I was always a dutiful woman. Nobody could tell me that I didn’t fulfill my responsibilities as a daughter, a wife, a caretaker. My mother said that I knew my place as a girl. “When Xiao Lan was a baby,” she’d say, looking at all of the neighborhood aunties who gathered at our courtyard to crack watermelon seeds and drink sweet date tea, “She never cried. She was a twin, you know,” she say as she settled her gaze on a particularly loud Auntie who smacked her lips and belched loudly. “And when her brother came after, I immediately put her aside on the bed and nursed her brother. Everybody was so happy that I had a son. I was so proud.” My mother’s eyes twinkled as she recalled those bittersweet memories, and I knew that she was thinking about how brave I was—even when I was a baby.
When I turned five years old, the matchmaker, whose ugly spirit couldn’t be concealed by the chalky-white paste she painted on her face or the circles of vermillion she dabbed onto her cheeks, paid my mother a visit. On that day, I had spotted a beautiful blue butterfly while playing beneath our family’s prized peach tree. The butterfly, whose silver wings flashed like my mother’s diamonds in the golden light of the sun, had rested momentarily on the rough, brown bark of the tree. I cupped the butterfly into my palms, and ran as fast as my satin shoes would allow, trying to avoid the rivers of mud that had formed at the edge of our courtyard. My mother and the matchmaker were speaking in hushed tones, their heads bent close towards one another in examination of something laid out on the table. I stopped running and hid behind one of the marble columns that pointed upward to the Celestial Heavens, where my mother had told me that her mother and father now lived.
“Xiao Lan was born in the year of the Tiger, under the element of Fire.” The matchmaker sighed audibly, prompting my mother to furrow her brow with worry.
“Is that bad?” she asked. Her hands gripped the silk handkerchief she kept tied around her wrist.
“She is too ferocious for a girl,” the matchmaker croaked. “Her spirit is too strong. She is not only a Tiger but also Fire and she will destroy those who are weaker. She is too strong-willed for marriage.”The matchmaker began to roll up the scroll.
“Wait,” my mother called, catching the matchmaker’s wrist with her white hands. “Revered One, there must be something I can do. She is my daughter. She must go to a good family.” My mother’s voice became slightly shrill, the urgency and panic evident in her face.
The matchmaker paused. She looked down at her empty tea cup. My mother’s head snapped toward a servant girl who stood, with her head bowed, near the kitchen. “Mei!” she cried, “Are you useless? More tea.” The servant girl scurried away to the kitchen, her large, splayed feet brown from mud and sun.
The matchmaker’s dark, beady eyes curved into half moons. “Well,” she rasped, slowly unfolding the scroll, “No family will ever want to take a girl with such a strong spirit. It means disobedience.” The matchmaker frowned. “But,” she paused, her fingers tracing over intricate carvings on the jade table. “We could begin the binding process. Most families are willing to overlook a strong spirit if she has perfect lotus feet. Of course, this will have to be extra.” She patted the deep pocket on her black coat.
My mother sat up straight. “Yes, yes, of course!” she whispered breathlessly. “It must be done.” She hurried into the side wing, where we kept our gold bullion. I watched as the matchmaker chuckled and followed my mother into the building. I sat down on the marble steps and looked at my mud-stained satin shoes. What did they mean by binding? I wondered. Suddenly, I realized that flutter of wings against my palm, like the gentle tickling of feathers that escaped from my pillow, had ceased. I opened my hands. The butterfly was crumpled.
When my mother began binding my feet, I held back my tears and swallowed my cries of agony. I saw this as a chance to spend time alone with her and didn’t wish to miss the words that she was directing to me. When she wrapped the warm cloth around my small toe and broke it towards the center of my foot, I absorbed the lesson of womanly sacrifice. When she pulled the three middle toes in and layered them on top of the small toe, I tasted the bittersweet pain of childbirth. When she bound my foot tightly, securing the toes in place, I understood the importance of tradition and honor. These lessons I internalized and applied with great ferocity towards my husband’s family.
I was a devoted, proper wife. When I met my husband the night of our wedding, after he had lifted the red veil from my face, I saw that he was very handsome. He had tall cheekbones and a strong jaw; his eyes seemed fluid and kind, which matched his Water spirit. His lips were pursed in appreciation. His faint eyebrows, however, detracted from his good looks, for they indicated a weakness of character. I submitted to his fumbling desires, not understanding what he had intended to do until it was over. It was like this every night.
I awoke each morning before dawn in order to supervise the servants who brewed tea and cooked porridge. I served my in-laws first, making sure to serve them the best bowls of porridge. I ate last, scraping the burnt rice from the chipped pot. Every day at noon, I re-bandaged my mother-in-law’s feet, sprinkling jasmine-scented powder onto her putrid toes. I rubbed in the powder until she sighed with relief.
One morning, I awoke when it was dark and noticed that my husband was not in bed. I bathed and dressed, then walked into the kitchen to perform my usual duties. To my surprise, my mother-in-law was present. She heard my feet padding into the room and spun around to face me.
“You!” she cried, pointing an accusing finger at my direction. “Where is my grandson?” I kneeled in front of her, ashamed that I still was not with child. “It has been ten months and still, your belly as flat and empty as a board. What is the use in keeping you around? My son deserves a son, not a barren servant girl.” I kept my head bowed. “I will give you three more months to get pregnant! If you are not pregnant by the end of that time, you can leave this house.” She hobbled out of the kitchen. I remained kneeling until the sun arose and the tears dried.
My husband returned home later that night. He crept into the bedroom, the floorboards creaking beneath his heavy feet. I kept my eyes shut, pretending to be deep in sleep. He climbed on top of me, drunkenly pulling the bottom of my gown up above my waist. A feminine, nauseating lily fragrance emanated from his neck. I turned my face away and submitted to him.
At the end of the Spring season, a guest arrived at my husband’s house. My mother-in-law called me into the parlor and asked me to bring tea. As I entered the room, two male servants grabbed me by my arms and flung me into a bedroom. The guest came in, smiling apologetically, and informed me that he was a doctor who was here to check if any seeds had been planted in me. He poked and prodded. I had never been so humiliated before in my life. My mother-in-law and my husband were waiting outside the bedroom door when this doctor finished his examinations. The doctor sighed, shook his head slowly and walked into the courtyard.
My mother-in-law turned towards me, her face filled with disgust and wrath. “Get out of my house, you worthless beggar,” she snarled, spitting in my direction. My husband’s watery eyes didn’t meet mine. I left my husband’s home for the first time in over a year. I walked on my lotus feet for five miles, heading back to my childhood home. My satin shoes were stained red and brown from blood and dust. When I finally reached the double doors of my childhood home, I sent a servant to call for my mother.
My mother approached. Her face was pale with anguish. She stopped at the entryway to the courtyard, staring and shaking in disbelief. I told her what happened. Her forehead tightened, then relaxed. She stood up and reached for the courtyard door. “Mother,” I cried. “Please let me in.” My mother’s face was smooth and this time, her eyes twinkled with tears. “I cannot, daughter,” she whispered. “You have shamed us.” I wiped the tears from my dirt-streaked face. “I have done everything you taught me! What do I do now?” My mother began to pull the door closed. She seemed weak, leaning her body against the door for support. “This was a lesson I hoped I would never have to teach you. But you must do the rightful thing. You must do what’s expected of you.” The doors swung closed, forbidding me to enter my childhood home.
I stayed there until the sun began to set and the vivid colors of gold, blue, purple and silver filled the sky. Looking up, a blue butterfly danced slowly around my head, then fluttered towards the peach tree. I stood up, hobbling over to my family’s prized peach tree. The butterfly was resting on a large peach, its wings folded against the pink and white of the fruit. I removed the thick ribbon that encircled my waist and tossed it over the branch of the weathered trees. I must do the right thing. I drew the loop around my neck and closed my eyes, imagining that I, too, was a precious peach, dropping from my family’s prized tree.