Authors: Donna Jo Napoli
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
IF THE SHOE FITS...
"If you want me to act properly, I must do it fast," said Stepmother. "Remember the old saying: 'The eagle swoops down when the hare stirs.' You are not the first girl in China to lose a toe on a bound foot. Even without raccoon devils, it happens. And smart girls look at it as an opportunity. Let's be smart, Wei Ping; now your feet will be much smaller than we'd dared to hope."
Wei Ping gave no reaction. She seemed not to understand.
But Xing Xing understood perfectly. Stepmother's face appeared transformed into a monster face twisted with this monstrous idea.
Stepmother turned to Xing Xing. “Get me the cleaver.”
Note to reader: The name of the main character, Xing Xing, is pronounced “Shing Shing.”
squatted by the water, silent and unmoving. Her stillness was a prayer.
It was answered: The sun glinted red. Only an instant and it was over, but there could be no doubt; her eyes had not played tricks: A white fish with red fins and golden eyes zipped past and under a lotus leaf. She laughed in delight.
"Lazy One, bring the firewood," came the distant call.
In the past year "Lazy One" had practically become Xing Xing's household name. She imagined her father's wife holding one hand above her eyes against the sun that was so bright today, it had already burned off the morning fog. She imagined her frowning in impatience, then ducking back into the shadows of the cave. The girl picked up the armful of wood she'd gathered and rushed back along the path. Her hair was tied in two hanging knots that thumped on her shoulders as she ran.
The cold dirt licked at her feet.
But she was wrong. Stepmother had not gone inside. The woman shivered in the chill of spring, arms crossed over her chest. "Get inside, Lazy One." She yanked one of Xing Xing's hair knots as the girl raced past through the open door.
The air of the main cavern had changed already. While the roof was so thick that the temperature hardly varied from summer to winter, the quality of the air could change drastically. Right now it had grown clammy. Xing Xing knelt and fed tinder to the coals of the dying fire, then sticks, then the wood she'd just brought in. The door squeaked shut behind^ her. Stepmother didn't oil the hinges on purpose because the noise scared away demons. Xing Xing got to her feet and turned around to find Stepmother standing right there, her hands on her hips, her muscled arms cocked like wings.
"Wood doesn't grow from springs," said Stepmother.
Xing Xing knew this was Stepmother's way of asking why she'd come from the direction of the pond rather than the woods. She'd seen the beautiful pool fish twice now—yesterday afternoon and again this morning. It was her secret. Stubbornness entered her. She looked in Stepmother's eyes without blinking.
"But water does." Stepmother hobbled over and picked up the water bucket and carrying pole. She hobbled back and put one in each of Xing Xing's hands. "Are you waiting for grass to grow under your feet?"
Xing Xing ran out the door again, leaving it open. She rushed through the buzz of the bees they kept in the hive on the side of their cave.
Rush rush, buzz buzz.
"My daughter will wake soon," called Stepmother after her. "And hunger hurts."
Xing Xing returned to the pond, only too happily. She filled the bucket, then walked around the edge, looking. The thought of Stepmother's daughter waking and complaining of hunger quickened her pace. It wasn't that her half sister would be truly hungry, not like the old beggar men who wandered the village, hands outstretched, and slept at night under the raised floor of the public pavilion. Rather, her half sister's stomach would simply have emptied of the meal she ate last night. But she felt so poorly these days that Xing Xing didn't want to allow even that small amount of extra discomfort. Besides, her complaints could result in a smack on the head for Xing Xing.
Xing Xing was practically running now.
The fish didn't show itself.
Well, of course not. Secrets could never be rushed. They had to come of their own accord, on their own schedule. That way, when they came, they offered themselves as a gift.
Xing Xing leaned over the water, extending her right cheek till she could feel the wetness that hovered in the air close to the pond's surface. "Later," she sang. Then she stood and turned in a circle, lifting her chin so both her cheeks could brush the dry air. This was her way of caressing the spirit of her mother so that she could feel close by. She balanced the bucket on one end of the pole and put the other end over her shoulder, then walked home without spilling a drop.
Wei Ping slept sideways across the bed with her legs dangling over the edge. Her mother, Stepmother, had rolled the rock from the high hole that served as a window, so sunbeams played on her chest. She opened her eyes, rose to sitting, and stretched one thin leg. Her face grimaced with pain as she rubbed behind that knee. She did the same to the other leg. A tear escaped and ran down her cheek. Her lips tightened into a wide line. She looked at the gaily-colored bandages around her feet, and the very corners of her mouth rose in satisfaction.
Xing Xing could tell Wei Ping was admiring herself—an immodest act that one should avoid both practicing and witnessing in others. Xing Xing looked down at her own feet, but too late, for Wei Ping happened to glance at her first.
"No one cares about your feet," hissed Wei Ping. She grabbed one of the stools waiting by the bedstead and searched around for the other. It had somehow tumbled out of reach. "Get me that stool, Lazy One."
Xing Xing pushed the stool to her half sister.
Wei Ping knelt with one knee on each stool and took a loud, deep breath. Then she threw her weight on one knee and moved the other stool forward with her hands. She threw her weight on the other knee and moved the second stool forward with her hands. In this manner, she worked her way over to the
never putting weight on her feet. The
was the most-used piece of furniture in their home—where one could eat and talk and sew and even nap. It was adjacent to the stove, with a fire passage inside its
stone slabs. Heat from the cooking fire passed under it, then out through the chimney in the roof of the cave. As Wei Ping passed Xing Xing, she spat on her toes. "No one will find you a husband."
Xing Xing knew words spoken in pain could be far cruder than the speaker really intended. Still, she had to bite the insides of her cheeks to hold in a gasp. For what Wei Ping said was true enough to cut deep.
Xing Xing's mother had died when Xing Xing was seven years old. She and Stepmother had lived side by side in the cave as the two wives of the master potter Wu, who had himself died a year ago, when Xing Xing was but thirteen. With no father or mother, there was no one to arrange a marriage for Xing Xing.
Wei Ping was only a year older than Xing Xing, but Stepmother had already begun preparations for finding her a husband. Indeed, she'd started within a month of Wu's death. Wei Ping had a face that was neither plain nor pretty, but she was slender as a reed, exactly as men preferred their wives. If she'd had her feet bound at the age of six, when Stepmother had first proposed it to Wu, her feet would be small enough to fit in a man's hand like a golden lotus blossom, and she'd already undoubtedly be betrothed. But though both of Wu's wives had tiny bound feet, the potter didn't want his daughters' feet bound. He had grown up way down south, where not so many women bound their feet, and he didn't like the custom. Besides, he had enjoyed the assistance of his daughters in his shop—and that work required them to have full use of their feet.
Stepmother had argued that Wu could hire labor for the shop or buy a slave girl to help out. After all, they hired labor to help in the household chores. The potter wouldn't hear of it; if strangers saw him at work, they might sell the secrets of his special ways to other potters.
Stepmother had argued that, despite her small size, Xing Xing was exceptionally strong while Wei Ping was delicate; Xing Xing could do the work of both girls. But the potter said that exalting the daughter Wei Ping over the daughter Xing Xing would go precisely contrary to his dead wife's wishes. Anyway, out here in the country, foot binding generally didn't start till a girl reached puberty, unlike in the city, where it started sometimes even before the child turned six.
Stepmother lamented. She'd wake her husband in the morning with her hand in front of his face, fingers spread to the length of Wei Ping's feet, screeching about
—growth—and quoting sayings from the t first teacher, Kong Fu Zi—Master Kong—about doing the right thing at the right moment. Still, Wu insisted that Stepmother wait.
Once he was dead, though, the woman lost no time. Wei Ping's feet were already as long as the full spread of Stepmother's fingers, much longer than Xing Xing's feet, but the woman swore that with the proper binding, they could shrink.
Xing Xing drained the pot of boiling water chestnuts. Then she poured them onto the mat tray and shook the tray gently, so they'd roll around and cool off faster.
Wei Ping moaned from the
"Lazy One," said Stepmother, "my daughter is hungry."
Xing Xing knew the moan was because Wei Ping's feet hurt, but no one was allowed to talk about that. Besides, Xing Xing avoided saying anything to Stepmother unless it was absolutely necessary. She peeled the steaming nuts as fast as she could, blowing on her fingers the whole while.
Stepmother sat on the stone bench outside the cave entrance sewing. She was making a fine dress for Wei Ping.
Xing Xing passed behind her, quiet as a plumed egret.
"Flat feet make noise no matter what," said Stepmother. "Even stunted ones like yours." She pulled a strip of cloth out of a purse tied to her sleeve and held it out to Xing Xing. "My daughter needs meat for supper."
Xing Xing's mouth twisted in worry; she was a poor hunter of land creatures. The range of things Stepmother expected her to do kept growing. This was the third time within a month that she'd handed Xing Xing that hunting cloth.
But Wei Ping really did need meat. When Xing Xing washed her half sister's foot bandages, she had to scrub hard to get the bloodstains out. And lately Wei Ping's feet oozed a foul-smelling yellow liquid that seemed to drain away her energy. Meat brought energy, and Xing Xing knew a good hunter.
So the girl tied the cloth around her waist and ran down the hill to the edge of the village, where Tang, the master painter, lived, calling out softly, "See me, Mother? I'm going to visit Master Tang."
The master sat outside in his courtyard under the tangled branches of a willow, smoothing the hairs on his paintbrushes. The yellow finches in the cage that swung above his head twittered to the sounds of the large arrow bamboo leaves rustling in the breeze. The orchid pots Xing Xing's own father had made stood grouped together in one corner. Surrounding them were ink green indigo plants. She bowed deeply, then sat on her heels beside the old man.
"Ah, the hunting cloth serves as your belt, Pretty Child," said Master Tang. "My boy is already in the woods, alas. He will bring home only as much as our household needs."
Xing Xing kept her breath steady in her disappointment. She had, in fact, guessed the situation, since the slave boy was nowhere in sight. Master Tang's boy typically stayed by the old man's side if he was home.
"But I am in need of some assistance at the moment. If an hour's labor interests you, I could offer you a sack of polliwogs as your payment."
Polliwogs swirled in profusion in the rushes at the sides of the slow river that hugged the bottom of the hill near Xing Xing's cave. Master Tang had a taste for frogs, so every spring he had his slave boy fill outdoor tubs with polliwogs. That way, when they matured, he could eat frogs at the slightest whim, with no wait. The last thing Xing Xing wanted was polliwogs. Watching frogs made her laugh; she couldn't bear to eat them.
Master Tang had always been good to her, however. He and Father had been friends. And until just a year ago he had been one of her teachers. Before potter Wu moved to this area, no one had heard of an ordinary person getting an education. None of the boys around here was educated, much less the girls. But Wu had his own ways. Some people hadn't liked him because of that. They said he gave himself airs— he acted as though he thought he was better than they were, when he was nothing but a simple potter. Master Tang wasn't like that; Master Tang had been Father's true friend.
"Thank you for the kindness, Venerable Elder." Xing Xing bowed her head.
Master Tang led Xing Xing inside, to the room where he painted. She knew her task would be to copy a poem onto the master's latest painting. She was good at calligraphy; Master Tang told her she was very good.
Father used to stand over Xing Xing and Wei Ping for hours as they worked on calligraphy. He spoke of the three incomparables—the three perfections: painting, poetry, calligraphy. Master Tang instructed the girls in painting, his wife instructed them in poetry, but Father himself instructed them in calligraphy. Perhaps that was why Xing Xing excelled in the third perfection. When Father was alive, she had worked hard for his approval, much harder than Wei Ping ever had.
After Father died, Wei Ping stopped all her lessons. She'd never wanted those lessons in the first place, and now the pain in her feet broke her concentration, and she couldn't leave the cave anyway. Stepmother was relieved; an educated girl would be harder to marry off. That Xing Xing should continue her lessons alone was out of the question.
Nevertheless, each day when Xing Xing visited Father's grave to say hello and apologize again for not having been at his side when he died, she practiced calligraphy in the dry dirt over the point where she imagined his stomach to be. After all, wisdom resided in the stomach, and she wanted Father's wisdom to refine her motions; she wanted his guidance and approval even more these days than she had when he was alive. Her art had not deteriorated in the period since his death.
Xing Xing sat on the floor now and looked carefully at Master Tang's new painting. In the foreground was a home on a cliff with a pear tree in blossom; in the background, a bay cradled by mountains. This was a scene from the long, long coastline that Xing Xing had never seen. Master Tang had once lived in a coastal town near where the Yangzi River emptied into the huge ocean. He painted from memory.
Xing Xing unlocked the closet where Master Tang kept all the supplies. She took out, first of all, the inlaid box that held the top-quality inkstone, then the ink, then, for visual harmony, the same brush that Master Tang had used to paint this picture. There was an old pear tree in Master Tang's courtyard, right near the cassias. She went to stand by it and opened her nostrils, letting the fragrance of the flowers float inside her, before she took the cap off the paintbrush.
For the next hour Xing Xing dipped that finest brush in the blackest ink mixed on that most beautiful inkstone, and with loving care, she copied the poem on Master Tang's painting. She wrote between the mountains and the bellied sails of a boat at sea. They were not words in the sky or in the sea—ridiculous thought—they were words simply in space. If a painting called for words, as most did, there was always a space that held those words perfectly. Father had taught her that, for she had sometimes added words to the bowls or vases he made.
She sang the poem to herself as she worked. It was brief, but every poem was worthy of extreme attention, and this one pleased her very much:
Pear Blossoms fall soft white
Recalling snow past beyond sight
Revealing warmth ahead in sun's light
The poem, Xing Xing knew, came from the mouth of Master Tang's only remaining wife, Mei Zi, the wife who had instructed both Xing Xing and Wei Ping in poetry and whose hands were too twisted with arthritis now to be entrusted with a painting. The girl hoped that the warmth ahead in summer sun would hurry and ease the old woman's suffering.