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.
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’.