Preparations

Preparations

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

“A woman that can master the tea pouring ceremony has proven herself to be a good wife. You will learn to pour, even if it kills you.” For the past year, this has been the mantra in Nagomi’s home.

It is not enough that she cooks perfect meals, that she has learnt how to manage a home, that she has practiced child rearing with her elder brother’s children. It doesn’t matter that Yaotsu is a semi city, nor does it matter that people have abandoned the old ways for the modern.

Her mother wanted her to learn the tea pouring art, so she learnt.

Yesterday, Nagomi had done the final rehearsal, her mother acting as the guest.

Today, there would be four guests to attend to.

In the tea room, Nagomi fills a stone basin with fresh water and purifies her hands and mouth. Even though her heart is threatening to beat out through her chest, she proceeds calmly to the middle gate. Mahito is already waiting, his parents in tow. The father is as tall as he is, with the same broad face, slanted eyes, and button nose. The mother is buxom, her face filled out into a cheery roundness that eases some of the anxiety in Nagomi’s chest. Nagomi’s father rounds up the number of guests.

Nagomi bows to her guests, and they bow back. No words are spoken as Nagomi’s mother, today acting as the assistant host, then Mahito, then his father, then his mother, then Nagomi’s mother make their way through the chumon.

At the stone basin, the guests and host’s assistant purify themselves and enter the teahouse through a sliding door that is just three feet high. To enter, everyone has to bow, and this signifies that all are equal regardless of status or social position.

Inside the stone house, Nagomi sits, the guests sit and greetings are finally exchanged. After this, Nagomi brings in the tea bowl that holds the chasen, the chakin and the chashaku. She places the tea bowl next to the water jar. She bows and stands again to go to the preparation room. When she returns, it is with the waste water bowl, a bamboo water ladle and a green bamboo rest for the kettle lid.

In silence, her heart going pit-a-pat, she purifies the tea container and tea scoop with a fine silk cloth, fills the bowl with hot water and rinses the whisk. She then empties the tea bowl and wipes with a tea towel.

For a terrifying moment, she forgets what the next step is, feels a searing heat begin to burn in her face. Then she remembers and peace steals into her heart.

She lifts the tea scoop and container and places three scoops of tea per guest into the tea bowl, ladling enough hot water from the kettle into the tea bowl and using the whisk to make a thin paste. When she’s done, she passes the tea bowl to Mahito who bows and accepts it. As tradition demands, he admires the bowl by raising and rotating it. He then drinks some of the tea, wipes the rim of the bowl, and passes it to his father who does the same thing.

When everyone has tasted the tea, the bowl is returned to Nagomi who rinses it, and cleans the scoop and container. She offers the cleaned scoop and container to the guests for examination.

Everybody seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the ceremony has gone well. Nagomi catches her mother’s eyes and sees fierce pride in the older woman’s eyes. The roar of fear in Nagomi’s heart finally quiets. She’s done it. She’s proved to her fiancé and his parents that she has the patience to be a good wife and mother.

Mahito is smiling at her as she rises with the utensils and heads for the preparation room. When she returns, they can all relax and talk about the wedding preparations.

 

Chumon – Middle gate

Chasen – Tea whisk

Chakin – Tea cloth

Chashaku – Tea scoop

The tea ceremony, known in Japan as chanoyo or sado, is unique to Japan and is one of the country’s most famous cultural traditions. The strict rules of tea ceremony etiquette, which at first glance may appear burdensome and meticulous, are in fact carefully calculated to achieve the highest possible economy of movement.

 

 

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A white day

A white day

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I should have known, should have prepared myself for the happenings of the day.

 

Yi never wore white, yet he went to work that morning wearing white shoes, a white cap pulled low over his head.

 

I stood at the doorway, fought the melancholic pull in my stomach, waved goodbye to the man I’d called husband for five years.

 

Fighting the unease that churned my belly, I swung my mind to happier thoughts. Yi’s company had just promoted him and my seamstress business was growing daily. And we’d finally decided to try for another child, perhaps a brother for Ming.

 

Of course we’d pay a yearly penalty for as long as the baby was a minority, because we’d in essence be breaking the law of one child per couple. But I longed for the easy camaraderie of siblings that had existed between my two brothers and I, and it was unfair, government or not, to deny Ming such a pleasure.

 

Three-year-old Ming was still sleeping, the two braids I’d pulled her hair into before going to bed last night coming unraveled.

 

Standing at the door to her room, I felt my mind fill with pride, my heart with joy. Yes, she was a girl, and most women I knew had quietly aborted their pregnancies when they realized the only child the government allowed them would be a female. But I loved my daughter, reveled in her powdery smell and chubby arms, basked in the glow of her affection for me.

 

That morning I stood in the doorway, happiness slowly gaining ground on my agitation.

 

Until I saw the opened window…and the white feather.

 

Pigeons usually patrolled our neighborhood and sometimes settled on the windowsills, but I’d never before found telltale signs of a shed feather. And a white one at that.

 

Panic bubbled out of my heart, flowed into my fingers. I strode to where Ming lay sleeping, snatched her off the bed and woke her in the process.

 

Her face scrunched up and she let out a long winding cry. Placing her on my hip in the hopes of soothing her, I made my way to the kitchen.

 

I sat her down, gave her a shrimp to nibble on, and set to cook.

 

By the time I finished cooking the fresh mushrooms in oyster sauce and walnuts in butter soup, it was afternoon and my heart had become calmer. Not entirely calm, but much calmer.

 

I’d just finished putting Ming to bed for her afternoon nap, was digging in the store for an old dress I wanted to remake when I felt the first rumble.

 

Then that deafening roar that burst my eardrums. The building tottered like an infant learning how to walk and I felt myself sliding. I struggled to stay upright, grabbed at a box only to find it sliding with me, down, down, down.

 

All of a sudden, the noise and the movement ceased. I sprang to my feet, realized the room was slanted, clawed my way out of there, my head filled only with thoughts of Ming.

 

When I got to the doorway, I saw that the passageway was no longer there. In its stead, a cloud of dust, thick and blinding rose to torment me.

 

Then the second rumble. The plastered ceiling rained down on me, the floor on which I stood gave way, an iron rod caught me squarely on the forehead, and I sank into the waiting arms of darkness.

 

*

 

I woke up in a hospital in Shaanxi, haunted by dreams of a certain man in white with a smile as wide as the heavens. Though no one told it to me, I knew his name was Jesus.

 

When I opened my eyes, his image yet burned behind my eyelids.

 

Blinking my eyes, I turned to the nurse and learnt the truth.

 

An earthquake of incredible proportions, more than 70,000 people killed, a whole lot more injured, several missing. I’d been in a coma for five days.

 

When they brought the list of dead people, Hwong Yi was number 34,200. Hwong Ming was number 63,212.

 

The tears would not come. The grief settled into a hard ball in my stomach. I closed my eyes and saw the man called Jesus yet again.

 

 

 

 

*The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 affected more than 45.5 million people in 10 provinces and regions in China.

* In China, colour white is associated with death and mourning.

 

Not anymore

Not anymore

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I stepped into the cool foyer, relieved to be home after a very long day of negotiations and tantrums. I could hear the faint whisper of a TV set, the dull roar of a toilet flushing, and Melinda’s snores.

 

These were the sounds of home, the sounds that I loved so much it made my heart ache. In the living room, George was multitasking as usual, watching the TV, facebooking, doing his homework. He waved to me from his seat and went back to his chores.

 

My heart froze inside of me, like it did every night. There was a time he’d be flying across the room, a time when he would entwine his skinny arms around my neck and pepper my face with sweet little kisses. Not anymore.

 

In the hallway, I cracked open the door to Melinda’s room. She was fast asleep, curled in the fetal position, her mouth slightly open, the room awash with the pings and pongs of her snoring. There was a time she’d stay awake till I returned from work, her hair smelling of fruity shampoo, her mouth of toothpaste. The smell of girly innocence. Not anymore.

 

In our room, my wife came out of the bathroom when she heard the door. Her face was scrubbed clean of make-up, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, her body in a modest nightie. In the past, she would be wearing fresh make-up, would be wearing a see-through negligee, would be waiting with a chilled glass of wine. Not anymore.

 

The sad truth I had to live with was that it was all my fault.

 

“Hi there.” Betsy reached up on her tippy toes and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek. I wanted to hold her close, to lose myself in her, to be one with her as before. Instead, I replied with a hi of my own and dropped my suitcase on the floor. As I loosened my tie, she told me my dinner was sitting in the oven, could she warm it up for me?

 

Betsy still did all the things a wife should, only that they were now empty chores. She cooked, she cleaned, she listened when I spoke, and we still had a sex life albeit a sporadic one. Everything was there. Everything but joy.

 

I couldn’t remember when the process started, but it must have been when I got the promotion three years ago. I was working hard, then harder, then hardest than I had ever done in my lifetime. Motivated by thoughts of being able to provide my family with all that they desired, I took on more responsibility than I was assigned, got home later and later, was too tired to sit up with my children, too tired to listen to them, too tired to appreciate Betsy, too tired to be a family man.

 

They tried really hard. The children were extra careful not to fray my already frayed nerves, Betsy gave me rub-downs to ease the tension in my back and forearms. I receded further and further into myself.

 

They got the message. The children found lives separate from their father’s, my wife’s bubble laugher finally faded into nothingness. I buried myself up to the neck in work.

 

The food was served, the water was poured. Betsy slipped under the covers, her back unconsciously turned to me. I ate slowly, not because I was savouring the meal but because my mind was a whirlpool of thoughts. I wished I could turn back time. Yes I would still have taken the promotion. But no, I wouldn’t have allowed my job to consume me. I wouldn’t have pushed my family away. I wouldn’t have.

 

I cleared the plate without even tasting its content, washed the plate and tray with warm water, finally climbed into bed beside my wife.

 

Even though she was asleep, I held her and promised that I would change things.

 

She did not hear me. And perhaps she wouldn’t have cared.

Healing

Healing

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan
Smells and sounds. The cloying odour of disinfectant just applied. The mewling sound that starts from the throat of one canine until it is repeated, echoed, chanted from every dog in the enclosure, until the sound is a boomerang in my ears.

“They know we’ve got visitors. That’s how they behave when.” The vet explains.

I watch Caroline, try to gauge her reaction. Her face is set in the kind of concentration only an eight-year-old can master. Today, she’s done her hair into two pigtails. The pigtails are held in place by barrettes; hot-pink barrettes Mark bought her not quite two years ago.

A constriction rises to my throat but I swallow it, send it to my stomach where it sits like a truck of sand. I follow my daughter to a cage set apart from the rest. This dog has not joined the chorus. It lies on its front paws, liquid brown eyes staring at Caroline, one ear cocked as if it hears something we cannot.

“Is it a boy dog?” Caroline asks the vet.

“He is, but I’m not sure you’ll be wanting him.”

“Why?” She sounds so grown I have a difficult time believing she’s only eight. Her missing front teeth however, make a mockery of her grown-upness.

“His hind legs are crushed from an accident. We picked him off the streets. Come take a look at this one. He’s so cute.” He’s already moving away, steering Caroline towards another cage.

“He’s the one I want. I’m going to call him Pickles. Mum, can I?”

The psychologist had set me in the direction of getting a pet for Caroline. Will give her something to do, help her cope with her grief, he’d said. What he’d not said was that she would choose something sick, perhaps dying.

The answer to my daughter’s question lies thick and fuzzy somewhere deep in my throat. My memories take me back despite myself. Caroline at the kitchen table, hurriedly doing her homework so she could be allowed, be free to sit with her dad.

At the door, I’d listen, irrationally afraid to go in, scared that Caroline would literarily fall apart if she ever saw the jelly I was reduced to at the sight of her dying father. I’d hear her reading to him from one of her numerous storybooks.

Inevitably, I’d hear the sobs. The sobs of a seven-year-old who couldn’t understand why her father couldn’t talk back to her, couldn’t hear her. I myself didn’t know how to explain, because I had my own questions. How could a thirty-seven year old man, so full of life and vitality one day, be struck down by a massive stroke the following, reduced to a specimen until a kind doctor told me to take him home to die in peace?

“Mummy, can I have him?”

I shake my head to clear my cobwebby thoughts. “Why don’t we look at other dogs?”

“But I like this one. I promise I’ll take good care of him. I’ll even clean his poop.” For the first time since Mark died, her eyes are aglow with light, with life.

How can I deny her? It is one dog after all. When I nod yes, light bursts from her eyes and she grabs me in a hug, one so warm and tight it forces the breath from my mouth.

**
Two bodies, same bed. Both asleep, both snoring. A half smile pulls Caroline’s lips slightly apart. Her arms are around Pickles, whose breath keeps puffing the thin blanket.

I put out the light, and let out a sigh as I close the door. For four nights, since the day Pickles came to stay, there’d been no scream from Caroline’s room in the middle of the night, no terrifying nightmare that made her leap from her bed, drenched in sweat, crying out for me. For her daddy.

My room, the room that used to be mine and Mark’s, is still brightly lit. I shrug off my housecoat and slip into the covers of my blanket. Sleep doesn’t come easy – for several months now, it hasn’t – but there’s a lightness of heart, an ease of burden I can’t quite explain.

I finally fall asleep, thinking of the last vacation we had as a family.

 

 

 

Natural surrogates

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I stepped into the cool foyer, glad to be home, yet wary of the conversation that was bound to be.

The pit-pat of soft shoes from the staircase made me look up. There she was, her eyes shining with something that was between gladness and sadness. For as long as I’d known her, all of my sixteen years, she’d always been like that. When she looked at me, I could feel her tenderness, all of her love and something much more. Perhaps it was because of the uncanny resemblance between me and Danny, the man who was my brother yet my father.

“Hi there young man.” Mama stopped at the foot of the stairs and held out her arms. “Been expecting you quite a while. Thought you’d be earlier than this.”

“Had to meet up with some friends at the mall.” As I enveloped the soft little woman in my arms, a wave of tenderness tore through me. And despite where I’d been for the past five days, peace stole over me. Quietly, quickly.

“Come into the kitchen. Your pa’s making sandwiches.”

I knew there would be more than sandwiches and cold tea waiting in the kitchen. They would expect to hear all about Danny and his family. His pretty wife and his rambunctious twin boys. But most of all, they would want to hear about how it had gone between me and Danny this time.

Pa was sitting at the dinning table, stuffing bread into his mouth. Mama shot him a disapproving glance, to which he paid no mind. But he beamed at the sight of me. “Hello boy. Back too soon. I told your mother not to expect you for another hour or so. I knew you’d be at the mall.”

I dropped a quick kiss on his leathery cheek. He was sixty-one and Mama only fifty-nine, but life had not been very kind to them. High school sweethearts, they’d gotten married before they were barely out of their teens, before they’d had a taste of life’s difficulties. Then they’d waited more than half a decade to be parents. A mother at twenty-six, Mama quit work and devoted her life to training Daniel.

A quiet introspective boy, given to mood swings but never anger, it was a surprise when he came home one day from school, weeping like his heart had been blown to smithereens. His girlfriend had just told him she was two months pregnant and that under no circumstance would she attempt abortion. She also let him know that she wasn’t interested in mothering. She would have the baby and give it to him. He could do with it as he pleased.

A few days to his seventeenth birthday, Danny became a father. Tara was true to her word. Barely two weeks after delivery, her family moved away to start a new life. The new baby became the ward of Danny’s parents. Danny never held him, never spoke to him except it was absolutely necessary. When he turned twenty, Danny moved out and started a new life, one that did not revolve around his parents and his son.

“How’s your father?”

I did not reply. Rather I settled myself into a chair opposite Pa and got hold of a sandwich. Danny might be my natural father but that was about all. All my life, my grandfather had been my Pa, my grandma my Ma. With them, my life was just as it should be; quiet, secure. There were no great or wondrous adventures but at the same time no danger of emotional collapse.

Life was uncomplicated until I turned thirteen, until Danny’s wife decided I had to spend some of my holiday time with them. Thus, three times a year, I left the comfort of my home, traveled upstate to spend a hellish week with people I neither loved nor hated.

I kept my voice as bland as I could. “I saw Danny only once. He had several meetings. Aunty Becca and the twins said to say hello.”

I saw Mama’s eyes fill with tears. Things had not changed. Danny neither loved nor hated me. He was merely indifferent, couldn’t care less if I came to visit or not. But at least I knew him. What about the mother I’d never known.

“Welcome home, Son.” Mama said.

I nodded and blinked back tears.

 

Lost years

Lost years
©  Folakemi Emem-Akpan

For five years I hid my eyes behind my hands. Figuratively. For the same five years, my sister hid away from me. Figuratively.

And for five years, a wall of silence sat between us. Literarily.

I sit in the living room of the home where we grew up together. Asides from the musty smell of an aging lumber house and the fine dust that covers the perfectly-arranged furniture, nothing has changed. Three easy armchairs, once green but now an indeterminate color. Two exclusively for Dad and Mom. Sophia and I would squeeze ourselves into the remaining one.

The mantelpiece still houses the memorabilia our parents collected over the years. Mom’s tiny china cups, Dad’s sport paraphernalia. A dozen or so picture frames. Sophia and I grinning behind candy-laden mouths in identical clothes, aged five. Expertly made-up faces the night we turned eighteen.

Memories clouding my head so terribly, so urgently it feels it would burst.

I try to sit and await her arrival, but my itchy feet carry me to the kitchen. A huge airy place that still has a dining with four chairs, four settings. It’s in this huge kitchen that Sophia and I played many a games of hide and seek. She hiding, me seeking, unconsciously playing out a role that would later define our future.

A solitary engine rolls to a stop outside. By the time I reach the entryway, its occupants have alighted.

Five years have filled out Ben. His cheeks are fuller, his black hair and eyes seemingly darker. He walks with the same self-assuredness I remember so well, his hand unconsciously grazing his chin in its customary fashion.

Beside him is a mirror image of me. When we were young and mischievous, the only person who could tell us apart was Mom.

Sophia walks slowly, uneasily and she’s helped along the pathway by Ben. Five years has not changed either of us. If anything, we seem to look more alike than we’ve ever done.

Anger wells up in me, tinged by sadness. This isn’t the way things should be. Two identical twins should not have been forced apart by a man. By Ben.

“Hello.” Ben’s voice is still as deep as ever, and I am unwillingly transported to the day I met him. Seven years ago. The day I got the call that Dad was dead, Sophia ill, and Mom distraught.

I shake away the cobwebby thoughts. “Hello Ben.” I sweep my gaze to Sophia. She nods her hello, her eyes a pool of sadness and grief.

“Thanks for calling.” Her voice is hoarse, as if she’s been crying non-stop for hours.

I turn and head for the living room. Their echoing footsteps tell me they’re following. In the living room, I sit in Dad’s armchair, Sophia in Mom’s, as if by a mutual unspoken agreement we’d agreed not to sit in the chair that used to be ours both. Ben takes our chair.

“Are you okay, Hannah?” Ben asks.

For the two years that I loved him, he’d blossomed into a caring man. And it seems that for the five years after that that Sophia’s had him, he’s become even more so.

To Ben, we were friends. Close pals and nothing more. But I’d loved him desperately, had spent countless hours rhapsodizing to Sophia. She would be my bridesmaid, would marry Ben’s best man, and then we would live within walking distance of each other. That didn’t stop her from accepting to marry him when he proposed to her instead of me. To me, the ultimate act of betrayal.

 

What I didn’t know, couldn’t have envisaged was that Sophia had loved him too, had kept quiet when I rhapsodized because she’d thought there was no way Ben was interested in any of us. In her.

“Yes, I guess.”

Mom’s death was not a surprise. Yet it came as a shock. For the past year, she’d succumbed to one illness after the other until the hospital had become a second home. I took care of her in the hospital. When she was well enough to be sent home, she went to Sophia’s and Ben’s. Somehow, through it all, my twin sister and I synchronized our movements such that we never met after the debacle of their wedding five years ago.

Until now.

“The hospital called last night. They said she slept and never woke up.” I sigh and draw in a shaky breath. “We could have met up at the hospital but they’ve already released the body to the morgue.” I can feel a thousand pinpricks underneath my eyelids. For the first time since I received the call, I allow myself to feel. The tears wash my face.

I do not see Sophia stand but I can feel her arms around me. She’s crying too. Comfort, almost long forgotten, seeps into my being, into my bones. I feel like I used to feel when we were little and I got hurt and Sophia hugged me to share my pain. I feel like I am being hugged by myself. I feel the stars and the moon and the sun shift back into their rightful places.

Somehow, I know things will be fine. Eventually.

 

 

Release

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

It is a letter no one would ever read. Not your wife. Not your son. And especially not your daughter.

 

There are tears in your eyes that you do not know how to shed and the tear in your heart will take all of eternity to mend.

 

In your study, in this place where you are secluded from the world but vulnerable to your God, you kneel at your desk as if it were an altar. You hold the pen as if it were sacrament. You close your eyes. And see her.

 

Since the very first day that Janet pushed Jennifer into the world, you’d called her medley. Medley because she had your nose, medley because she had your wife’s eyes and ears, your grandmother’s full lips, her maternal grandma’s raven black hair. And she had your dead brother’s long fingers.

 

The combination was stunning. You took overwhelming pride in your daughter’s exceptional beauty, and even more pride in her vivaciousness. An energy ball, a combustible package, a live wire.

 

You begin to write furiously. You tell her of the day she was born, of the love that completely filled your insides. You tell of the first day she grabbed your little finger and smiled up at you from her Winnie the Pooh bassinet. In your letter, you remind her of her lazy left eye that followed the right one only reluctantly. You write of skinned knees and kisses, of baby powder and olive oil scents, of Barney and Teletubbies, of all things pure and good and innocent.

 

What you do not write about are plentiful. Of the graduation gown she will never wear, of the aisle she will never walk down, of the babies she will never have, of the tough life decisions she will never make.

 

Instead, you remind her of how much her mother had loved her, of play dates and dough caught in their hair, of playing with make-up in front of the huge mirror in the hallway, of dress up in Janet’s clothes.

 

You do not write of the leukemia that turned her eyes a deathly shade of black, of the way her six year old body shriveled and bent until she weighed less than fifteen pounds, of the host of tubes and machines that struggled valiantly to keep her alive.

 

You let her know that even though Robert never said it to her because he’d reached the age when boys thought showing affection was being weak, he’d loved her as fiercely as only an only brother can love an only sister.

 

You do not write of the way your heart dropped to your feet each time you saw her in the hospital room that became her prison. You do not tell of the way Janet’s body shook with uncontrollable chills each night, of the wasted look that Robert tried so hard to conceal.

 

Finally, you write of heaven. You explain it the way she can understand. You write of glittery skies, of glowing fields, of trees laden with fruits of all kinds, of joy that curled ones toes.

 

When you are done, you realize that you are crying. Dry sobs that begin somewhere in the region of your heart and explode out of you in huge gasps. Salty tears that cascade down your cheeks like a waterfall gone mad.

 

The letter you just wrote to your dead daughter is wet, the ink already running. But it does not matter because this is a letter no one would ever read. Carefully, you begin to tear. You rip and rip and rip until your letter is at last a little heap of rubbish. Until your fingers ache from the repetition.

 

On your shoulders, a burden seems to be lifting.

 

In your heart, light finally penetrates.

 

You release your daughter into the kingdom of heaven.