Image by Martina Bulková from Pixabay

The Tea Vendor

Fairy tales have always been about the human condition. What we fear, what we hold onto, what we repress. And the house, as with the cottage where “The Tea Vendor” is set, is always an allegory for the body and the soul — in this case, lonely, snowbound, with a grave beside the porch and a wealth of secrets just out of sight.

NOTE: All dialogue is in Russian or Belarusian.

FADE IN:

EXT. SNOWSWEPT MOUNTAINS – LATE AFTERNOON

Birds dodge off a snowy branch as the TRAVELER (40s) trudges through the thick snow. He wears a heavy coat, carries two poles, and has a large pack slung over his shoulder.

Above the barren treetops, he sees a plume of smoke and investigates.

EXT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – CONTINUOUS

The path continues onto a barren cliff face. The snow picks up, making it hard to see anything past it. A heavy gust of wind nearly blows him over. The cottage is rustic and candlelit, built with logs and glass windows, with an impressive, foggy-glassed greenhouse in the rear. He looks inside, not seeing anyone.

He wanders around the eaves, spotting a boarded-up well and a gravestone etched with Russian characters. He returns to the front door and knocks. No answer.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – FOYER – CONTINUOUS

The man lets himself in and shuts the door again before too much snow can billow inside. He STAMPS his feet and takes in the cottage. Bear heads hang on the walls beside old photos.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – DINING ROOM – CONTINUOUS

A carved loaf of bread sits on the table. The Traveler, starving, leaps to it, tearing off a chunk.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.)

(in Belarusian)

Make yourself at home.

The Traveler JUMPS, clearly having thought he was alone.

The TEA VENDOR (60s) enters the room, holding two glasses of mulled wine. She is gaunt and pale, and worms crawl in her hair.

TRAVELER

(in Russian)

I’m sorry. I was out hunting, and the storm hit harder than I expected, and I’m far from my lodge.

TEA VENDOR

(in Russian)

If you are a hunter, then where is your gun?

TRAVELER

I laid traps along the ridgeline. I’m maintaining those.

She considers this.

TEA VENDOR

What have you caught?

The Traveler shows her several minks hanging from his pack.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

If you let me have half of your haul, I will let you stay as long as you like.

The Traveler stands, as if to leave, but weighs his options.

TRAVELER

Do you have a spare bed?

TEA VENDOR

(pointing)

Just past the kitchen.

Outside, the wind HOWLS.

TRAVELER

Done.

He tosses the mink on the table.

“Little Russian Ox Cart in Winter,” by Ivan Aivazovsky

EXT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – NIGHT

The wind ROARS and snow BATTERS the cottage.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM –  CONTINUOUS

The Traveler, having changed his furs for more casual wear, sits by the fire. The Tea Vendor appears from the kitchen with a pot of tea.

TRAVELER

So, what does an old woman do up on this mountain, all alone?

The Tea Vendor flashes a smile, pours him tea.

TEA VENDOR

You think I’m alone?

A wolf HOWLS in the distance.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

I sell tea.

She hands him a cup, which he takes, less for drinking and more for warming.

TRAVELER

It’s a long way from the nearest village.

TEA VENDOR

I grow the leaves myself.

The Traveler looks at his cup, then outside at the snow. It’s packed a meter up the wide window.

TRAVELER

In this weather? Nothing grows.

TEA VENDOR

Oh, my tea does. In the summer, the townspeople march up here by the dozens every day to buy my tea.

(sips)

I’m surprised you haven’t found my cottage sooner. What about you? What is a lonely, lifelong hunter like you doing caught in a blizzard in a strange house with a woman you’ve never seen before?

The Traveler is silent at first. The fire CRACKLES, and the Tea Vendor adds logs, stokes it. Bugs crawl out from beneath the sizable pile of firewood and disappear between the floorboards.

TRAVELER

I’m not alone, either. I have a wife and kid in Gorodok, and I spent most of spring and summer there. New Year’s and Christmas, too.

TEA VENDOR

Haradok is a long way from here.

TRAVELER

There’s lodges.

He gulps his tea.

TEA VENDOR

Haradok was German-occupied. Is that right?

TRAVELER

Did the war touch you on your remote mountain peak? There was a ghetto in Gorodok, mass graves outside the town. Four hundred Jews were taken into the Vorobevy Hills and shot.

He puts his cup down and calms himself.

TEA VENDOR

Did your parents tell you about life in the shtetl?

TRAVELER

They never spoke of it. I talked to other villagers. I think they can still hear the sounds of gunshots in the forests.

He gets up and leaves the den.

TEA VENDOR

(softly, to herself, in Belarusian)

I know such sounds well. I was there, you see, in the dark and the cold of the hills.

“Still Life with Red Tea Kettle,” by Man Ray

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – GUEST ROOM – LATER

As the Traveler prepares for bed, he looks at a photograph by candlelight, of a smiling woman and child. Suddenly, the Tea Vendor is in the door, and he starts.

TEA VENDOR

There are quilts in the cupboard, and the washroom is down the hall.

Keys dangle from her neck, and the Traveler studies them from a distance.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

One of these is for the cottage, the other for the cellar, which is where the wine and cheeses are, and the final one is for the greenhouse. There’s a spare key behind a loose rock on the front stoop, and a spare cellar key in the pot in the kitchen.

TRAVELER

And the greenhouse?

TEA VENDOR

I have the only key. The tea plants, growing in such fragile conditions, will die if exposed to cold air too often, so I am the only visitor they have, twice a day, at dawn. Have a good night….

TRAVELER

Sholem. My name is Sholem. Good night.

The Tea Vendor and her flickering candle disappear from the doorway. The Traveler brings the photo out again and hides it among his things.

EXT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – DAWN

Still snowing. The Tea Vendor walks outside in a shawl with bread and a cup of tea. She tosses bread out for the birds, then reaches into her pockets and throws out raw meat for the wolves.

She approaches the gravestone. Wolves appear at the forest’s edge.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM – LATER

The Traveler sits by the window with a cup of tea, watching the snow continue to blow.

TEA VENDOR

It was calmer this morning. Perhaps you should have left at dawn.

TRAVELER

I slept too heavily. Besides, the trail along the ridge is so thin that a strong gust would knock me off the mountain.

TEA VENDOR

Thank you again for the mink. They will make for excellent boot linings, I should think. Though you seem to be traveling light. Is it a hard year for trappers?

TRAVELER

No, I’ve only just started my rounds. Need to finish before Christmas.

TEA VENDOR

(in Belarusian)

More tea, Sholem?

TRAVELER

Hmm?

TEA VENDOR

(in Russian)

Tea?

She pours, and it falls black into his cup.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

Are those your wife and children?

(beat)

In the photo you were looking at before bed? That is the family you left in Haradok?

He nods cautiously, then changes the subject.

TRAVELER

What do you do during the winter months besides grow your tea?

She takes a sip and giggles to herself.

TEA VENDOR

Let me show you.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – WOOD ROOM – MINUTES LATER

Devils with long horns and forked tongues. Black demons with cloven hooves. Witches with flowing capes.

All wooden figurines in a room of hundreds, the only room in the house lit by oil lamps.

The Traveler holds a grotesque wooden carving of a moss-covered skeleton.

TEA VENDOR

That one is the patron spirit of hunters and guardian of the forest. You can have it for three hundred rubles.

TRAVELER

You made all of these?

TEA VENDOR

Me and my partner.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – HALL – LATER

The two are moving back to the tearoom. The Traveler looks over his shoulder, at the door to the greenhouse. The key CLACKS against the Tea Vendor’s neck.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – GUEST ROOM – MIDMORNING

Alone again, the Traveler stares at the photo in his hand. He looks at his ax, beside his pack. Unbeknownst to him, the Tea Vendor is just outside his door, her eyes and grey hair falling into the doorway.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM – LATER

The wind THRASHES the house, the snow continues, and the Tea Vendor sits alone, carving. The Traveler enters.

TEA VENDOR

You have been sleeping for several hours.

TRAVELER

I’m not feeling well.

TEA VENDOR

(offering)

Tea?

He shakes his head.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

I know you are not a hunter.

TRAVELER

(on edge)

Huh?

TEA VENDOR

Where are your dogs? Your skis?

Your gun? You have an ax, but no rope, no fishing equipment.

The Traveler tenses up.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

You are not coming from a lodge or going to a lodge, either. The nearest ones are beyond the valley, and those have not been inhabited for years. There are only a few dozen traps between here and Haradok. I assume you looted those for the mink.

The Traveler is silent, but he has been sitting like a rock, eyes wide.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

It doesn’t matter at all, of course, since the weather should be clear tomorrow and you will be on your way. But what brought you here if not trapping?

TRAVELER

(panicked)

I-I-I-I’m a fugitive, from Minsk.

TEA VENDOR

How exciting. Was it murder?

TRAVELER

No.

TEA VENDOR

Was it robbing tea shops?

TRAVELER

No.

TEA VENDOR

Then it seems I’m safe.

(beat)

Were they going to disappear you?

The door BLOWS open.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – FOYER – CONTINUOUS

A tall woman, LEZHY (30s), in snowshoes and wearing goggles, SLAMS the door shut.

LEZHY

(in Belarusian)

What wonderful weather.

“Two Old Ones Eating Soup / The Witchy Brew,” by Francisco Goya

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM – CONTINUOUS

The Tea Vendor smirks and stands.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM – NIGHT

The Traveler is in a chair by the fire when the Tea Vendor and Lezhy walk past, clad in robes and coats.

TEA VENDOR

We’re going out.

TRAVELER

In the storm?

LEZHY

It’s calmed down by now. You’ll be able to leave in the morning.

TEA VENDOR

Lezhy is taking me to her cottage for some wine and mischief.

They leave, giggling. The Traveler waits until they’re gone, then he stands and goes to work.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – GUEST ROOM – CONTINUOUS

The Traveler grabs his ax.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – HALL – CONTINUOUS

He moves through the hall, opening various doors and checking their contents, dissatisfied.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – KITCHEN – CONTINUOUS

He checks all the cupboards, then the oven, finding nothing.

He takes the cellar key from the pot.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – CELLAR – CONTINUOUS

With an oil lamp in one hand and an ax in the other, the Traveler walks down the coarse stone stairs into the basement. Wine and cheese racks line the walls. Further inside, he comes upon a coffin, opened wide. Grey hair pulls along the rim and disappears beneath it, away from the lamplight.

He walks farther into the cellar, and the walls turn moldy and slimy. He comes to the end of the cellar, bare rock wall, and he stops, out of ideas.

He takes a wine bottle and notices its viscosity. Opens it, smells it, gags, drops it. It’s full of blood, which creeps through the dirt floor of the cellar and escapes. The Traveler recovers, picking up his ax again, but before he can leave, he sees a tall, gaunt, pale grey FIGURE staring at him, just far enough away that the lamp begins to outline its hands, chest, and hair. The Traveler is frozen. He slowly raises the lantern, then, very quickly, he lifts it out in front of him. Whatever it was, it’s gone.

EXT. FOREST CLEARING – CONCURRENTLY

The wind has subsided, and the snow falls softly on the trees. By the light of the moon, Lezhy and the Tea Vendor arrive at a frozen clearing, where twelve other hooded, robed WOMEN stand, ill-dressed for the weather and gossiping away. Lezhy and the Tea Vendor remove their robes, too.

The fourteen women move in a circle, CHANTING. They all hold hands. They finish their chant solemnly, then break into CACOPHONOUS LAUGHTER.

EXT. FOREST CLEARING – LATER

The ladies have erected a bonfire, and they take turns HOWLING like wolves. One woman, a young ACOLYTE, leans in to the Tea Vendor.

ACOLYTE

(in Russian)

He’s coming tonight, sister. Hear how still the trees are.

Another, OLDER ACOLYTE approaches them, LAUGHING from talking to Lezhy.

OLDER ACOLYTE

(in Belarusian)

The moon is at its peak, and we’ve done our chants. Let’s disrobe.

“Witches in the Air,” by Francisco Goya

EXT. FOREST CLEARING – LATER

Naked in the moonlight, the women dance in a dizzying whirl of bodies and sounds and SCREAMING, SCREAMING, SCREAMING. The wind escalates with their cries, to a furious blow, to cyclonic force, then, suddenly — the world falls quiet. So do the women.

OLDER ACOLYTE

(in Belarusian, SHOUTING)

Chernobog, the Black God, we give you our unwavering devotion and submit to you our bodies, our minds, and our souls.

Silence still. Lezhy and the Tea Vendor look around at the other women. They are alone in the clearing, and there is no noise at all, demonic or otherwise.

LEZHY

(in Belarusian)

Fuck it, let’s drink and go home and return again on the next full moon. Who brought the wine?

EXT. FOREST CLEARING – LATER

As the midnight festivities relax, Lezhy stumbles away from the clearing.

OLDER ACOLYTE

(in Belarusian)

Next full moon, sisters. A shame the Black God did not show tonight.

TEA VENDOR

(in Belarusian)

Maybe he did! Safe travels!

Lezhy is having trouble standing upright.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

Ugh, hey, can someone —

She spots the younger woman.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

(in Russian)

Sister, can you help me carry my friend home? We can give you lodging for the night. We aren’t too far away, just an hour’s walk.

ACOLYTE

Of course, let me get her left arm.

They carry Lezhy through the woods.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – WOOD ROOM – CONTINUOUS

The Traveler remains entranced by a wooden statuette of Baba Yaga, the old Slavic crone. Suddenly, the door swings open, and the three women stumble inside. The Traveler cannot go into the hall, where they are already moving, and so he hides under the workbench, out of sight.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.)

(in Russian)

Thank you, thank you so much.

ACOLYTE (O.S.)

Of course, sister. Have a good night.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.)

You are not staying? You can sleep in the tea room.

ACOLYTE (O.S.)

No, I’ll be fine. It’s just a few hours home, and I’ll be back by dawn.

She turns to leave, and the Traveler sees her pass the Wood Room. He shrinks farther into the shadows.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.)

Oh, but let me give you a parting gift, a token of appreciation. Come, into the woodworking room.

She takes the woman by the shoulder and brings her forcefully into the room.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

Take your pick. They’re all handcrafted by myself and all kissed by the Black God.

As the woman looks, the Tea Vendor grows in size. Her body swells, the ages peel off.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

(in Belarusian)

I am going to devour you now, sister. Or, only the parts I cannot use.

She DESCENDS on the woman, sinking her teeth into her neck and furiously shredding her head and arms from her body. Blood pours onto the floor, but no screams. The Acolyte dies quietly.

The blood reaches the Traveler and soaks into his hair, mouth, nose, and eye as he tries to keep his breathing calm.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

(in Belarusian)

Come, sister.

She drags the beheaded corpse through the doorway, her own newly mammoth form barely fitting into the hall. The Traveler creeps out after her and sees the greenhouse door close and lock.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM – MORNING

Lezhy slurps down a gorgeous roast and some tea.

TEA VENDOR

Not hungry, Sholem?

The Traveler isn’t eating or drinking tea.

TRAVELER

No. I need to get going.

TEA VENDOR

I have some skis stashed away in the cellar if you’d like me to get them for you.

TRAVELER

That won’t be necessary.

EXT. FOREST – MORNING

The Traveler sets out through the trees and the snow. The storm has clearly not abided, but he has to leave that house. In front of him, the grey ghost reappears, floating, facing him as he trudges onto the ridgeline.

He looks down at the long fall and resolves to move forward. The ghost, which we now recognize as the woman in the photograph, albeit hideously deformed and maggot-ridden, looms in front of him.

The Traveler hears a HOWL in the distance and slips, and when he looks up, the ghost woman is headless and armless. The wind GRABS his photograph and lifts it through the air, back toward the cottage. When the Traveler turns back around, bracing himself against the intense wind, the woman is gone.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – TEA ROOM – LUNCH

He’s back.

TEA VENDOR

Lezhy has returned to her cottage. Neither of us thought you’d make it past the ridge. Have some tea. It’ll warm you up.

She smiles at him, a damning, haunting look of care that the Traveler does not return. He stares into the hallway, down the hallway, and at the greenhouse.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

Sholem? Are you feeling sick?

TRAVELER

I have some food left in my bag.

The Traveler goes to his bag and takes the ax. The Tea Vendor is minding to dishes, and the Traveler approaches from behind….

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – KITCHEN – CONTINUOUS

He sees the ghost from the corner of his eye and grabs the tea pot from the counter.

He SMASHES it over the Tea Vendor’s head, and she turns around and cries a hideous WAIL. The Traveler SWIPES at her with his ax, misses, and pushes her against the wall. Her form molts and shrivels, growing again, larger, like the Tea Vendor creature he saw in the wood room. He grabs the key from her neck, then SLASHES her toes off with the ax.

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – HALL – CONTINUOUS

Amid her ghastly screams he charges the greenhouse, fits the key into the lock and pushes the door open, she’s coming, he SLAMS the door on her hand, she SCREAMS, he forces it shut. Locks it. Stillness.

“In the Greenhouse,” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

INT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – GREENHOUSE – CONTINUOUS

The Traveler clutches his ax to his chest and takes deep breaths. Outside, the Tea Vendor POUNDS on the door, SCREECHING horrible, inhuman sounds.

The Traveler steps into the greenhouse. Dead, brown plants stretch into a fog, which the Traveler moves into. He sees the beginnings of a tea bush, growing around a wooden post planted in the dirt. He pulls off its leaves and smells them, then pinches his nose. He squeezes the leaves together, and a thin black juice SQUISHES out of them.

Following the bushes, he finds that they’re growing along string, leading from the post…. And then he sees the bodies.

Over a dozen corpses, every four or five feet, with no arms, no legs, and no heads, veins bright-red all over and tea plants sprouting from their stumps. They’re in bloom.

The Traveler chases the lines of tea bushes — body after body after body — and finally comes upon one that he recognizes. She still wears her wedding dress, though it’s torn at the shoulders and the waist.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.)

(in Russian)

Was that your wife, Traveler?

He grips his ax, looks around, but her voice is in the air.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.) (CONT’D)

The tea you drank on your first night…that was her. She makes excellent tea now.

The Traveler backs through the fog, picking up speed as he goes. The tea plants seem to extend forever, the greenhouse much larger than he initially thought.

TEA VENDOR (O.S.) (CONT’D)

Did you come here for revenge, Traveler? For your poor dead family?

The Traveler reaches the end of the greenhouse, where a single pot houses a six-foot-tall white flower that seems to emit its own glow.

From the fog, the Tea Vendor appears in her hulking, twisted, gnarled form, her neck three feet long and bent out of shape, her long, hairy, toeless legs allowing her hair to brush the top of the greenhouse.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

Little dog has nowhere to run. Stinks like Russian. You won’t become tea, I think. I have a different use for you.

The Traveler sinks his ax into the flower’s thick stalk, and the Tea Vendor SHRIEKS. The flower BLACKENS and wilts as the Tea Vendor cries. Someone POUNDS on the glass — it’s Lezhy.

The Tea Vendor contorts and writhes on the floor, maggots leaping off her body, and the Traveler pushes his face to the frosted glass.

LEZHY

(muffled)

There’s a door in the middle of the room, you have to move now, she’ll tear you apart!

The Traveler RACES to the center of the greenhouse, where there’s a trap door in the floor. He tries to lift it open with his hands, but to no avail. Beyond the fog, the Tea Vendor lifts her bloody, bruised body.

TEA VENDOR

I am going to devour you now, little dog.

The Traveler wedges his ax into the door and uses it to pry it open. The Tea Vendor spies him through the fog and LUNGES. He barely makes it down the chute in time, barring the door shut above him with his ax.

INT. BELOW THE COTTAGE – CONTINUOUS

It’s pitch-black in the caves. The Traveler scrambles to get a candle lit. He can no longer hear the tumult of the snowstorm, nor the shrieks of the creature that was the Tea Vendor. He moves along the cave, feeling the walls with his clammy hands, until he grips a ladder.

Climbs it to find the top sealed shut by boards, and he PUSHES with all his strength….

“Witch Riding Backwards On A Goat,” by Albrecht Durer

EXT. TEA VENDOR’S COTTAGE – CONTINUOUS

The boards covering the well are heaved loose, and the Traveler climbs through the hole, into the snow. Lehzy is there waiting for him, along with eleven women in robes. They don’t seem dressed for the weather.

TRAVELER

What is this?

LEZHY

Shh, shh, it’s okay, be calm.

The Traveler looks around for a way out, but the forest seems to seal itself shut around him.

TRAVELER

I didn’t come to kill the Tea Vendor, or any of you. I came to find my wife and son.

The hulking, writhing form of the Tea Vendor emerges from the cottage. It grimaces at the Traveler.

LEZHY

We have your wife and son’s souls, if you’d like to be with them.

TRAVELER

P-p-please.

LEZHY

You will pay a heavy price if you wish to see them.

TRAVELER

I’ll do anything.

TEA VENDOR

It will be your life, Traveler.

The Traveler is silent.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

Good. Then be still, let my sisters fetch them for you.

Lezhy and the sisters move inside the house, leaving the Traveler and the Tea Vendor, still in her gargantuan, decaying form.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

What a fortunate storm brought us together.

The Traveler sits down in the snow, defeated. He sees the gravestone.

TRAVELER

Whose grave is this?

TEA VENDOR

When you asked if the war came to me and this cottage…it did. One night in October 1941, the Nazis searched the house. This body, the Tea Vendor, her husband and her children were inside, and they did not speak German, so they did not know why they were being led out into the cold with no coats on, or why there was a grave dug outside for them. The officers left them here, right where you’re sitting, in the cold, for hours under watch while they ate and drank inside. Gave the Tea Vendor plenty of time to pray to the Black God. For the same reasons you prayed to the White God with that photo in your hand every night, I’m sure. So here I am.

The women return with bottles of blood from the cellar and two plant pots of corpses, cut from the other tea bushes.

TEA VENDOR (CONT’D)

It’s time, Traveler. This is my favorite part. A real treat. It’s very rare that a normal man like you gets to see this ritual, so let’s enjoy it.

The women place the bodies in the snow. Chanting slowly, they begin pouring the blood on the corpses. Steam rises off.

The Traveler looks up at the Tea Vendor, but she, or it, is staring at the bodies, as though this is a miracle. The Traveler looks down again, at the bodies and the plants. He’s still sitting in the snow, waiting, his ragged breath turning to mist as it leaves his frozen mouth.

CUT TO: BLACK.


Clement Tyler Obropta studied film and English at Ithaca College. He lives in New Jersey, and his writing can be found published with Film Inquiry, Gen Z Critics, and The Slice. He serves as the photo editor for Wanderlust Journal and a culture editor for MAYDAY magazine.

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