He was born with the gift of dexterous hands. Never knowing quite what to do with them. Always fumbling. Always struggling to find some purpose for these adept and frenetic extensions of a mind never fully at ease. It was a fluke that he should have happened to find himself in Japan as a youth, where his mother took him on a business trip of hers to Tokyo in 1995. While she dealt in interpreting a major business deal for a multimillion dollar British company, Ellis explored the markets alone, a mere fourteen years of age. But thanks to his mother’s laissez-faire attitude about parenting since the divorce, Ellis was allowed the extravagance of exploration without reins. It led him to Kuramae, further on the outskirts of Tokyo “proper,” to a stationery store where he was met by the sort of kindly old man that only exists in movies or fairy tales–as opposed to the ones in real life, generally pedophilic in nature. Harkuru took one look at Ellis’ hands and knew he was born for the art of origami. As Ellis ran his hands across the thick paper, which felt, to him, almost like fabric in texture and density, a chill went up his spine. It was as though a hidden presence was in the room nudging him to understand that this was his calling. This was something that could not be ignored. And soon after the revelation, Harkuru took him aside to explain some of the basics, like how “ori” meant “folding” and “kami” meant paper, forming together to create the word “origami” as a result of the sequential voicing phenomenon of Japanese morphophonology called rendaku.
When Ellis returned to his mother’s hotel in the Roppongi Hills area of town, he appeared with sacks of paper in tow. Rebecca immediately regarded him with skepticism. “Where did you get the money to buy all that?” she demanded in a voice that was atypically stern. Ellis shrugged as he emptied out his sheets of paper onto the bed. “A man gave them to me. He says he thinks I might have a natural gift.”
Rebecca’s potential response of discouragement was interrupted by the ringing of the room’s phone. And as she proceeded to take a call from the man that paid her well enough to verbally abuse her, Ellis delved right into making his first creation. It was not a paper crane nor a modular cube nor a tulip flower. It was, instead, far more intricate than that–for he had hands so nimble and adroit that the movement came to his fingers almost divinely. When Rebecca was finished with her conversation, she turned around to find an entire menagerie of animals in front of her. Ranging from a bear to a lion to a giraffe, Rebecca couldn’t believe her eyes.
“I don’t want to leave,” Ellis stated, almost threateningly. He somehow knew that by leaving Japan, his art was going to be sacrificed. Or rather, not taken seriously by those boorish Brits that would prefer to have him watch football while drinking his brain into an impure oblivion.
Rebecca couldn’t see this though. That his delicate spirit required the same delicacy of country. Which England could never provide, regardless of those who would offer Ireland and Scotland as solutions to tranquility. It was her lack of empathy for Ellis’ needs that prompted her to snap, “We’ve got to leave tomorrow. There’s no getting around it. What did I tell you about accepting things we can’t change, eh?”
This tangent Rebecca had been on about acceptance was beginning to tire Ellis, who had been hearing it for the past year in the wake of divorce, which he had initially tried to disregard as just a larger than usual argument between his parents. George, who had fallen prey to one too many conspicuous affairs, could no longer excuse his behavior and, accordingly, Rebecca could no longer turn a blind eye. Ellis would listen to records in the living room to drown out the sounds of their vitriol, containing words like “minge,” “alimony” and “git.” He had never taken much time to consider his parents’ happiness, mainly because he had never seen what that might look like or entail. He, in turn, never considered it as a possibility for himself either. Simply went about the business of existence as his progenitors did. For a while, the thought of “a purpose” never occurred to him. But this discovery of paper–how it could change everything, quite literally allow his life to unfold and take a new shape–wasn’t one he was willing to let go of merely because Rebecca couldn’t wrap her head around the value of his talent.
It was for this very reason that he escaped from the posh environs of his London life upon turning eighteen, instantly taking up residence in Harkuru’s shop in 1999. Harkuru, who had stayed in touch with Ellis, was aging rapidly, approaching his eightieth birthday in the next month. Ellis, who was extremely grateful for his persistent kindness, of the bent that compelled him to send Ellis the finest quality paper for his craft all the way to London so that Ellis would be able to release the best possible output, could hardly believe his ears when Harkuru told him that he wanted to leave the shop to him.
“But what about your wife and daughter?” Ellis queried. Harkuru gazed at him blankly. It would never occur to him to leave his legacy to his equally aged wife, Emiko, or Haia, his daughter, whose name, incidentally, translated to “nimble, quick.” Which she was not. Instead, she was bumbling and loafing throughout the house most days, showing no signs of promise in any trade as a result of her gracelessness. When Ellis met her one evening upon being invited into Harkuru’s home for a simple meal of salmon and rice, followed by a dessert of persimmons, he felt the sort of unseen manifestation that he did that first day in Harkuru’s shop. Something that wanted him to know: this girl is special, though she might not seem it.
And it was true. Haia was not beautiful. Her oafish stature was in direct contrast to stereotypes about the small stature of Japanese women. Nor was she a particularly worthwhile conversationalist. Maybe all it was about her that sparked his interest was that she was an extension of Harkuru. And he knew that his mentor was not much longer for this world. That he had to preserve a piece of him in any way he could in order to find the strength to compete in a country that despised him for his gift. Felt that he should be Japanese, not Anglican.
To the persistent dismay of the origami world, in 2007, at twenty-six–five years after Harkuru’s death–Ellis remained the undefeated champion at the Origami World Championship in Hokkaido. He had married Haia just two years prior. He knew that Harkuru would have tried to dissuade him against the match, insisting that Ellis could do better, find someone “less predictable”–which was to say, a white girl that wouldn’t make him such a cliche of an imperialist.
At first, Haia came across as doting–loving even. This soon gave way to undercutting insults and a total lack of interest in helping Ellis with matters pertaining to the shop. Haia couldn’t stand his love of the work that had also taken up all of her father’s time. Grew to despise his fervor with each passing day of their marriage. And as she swept scraps of paper uselessly off the floor of the shop, she would fantasize about ways to strip his gift away. So that he could no longer obsess over “wet-folding” unless it somehow pertained to her vagina.
One day, her opportunity came. A new paper cutter arrived at the shop and, insisting falsely to Ellis that the blade was too dull and ought to be sent back, he put her protestations to the test by pressing down harder than he ought to have on the prodigious stack, causing the blade to go slightly off-kilter as it nicked off the entire tip of his thumb. He never asked Haia if she had deliberately steered him wrong in his estimation of how to cut the paper.
Although he would never accuse her, the strain between Haia and Ellis became too powerful to ignore approximately a year after the “incident.” Despite Ellis having given up origami due to the compromisation of his talents, he did not become the man Haia had hoped he would without this art to constantly distract him. His perpetual haze of depression left him uninterested in much of anything, least of all sex.
Haia left him one day without any fanfare in terms of explanation, offering him the store and the house as a consolation. He later found out that she had replaced him with another white man who lived in Yokohama.
Sometime in 2011, Ellis couldn’t rightly recall how, he had ended up living in Venice Beach, where, at first the purpose was to scatter his father’s ashes, as he had always said it was his dream to surf there. It seemed both Ellis and his father were born in the wrong country for the things they wanted to pursue.
After dispersing the ashes, Ellis took up with a group of transient youths who invited him to an apartment where they were squatting. And as they all stopped their idle chit-chat to take note of Ellis’ finesse with the rolling paper, one of them remarked, “Yo man, I’ve never seen anyone roll a joint like you. How do you do it?”
Ellis took a deep inhalation from his freshly rolled numbing supply. “It’s all in the mental application of the Yoshizawa–Randlett diagramming system.”