Floating Petals

"When did they break your toes?"

Ma-ling pursed her lips. She would not give them the satisfaction of an answer. She watched as the doctor unwound the gauze. Blood and pus oozed from the four-inch stubs that were her feet. The nurse stood by on the other side of the bed. She had drawn the curtains around the bed, for privacy. But in the ward, all conversation of the shortage of chickens because of avian flu and the exorbitant price of vegetables because of the monsoon stopped. Five pairs of ears strained to hear what was going on behind the mauve plastic curtains.

Behind the curtains Ma-ling's face was impassive. Throughout the ordeal of removing the bandage excruciating pain seared her body. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the ward. The nurse, behind her mask, showed no sign of disgust, but her face had gone another shade of pink.

The staff nurse walked in through a gap in the curtains and stood beside the doctor. She proffered a form. "Sign," she said.

"No," said Ma-ling, not looking at anyone.

The doctor said, "You have to have them off otherwise you will die. The gangrene will eat through your body." He sighed, his impatience masked in a show of sympathy. The five faces that belonged to the five pairs of ears sighed in sympathy too, and grimaced at the thought of death.

The staff nurse stiffened and looked at the doctor with a see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with look. For a week now, the nurses had tried to get her to sign the form. Ma-ling had refused, remaining stubborn. The doctor and the staff nurse walked away, angry. The nurse, pointedly not looking at the patient, fussed with the bed sheets, then pulled the curtains aside and she too walked away. That will teach you!

The other patients broke out in whispers. Ma-ling pushed away the tidied blanket and sheet and carefully swung her legs out. She winced as she sat up. She reached under the bed and pulled out a black plastic rubbish-bag that held her possessions. She put it on her bed and rummaged through. She found what she was looking for, her going-out clothes. She began to get ready. She changed into a traditional black silk suit. The black accentuated her flawless translucent skin. She had never indulged in what she called "happy colours" since the death of her husband. Her frail long fingers fumbled with the fastener at her throat; she clutched the frog-button and twisted it about.

The women in the ward stopped whispering and watched her. They were different, they spoke Hakka and had short, permed, crinkly black hair and big feet.

Having dressed, Ma-ling pulled the rubber band off her hair and carefully removed the few strands that had been caught in it. She placed the rubber band on the bedside table. She opened the drawer and took out an ivory comb and ran it through her long white hair. She tugged at knots, released them with practised annoyance, felt no pain. The static made silver candyfloss of her head. She pulled her hair, twisted it tight and wound it in a coil on the top of her head, securing it with a gold-and-jade pin. She needed no mirror.

Ma-ling reconstructed the past, vivid and compelling.

It was an autumn afternoon, shadows fell long and soft, the wind-bells tinkled. The last scent of blossoms was still in the air. She was five when her mother and the servants gathered around her on the east terrace, close to the Kwan Yin altar. On the altar, among the offerings of dumplings, fruit and flowers, joss sticks and candles, was a very special item -- a pair of hand-embroidered red satin shoes. Her mother had been working on them for weeks, all the while telling her that they were for her "Precious." Ma-ling felt important. She sat on her mother's favourite chair and everyone concentrated on her.

The foot-binder was there too, with her equipment assembled on a low portable table. She massaged Ma-ling's feet with herbal oils and soaked them in a basin of hot water before breaking the arches of her feet and bending back her eight small toes. Was the pain as excruciating as now? She had screamed, frightened and pale. Her mother had hugged her and cooed beautiful things in her ear. "Precious, you are an important lady. There will be no woman more sought after than you. You will marry a grand man."

The woman rubbed Ma-ling's feet with ground almond and frankincense and a generous amount of alum. She bound her feet with strips of wet cotton, back and forth, in a figure of eight, curling her toes back to the soles of her feet. The servants watched, fascinated.

"The shoes!" the foot-binder snapped.

The servants dispersed, suppressing giggles. Her mother, exuding orange peel scent, hobbled over to the altar. She knelt down and prayed before bringing the soft red shoes for her daughter. Ma-ling's tear-streaked face relaxed and she smiled. At last she knew they really were her shoes.

"Now walk!" The foot-binder and her amah helped her shuffle about. Ma-ling was soaked through with sweat, her thick silky hair clung wet to her face and shoulders. The pain was unbearable. Her mother hovered, helpless.

The next few years slid by very fast. From time to time they unwound the old bandages and wound new ones even tighter around her tiny feet. "Careful, careful. Don't hurt my jade lotus," her mother supervised, as she herself hobbled around gracefully on her tiny feet.

Ma-ling watched with fascination as the servants rushed about their chamber on large flat feet in ugly cloth shoes. She ran no more: she took dainty steps, she embroidered, and she played board games with her mother and her amah.

Her mother made her many new silk shoes with delicate embroidery. "You are beautiful, my Precious." She whispered for fear of evil spirits hearing her. "You will grow up to be a genteel lady, elegant and desirable." And then she told her over and over how well she would please her husband. Ma-ling had swelled with pride.

There was only one significant thing -- marriage. Everything revolved around her becoming a lady to please a man. She was preened, primed, readied.

She was thirteen when she was married. The marriage broker came to her home and took her marriage shoes to her in-laws-to-be to see if she was a suitable wife for their son. The mother of the boy was pleased not only with the size of the shoes, their length no more than four inches, but with the embroidery. She carefully inspected the stitches, the intricate flowers, birds and butterflies. She felt the fine silk and admired the exquisite colours chosen for the threads.

During the days before the wedding, Ma-ling knew she was the luckiest woman. She sang softly to herself while the whole household was turned upside down with the preparations. On the final day, the palanquin was ready in the garden, the perfume of gardenias and ginger-lily filled the air, the tassels fluttered and lanterns swung in the breeze. She sat on the soft cushions of the palanquin, shut away from the world, as the bearers jolted her to her husband's home. A nervous joy rose in her. She would have liked to open the brocade curtains, perhaps just so slightly to peer out, but she did not. She sat stolidly with the heavy veil of pearls of her headdress falling in front of her face.

On the night of the wedding, her husband lifted her red veil, looked long at her face through the pearls. And then carefully he removed her headdress, removed the trembling pins of kingfisher feathers from her hair. From within his robe he took out the pair of shoes the marriage broker had given his mother. He said, "I fell in love with you the moment I saw these."

Each time her husband came to her he whispered, husky with passion and desire, "Show me your erotic and sensuous feet again, Ma-ling. They are the tiniest feet in the kingdom." She was shy but she was filled with pride and purpose. Often he told her the story of how he had wanted to hold her shoes when they were first brought to his parent's home and how his mother had told him not to be so common. It had taken a lot of coaxing before she would let him touch them.

Sixty years later, even as her husband lay dying, he whispered, "Your feet are as graceful as lotus petals floating on the pond...."

Her reverie was shattered by a male nurse clattering a wheelchair into the ward. The staff nurse who accompanied him said curtly, "The ambulance is waiting to take you home. Sign here." She thrust forward an inkpad for her thumbprint.

"No flower blooms for a thousand years," Ma-ling said to no one in particular as she signed her release.

She took a step towards the wheelchair, hiding her pain.


My two short story collections -- Floating Petals and Bathing Elephants -- are available in paperback editions and in electronic form for your iPhone, iPad, iTouch, computer or Kindle device at Nanadon.

Copyright 2012 Leela Devi Panikar