Dry your hands! my mother glared at my palms that were beaded with sweat from the unbearable tropical heat. Behave yourself: she reminded me: act properly… because if you don’t, we will have to leave you here. Of course, by ‘here,’ she did not mean the building, a colonial architectural relic with vibrant walls whose skin peeled to unveil the fact that it is an artifact of a bygone era. No – ‘here’ meant this country, the place of my birth and a mere temporary arrangement. And so, I sat in silence with eyes closed, trying to imagine the calm oceanic breeze drifting between the shades of the mango trees in an effort to battle the devilish mid-August heat that sought to undo the upcoming procedure.
It was soon our turn. My family, who just traveled six hours on a midnight bus to make the nine AM appointment in this bureaucratic office, stepped toward the front counter. A woman in a Western-styled suit, an uncommon article of clothing worn only by individuals connected to over-sea organizations, greeted us. She handed my father a small mountain of paperwork labeled with our names and various other identification information, which he meticulously assessed — letter by letter — for any mis-entered details. My mother, in accordance with the woman’s cue, pulled out an envelope with our photos.
All we need now is to get your fingerprints: the woman spoke after attaching the photos to their corresponding documents. Make sure not to mess up this last step or you won’t get to go with your family: she glanced down at me and smiled. Perhaps it was an attempt to try and ease my tension, perhaps a cruel and unfunny joke, the ten-year-old me could not tell. With firm grips on my hands, the woman wiped each digit with an ink-stained cloth and then proceeded to roll each newly-dried fingertip atop a chilly black ink pad. Calm and precise: I thought to myself between each finger placement: smear the ink and you are done for!
There was no ink pad this time around. Disoriented, I held onto my father while a small backpack filled with everything I owned drooped over my shoulders; we had just landed from a seventeen-hour flight and were now standing in front of another counter, behind which stood a gentleman in blue uniform. Through the crevasse between the icy glass sheet, my father presented the customs declaration form filed a moment earlier. Without a glance missing from his computer, the man pushed toward us a small electronic device, whose tail snaked away into the quiet-labyrinthesque corridor. As we stood, uncertain on what to do, the man peeled his face away from the refulgent screen, placed his finger on the smooth black plastic surface and gestured to my father to do the same.
The automatic doors opened to let in the cold winter breezes of a December night. We crossed. A bleak snow blanket, undisturbed by passersby, spread out in front of us like a white sheet of paper. My parents dropped their bags and stooped. Fingers still blacked with ink, they began to touch the bitter snowbank, repeated the same gesture that has now ingrained in the memory of their fingertips. Ink and sweat swelled from their palms, and I watched: from the pool of begrimed snow, father pulled forth beams while mother raised walls; windows, doors, roof, and floor soon followed.
With these memories in mind, I carefully and gently placed my ten darken fingertips against a white sheet of paper, repeated over and over until the weather-like, swirling papillary ridges pulled forth an image of a house. Touch became a method of documentation, pulling out history, forming memories. Moment by moment. Gesture by gesture. The mixture of sweat and ink blended into life-giving water that flows onto the page to erect a home.
For two years, I tried to perform the conjuration of that December night, but all I could manage was a rubbing, an image of the place I once knew.
Perhaps, I used the wrong type of paper…