Hard ground loomed below the high boundary wall. Yun Shu dangled in mid-air, her legs tensed for a fall. Giggling made her wobble. It was like being a fly in a spider’s web, except the threads holding her were friendly: Teng gripping one wrist, Hsiung the other.
‘Faster!’ she cried, swinging back and forth. Trees and ponds and walls in the ancient garden blurred.
‘Jump!’ urged Teng, his almond eyes wide and earnest.
‘Can’t hear you!’
‘You’re too heavy,’ said Teng, ‘you’ll hurt yourself!’
‘I like it!’
‘We’ll drop you,’ grunted Hsiung, though he was strong enough to swing her by himself. Then he let go. See-sawing wildly, Yun Shu clutched Teng’s hand until he, too, released his hold. She landed with an outraged shriek. The boys hooted as she rose, brushing twigs from her skirt. Two tousled heads vanished over the wall and their laughter faded into the trees.
Yun Shu took a moment to adjust to the silent garden. Earlier she had stalked crickets in dusty lanes, free to exclaim or sing or caper whenever she chose. At home different rules applied, like stepping from sunlight into a cold, bare room.
She glanced around for spies, aware she had been careless to make such noise. Golden Lotus hated noise, and while it might be tolerated from Yun Shu’s older brothers, a girl should never draw attention to herself.
Wandering up the path, shoulders hunched, she did not notice the very object of her fears swaying towards her on exquisite, tiny feet – every step displaying the elegance and power of a lotus gait.
The willowy creature’s make-up was a flawless white mask. Silver and jade hairpieces drew the eye to shiny coils of silken black hair and a figure as neat and pleasing as any fine lady’s. The girl became conscious of her plump legs and unshapely body, her ridiculously long eyelashes and puppy eyes; most of all, her black hair that never combed obediently or stayed in its bun.
‘Why are you scowling?’ demanded Golden Lotus, in a high, singsong voice. ‘How many times must I tell you? Smile and glide! Smile and glide as I do.’
Yun Shu bowed very low – she knew what happened otherwise.
‘Youngest Daughter,’ continued Golden Lotus, ‘Honoured Father wishes to converse with you.’
A flicker of fear. Golden Lotus didn’t use cultured words like converse, it must have come from Father himself. But the Provincial High Minister of Salt seldom noticed his daughter, let alone spoke to her.
She followed the swaying young man into the ancient mansion they occupied on Monkey Hat Hill. The area had a reputation as a haunt of scholars and other potential rebels. They passed tiny courtyards with neat gardens and closed doors; venerable corridors gleaming with wax and polish. Golden Lotus’s four inch slippers squeaked slightly as he shuffled along.
He led the girl to Father’s bureau, propelling her into the long room. At once Yun Shu started bowing. She knelt on the floor before Father’s writing table. Salt Minister Gui, a pale, gloomy man with a wispy beard, somehow managed to both notice and ignore his daughter. An abacus clicked in his meaty hands, beads flying from side to side.
‘Five thousand and sixty-three taels,’ he muttered to himself.
‘Twenty one thousand b-blocks at s-seventy-two cash.’
Golden Lotus remained by the door, cooling himself with a fan.
It was the first time Yun Shu had been invited into the bureau, though far from her first visit. She sometimes stole there when Father was away on official business – which was often – to read old books and scrolls.
‘Ah,’ he said, at last. ‘Good!’
His eye crept down to a letter he had been reading when she entered. Yun Shu pressed her forehead to the varnished floor.
‘Yes,’ he said, clearing his throat. He peered at her as one might at a dubious underling. ‘She’s g-grown, hasn’t she?’
Golden Lotus’s white mask offered no encouragement. It had frozen around a demure smile.
‘Quite right. Straight to b-business,’ said the Salt Minister, awkwardly. ‘Youngest Daughter, you’re getting older. High time to b-be useful! You may have noticed ladies calling here over the past few months?’
Yun Shu nodded seriously, proud of her grown-up knowledge. ‘They were matchmakers,’ she replied. ‘I think they came for Eldest Brother.’ She hesitated then added recklessly, ‘When I saw him last month there was fluff on his chin!’
The Salt Minister blinked in surprise to hear her speak fluently.
‘Of course, you’re quite wrong,’ he said. ‘It was you they wished to discuss.’
Again the abacus clicked. Yun Shu’s long eyelashes fluttered rapidly. ‘But Honoured Father,’ she said, ‘my ceremony of hairpins will not take place for years.’
Five or six to be exact. So long she could hardly conceive becoming a woman.
‘Never mind,’ said Gui, ‘the contract’s signed and sealed. Now we must deliver!’
He looked to Golden Lotus for appreciation. The young man laughed, his painted red mouth open but making no sound.
While Yun Shu knelt dutifully, Father explained the contract in a dull, precise voice. A family of very respectable merchants in Chenglingji with extensive dealings in the salt trade were keen to secure his co-operation. They had even agreed to waive the dowry, a prospect of real advantage to the family.
‘You see,’ he concluded, ‘everyone profits. Especially your b-brothers.’
Yun Shu screwed up her eyes to hide tears. ‘Honoured Father, you have not mentioned who is to be my husband!’
He waved aside this question with clumsy fingers. ‘A son . . .’ He checked the letter. ‘Ahem, not specified. It is the connection that matters. Do you understand?’
She nodded. Yet it was too sudden a change. To be ignored all her life then learn – years before she might reasonably expect it – Honoured Father had already arranged to get rid of her!
‘There’s something else,’ he said. ‘G-golden Lotus has agreed to ensure your feet are, as specified in the contract, no longer than four inches.’
Yun Shu glanced down. Her feet were already over six inches long!
‘Do you mean to bind my feet, Father?’
‘How else will they shrink?’ He seemed genuinely puzzled.
‘Grandmother’s feet were not bound!’ protested Yun Shu.
‘Mother’s were not bound!’
‘It would have been better if they had been,’ muttered Golden Lotus, fluttering his fan.
‘Father, I’m too old! I don’t want tiny feet! I don’t want . . .’
Pain silenced her as Golden Lotus tugged her hair. ‘It shows how much your Father loves you!’ he whispered.
The Minister of Salt’s eyes narrowed. He clicked away at his abacus. Golden Lotus tapped Yun Shu on the shoulder with his fan to indicate she should leave.
A hot wind made the bamboo groves on Monkey Hat Hill whisper and slur. That night a wave of monsoon rolled in from the east, black clouds billowing inland, connecting Six-hundred-li Lake to the dark sky with rods of rain. A million tapping nails on roof tiles, scratching, trickling, trying to find gaps.
Yun Shu slept badly, her dreams invaded by Golden Lotus bending her feet until bones snapped like twigs.
At dawn, she twitched and curled into a ball. Some animal instinct deep within noted the night rain had slowed. Rosy light glowed through the soft skin of her closed eyelids, stirring fear and urgency.
Yun Shu sat up in bed and cried out. Any day, perhaps today, Golden Lotus would begin the binding. After that? A lifetime of wretched hobbling. Compelled by a sudden hope, Yun Shu dressed swiftly and crept out into gathering light, birdsong, scented flowers and wet, impressionable soil. Soon she reached a secret hole in the boundary wall of the splendid house and gardens occupied by Salt Minister Gui. Her hope lay somewhere far less respectable: Deng Mansions.
Deng Mansions adjoined Yun Shu’s home. It consisted of a large compound of courtyards and shabby wooden buildings surrounded by gardens wild as grass seed. Built on the same grand scale as the Salt Minister’s house, it was topped by similar ornate, upward-curving red tiles. However, its wooden walls and doors sagged and several ceilings had fallen in on themselves.
Positioned two-thirds up Monkey Hat Hill, Deng Mansions was one of a dozen houses formerly occupied by absurdly rich officials and merchants. That was before the Mongols put the entire city to the sword. Now, all the other great houses on the Hill were burned or abandoned. Only the Deng clan clung to their ancestral home. Monkey Hat Hill had gained a reputation for being cursed and few risked the taint of misfortune. As for Salt Minister Gui, he only lived there because no one was alive to charge him rent.
She found Hsiung and Teng in the weed-choked central courtyard. They stood side by side, emptying their bladders into a thorn bush, competing to see who could spray highest.
‘I win again!’ crowed Hsiung. He was tall and muscular for his age, whereas Teng’s thin limbs suggested delicacy. Both had shaved heads topped with small tufts of black hair.
‘I could eat a banquet,’ said Teng, yawning. ‘I bet we get millet for breakfast.’
Then they noticed her. Neither was embarrassed as they pulled up their breeches. They hardly considered her a girl at all.
‘Why are you here so early?’ asked Hsiung. Despite being a servant, he often spoke up before Teng, his master’s son.
Breathlessly, Yun Shu told her tale of betrothal and bound feet. They sat on a decaying wooden step like a huddle of geese.
‘My mother didn’t have bound feet,’ she concluded. ‘She was a doctor’s daughter from Nancheng. Mother told me my Grandfather called bound feet unnatural. If only she was still alive!’
‘How old were you when she died?’ asked Teng.
‘My mother died seven years ago,’ he said, tonelessly.
‘Sometimes I see her ghost. Especially at night. But when I look again it’s just shadows. She’s never there.’
The children fell silent. Hsiung began to whack the earth with a stick.
‘I wouldn’t let any one crush my feet,’ he declared. ‘I want to be free to run wherever I like.’
Teng stirred. ‘We must all obey our Honoured Fathers.
Confucius wrote . . .’
‘What if her father’s got it wrong?’ broke in Hsiung.
‘We should obey our parents especially if they are wrong,’ countered Teng. ‘Otherwise you’re wicked.’
‘I don’t want to hobble like a cripple all my life!’ cried Yun Shu.
The boys fell silent.
‘Will you help me?’ she asked. ‘You’re my only friends.’
Teng grew suddenly enthusiastic, as he often did when inspired by noble notions. ‘I know, let’s be Yun Shu’s xia! Her heroes! Hsiung, it’s just like that book I told you about. The hero saves the lady and she stabs herself because he won’t marry her!’
Hsiung liked the sound of that. They were interrupted by a voice inside the house: Teng’s father, Deng Nan-shi, wishing good morning to Lady Lu Si. Perpetually forlorn and annoying, Lady Lu Si was the Deng clan’s only other retainer, aside from Hsiung. Her position in the household was ambiguous, half honoured guest, half servant.
‘Golden Lotus and Father will be at Prince Arslan’s palace all day,’ said Yun Shu.
‘Meet us at the usual place in an hour,’ offered Teng.
‘Hsiung, we must remember to take our bamboo swords.’
Yun Shu escaped from the overgrown courtyard moments before Deng Nan-shi emerged into the sunlight with Lady Lu Si to receive his tiny household’s morning bows.
© Tim Murgatroyd 2013