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.”