Thursday, September 10, 2015


Please don’t hurt me. Please, you’ll scare Elon.
Yes, that’s what I was told his name was. He responds to it most of the time.
That’s not his name?
I don’t think I could pronounce or even remember that. That’s a long name. I don’t think my tongue can even make those sounds, but at least he recognises his own name.

Why do I look…? I’m scared. Out of my mind. Of course I’m scared. If you were me, wouldn’t you be? I mean… I’m – I’m still a teenager – oh, ah, a youth. It means a child near maturity or a person that has just reached maturity.
I guess I could get a mate, but I don’t want one. Yet.
I’m telling you the honest truth. Didn’t you just say you’d know if I were lying? I don’t want to die.

My parents live far away. I live with my sister down there. See, down in the valley over there. We moved here to be closer to work. My sister looks after me – yes, she’s an adult. No, it’s not normal, but it isn’t very unusual either. People move out of home all the time when they’re old enough.

My older sister, Margot, works as a project specialist at the Frank Cliffs site of the Daubenton Institute of Research. They have over 20 projects crammed into the small ‘S’ shaped building and with emphasis on zoology and biological sciences. The project my sister is working on has something to do with transmission or dispersal systems and animals. Don’t ask me. I’m just a messenger and most of these projects have weird names that I can’t remember.

The Frank Cliffs site is a semi-secure facility where I’m often told that I wouldn’t understand if I asked for details of what some of the projects are about. Some of the scientists here are very secretive and even paranoid and refuse to talk to anyone other than those they trust in their project teams. My sister’s not like that. Margot tells me everything and tries to explain even the technical stuff about what’s going on in her project (which has a long name that I can never remember). Of course, I barely understand a word of what she’s saying. I haven’t studied or learnt any of that stuff.

All I know is that project budgets are tight because of government budget cuts and Margot’s project is important. Oh, that’s money stuff. Projects need money to run and… Margot’s project possibly has something to do with viruses and immunizations, but I wouldn’t count on my understanding of things. You’d do better to talk to one of the scientists yourself.

Yes. I’m more of a courier for the DIoR. I deliver mail, stuff in boxes, drugs, you name it – I’ve delivered it. And yes, that includes animal and human body parts. I had a severed head in a box once. I felt like the eyes were boring a hole in the back of my head the entire drive from Dalgleish – that’s an hour away. It felt like they were. You know how sometimes someone is watching you and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? You don’t have – ok, nevermind.

Anyway, I’m in and out of the facilities all the time, and I know most of the people – if not by name, at least by face. Yes, I could probably point them out to you, but you’re not going to hurt them are you? Because if you are, I’d rather not… They just wanted to keep him safe and try to understand about him at the same time. No, no. Nothing like that. At least, I don’t think so…

Please understand I don’t actually know anything that happens in the facility most of the time. I just take messages and things to people when they tell me to. I do as I’m told. They barely talk to me or even notice me unless I’m in the way. Well, yes. I guess. Like today. I’m going to be in so much trouble later.

I don’t think they’d kill me, but I’ll probably lose my job. Margot might lose her job too. They might fine us – make us pay them a lot of money as a form of punishment. Whatever happens, it would be bad. Elon was a secret government project. The people who run the country don’t like it when a random teenager finds out about – it wasn’t my fault. Elon kept escaping. I would have too if I were him. Nobody likes being kept caged up and never getting to go anywhere or seeing anything.

Those are houses. It’s where we rest and sleep. We have the keys to the doors so that we can go in and out as we like. Ok. I don’t understand, but ok. Does that mean you all live together like a big family? That’s cool. I mean, great. Good.

Oh, you saw the school? I don’t go anymore. That’s why I work.

I’m trying to. You keep interrupting and asking questions. No, I guess there isn’t much point to telling a story the person listening can’t understand. Ok. I’ll try.

It was Monday, the Monday just past when I first met Elon. He’d escaped from the grassy play area they keep fenced off for him, although I didn’t know that at the time. I’d just arrived with a stack of mail and some other deliveries, trying to avoid my sister, because I hadn’t done my share of chores last night and Margot wasn’t happy about it. I was passing by the main kitchen area when a bunch of scientists pushed past me. The mail went all over the floor and I had to pick it all up. While I was doing that and they couldn’t see me, I heard them talking.

   “He’s escaped again.”
   “I can’t find him anywhere. Elon’s gone.”
   “The little monkey. He’s never escaped from there before.”

Yes, yes, they know you’re not monkeys. It’s just an expression, ok? It’s something adults sometimes say to naughty children when they’re being cheeky and troublesome.

I grabbed the mail and finished delivering it quickly, because I didn’t know what had gotten loose and whether it was dangerous or not. I only know that in situations like that, I have to stay out of the way and get out in case the place goes into lock down. When you’re stuck in lock down, no one can get in and no one can get out if you do get stuck inside, it’s really boring – or it is until you get sick or die or whatever happens. I don’t know. I’ve never been stuck in lock down before. Margot tells me to get out and avoid it if I can.

Since I saw Margot’s shoes outside her office earlier, I knew where she was and I still wanted to avoid her. So instead of going out the back way like usual, I left the building through the other end. Just over there, where it’s hilly and grassy.

It was a bright day, full of sunshine and blue sky with white cottony clouds. The wind would have been great for flying a kite – that’s – oh, you know what it is. I saw Jim waving a bowl of stuff amongst the long grass as if he were looking for something and I guess it was his project that escaped. Jim’s the guy who’s been in charge of feeding Elon. He came up with some sort of mixed mince dish with egg yolks that the little guy seems to enjoy most of the time, although I still reckon that Jim should have cooked it first. I mean, you people might be different, but you’re not so different like a horse is from a frog. Cooked food is so much nicer. Especially meat.

Wait. I’m right? Cool. I mean, great. That’s great.

Anyway, I stopped a moment to talk to Jim, and while I was talking, I heard laughing.

It was Elon, of course, from where he was hiding and laughing at Jim, thinking it was a great game. Jim couldn’t seem to hear him though. I don’t know why. Elon was laughing pretty loud. I followed the sound of his voice to a little cave in the hill that was covered by the long grass that Jim seemed to have missed. There I found Elon.

I was a little shocked at first, but there are lots of things in the world I haven’t seen before. So the large forehead and that colour of your skin is normal for your people? Well, people come in all different coloured skins here too… Well, I guessed Elon was an alien, but his laughing just sounded like a little kid having fun to me. I giggled along with him, quietly, so that Jim wouldn’t hear. It was fun watching Jim look for Elon when he was right there under his nose. I think Jim might need thicker glasses.

Elon noticed me and grinned, batting at the grass in front of himself. I assumed he wanted to be found.

   “Is that who you were looking for?” I held the grass apart for Jim to see.
   “Yep, thanks,” Jim said, scooping Elon up. “I’d better go put him back and let the others know I’ve found him. Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
   “Sure,” I told Jim. “My lips are sealed, but can I ask a question?”
   “No. Sorry,” Jim said. “I’ve gotta go.”
   “What is he?” I asked anyway.
   “That’s a really good question,” Jim called back to me over his shoulder and took Elon through one of the gates there. I’d never seen that gate open before, so I peered through while I could, but Jim shut the gate in my face and told me to get back to work and stop peeping.

The next time I saw Elon, I was having a rare break. It was Wednesday. Just 2 days later. For the first time in almost forever, everyone’s projects were going well, they didn’t need me to deliver anything and so I was allowed to have some free time to myself. I was outside by the hilly bit near the cliffs over that way, practising taking off and landing. No. Not jumping. Flying.

Humans can too, fly.
Yes, they have the aeroplanes and stuff, but we don’t have to have those to fly. Anyone who’s a Christian can fly. A Christian is someone who believes in God and Jesus. Umm… God is… the Creator. God’s the one who made everything, including us. You know Him too? Cool. Jesus is His son. Yeah. Well, I guess He does have a lot of names. Not everyone believes He’s real, you see. Don’t ask me why. You should ask them. Maybe it’s because they can’t really see Him. On earth, most people only believe what they see. The wind comparison gets used a lot, but people still don’t get it.

Well, most people don’t know they can fly. They believe that they can’t and that it’s impossible. They don’t try. When you become born again into God’s family, He makes you a new creation. You’re no longer bound by the laws of this world and its physics. You can do the impossible, but most people don’t really try it. Some people do it without realising, but they don’t notice, because they don’t believe it’s possible. Most of the time, they don’t really understand the full implication of what being a new creation means.

Look, I’ll show you. See? I can fly.
Yeah, I guess I am unique. Even among my own people. Your people don’t know about that either? Well, I guess you could ask God yourselves – the Creator. See what he says. Thank you. That’s very kind.

So, I was practising where nobody could see me, because some people kind of freak out and I don’t want to become a test subject for any of these scientists. I stopped for a rest and was looking out at the sea, when Elon said he was hungry. That made me jump really high. I hadn’t seen or heard him arrive. I don’t even know how long he’d been there.

   “Sorry, Elon,” I said, when he snuggled up to me, and I stroked his hair. “I don’t have any food.”
   “Tired,” Elon said.
   “Close your eyes and go to sleep then,” I told him. “I’ll look after you.”

He fell asleep after a bit and I sat there looking at him, wondering what he was and how he got here. I was also thinking about how cute he was and how Jim and his team must be freaking out again. Watching him, I must have fallen asleep too, because the next thing I remember was Jim and some of his team lifting Elon up off me, leaving my chest feeling cold. They whispered quite loudly, but I don’t remember what they said. I wasn’t paying attention.

After Jim’s team had taken Elon away, still sleeping, Jim sat down next to me while I struggled awake. He put his coat around me, because it was getting cold and the sun was starting to set.

   “Did you know Elon was sleeping on you?” Jim asked.
   “Yes,” I told him. “He said he was hungry, but I didn’t have anything for him to eat. So he said he was tired, so I told him to go to sleep and he did. I guess I fell asleep after that.”
   “You should have called me straight away,” Jim said, pulling out his phone and putting his hand out for mine. “Look, here, I’ll give you my mobile number. Next time you see Elon where he’s not supposed to be, you call me immediately, understand? We don’t want anyone else seeing him. If word about his leaks out, alien enthusiasts would come calling, there’d be a media circus and someone might steal Elon away to dissect him. There’d be no peace. You don’t want that, do you?”

I shook my head, rubbing my eyes and Jim gave me back my phone after putting his number in.

   “Elon seems to like you,” Jim smiled and patted my shoulder. “He doesn’t take to new people easily. He only likes me because I feed him and sometimes bring him treats or new things to try.”
   “How do you know what he likes to eat?”
   “To be honest,” Jim said, helping me up, “it’s been a process of trial and error. We think he’s still a child, so we don’t really know what’s good for him, since children don’t always like what’s good for them. Anyway, I’m glad that if he escapes again, he’s likely to come looking for you. Just let me know if he pops up again.”
   “How’d he escape?”
   “No idea. Absolutely no idea. You said he said he was hungry and tired. How’d he tell you?”
   “He talked. Like a little kid.”
   “He talked? I thought he couldn’t talk. What did he say, exactly?”
   “Hungry. Tired,” I replied.
   “Oh. Well,” Jim grinned, “at least we know he understands some English now. We’ll have to see if we can convince him to talk for us too.”

We went inside after that and I drove home.

On Thursday – that’s the next day, I was delivering live rabbits to some scientists at the cliff door. The scientists had signed the delivery sheet and then putting the rabbits into cages. These weren’t normal rabbits that I’d seen before. They had black and white swirly markings on them, and looked kind of cool. I hung around to watch, but got distracted by someone inside the building accidentally blowing up something in one of the labs. The evacuation alarm went off and people were walking or running and shouting all over the place.

Then I heard shouts from the scientists putting away those rabbits and there was Elon, holding onto what looked like a high tech helium balloon and snatching up one of those new rabbits. The wind blew them up and inland from the cliff toward the forest and the swamp.

Before I knew it, everyone in the facility was out in their cars and chasing after him. I got swept into the same car as Margot and one of her co-workers, Pete. They drove down the back roads toward the swamp, because that was the way the wind was blowing. I called Jim and he was in another car coming from another direction, following directly behind, but then we all lost sight of Elon when the balloon dipped out of site over an enclosed nature reserve.

Jim was on the back end of the reserve and driving around the side toward us, but we were already on the swamp side and Elon was being blown toward us by the wind. After a few nervewracking seconds where we thought we had lost him, Elon came floating on the wind toward us, but had lost his rabbit somewhere along the way. Not that it mattered much. Elon was more important and he was frightened.

Someone had called the police and their sirens and flashing lights could be heard and seen all over the place. Jim started shouting on the phone that someone was trying to steal Elon and to take him and hide. I heard Jim say something about not trusting the police. There was a lot of noise on his side of the phone and then the line cut off.

You want to see my phone? Here. Yes, it’s a communication device that we use so that we can talk to each other over long distances.

Anyway, Elon saw me and let go of the balloon. I barely caught him in time or he would have fallen on some rocks and hurt himself. I told him what Jim said about people going to come and try take him away, and he seemed to understand. He sat in the floor of the car at my feet and I covered him with my jacket.

Another car drove up, blocking the road so that we couldn’t get out and stuck their heads in our windows, asking us if we had seen an alien. Elon couldn’t sit still and kept saying he wanted to see. He started wriggling and eventually, I had to sit on him, so that I could cover him from view. One of the ladies with her head in the window at Pete’s face tried to get a better look, but Pete got annoyed with them yelling in his face and pushed their heads out. He drove up the embankment and off the road into the woods toward the swamp, trying to make a short cut back to a different road, but when we got there, there was already a police car there.

I tried calling Jim, but he didn’t pick up. Anyway, someone saw us and they started coming into the woods after us.

We drove back the way we came part way and Pete stopped the car telling me to take Elon and hide. Margot fluffed up some coats in the back seat and told us they’d lead everyone away.

Elon let me carry him at first, but then he got really excited or scared, I’m not sure which, because he wasn’t saying anything. Well, he started wriggling, got out of my arms and climbed all over me. I figured it would be hard to hide, because he didn’t seem to be able to stay still, so I just kept going. The ground became really soft and muddy, but we found our way into some tall rushes that had some firm ground until the sounds of people searching died away. By then, it was dark and cold and I was worried about snakes. Although, I’m not sure if snakes come out at night. There might have been spiders.

I left Elon digging in the mud for something and went out to check on things, but Elon must have followed me. He grabbed my leg and freaked me out. I fell down in the mud – see, I’ve still got tried mud on my clothes. I haven’t been home since, because Margot sent me a text message, saying not to. We haven’t gone back to the facility either. Elon’s been eating random things on the way, but I’m starving.

What has he been eating? I’m not very sure. Every time I turn around he’s chewing something or has just put something that looks like a bug in his mouth. Yeah, he must have been pretty hungry and he doesn’t look sick…

Well, since then, Elon and I have been hiding out in the woods or swamp. They brought dogs in at one stage too, but we managed to shoo the dogs away. I managed to convince some to go back to their masters and not give us away.

Well, no, people normally can’t talk to dogs, but when I talk to things, I get the sense that they can hear and understand me pretty well. Better than they can some other people sometimes. I’m not sure whether it’s to do with being a Christian – a new creation, or something like that. I’m guessing it is, though. I asked the woods and swamp to hide us from the people looking for us and they did. The trackers and hunters they sent in after us with guns and nets and things got confused too. Elon is really good at finding hiding places too. So…

Is that all you wanted to know and hear?
Thanks. I have a good memory.

There are people coming? They can probably see you. I mean, you’re pretty large and we’re close to the facility and not exactly under cover.
They’ve been listening to us? How? There are microphones that can hear us from that far away? Really? I didn’t know those existed. I thought they were just made up things from TV dramas. Uh, it’s television. I’ll explain to you later, but I’d rather we go somewhere safer first.

We’re surrounded? Already? If you knew they were surrounding us while you were getting me to tell you the story, why didn’t you say anything?
You want me to go out and speak to them? Me? What do you mean they can’t hear you? You talk perfectly normal. Oh. OH. Oh, really? I-I never realised… So that’s why they could never hear Elon speak. Hoo, boy. I didn’t know… A loudspeaker? Oh, you’re making sure they can all hear me. Ok. I’ll give it a try.

Um, whoa, this is loud. Sorry. Um, hi everyone. Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot. I know they’re aliens and all, but they don’t mean us any harm. They’d lost Elon and had come back to find him. He's just a kid and they were upset to discover they'd somehow lost him on our planet. They’re just picking him up and taking him home. Please don’t shoot or hurt them.

The aliens, I can’t pronounce what they call themselves, but the aliens have offered to take people with them who want to know more about them. If anyone is willing to go… Margot, there’s an offer for you and your boyfriend, and Jim there’s an offer for you to see how wrong your research has been.

Wait. What? You’ve read his research? How’d you –? Well. I guess our technology would be considered kind of primitive if you have – what is that? A space ship? Ha, well, ok. Can I just call it a spaceship, cos it’s just easier for me than trying to pronounce? You’re taking me with you? Safer for me? But what if you’re people try to dissect me or something? Well, if you put it that way, I guess I am more like you and it makes sense why you offered to take Margot now. But you could have asked first. Well, that’s true. And yes, I guess you would need me to be your, um, mouthpiece. I’m glad I’ll be safe with you. How come we can’t see your spaceship? No, that's true. I didn't understand any of that.

Guns? You have big – please don’t shoot them. Everyone’s just scared. No, no, no, no. I know my people might be bringing in bigger guns, but please… they’re just scared.

Look, everyone! Just put down your weapons! The aliens are as scared as you – wait, you’re not? Well, but… ok, ok. I’ll get on with things. Everyone, if we all start shooting, we’re the ones who will end up dead. The aliens not so much. They’d just be really upset and write us off as a savage species or tribe of people who aren’t ready to learn to be civilised yet. I’d rather not be known as a savage or uncivilised or dead. I don’t know about you. But please, put down the guns.

Please, ask your people not to shoot too? Please?

Not safe. Of course it’s not safe! Everyone’s pointing guns at each other!

Look, Mister government guy in the suit, I’m sorry, I can’t hear you properly from where I am, but I’m guessing you can hear me perfectly fine now that I’ve been, uh, amplified. Is that the right word? Amplified? Anyway, I’m going with the aliens of my own free will. I have no wish to be studied and poked or dissected by my own scientist people. The aliens say I’ll be safe and apparently, they don’t lie, so I’m choosing to go with them, ok? I can translate for whoever goes with us. It’d be better than living here and just being a messenger and told I should go back to school and that I’m not smart enough to do anything. This is my chance to be something bigger and better.

Look, Mister in the suit. I’m telling you, your megaphone isn’t loud enough. All I’m hearing is hash from here. It’s all garbled and crackly. You government people with heaps of money have got to invest in better equipment than those dodgy megaphone things.

Sorry, what? Oh, the aliens want us to get on with things.

Oh, ok. Everyone who wants to come with us, no weapons. If you try to bring a weapon or attempt to harm any person whether human or not will be, um, killed. You did mean killed right? Dropping people from that height would kill them. It’s the same thing. It is! Well, if you wanted them to survive, you could give them a parachute or something – if you have any, ok. Nevermind.

Just everyone coming, don’t bring guns, weapons or bad attitudes. Margot, I hope you’re coming, cos otherwise I’m gonna miss you heaps and cry. Everyone coming, please raise both arms. We’re all going to be –

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tofu (part 3)

Tofu (part 3)

An angry lady visits daily after that. She throws buckets of cold water on me, roughly rolls me over and throws more cold water. All the while, she grumbles about taking care of vegetables.

I am tofu, not a vegetable. I want to tell her, but good tofu do not make noise. Lately though, I have been wondering whether a tofu is still tofu even when it is not called tofu or treated as tofu. Ever since I left my box this last time, I have not been called or treated as the tofu the Real Cooks make for the Emperor every day.

Gentle Whiskers visits sometimes and makes me drink bitter water. I do not understand and he does not understand when I try to refuse it. Who would want to eat bitter tofu?

He rubs my limbs until they twitch with burning pain and encourages me to keep my eyes open. He says he has been unable to find someone else that can help him with me. He has a round face and a long pointed beard streaked through with white. The corners of his eyes look like they once crinkled with laughter, but only show worry and care now.

I resist the changes and refuse to move, but Gentle Whiskers is like a constant warm wind that slowly warms my centre. He is as patient as stone and as gentle as a moth’s wing. As if I were his lost child, he treats me and chides me, until I am compelled to obey.

He teaches me how to use the bucket on the other side of the grey stone cell, where it sits beneath a barred window that looks up at bright blue. The blue still hurts my eyes and I don’t look at it often.

  “Now that you can walk again,” says Gentle Whiskers with a pleased smile, “I will tell His Imperial Majesty that you are almost ready for a visit. He will be pleased. He had my daughter put in the water boxes, because he was displeased with how slowly you were improving. Now perhaps he will let my daughter go. When he comes, you need not try to speak with him. He would not expect it.”

Angry Lady stops coming, although there is always a fresh bucket of icy water in front of my door in the mornings. I am glad of the water that washes the bad smells from my body and replenished the water within me. Nevertheless, I am upset with Gentle Whiskers for forcing my body to remember the pain of movement. He wants me to talk to him, but tofu does not make noise. He talks of preparing me for the Emperor, but this is not how tofu is prepared. I know it’s not.

He has made me a bad tofu when I had spent so long learning how to be good.

I lie on my bench with my eyes closed, determined to become good again, so that I will not be cut up. I want to return to that place of cool stillness, ready to become forever good once laid to rest under water. The old feeling of comfortable peace will not return anymore and my throat tightens while my stomach ties itself in knots. The Emperor is going to come and visit me. What if I am not ready and he decides I am bad? All my hard work and carefulness would be wasted.

The door opens and closes. In walks one pair of footsteps.

I smell strong perfume and know it is not Gentle Whiskers. My body sinks into the bench and I feel unprepared to meet the person I know it must be.

  “Princess,” commands the nasal tenor, “open your eyes.”

Like the good tofu I am, my eyes do not flutter. Not a muscle twitches.

  “Singhua, wake up.”

When I do not move, I hear the rustle of cloth and feel a warm presence press against my left foot. A warm hand slides up my leg, my side, my neck, my face. What is he doing?

Long moments of silence and then he leaves, the door slamming shut behind him.

Shouting outside the door and in rushes the smell of soothing herbs. Drops of water fall on my skin.

“Why?” Gentle Whiskers pleads, pulling me into sitting. “Why did you ignore him? He’s going to kill my daughter. She will be drowned. She’s all I have. Please. Don’t you understand? She will die. He’s going drop her box into the water if you don’t show him you are better. Open your eyes, Princess. Look at me.”

He shakes me and my teeth rattle briefly.

There is water leaking out of his eyes and running down his beard. His face is red and he holds my shoulders, trying to tell me something. Trying to get a message across with his eyes.

  “Don’t you care? My only treasure will drown.”
  “Drown?” a whisper voice croaks. Gentle Whiskers looks so unlike himself. People seem to always get it wrong, but will he understand if he is like this? I want to be good tofu, but he will not let me. I will need to explain. “Tofu rests in water. Does not drown.”
  “Tofu in box. Put in water to stay fresh. Good tofu sent into water. No drowning. Peace. Good for tofu.”
  “I don’t understand.”
  Clumsy fingers seem to point at me. They are thin and delicate. Almost see through. Wrinkled.
  “Tofu,” hand on chest, I try to explain using what words I can convince my tongue to twist out. My tongue feels fat and swollen. “Good tofu still. Not moving. Not speaking. Lie in water.”

Strong perfume fills the air and startled, Gentle Whiskers lets go of me so that I must struggle to stay sitting by myself; and touches his face to the ground, staying low and crawling backwards.

  “So, she speaks.”
  “This is the first time, Your Imperial Majesty. I think her mind has been broken. She does not seem to understand.”
  “Something must have stirred her,” a stern face above heavy yellow embroidery gazes at me, dark stone eyes examine me. “What did you tell her?”
  “About my daughter, your Imperial Majesty.”

The stern man’s fingers click and another man in blue rushes up almost bent double, his eyes not daring to look above the yellow and gold hem.

  “Stop the execution. Take the Doctor. Let him save his daughter.”

Both Gentle Whiskers and the man in blue back out the door in a hurry, the stern gaze watching them until the sound of their footsteps had faded away out of sight. Then the dark stones turn to regard me and I wonder what they want.

  “Why did you not greet me?” the nasal whine pitches higher. When I say nothing, he frowns. “Do you mock me? Do you know who I am?”
  “Has the Emperor come to eat tofu?”

The frown deepens and the stones in his eyes shrink back. An arm flicks out toward the door and then pulls aside the gowns to sit. Before he can sit, more people in embroidered blue run through the door and slip an ornamented seat beneath him. They back out the door at the same speed after ensuring the yellow robes are happy.

A small smile lightens the stern face, although the light does not reach the dark eyes.

  “Tell me what you were telling the Doctor. Speak.”
  “Good tofu does not speak,” I shake my head, unsure what to do. Is there any point trying to show him I can be a good tofu now that he has seen I am bad tofu? My eyes fill with water at this.
  “Tofu again,” he says, leaning toward me.
  “Yes,” I nod. He understands? He must. He understands. He is the Emperor after all.
  “You have not spoken before today, the Doctor says.”
  “Good tofu does not speak.”
  “Tell me, what does good tofu do?” the creases between his eyes change shape. They arch like a worm attempting to crawl away.
  “Good tofu is quiet. Stays clean. Rests under water. Waits for the cooks or the Emperor to prepare it for eating. Daughter of Gentle Whiskers put in box is tofu. Box put on tofu Stack. Tofu is for eating. Put in water to keep fresh is good, but Gentle Whiskers is upset. Does not understand.” Talking is tiring. Especially for a tofu that tried so hard to be good, but will have to be cut up and thrown to the animals. Water drips down my nose and chin. All that effort was wasted, because of Gentle Whiskers. “Gentle Whiskers made tofu open eyes and move. Made tofu speak. Now tofu is bad and has to be cut up and fed to animals.”

The golden embroidery shimmers when the Emperor leans back and laughs so long and loud that I wonder whether it will ever end. Is there a river of endless laughter within the yellow belly? His eyes are shut tight, but when they open, brightness has melted the stones away. I forget my miserable disappointment and stare into the light that melted the stones.

  “I’m going to call you Tofu from now on,” coughs the Emperor, catching his breath. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
  “There were stones and the light melted them away. Now there is brightness.”
  “Tofu, you are the best thing I have seen or spoken to all year.”
  “Not bad tofu?”
  “No, you are good Tofu,” a warm hand brushes my cheek and rests on my head.
  “Then tofu is to be eaten?”

Another laugh peals out, almost as long as before.

Why is he laughing? What have I said?

  “Hrrmph,” he stands and the blue people run in to take the seat. “Not yet,” he says, straightening his bright robes. The nasal whine has gone from his voice and now it sound like water falling into the deep pool below the Stack. “Tofu has to be dressed and prepared before eating, doesn’t it?”
  “Tofu doesn’t know,” I tell him earnestly. “Tofu doesn’t see the end beyond the kitchen door when it is being made.”
  “This Tofu,” his hand pats my head gently, “is not quite ready yet. You are tired, Tofu, let me help you lie down.”

He lets me rest against his arm and lays me back down, closing my eyes and caresses my cheek.

  “Rest now.”

A breeze carries the strong perfume smell out, but still it lingers a while longer. I do as he tells me. The Emperor knows best after all. I spoke, I moved and he still called me ‘good’.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tofu (part 2)

Tofu (part 2)

Angry hands throw me and I land with a thump on the warm floor of my cage in the Hot Room. Although my eyes were shocked open for a moment, I shut them again quickly, so that I don’t have to see anything else. I’ve seen it all before anyway. Far away, I can hear cries of tofu being pressed or completely dried out. The bamboo floors of the Drying Cages aren’t exactly the cleanest places, but if my cage-mate does not like me lying motionless on the bench that is the only bed all the time, I will not complain. I will not move. Tofu doesn’t move on its own.

The air is hot and makes me thirsty. I want to escape back to my box on top of the Stack, being constantly washed and kept clean. The air there is cool and wet. The light is not harsh and the soothing sound of falling water masks all other sounds. If I wanted to, I could watch the Real Cooks below preparing real tofu for the entire Imperial Palace.

Here, the light glares red beneath my closed eye lids. Because the air is so hot and dry, my eyes hurt if I open them. Moving hurts and my skin feels like it is becoming like paper. Soon it will shrink around my joints, drying and cracking, ready to fall off in flakes. My insides will settle and become like dried meat. If the cooks want to cook me later, they would have to stew me so that I can be chewed properly. This is no way for a good tofu to be treated, but perhaps this is part of a maturing process. Perhaps the Emperor wants me to become a matured tofu, ready for fermenting.

I don’t like the idea of becoming fermented tofu. It sounds painful. I would much rather remain fresh tofu and rest under the water, but tofu doesn’t have a choice in its destination. It’s all up to the Emperor or cooks to determine how it should be used.

Stuck in this awkward position with my trunk facing down and my legs facing up is painful, but I can be patient. Part of being a good tofu is patience and acceptance.

It’s a good thing that I don’t have to wait long, because a Cage Cook has seen what happened. The cage sways with his footsteps and he kicks me onto my back. I allow my body to roll over into that much more comfortable position, while inwardly cringing at all the dirt I am getting on me. He pinches my wrist and neck to make sure I am alive.

When he scratches, I feel dirt flakes drift down onto my bare skin, making me want to flinch or itch at the spot.

  “Well? Is she alive?” bellows a voice I recognise at Pot Belly Cage Cook’s.
  “Yes sir,” replies the Cage Cook standing over me, still scratching so that the dirt flakes rain down over me, “but barely. Her pulse is weak.”

I don’t know all the Cage Cooks. Not as well as I know all the Strong Cooks in the Tofu Hall. I guess I will call this one Flaky Dirt Cage Cook.

  “Get her out and into a cell. We’ll have to get someone to come down to have a look at her. His Imperial Majesty will have our heads if she dies. This one’s a special case His Imperiousness has been keeping a distant eye on.”

Heaving me up, Flaky Dirt throws me over his shoulder and carries me like a sack of beans. I wonder if they will wash me. I hope so. Dirt can quickly make me bad tofu. Flaky Dirt’s shoulder is very bony and my nose bumps against his back, so that I can smell the sour sweat and old blood on his shirt. Hanging upside down, I imagine what water left in my body is rushing to my head and I can feel my head swelling, while my ears rush with the roar of water moving inside me. It makes a whirlpool of darkness that pulls me under a dizzying current.

I wake in a cool place and almost sigh in relief. A hand holds my head up and a cup to my lips contains water that I am only allowed to sip.

  “Your Imperial Majesty, if you want this girl to live, she will need to be removed from the prisons and given gentle care. Even then, I am unsure if she will survive,” a firm baritone speaks.
  “She still has 3 months to her sentence,” a familiar tenor with a slight nasal whine says. “They will not be reduced. You watch over her and make sure she recuperates, but she does not leave the prisons until her sentence is complete.”
  “As you wish Your Merciful Majesty, but she should not be moved from the cells.”
  “Arrange it, Doctor. I will visit her often to ensure she is improving.”
  “If Your Imperial Majesty will be visiting her often, then she must be kept separate from all other prisoners.”
  “Of course,” scoffs the tenor with the nasal whine. “See to it.”
  “Yes, Your Gracious Majesty. Immediately.”

A breeze of perfume washes over me and a warm hand brushes my face and neck, before several pairs of footsteps follow the perfumed wind.

The hand holding my head up gently rests my head back down, its owner muttering some things to himself under his breath. I cannot understand what he is saying. Whatever it is, it is irrelevant to a tofu.

  “He’s gone now,” a whiskered mouth brushes my ear. “I know you’re awake.”

I don’t know what Gentle Whiskers wants me to do. I am tofu. I do not move. I do not speak.

  “There is a bucket in the corner for you to use,” he says after a long moment of silence, moving away with a flap of cloth. “I will come and check on you every few days.”

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tofu (part 1)

Sometimes I want to share my stories, but who wants to read raw stories? You want them polished and refined. I tried, but got too excited. Instead, here is the first part of the story. If you like it, perhaps the other parts will follow. If not, perhaps I will keep it to myself.

Tofu - part 1

Everyone knows that good tofu must rest quietly in cool water before it is ready. Depending on the type of tofu, it may or may not be dried or pressed to get rid of the excess water.

The Strong Cooks had not yet deemed me ready to become tofu ready for eating. I could hear the Real Cooks talking about the latest batch and if I turned around to peer through the bamboo slats of my box, I could see them too. I used do that a lot, until I learnt only bad tofu did that. Bad tofu has to be cut up and thrown to the animals, because the only the best can be served to the Emperor and his court. I don’t want to be bad tofu.

So I lie here still and quiet in the dim light, in the best position on the Stack - right at the top, where I am constantly washed by the cleanest water that trickles through the bamboo slat roof of my box. This prevents me from going bad. I hated being lower in the Stack. The water was always dirty by the time it reached me.

The Stack sways violently with the new tofu’s attempts to escape his box. His grunts can be heard through the rushing water.

He was added near the bottom of the Stack not long ago. He wriggles and screams and threatens to topple the whole Stack down, particularly while he is trying to break open his box. The tofu who have been here longer growl at him, because if the whole Stack falls, nearly everyone in the Stack will be sent underwater before the cooks say we are ready. I stay quiet. The others talk sometimes, but I dare not. Those who talk are bad tofu and I want to be good. I want to rest underwater sooner.

  “Orders,” I hear a voice say. I know all the people who come and go. I don’t know his name. They never mention names down here, but before I decided to be good, I named them. This man is Tenor. He acts as a messenger to the Strong Cooks in our hall who look after the Stacks. He never talks to the Real Cooks. “Orders from His Imperial Majesty.”

This happens every so often and I try not to listen. I prefer to pay attention to the music of the water. Good tofus do not worry about what will happen to them or those around them. Good tofus lie still and just accept what happens to them. Their purpose is to be so good that the Emperor wants them or orders them to become permanently better by immersion in water.

There is a grunt.

  “His Imperial Majesty orders boxes 14 and 15 to be drowned,” Fat Cook barks. He really means they are to be submerged until they become good. “Boxes 11 and 9 are to be questioned,” meaning they will be pressed to become a firmer type of tofu, “and boxes 1, 2 and 3 are to be dried out.”

I feel almost happy for the occupants of numbers 14 and 15. They will find peace when they are submerged, although judging by their wailing and struggling, they do not agree. I would like to find peace and be permanently good too, but they never call on me for submersion. I wonder what it would be like to sleep forever in the cool water.

The Stack trembles and wobbles as boxes are moved. There are twin screams, followed by splashes, gurgles and then silence. They never go quietly. Why can’t they ever go to sleep quietly? Don’t they know they are becoming good tofu? They should be thankful.

My box is pulled off the Stack and carried away, probably by Hairy Cook and Skinny Cook. They are the usual box carriers. I am in Box 1 and am being taken to dry off. This happens to all tofu every now and then to prevent them from bursting out of their skins – at least that is what I believe. Perhaps this time, they will deem me ready to either be put underwater to seal in the freshness or cooked. Tofu is made to be eaten after all.

Gnawing jaws grip my stomach in the case I am pronounced a bad tofu. I don’t want to be cut up. Please tell me I’ve been a good tofu.

Closing my eyes, I feel wind on my skin and it makes me shiver. I had gotten used to the constant cool water that felt warm, but for some reason my skin feels swollen. The Emperor must be very clever to know when we are ready for what stage of preparation when neither he nor the cooks ever look in our boxes at us.

Time for a tofu moves very slowly. The journey in my box could have been a journey to the far horizon and I drift off dreaming of distant memories that are irrelevant to my life as a tofu now. Still those memories are nice to look at, even if they have become so broken up that all I catch are glimpses of scenery.

And now that I have put down this first part of the story, I feel ashamed that I should give you such a poor story. When I read this, I am transported. I hope that it does the same for you.