This story is by Page Craw and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Spring rains brought a steady decline in Mama’s health, unnoticed by me, a three-year-old. Ling, at eleven, became more attentive, perhaps wanting to lessen the inevitable pain, but by the first frost of the year, we saw our father cry. Lan Ze, our amah, entered the women’s chambers. “Your mother has joined your ancestors,” she said. She bundled us in woolen wraps and sought to cheer us with stories and songs while the house became bereft of the joys of familiar gatherings.
Baba seldom left his study, where he spent his days in contemplation, ignoring his many concubines whose lives of servitude had no more value after Mama’s death than before. He summoned his sister, Auntie Yu, to check on us.
Lan Ze had assisted Mama with binding Ling’s feet, but she resisted the duty alone. “Your Auntie must take charge, Ying. I won’t do this by myself.”
Auntie Yu had sons only; she didn’t have the stomach to undertake my feet’ binding, so I remained “the little one,” but big-footed. She insisted we have a tutor, an ancient man who described the outside world unknown to Ling and me. He introduced me to the literary classics, and with the reading, my imagination grew.
At sixteen, Ling would marry the son of a wealthy silk merchant, a prearranged commitment of parental affirmation. I had not contemplated how lonely I would be when Ling married and left our compound until the two years remaining cascaded into the valley of time like a swift waterfall.
From the balcony overlooking our gardens, I studied the laborers, men whose eyes never looked upwards, only viewing the earth they worked. I wondered what Ling had in store when she encountered her marital bed. Would Ling’s husband be handsome? We already knew he had money. Would he be kind? I prayed she’d have the love experienced by Mama and Baba.
When Auntie Yu arrived with the staff’s wedding instructions, Ling and I were in the Ceremonial Hall where the bride-price gifts occupied the table’s length. Countless sets of jewelry comprising bracelets, earrings, rings, and unmounted jewels adorned the tabletop. The dowry was already in transit to Ling’s future family.
Baba appeared to give his blessings at the palanquin’s door at Ling’s departure. Ling and I were shocked by his frailty. He was gaunt and gray, stooped, and using a walking stick. We didn’t know Baba would be dead in a fortnight; his estate burdened with debts.
His words came in a rasping voice. “My daughter, Ling, may the gods give you a life of bounty and joy. With a devoted husband and many children to take you by the hand in your old age,” Baba added with a faint smile.
Ling pinched my cheek and touched her lips with her fingertips, then next my own. “You will be in my dreams.”
Lan Ze entered my room quietly, but I wasn’t sleeping. She stroked my hair, and with the back of her hand, she wiped the tears from my cheeks. “I will be with you in spirit, syau ning, my little Ying. I have brought a gift from your father who had no strength at the end. He asked that you remember him with kindness and begged that you forgive him for his years of self-indulgence.”
Lan Ze handed me a silk-wrapped bundle. “Your father said to keep this hidden until a husband of a suitable caliber appears. Only after a commitment will you be allowed to view his gift.”
I nodded to Lan Ze.
She smiled. “Your father said he knew he could trust you.”
I thought for a moment. “Please position this in the garden wall away from the entrance on the outskirts of the property; eight blocks up representing my present age, eight blocks to the right indicating the likely time of commitment, and two blocks down suggesting the vagaries of fate which will surely befall me. If the gods confirm my gift, I can retrieve it with a blessing.”
Baba had exacted a promise from his brother-in-law to take me in, so Auntie Yu fetched me from everything I had ever known at the beginning of Winter when the natural world mimicked death all around. Her palanquin took me away from my childhood home. We traveled for two days, and on the way, I peeked from the curtains every chance I got. The landscape varied from dry to lush, but the homeplace was fertile.
“You will need to make yourself useful until we find a husband to relieve us of you. You have your mother’s beauty and your father’s intelligence. However, a matchmaker will have a hard time placing you, I’m afraid, without a dowry and the eyesore of your feet,” Auntie Yu said.
She showed me my room and described my work. Because of my big feet, I was used to an advantage in the millet fields. My cousins, burly youths, apprenticed me. They weren’t unkind, but they knew I was here through charity. I worked all day in the fields and helped the cooks prepare food at night.
As the years went by, I grew strong and tall as a willow. Although not the scholar Baba had been, Uncle Wen had a decent library, and he allowed me to borrow his scrolls. I had the urge to learn like Baba, so I spent my spare time reading. My friends were in the scrolls.
After my sixteenth birthday, a snaggletoothed matchmaker arrived who noted my statistics with a sad shake of her head. After a month, she brought a commitment to Auntie Yu, who crowed with pleasure. “The man is a senior in the community, with substance,” Auntie Yu said.
“I am happy here, working for you and Uncle,” I said. “I am sorry, Auntie. Being yoked to a man I don’t love would be a fate worse than death.”
“Stupid girl! It isn’t optional. Accept this offer, Ying, with gratitude. Our family affiliation has been burdensome these past eight years. You can no longer be welcome here. Go tomorrow to the home of Shu Gong who awaits you.”
“Life in marriage can only exist with two peoples’ love. I hope for that.”
That night, I left the compound undetected and walked through the gloom following the road. I carried a small parcel of my clothes and a few biscuits.
On the third morning, a young man rode by and saw me where I had collapsed on the bank. He paused his horse to investigate. Dismounting, he helped me to stand. Upright, I wobbled, unsteady on my feet.
“I suspect you are dehydrated. Can you sit a horse? I will walk beside you and take you not far from here to my family home. There, my sister will look after you.”
I looked into his coal-black eyes, where an inner sparkle of amber shined. We exchanged our names. The seconds dragged on. He averted his eyes first. “You are most kind. Thank you for your help,” I said. I remembered a proverb—”To know another is not to know the person’s face, but to know the person’s heart.”
Within the hour, I was on a couch in a pleasant second-floor room. Mai Lu bowed low before me. “I have soup and tea for you. Please eat.” She pointed to the corner of the room. “Cho found the parcel of clothes near to you. You may want to change after you have eaten.” Mai Lu approached the door. “I will return in a few hours to check on you.”
I raised the soup to my mouth. The aroma was delectable, and I remembered it was three days since I had eaten. As I drank, I daydreamed about my romantic encounter with Cho, then fell asleep on the couch.
Later, Mai Lu entered carrying a bowl of warm water. “I have brought you a fresh garment since we are about the same size, and I will help you with your hair. My Mama wants to greet you. It seems your father and my Ba were lifelong friends.”
The first thing I noticed when Madame Sheng appeared were her unbound feet. I tried to keep my look of surprise hidden, but my stare was blatant.
“I was a country maiden when I became pledged, and Cho’s father wanted no part in my pain. With regret, we later consented to the mores of the times with Mai Lu.
My dear, a proverb—fate has us meet from a thousand miles away. And another—when you catch someone’s heart, you will never be apart. Cho has found love at first sight. He has declared his wish to make you his wife.”
My breath caught in my throat. “I am overwhelmed. I ran away from an elder who satisfied my Auntie’s bride-price gifts, but the gods have bestowed a love to last a lifetime.”
Retrieved from the wall, Baba’s silk bundle revealed an enormous diamond without a flaw.