It was generally frowned upon to cancel a ceremony half way through. Even more frowned upon was sprinting out of a temple, wrapped in a sheet and flinging off tribute as you went. It was hard to care about what was and wasn’t frowned upon, Sapphomet thought, as their own heartbeat roared in their ears. They watched people’s heads turn as they ran past, hiding their eyes and relying on their other senses to guide them. It didn’t matter if they ran headlong off a cliff, they needed to get away.
It was not a cliff that ended their sprint, but the heavy wooden door of a two-story stone building, it’s walls held together more with thick vines and the rot of time than with the decaying mortar. Abandoned, a good place to hide. They pulled on the door and breathed what felt like their first normal breath as it clicked open. They slammed it behind them and braced their back against the door, slumping to the floor. They buried their face in their hooves, feeling an angry blush rise in their cheeks as they noticed for the first time the deep tear-streaks soaking their snout.
“Stupid.” They growled to themselves. “Stupid. Idiot. Awful.” They sat there, their breath refusing to calm any further as they tried to choke down bleating sobs. It had been a long time since they panicked like that, or a long time since they had let it get the better of them like that. Running away like a scared child, they kicked themselves, there was nowhere to run to.
Sapphomet was shocked out of their self-loathing as they heard an old floorboard creak ahead of her. they looked up to see an elderly woman, her head tilted in concerned curiosity as she gazed down on the tiny goddess at her feet. Sapphomet jumped, pushing themselves back against the door.
“I’m so sorry, I thought-” The woman held her hand up, palm out.
“Your thoughts loud little goat.” She signed deftly, her gnarled and knotted fingers moving steadily. Sapphomet watched, suddenly calmed by the effort of focusing. They raised their hand tentatively, suddenly conscious of their limited knowledge in sign language. They made a mental note to study it when the opportunity next arose.
“S O R R Y” Their hand spelled clumsily. “T H O U G H T A B A N D O N E D” The woman laughed, gentle and encouraging.
“Mute, not deaf.” She signed “Speak normal.”
“Of course.” Sapphomet said, standing. They were not used to towering over anyone. It was strange to be gazed up at. “I’m sorry, I’ll just be going then.” They said, taking a step forward to try and open the door. The woman shook her head.
“Like this?” She asked, gesturing to the sheet currently hanging off of them. She shook her head, turning on her heel and doddering across the room. She reached over a counter in the corner and pulled a proper shaul and long skirt from the opposite side. “No. You change.” Sapphomet nodded, dropping what was left of the tattered sheet and securing the real clothes around their thin form. They fit perfectly.
“Thank you.” They said, running their hands down the soft fabric. “If theres-” They stopped to watch the woman sign.
“Yes, you help pick leaves.” She shooed Sapphomet away from the door, leading them outside. Sapphomet blinked, stunned. They took a moment before following, still hesitant to be seen. They followed the woman around the side of the house and into the back garden. It was practically overrun with bright green bushels of waxy-looking leaves. They took a deep breath, immediately overwhelmed by the smell of green tea. They turned back to the older woman, who nodded curtly. Sapphomet shrugged to themselves and set to work picking what seemed like the best leaves. Deep green, but not too deep green? They took a moment to admit to themselves that they were guessing. The woman stepped out in front of them, snapping to draw attention to her signing.
“Don’t pick good leaves. All good leaves. I grow them good.” She smiled, then dove in with both hands, grabbing fistfuls and tossing them into a bucket behind her.
“What’s your name?” Sapphomet asked, watching the woman and trying to mimic her movements. More leaves seemed to end up on the ground than in the bucket.
“Green Cat.” She signed, keeping one hand working. “Fur used to be green. All fell out.”
“Stress!” She grinned. “Stress like you. Stress make your fur fall out. Now I make tea, no stress making tea.” Sapphomet’s hands froze as they remembered the anxiety that was quietly bubbling away inside them. Cat slapped their wrist.
“Stop! You think too much. Work instead.” She signed, more encouraging than chastising. The two of them worked in silence until the bucket was brimming with leaves, at which point Sapphomet hoisted it to their chest and followed Cat back inside. The two sat by the fire, taking turns turning over the bundle of leaves in a large steamer pot. Sapphomet took point when it came to spreading the leaves out to dry, their hardened hooves more used to handling something with the potential to scald. The two shared a few glasses of the runoff, it’s potent flavor coating Sapphomet’s throat the same way it seemed to stain into every inch of their hooves up to the rope burns on their wrists. As day dragged into night, Cat insisted that Sapphomet stay.
“Too dangerous to travel at night little goat.” She signed. “You stay long enough to taste your work.” Sapphomet could hardly argue. They found themselves, as they struggled to fall asleep, raising the back of their hand to their snout and focusing on the seemingly impossible-to-wash-out smell of green tea. They sighed, contented with every inhalation as they drifted off.
They would end up staying there a lot longer than the week it took their first batch of tea leaves to dry. They spent a comfortable few years in the warm upstairs room Cat said was left behind by her husband. They chose not to question it. It always smelled like green tea and tobacco smoke. The dusty old attic space was adapted with a small mirror, a hammock, and a path cleared between burlap sacks full of dry leaves. Part of their agreement was that Sapphomet had to throw out the bags that had started to rot, They hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
The corner with their mirror was also piled with a few small tributes, just their favorites and the ones that were too valuable to cast off: a small wood carving of themselves, some thick gold bangles that They had been meaning to sell off, and a dozen small bottles of wine. They received one just about every time they held tribute, always from the same long haired lamb. They quietly hoped they would see him again today as they examined themselves in the mirror. Their hair was getting long, it was time for another trim.
Market day was always exciting. Since settling in Sapphomet had kind of become a shut-in. Going out to sell off their excess and going out to be the subject of worship were just about the only times they interacted with other people, and it was hard to make friends under the pretense of either selling them something or having semi-public religion based sex with them. Still, they were trying, and they had had a few good conversations. They settled on leaving their hair for now, tying it up with a short length of cord and heading downstairs. Cat was standing at the counter, quietly focused on putting freshly chopped leaves into small silk bags. Part of what made a good market was having a little something to give away.
Sapphomet glided up next to their new mentor, drawing focus to their claws with a little wave.
“Good morning.” They signed. Cat smiled, signing back.
“Getting there. I still prefer your voice.”
“Well if I don't practice I'm not going to get better.” Sapphomet said, nabbing half of the silk squares and setting to work making their own bags.
“Fair enough,” Cat signed, nodding as she went back to her work. “Will the lamb boy hand scars be there today?”
“I don't know why you would expect me to know that.” Sapphomet said, pushing down a blush. Cat laughed her quiet, breathy laugh.
“Good boy. Makes good wine. I'll get you a bed if you want to bring him around.”
“No, no. His dad and my John...” Sapphomet trailed off. It wasn't worth talking about.
“Soft turtle, you know him?” Cat asked. Sapphomet nodded, focusing on their work. “He tells me his daughter asks about you. Maybe I find my wine somewhere else.”
“Maybe both.” Sapphomet shrugged.
“Maybe.” Cat signed, reaching up to pat the goat as she finished up her tea-bags. “No time to think about exes. Market day is busy day.” Sapphomet took a deep breath, sliding their pile into a small crate and handing it off to Cat. They swept the unused leaves back into their sack and slung it over their shoulder.
“Ready to go?” She asked, not looking pulling the door open and walked headlong into a hard, familiar chest. Cat’s eyes went wide as she took in the figure. Sapphomet saw the illustration first, a harsh black and white pressing of their face. They followed the form upwards, a fitted, all black suit far too modern for the era they were in, his black fur giving away seamlessly to black curled horns, his solid white eyes too focused on Cat to watch Sapphomet drop the bag of tea and trip over it as they struggled to leave the doorway.
“Good morning. I’m looking for my partner.” John drawled, glancing down at the print and catching Sapphomet’s eye for the first time. “Oh, lucky me.” He took a step forward as Cat stepped over Sapphomet, planting a firm hand on his chest. She signed furiously just inches from John’s face.
“What is she trying to say to me?” John asked, leaning around the woman’s steady frame.
“She is asking you nicely to leave.” Sapphomet said, their voice shaking. John finally focused on the hands. By the looks of things, she was not asking nicely. John rolled his eyes and tried to step around the smaller woman, earning him a firm stomp on the toe of his polished black loafers. He stopped, staring down at the scuff. He clicked his tongue and shoved her to the side with the same amount of effort as if he was lazily swatting a bug out of his face. Sapphomet winced as the back of their head thumped against the leg of the counter. They planted their hand on its surface and pulled themselves up from the floor. They fumbled blindly through tears for the short, dull knife, it’s blade still coated in flecks of green tea.
“Sapphomet, please. We both know your absence has gone on long enough.” They suddenly felt unable to meet his gaze, instead trying to focus on Cat. Something was clearly broken. She was trying desperately to push herself off the ground with one hand, signing with the other.
“Love you. Always love you. Always love you little goat.” She made it to her knees as John took Sapphomet by the wrist. They hadn’t noticed how badly they were shaking until they could feel his firm black claw clamp down around their wrist.
“Hell just isn’t the same without you.” He teased.
And then it was gone. The comfortable cool of the small home, the smell of tea, and Green Cat. All gone.
OCT 4, 1989
The outskirts of Toronto.
The end of another slow day. Sapphomet couldn’t complain - the plain facade was not designed to attract customers, and even those who made it inside rarely recognized it for its intended purpose: the warm interior was decorated more like a specialty shop than an active tea counter; large antique jars of dried leaves of every kind were piled densely on any flat surface that would have them. A large, dusty 3-ring binder took the place of a cash register, and most of their guests left with a crate instead of a cup. This wasn’t an issue. It was a front, it got them out of the apartment, a place to cool off when they got mad at Ratty, a place they occasionally invited antiques dealers who were having trouble with deeply cursed objects.
Tonight was not one of those nights though. Tonight was just a get out of the house night, and it was over. They spent the last few minutes of the night, once today's book was done, watching the downpour outside leak under the front door’s bent-up kick-plate, their gaze jumping occasionally to a lizard woman in a heavy worn parka, clearly sleeping at one of their tables; one of their only regular customers. They checked the time again: 9:54. There was really no point in staying open any later than they wanted to. It was never about money, they didn’t have a boss to please. Still, it felt better this way, like they were doing something. They sighed, wandering lazily around the counter and crossing the space to flick off the worn out old “Open” sign.
“Do you have an umbrella, Pokey?” They asked, startling the only other occupant out of her sleep. She looked up for just a moment before burying her head back in her arms. “I can call you a cab if your place is too far to walk.” Sappomet offered. Pokey buried her face deeper into her arms. Sapphomet crossed the room, pulling out a chair and sitting across from Pokey.
“Pokey?” They prodded, tugging on the sleeve of her jacket, not sure if they had actually seen her wake up. She shot up, blinking some sleep out of her eyes.
“huh? Oh, yeah. I just thought I could stay. Hang out for a bit.” She said, her eyes lulling closed periodically.
“Is something going on?” Sapphomet asked, gently scrutinizing the younger woman.
“I don't see why there has to be something going on. It's like, a public store right?”
“I mean, it closes at ten. I can get you a ride-” Sapphomet faltered. “That’s not really the point, I mean - for example - ‘is everything alright at home’, kind of thing.” Pokey swallowed hard at this, mostly awake and staring intently at the uneven floorboards.
“I assume everything is great at home i just uh… I don’t, live there.”
“Oh Pokey.” Sapphomet hopped to the closer chair, leaning in and gently gripping the lizards shoulder. They didn’t know each other very well. Pokey kept to herself, always making a point to deflect when questions came in the short conversations the two had. Sapphomet considered her face. Too young. They remembered hearing about an eighteenth birthday, couldn’t remember how long ago it was. Still, too young. They got up, dropped the blinds at the front of the store and stamped down the latch on the front door. They lifted the cushions from an old couch in the corner - rarely sat on by anyone - and pulled out the folding bed underneath.
“What are you doing?” Pokey asked, caught off guard by the sudden flurry of movement. Sapphomet went behind the counter. They threw on a pot of water and knelt to pull up the floorboards. A few dusty milk crates sat in the hidden compartment: one containing some fresh, if a little dusty sheets, a space heater, and some pillows, and the other several sealed jars of tea and thick textbooks. They took a jar from one and rested it gently on top of the sheets, hoisting it out of the hole and dropping it onto the counter. They took the jar back out and opened it with a pop.
“Grab that.” They said, nodding towards the basket of sheets. Pokey obliged, shaking the dust from the duvet and holding it awkwardly just off the floor. Sapphomet went to work chopping the leaves into flakes as the pot began to steam behind her.
“You are staying here tonight.” They said, laying a bed of the leaves in a strainer and throwing it over a large teapot.
“And!” A rare interruption from the little goat. “Every night until we find somewhere better.” Pokey dropped down onto the pullout bed, stunned. She took a moment to dry her eyes with the corner of the blanket in her hands.
“Thanks” She croaked, her voice cracking slightly.
“Of course.” Sapphomet said, quietly focused on coating every dried leaf with the stream of boiling water. Pokey plugged in the space heater, sighing as she slipped off her parka and submitted to the orange electronic hum. Sapphomet tapped the last few drips out of the strainer and brought the mug over to the shivering lizard. She looked confused for a moment before realizing she was being offered tea, and accepted it graciously.
“I’m sorry. I realize having a relative stranger lock you into their store is probably a little hard on the nerves.”
“Better than being locked out.” Pokey examined the yellow-green liquid for a moment before taking a long, throat scalding sip. Her guarded posture fell as the last shivers slipped quietly out through her shoulders. She took a deep breath. “This is too nice.” Sapphomet shook their head. Staring through the cracks in the blinds, they watched the headlights of the cars go by outside.
“The least I could do.” They took a breath as the smell of green tea overtook the cold, quiet store.