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.”