The gentle sun warmed Xiao Hua’s back as she lay face down in the plush green grass. Her bright, beady eyes peered through the reeds surrounding the light blue pond. Using the pond as their stage, a troupe of white storks moved together in harmony, swaying to the rhythm of the cicada’s song. Their graceful pack was broken up intermittently by orange beaks darting downwards to snatch minnows out of the shallow waters.
With a small fish hanging out of its beak, the tallest stork gracefully extended its black-tipped wings and lifted away from the pond. One by one, the other birds followed, trailing each other in such a perfect line that Xiao Hua liked to imagine they were connected by a strand of silk. After a few resounding ripples subsided, the pond’s surface returned to a tranquil sheet of glass.
Xiao Hua watched the birds as they became smaller and smaller, until she could no longer discern the pack of birds from the puffy white clouds that dotted the warm spring sky. She jumped up and started running on the well-worn trail in the meadow that led back to her house.
As Xiao Hua skipped through the archway that led into the main courtyard, a glint of gold caught her eye. Golden plates engraved with the names of her ancestors hung in front of a red tapestry. Kneeling in front of the mantle adorned with red incense and miniature figurines of gods with long white beards, she clasped her hands.
Please ancestors, let me be a big girl today. I hope that the gods will bring me the prettiest shoes in the world, she prayed with a bowed head.
And good health for my family, too, she added. She hopped up from the ground and continued her joyful skip into the lush courtyard.
She made her way along a path filled with pebbles, her fair skin shaded by the canopy of blooming plum trees. Her family was well-known for their beautiful courtyards. Her father’s status as a merchant wasn’t enough to buy respect, but his money that came from trading silk and porcelain was enough to create a beautiful world for his family.
“There’s the birthday girl!” her father called. Xiao Hua ran to her father. When she reached him, he swooped her up with his arms, tossing her high in the air before catching her in a hug.
“Baba!” she shrieked in delight.
Baba plucked a small, pink plum flower from a nearby branch. He tucked her long, jet-black hair back and gently placed the flower in the nook behind her ear.
“Look, Baba, I can dance just like the birds!” Xiao Hua announced as she took a step away from her father. With her arms outstretched, Xiao Hua stood on her tiptoes and pranced around the courtyard, every so often throwing in a dainty curtsy or graceful leap.
“My, my, my, look at what a beautiful young lady our little girl has become!” remarked Mama. Nainai, Xiao Hua’s grandmother, nodded her head in agreement.
“The most beautiful young lady in the whole country,” said Nainai, taking a sip of her steaming green tea.
Xiao Hua blushed and joined the adults at the wrought iron garden table covered with tiers of sweet cakes and porcelain teapots. As Xiao Hua climbed on top of Mama’s lap, she admired Mama’s intricate slippers protruding from her long red robe. Crafted out of a delicate blue silk and wooden heel, the tiny shoes were embroidered with fanciful flower chains and laced with gold string. However, the prettiest part about the shoes wasn’t in the details; it was that Mama’s shoes were almost half the size of Xiao Hua’s current ones. Her feet always felt ugly and ogrish compared to Mama’s delicate ones. Today would change that.
“And today is when I get pretty feet like you, right Mama?!” asked Xiao Hua. Xiao Hua had inherited her mother’s unique green eyes and silky-smooth black hair, but she longed for the jealous stares Mama’s delicate, swaying walk evoked when she strolled through the city.
“Yes, bǎobèi,” assured her mother. “Furen Mei should be here any moment now.”
“Can you tell me the story again? Please, Mama, please!” Xiao Hua begged. She pulled at the flowy sleeve of Mama’s silk robe. The color reminded her of the coy fish that swam in the courtyard’s ponds.
Mama chuckled. “You’ve heard this story so many times, bǎobèi, I’m surprised you’re not sick of it!”
“Just one more time,” Xiao Hua implored.
“Once more,” Mama relented. “Once upon a time, a woman came to dance for the emperor. She danced upon a beautiful lotus-shaped stage. She was unlike any other dancer the emperor had seen. Her feet were bound into a hoof shape, so she could only dance and sway on her toes. She soon became the emperor’s favorite dancer. Every other woman in the land was so jealous that they tried to bind their feet like hers in order to copy her dance. Soon, no man was able to resist the beauty and grace of the women with the bound feet.”
“I want my feet to be even smaller than the lotus dancer!” Xiao Hua announced. “I want the prettiest feet in the whole country.”
While Mama and Nainai smiled at the young girl’s ambitions, Baba pursed his lips. He worried about the sacrifices his daughter would make for beauty. He already missed watching her prance through the courtyards on her delicate toes, but the time had come.
“Your Baba will have to turn away the suitors; there isn’t a young man who won’t want to marry you,” said Nainai.
“Not yet,” said Baba. “She’s still my little bǎobèi.”
A servant girl dressed in plain linen scurried through the archway. She bowed to the family sitting around the table.
“Xiansheng Fei,” she addressed Baba, keeping her eyes on the ground, “Furen Mei is here.” Xiao Hua’s heart sped up. Furen Mei was the old woman who came three times a week to keep Mama’s feet tiny. Xiao Hua had only seen her from afar; she wasn’t allowed in the room where Furen Mei, worked her magic. Xiao Hua wasn’t sure what kind of magic happened behind the closed door, but she did know how badly she wanted pair of tiny feet so she could have beautiful shoes just like her mother.
“Are you ready, bǎobèi?” Mama asked. Xiao Hua nodded.
“Set up the room,” Mama told the servant girl. The servant girl nodded, bowed to the family, and scurried back into the house.
Xiao Hua hopped off her mother’s lap as everyone else stood up. Nainai extended her wizened hand to Xiao Hua. Hand in hand, they toddled off to the house. Mama started walking off, but Baba held her back.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Baba asked. “It just seems so early- why can’t we wait until next year?”
“Furen Mei said this year. It will only get more painful as the bones will keep growing,” said Mama.
“She’s just so young-” Baba began.
“That the point,” Mama emphasized. “The sooner we start, the smaller they will be. It has to be done, unless you want your daughter to wind up as an old spinster. I started when I was her age, and my mother did the same before me. She’ll be fine.” Mama started again, teetering in her tiny shoes, towards the house. Baba furrowed his brow as he followed his wife inside.
Xiao Hua was waiting outside the closed door of the magic room. She bounced up and down on her toes while staring at the door, anxiously willing Furen Mei to open the heavy wooden door and summon her into its mysterious depths.
“Does Baba get to come in the special room with me?” Xiao Hua asked.
“This is a special room just for girls,” answered Mama. “But you can show Baba you’re beautiful feet after.”
Xiao Hua shot Baba a nervous look.
“It’s okay my dove. I will be right outside the whole time,” Baba told her.
The door creaked open. Furen Mei slowly stepped into the corridor. She looked even older up close. She was barely taller than Xiao Hua. Furen Mei’s hair was grayer than the thunder clouds that covered the sky in the rainy season. It winded down her back in a thick braid, stretching all the way the back of her thighs. Her saggy cheeks blended into her neck jowls. Sharp black eyes gored into Xiao Hua, peeking out from the wrinkled flaps of skin. Xiao Hua shivered. This was the old woman who was going to make her beautiful? How did she know anything about beauty? She thought.
Furen Mei bowed to Baba and Mama. “It is ready,” she said in a voice that was uncharacteristically deep for such a small woman. She stepped back and held the door open for the family.
Xiao Hua peered around the room. It was simpler than she had expected. It was probably the most simple room in their house, where most rooms were filled with intricate tapestries, plush Oriental rugs, and fanciful furniture. In the middle was a lone chair, covered in dark red velvet cushions. The walls were bare except for a coat of black paint. Next to the chair stood a simple wooden table with three porcelain bowls on it.
“Sit,” instructed Furen Mei, gesturing towards the chair with her pale, wrinkled hand.
Xiao Hua looked towards Mama for reassurement. Mama nodded encouragingly.
“You’re ready to become a big girl, aren’t you?” Mama asked. Xiao Hua solemnly nodded and climbed onto the chair. Mama and Nainai moved to either side of her, while Baba lingered by the door. Two servant girls discreetly entered the room and shut the door behind them.
Xiao Hua took a deep breath. “What happens now, Mama?” she asked.
“You’re going to soak your feet in these pretty bowls for a little bit,” Mama answered. Right on cue, the two servant girls carried two of the porcelain bowls over to Xiao Hua and placed them at her feet. Xiao Hua’s face crinkled in disgust as she looked at the bowls. Inside the bowls was a watered down red liquid with green leaves throughout.
“What is that?” She asked.
“Don’t worry, it’s just to make your feet a softer,” Mama reassured. “Go ahead, put your feet in. It’s nice and warm.”
With her nose turned up, Xiao Hua slid her feet into the bowls. It was a little gooey and gross, but the warmth felt nice on her feet.
“That’s not so bad, is it?” Nainai asked. Xiao Hua shook her head. If this would make her feet tiny, she would do this all day.
After a few minutes, the servant girls took the bowls away. Furen Mei pulled a pair of nail clippers out of a secret pocket in her large robe. Xiao Hua shrank at the sight of the sharp silver instruments.
“It’s okay, she’s just going to trim your nails,” Mama said. “This might hurt a little just because she needs to cut them very short.” Xiao Hua nodded and grabbed Mama’s hand. She took a deep breath as Furen Mei brought the clippers closer to her feet. She closed her eyes and waited for the first sharp pain, but nothing came. Furen Mei’s nimble hands sliced and diced Xiao Hua’s toenails, while skillfully avoiding nicking the sensitive parts of her skin. Xiao Hua released a deep breath and lessened her vice-like grip on Mama’s hand.
“Beautiful,” Mama said. “Now let’s begin,” she said to Furen Mei. Furen Mei nodded and tipped her head towards the two servant girls. The two girls took their places besides Mama and Nainai as Furen Mei carried the last porcelain bowl over to Xiao Hua. This bowl contained the same mixture as the first two, but this one also had strips of white cotton floating throughout it. Furen Mei knelt before Xiao Hua and looked towards Mama for a start signal.
Mama nodded her head. “This is going to hurt, okay bǎobèi? Just think about the beautiful shoes you will be able to wear soon.” Xiao Hua acknowledged her mom with a small nod. She was ready. The two servant girls grasped Xiao Hua’s legs as Furen Mei held up Xiao Hua’s soft, white left foot.
Xiao Hua winced as Furen Mei’s strong, bony hands grabbed Xiao Hua’s pinky toe and began curling it towards the sole of her foot.
“That hurts,” yelped Xiao Hua. Furen Mei kept pushing the pinky toe backwards. “That hurts!” repeated Xiao Hua. Suddenly, there was a craaaaaack. Xiao Hua unleashed a bloodcurdling scream. The two servant girls struggled to keep Xiao Hua’s writhing body under control. Her screams filled the room as Furen Mei repeated the same routine on her next toe.
“MAMA! MAMA! WHAT IS SHE DOING TO ME?” Xiao Hua wailed. “MAKE IT STOP MAMA!” She wriggled her body to look at her mother, but instead of yelling at Furen Mei to stop, Mama grabbed Xiao Hua’s shoulders to subdue her flailing body.
“Be a big girl now, and it will be over soon,” Mama said.
With every toe pressed back, Xiao Hua shrieks increased in decibels. She shook her head so vehemently that individual tear drops flew from her face. But her small body was no match for her mother’s firm hands and the servant girls’ determined grip. Her eyes moved frantically around the room. Her father was right outside the room; he would help her.
“BABA! BABA PLEASE HELP ME!” she cried. “THEY’RE HURTING ME BABA!”
On the other side of the door, Baba was frozen in place. He wanted to tear down the door and run to her side. He was supposed to be her protector, but he was powerless to protect her from this tradition. It needed to be done. He silently prayed to his ancestors to help his daughter be strong.
“Be a big girl now,” Baba whispered.
“SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!” Xiao Hua desperately yelled.
“It’s okay, bǎobèi. You’re done with the hard part now. Just a little more,” Mama said in a soothing voice. After she snapped Xiao Hua’s last toe, Furen Mei took the long cotton wraps out of the bowl and began tightly weaving them onto Xiao Hua’s foot. She bound the broken toes to the sole of the foot and then used another layer of bandages to pull the toes towards the heel. This created the over-exaggerated arch – the hooved look Xiao Hua had so fervently desired.
By the time Furen Mei bound the last wrap around her foot, Xiao Hua’s body had gone limp. Her body was numb from the pain, and her screams had downgraded into whimpers. Furen Mei and the two servant girls left the room, carrying the porcelain bowls with them.
“It’s all over now,” Mama said, stroking her daughter’s hair. “You did such a good job.”
“It hurts so much, Mama,” Xiao Hua whispered. With blurred vision, she stared down at her feet. It was hard to tell with the thick layers of bandages, but her feet were significantly smaller than they had been a few hours earlier. Her mother’s beautiful blue shoes popped into her head before everything went black.
Xiao Hua awoke in her bed to searing pain in her feet. She began to call out for help before she looked down and the bandages reminded her of what had happened. It still hurt, but her new feet were unlike anything she had ever seen before. Even with the bandages, they were almost as small as Mama’s!
She took a deep breath and resisted the urge to ring her bell. She was a big girl now, with her own beautiful tiny feet. If Mama went through this pain almost every day, so could she. She swung her legs over the side of her bed and tried to stand. Excruciating pain ripped through her body the second her feet touched the floor. She let out a pained cry and swung her legs back into bed.
Her bedroom door creaked open as Mama’s head poked through.
“Ah, she’s awake!” exclaimed Mama. She pushed the door open the rest of the way and pranced to Xiao Hua’s side.
“We are so proud of you,” Mama said. “The first time is always the worst. But we saved the best part for last…” Baba pulled a magnificently wrapped box out from behind his back.
“You were so brave, my dove,” he said. “We had these made just for you.”
Xiao Hua’s heart sped up. She grabbed the box and tore the paper. She threw the lid off. Inside the box was the most beautiful pair of shoes she had even seen, even more beautiful than Mama’s. Delicately embroidered onto the tiny blue silk sides was a family of storks. Some were diving for fish with their beaks while other flew above. There were even some about to take off from the pond, frozen in a state of permanent indecision.
“They’re perfect,” she managed to whisper weakly.
There were too many bandages for Xiao Hua’s feet to fit into the shoes right now, so Xiao Hua hugged the shoes close to her chest. Mama and Baba both kissed her forehead before leaving the room. Even though her feet still throbbed with pain, Xiao Hua drifted back into a deep sleep with a content smile on her face.