that cannot be.” Right then it was as though the world was going dark, and she were being left in the house for the first time once again.
“I would do anything to leave here. Anything.” The girl looked at Countenance for what seemed like forever, her eyes piercing, running over her face as though evaluating something important.
“Well you know what needs to happen then?”
“The Sun needs to set in the East.” Anger flashed across Countenance’s face. Rising up she stomped the ground, pointing her right fist to the sky.
“Where is the sun?! I do not see it! Has there ever been any sun here in this… this place? Where is it even? And how could the Sun ever set in the East. It would take a miracle. It’s impossible.”
“True,” responded the girl, “but there is one other thing you could do.” But it will cost.
“I do not care,” said Countenance, “whatever it is, I will do it.”
“Right then,” said the girl, “follow me.” Walking away from the house, Countenance dared not look behind, knowing that at any moment the hour would come to an end. But when it seemed the moment should long have passed, yet there she was walking by her friend, hope filled Countenance once again.
Just like before, they could not have travelled very far at all. But she found herself in a familiar place. More and more the scenery felt like a lost memory coming back. Till it was clear to her that she was making her way back to the town where she grew up. At last free from a place she never wished to see again.
“To be free, there are two things you must do,” said the girl.
“First give up, what you have sought after so hard. That thing which brought you so much misery in the end.”
“I do not understand.”
“But you do.”
“But how?” asked Countenance, “what are you going to do to me?”
“I have told you what you must do,” said the girl, “the question is; are you willing?”
“Yes! Please! Anything, I am willing.” The girl reach be her side, to a little blue satchel which she always carried around. Out of there she pulled out a mirror.
“There,” she said, “it is done.” Almost as soon as she saw the reflection, Countenance recoiled in horror. Trembling, her hand went for her face.
“I hate it,” she cried, “I’m disgusting. Hideous, more than anyone or anything that ever lived.”
“That part was easy,” said the girl. Again she reached into the satchel and pulled out a long violet cloak, which certainly seemed far too large to have fit in such a small bag.
“Wear this,” she said, “as long as the hood is on, you will not be a reproach to those who see you.” The girl also took out a bottle, one that Countenance recognised immediately.
“And now,” continued the girl, “I must ask you to do one simple thing. You will find a girl, wandering through this path. She will be intrigued and come by you to speak. You’ll tell her exactly what the stranger told you all those times ago. And give her this bottle to drink. Just as you did. Then when she leaves, close your eyes and count to ten. You will find yourself again on the same path. Except many years will have gone by. She will return to you. And that is when you will lead her back to the house. To return, just go left and walk straight. The path will bring you there. You must convince her to enter. When that happens, she will be stuck and you will be free.”
Countenance couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Was this really happening? Was she to doom another soul to that awful place, in order to leave? Is this what happened to her the first time? Some fiend had valued her life so little, that she became merely a token to secure his own goal? A mere means to an end?
“This is cruel!” But her protestations went unheard. The girl was nowhere to be seen. As if on que, she heard nice melody humming through the air. Putting up her hood, Countenance sat down, waiting for whomever it was, to pass. A young girl, probably no older than sixteen was approaching her, merrily skipping by the lane. Countenance fought within herself, she couldn’t trap someone else in this poor miserable existence. But at the same time this was her only way out. All that was needed was for Countenance to pull down her hood, and the girl would be so frightened that the chance would be gone. But alas, Countenance could not find the strength to tear off her robe.
“Curious?” said Countenance, forcing a weak smile as the girl drew near.
“You’re not from these parts. I would have remembered you,” she replied.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“What is your name?” asked the girl. Countenance went quiet for a moment. She thought of how she never found her true and fitting. How she mitred herself “Countenance”, to crown something she no longer had, and how woeful a place the house was, which the first stranger had oddly called “your name.”
“I’ve had many names.”
“What name do you go by now?”
“Tell me,” said Countenance, reaching into here satchel, “What do you seek after the most?”
But before the girl could answer, she responded. From the satchel Countenance held up a clear bottle, containing a golden, almost glowing liquid. Looking back at the girl, it was though Countenance could read her life like a book.
“Riches. How do I know? I’m not like everyone else Splendour” Startled, the young girl took a few steps back…
Only ten seconds passed for Countenance when she closed her eyes. But Splendour returned, at the age of thirty. Dressed in the most glamorous apparel. The young skipping girl, had now become a grown woman who carried with her an air of great importance. Walking down the path, Countenance led back to the Land. There much the woman was just as amazed as Countenance was the first time she arrived. But Countenance only shivered and trembled, with fear, anger and disgust. Can I really do this? She does not understand. She still has time. But I cannot go back there. I will not go back there.
Soon they were by the hill whereupon the awful house stood. It looked as marvellous as ever, like deadly poison hidden inside a delicious cake.
“Do you want this?” asked Countenance.
“Yes of course. What kind of question is that?” said the woman. Making her way towards house, like a moth to a flame. Clearly taken by everything she saw. Countenance fought hard. Her heart pounding faster and faster. Soon girl would be in. Soon she would be trapped. Soon Countenance would be free.
“STOP!” the quiet air echoed and filled with her booming voice. The woman, woken up from her trance turned to see the most hideous form she had ever come across. Countenance had removed the hood, and was running towards her with speed.
“Don’t go in there, it’s a trap!” The woman screamed running twice as fast, back the direction they had come.
“Get away from me you brute!” yelled the woman. Countenance stopped chasing after her. There was no chance of her coming back. And once again Countenance was alone. Her only hope of the freedom running before her eyes.
Standing by the rubble of what were the marble walls of the house, was the girl who Countenance once thought a true friend. All this time she had been in on this trick which lander her here. Yet Countenance found no anger left to direct at anyone but herself. Angry at the decisions she made that led her here. Angry at how she chosen appearance over substance, vanity over relationships. Regretful about having never truly known or loved her sister as she ought to have done. But most of all she was filled with sorrow, sorrow over the person she had become. The person she would forever be force to see in the ever present mirror of truth. Slowly with her head bowed, Countenance willed her body to face the girl and finally meet her end.
“You didn’t,” said the girl.
“You warned instead.”
“The go,” she pointed, “Back into the house. And this time, you will not come out the way you came again.” If there were any tears left in her, Countenance would have wepted without ceasing. Even the house which once was beautiful on the outside, no longer pretended to be a happy place. It looked crooked, abandoned and woeful. If this was what she saw from out here: what just reward awaits me inside?
Taking one last look at the beauty of the outside, and finally at the only other human face she’d ever see, a face which once belonged to her, Countenance shut the door slowly. Until it shut. Never to be opened again.
As soon as she reached the other side, Countenance leapt back in amazement. The door didn’t lead to an abandoned house. Indeed it didn’t lead to a house a tall. She found herself outside, again. Except this was like a different outside. It were as if she had only just gone out for the very first time. As though this were the real outside. The air that filled her lungs was sweet. And the grass massaged every inch of her feet, as the warm gentle breezed seemed to make walking effortless. She didn’t know how she knew, but indeed she knew that it was true, that behind the doors she came true, was more space than in all the world.
Between her and the rest of this place was a straight river that stretched as far as she could see from right and to the left. Disappearing off into an endless horizon. Beside her stood the girl, except now instead of a cold and expressionless face, Countenance was only met with worlds brightest smile.
“I’m so happy that you’re here. Now it’s all over.”
“What happened?” said Countenance, almost too nervous to address the issue, “you said I’d never leave the house again.”
“Yes and no,” the girl answered, “remember, there were two things that could happen in order to free you from there. Either the Sun could set in the East. Or you had convince another to take your place.”
“I couldn’t do it,” said Countenance, “I couldn’t put another person through that forever. I just couldn’t.”
“No, and good thing you did not.”
“Why? Was that a trick? Would I have been just as doomed to that house?”
“O that you were! Your fate would have been much worse. But, you would have left the house. That much is true.”
“I don’t understand,” said Countenance.
“To leave the house, you had to do two things. One was give up what you sought after all your life, but in the end was empty and gave you only sorrow. The other was to give up something else. Something which would have severed you from that house forever.”
“What would I have given up?”
“Your personhood,” said the girl.
“You would have turned your back on what you were meant to be. Your humanity, your true name. In the ultimate act of selfishness and hatred. Disdain for the value of the Other, and rejection of the true Self. So long as one had that house, no matter how broken. There was always a chance for hope. Indeed you are the house. The house is you. And everyone must live with who they are. Broken or healed. Trapped with themselves inwards or free with themselves other-wards”
“What would have happened to me then, if trapped another in the house and cut myself from it?”
“You would have vanished of course, “said the girl, as though it were the most obvious thing the world.
“Vanished to where? What happens then?”
“Tell me, “said the girl, “how do you to a person that ceases to be a person?”
“How do you?”
“You will never find out,” she said. Countenance stood quietly eyeing the river. She knew that getting into that water would be unlike anything she have experienced before. That as soon as she got in, everything would be come as clear and clean as the river itself.
“One final question,” said Countenance, “you told me that I either I cut myself off from the house forever to be free, by trapping another person in that desperate situation.”
“Yes I did.”
“Or that Sun sets in the East.”
“Yes, I also said this.”
“But neither of those things happened, how am I free?”
“O but the Sun did set in the East. In something far more difficult happened than that happened… You changed. Self-giving love flourished on selfish soil. The minute temple of self, grew to become larger than the universe, embracing all humanity. The heavens didn’t change their course, but an enslaved human heart, in love with its own chains became free. Who has heard of such a thing?”
Countenance was awestruck at everything she heard and saw. Across the river, a tall hill blocked her view from seeing what lay over. No longer could she stand on this side. She had to go ahead. There was something great calling her. Deep down she knew, the answers she was looking for were just a river crossing away. As she approached the lapping waters, Countenance reached out about to dip her hands. But almost immediately she pulled back. Slowly in disbelief, she peaked over the riverbank and tears met her eyes at the realization of what she saw. The beauty she had given up had not returned. Neither had the original appearance she had. Countenance was still the hideous figure that once terrified her from ever wanting to see her reflection again.
“No, no, no, my face no,” she cried, “even here it remains the same. No one will come near me. All who see me will run away.”
“Countenance,” said the girl, with such affection that it seemed wipe her face, “soon you will learn that people here see things much differently.” Her words did not fall on deaf ears, but still Countenance was downcast. Tears rolling into the river…
The girl’s eyes shot wide open. She took a few a moments to compose herself, as all her memories came flooding back at once. She remembered being awoken one night by the shouts and screams of her parents. There was a great heat all around the room, and fire from the hall. She remembers hearing her sister’s voice calling out for help amongst somewhere deep amidst the flames and smoke. She also remembered standing on her bed one second, looking for a way out, and then lying on the ground as the sounds become more muffled, and everything faded to black. But right now, she sensed a familiar presence radiating to her left. Looking down, she was taken aback, by what she saw. It were as though Love itself, Wisdom itself, Goodness itself, Beauty itself wept. The crying strangers turned to see meet the face that wouldn’t run from hers. And that moment both girls reached out to one another and smiled. At that moment they both knew each other. Finally at that moment, they both knew their names…
For weeks everyone in town spoke about the Tragedy of the Two Sisters. Word had gone forward to the neighbouring towns and settlements too, of what had befallen such a wonderful family. They were both so young. How terrible, terrible indeed. They’d say. The first sister had perished flames, days after her 17th birthday. Leaving only her parents and twin. What happened to the other sister was more of a mystery. One whose explanations only got wilder as days went on. She was found lying on the side of path, with her mouth full of foam. The only clue as to what happened was an empty clear bottle that lay by her side. What was she even doing out there? Wandering from the town. What happened to her? They’d ask. Who really knows? Was the usual answer. Yes, who really knows indeed…