The Beautiful One Has Come
All night long I watch the planes crash into the twin towers. And crash again. The balls of fire, the plummeting bodies, the sudden sag of skyscrapers. All night I watch the broadcasts from America on television and think of Nefertiti.
This is what I know of that Egyptian queen: It is said that she was a princess from another land. She was the wife of Akhenaten, and the mother of six daughters. She and her husband started a new religion. But then she suddenly disappeared from public record.
Some scholars believe that she was banished, perhaps for defying Akhenaten in matters of religion. She might have died. All agree, however, that she was beautiful. Drawings and statues attest to this. And then there is her name. Nefertiti: “the beautiful one has come.”
I know these things because of my sister, Reina. She loved to talk about Nefertiti. One might even say that she was obsessed. In her room, there were piles of books: Sun Queen, Monarchs of Ancient Egypt, The Great Royal Wife. And on and on.
Once, for a Halloween party, she copied Nefertiti’s distinctive headdress and lined her eyes with kohl. She had large, double-lidded eyes, unlike my tiny narrow ones, and with her salon tan, I swear she belonged on a barge floating down the Nile.
She liked to remind people that “Reina” was close to the French word for queen, “la reine,” or the Indian “ranee,” but my parents had not been thinking that at all when they named her.
Mother was more concerned with the fortune-teller’s advice regarding the number of strokes in each Chinese character. She was told that Misaki, the name she had originally chosen, would result in bad luck for her as-yet unborn daughter.
My parents did not understand Reina’s preoccupation with Nefertiti. They had little interest in foreigners or their countries.
“Why don’t you study about Jingu?” our father asked, referring to Japan’s ancient empress.
She just mocked him for his provincialism and mailed off an application to the American University in Cairo.
My parents worried that my sister would transfer her passion for Nefertiti to some dark-skinned man and stay in Egypt forever. They begged her to consider applying closer to home.
“You could probably get into Keio or Waseda with your test scores,” they said. “You might even be accepted at Tokyo University.”
Tokyo University – more popularly known as Todai – was the most prestigious college in all of Japan, but my sister wasn’t interested.
“Todai grads are a bore,” she said. “Look at all those crusty old men running the country. And the younger ones think like old fogeys.”
“Well, you don’t need to go all the way to the Middle East,” Father insisted. “Japan is safer – the safest country in the world, I’ll bet.”
Privately, to me, she said, “This country is suffocating. I need to have some adventures.”
Finally, our parents gave in.
To show her gratitude, Reina hung around the house most of that spring and summer, helping Mother with the housework and cooking, and charming Father with her stories.
Two nights before she left, she had a big party with her friends, and the following evening, we went out to eat as a family.
We went to a seafood restaurant because Reina loved blue fin tuna sushi and she didn’t think she’d have a chance to eat it in Cairo.
Mother sighed and said, “I hope they at least have rice.”
Those are the inane kinds of things we talked about as we tended our private thoughts. My parents were probably wondering if they’d ever see Reina again. I was just trying to store up a few extra memories of my adored older sister. When she came back, she’d be different; that, I knew for sure. Maybe I wouldn’t even like her anymore.
As soon as she left, I tried to follow her in my imagination. I tried to picture the insides of the airplane (blue seats?), the faces of the airline attendants (not too difficult, since she was flying on a Japanese airline), the food served at each meal (somewhat baffled, I could only come up with rice and fish).
All that day of her departure and into the next, I tried to guess her state of mind (scared, but excited) and the fresh sights. She’d see camels, I figured. Pyramids. An ocean of sand.
A week later, Reina filled in some of the details in her first letter from Egypt: “Dear Mom, Dad, and Mika, I’m finally here in the land of pharoahs and mummies and Nefertiti!”
Father read her letters out loud after dinner when we were sitting at the table drinking green tea. Her words were better than dessert, and I savored them for days afterward.
The letters were usually written to all of us, although my parents and I wrote separate replies. Finally, six months after she’d gone, a thin blue envelope arrived, addressed only to me.
Mother handed it over with a greedy look in her eyes, but I ignored it and took the letter to my room. I turned it over in my hands a few times, letting my anticipation build. The stamp featured a distinguished-looking man with a flat-topped round cap. The letter was postmarked Cairo, a week before.
I brought the envelope to my nose and inhaled deeply, trying to detect a trace of Egypt – some exotic scent like camel dung or rose attar, but all I could smell was ink.
At last, I slit the envelope open and pulled out Reina’s letter.
I am in love!
You must promise not to breathe a word to Mom and Dad, but I will tell you all. His name is Hassan and he’s a student like me. Gorgeous, like a desert prince, a gentleman, and a poet!”
Part of me felt privileged to be taken into her confidence, to be trusted with the secrets of her heart. But another part of me went cold with dread. It was just as our parents had feared. Reina would marry this man and stay in Egypt, and we would never see her again.
I thought that I should tell my parents right away. Maybe they would force her to come home before a wedding could take place. It would be for her own good, I thought. Love was making her crazy. She’d lost all reason. After all, hadn’t she herself written that women stayed behind veils and walls, that they were not permitted the same freedom as men? It was worse than Japan!
But then a few months later, she stopped writing about Hassan. She never explained what had happened.
When Reina finally came back for good at the end of four years, she became an English teacher. What else could she do with a degree in Egyptian History in a backwoods prefecture like ours?
All day, she explained gerunds and infinitives to fidgeting high school students. We hoped that she would blend into this new life, but I think that her mind was flitting beyond the hydrangea bushes outside the classroom, across oceans and continents. She told us that she was happy.
She discovered the International Society, a local organization that put on monthly cooking parties. One time, they prepared Indian food. The next, the theme was the Middle East. Reina attended the session and made some Egyptian friends.
Ahmed was a student at the local university and his young wife Nabib was along for the ride. Reina started spending all of her free time with them. She even invited them to our house for dinner once. Reina did the cooking.
“What did you say this was?” Father asked, picking at a bean croquette with his chopsticks.
“Tammia,” Reina said, popping a forkful into her mouth. “I loved these when I was in Cairo.”
Nabib nodded. “They are just like my grandmother used to make.”
Mother gamely made her way through the meal, nibbling on prunes stuffed with walnuts and cheese pastries, but Father gave up when the mint tea arrived.
“This is too sweet,” he said. “Give me some green tea.”
Mother quickly got up to shake some tea leaves into a pot.
Reina didn’t seem offended. She just rolled her eyes at me. When Nabib and Ahmed said that it was the best meal they’d ever had, my sister beamed like a hundred suns.
Toward the end of November, Reina announced that she was in need of a live chicken. “My friends need it for Ramadan,” she said. “Do you think that Uncle could spare one of his hens?”
Father’s brother lived in the mountains of Tokushima. He grew tangerines and kept a small brood of pullets. We hadn’t visited him in several months, but Father agreed to call him.
The following weekend, we were all packed into a car – Reina, the two Egyptians, Mother, Father, and me. I tried not to gasp as we swerved along the narrow, curvy, mountain roads. There were no guardrails, and the brush on the side of the mountain seemed to go on forever. If we went off the road, we would be lost in the brambles and no one would ever find us.
Suddenly, a truck whooshed into view, coming around the curve as if its brakes were gone. Father wrenched the steering wheel, taking us off the pavement for a moment, cracking sticks under the tires. When the truck passed us, the car swooned. And then it was just whipped up dust behind us and I heard a chorus of sighs.
Only Ahmed seemed unruffled. “Allah is protecting us.” His voice was sure and calm.
Reina murmured in agreement.
While my heart was still banging against my ribs, I had a thought that was almost more disturbing than our near-death. What if my sister was changing religions? If she converted to Islam, would she be able to take part in our family rituals for Obon and the New Year? Or would her new beliefs make her a stranger to us?
I thought that it would be difficult, at best, to have to always be driving into the mountains for live chickens, to have to kneel and pray when the mullah’s call sounded in your head, even if you were in the middle of Sogo department store.
I fretted about these things for the rest of the ride, right up until we stood in Uncle’s yard, watching Ahmed wring the hen’s neck with his bare hands.
I shouldn’t have worried. A few months later, Reina brought home a man who was nothing like Ahmed. He was Japanese. He wore a navy wool suit and a tie. He was from a family that processed indigo leaves for dyers – a clan steeped in tradition – though he himself worked at a company that created computer software. They’d met through friends, Reina explained. They were going to get married. When they looked at each other, their eyelids became droopy with desire. I recognized that gaze from Hollywood movies, but I’d never seen it anywhere else till then. And even when they were separated by the length of a room, they seemed to be dancing together. So this is love, I thought.
I wasn’t sure what drew them together. Maybe some animal call, or something beyond science. Karma. At any rate, they didn’t seem to have much in common. He was not especially interested in Nefertiti, or anything else foreign, for that matter. His only trip abroad had been a group tour to Guam a year before. Even so, he promised Reina a honeymoon in Egypt.
The wedding was quite an affair. My sister in silk kimono, first the hooded white one to hide horns of jealousy (though I doubted the groom, so transparently enamored of his new wife would ever do anything to make those horns sprout), then the blazing red one with its embroidered silver crane. We all ate and drank to ten thousand years of happiness for the newlyweds. In speeches, friends and mentors made wishes for their children, their shining future together.
Reina sat at a long cloth-draped table at the front of the room. Her black hair, piled atop her head, was set off by a gilded folding screen. Nothing had such luster as she did on that day.
After the kimono, she changed into a simple black velvet gown and tiara. And I, having joined in quite a few toasts, turned to the family friend seated at my left and said, “You know, Reina means ‘queen’ in French.’”
It is early morning and now there is just smoke and rubble and tears on the TV screen. I hear a door slide open and Mother shuffles into the room.
“Turn it off,” she says. “Go to sleep.” She runs her hand over my hair.
But when I crawl into my futon, I can’t rid myself of those images. The planes. The tall buildings. The dust, and fear. The blue sky.
It all starts to get mixed up with scenes of the temple at Luxor. The tour bus. The honeymoon couples. The men with machine guns who jumped out from behind ancient stones.
And then there was the post card that arrived a week later: “I have never been so happy in my life.”
The card, with its view of barques on the Nile, is still propped against the shrine. A black and white portrait of Reina looks down from the wall above.
By the time I wake up the next morning, Mother has already set out a bowl of rice and a cup of green tea next to the post card. I go into the kitchen and cook up a few bean croquettes, and then I put a plateful of those there, too.
American Suzanne Kamata has been living in Japan for over half of her life. She is the author or editor of fifteen published books including the multiple-award winning mother/daughter travel memoir Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019) and the novel The Baseball Widow (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2021).
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