Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Spirit of the Swallow

by Yan Lai Peen

It was dawn and my pet chicken had just begun to crow.

"Shi Yan, wake up, Shi Yan." Someone was shaking me.

Through the slits of my half-opened eyes, I saw Niang sitting on the edge of my bed, peering into my face. Behind her was her maid holding a tray, looking like a dark, tall and imposing tree stump. At her foot was a basin of water.

Niang gently shook me again. I grunted and rubbed my eyes, wondering why I was having an audience. Her maid set the tray down at the foot of my bed and the glimmer of a pair of scissors caught my eyes.

Niang knelt down and cradled my feet in her hands, then dipped them into the basin of warm water. I was puzzled; it wasn't my birthday. I was still half-asleep when she dried my feet, rubbed them with peculiar powder and cut my toenails. I saw her take something - it looked like a roll of cloth - from the tray and unroll it. Then, she grabbed my right foot.

"Niang…" I protested groggily. My mother looked up but said nothing. She held the rough bandage to my foot and bent my last four toes all the way towards the arch of my sole, seemingly sparing my big toe. The cloth went tightly round my foot that I began to feel needles and pins. Then she gave a sharp tug around my heel. I yanked my foot at her chin, throwing her off-balance.

"Niang, why?" I asked in bewilderment, fully awake now, and tears already welling up in my eyes. Niang's cold and clammy hands clutched at mine and she whispered through gritted teeth, "It's for your own good, guai nu. You'll thank me one day. Don't cry." She avoided my eyes but nodded at her maid, who immediately shoved a blouse into my mouth. Then, her maid pinned down my wrists.

"Good girl, good girl." Niang muttered. Her hands moved deftly. When the bandage reached my toes again, Niang forcefully broke them, two by two. Crack! Crack! It thundered in my ears in the stillness of the dawn. Pain shot through my entire sweat-drenched body. I choked on my own cries and wailed through the gag while Niang continued to press my heel to what was left of my toes, swiftly completing another round, never once loosening the grip of the bandage. My pet chicken echoed my wails as though crying in sympathy, as though on my behalf. My eyes, wide opened in horror despite the gushing tears, slowly rolled up towards the ceiling, then rolled sideways. Niang and her maid looked grotesque, their faces contorted and grey. Every thing became grey, then black.
On the following day, Niang held a cane and flicked it in front of my face.


Sobbing, I tottered around the courtyard in searing pain until the sun was directly over my head. Niang was still flicking away, by then at my rear end. Beads of sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes; I collapsed onto the ground in momentum with the stroke of her cane.

"Get up!" Niang said. I saw several maids peeping at me from the corners of the walls and I reached my hands out to them.

"Leave her be!" my mother barked at the maids. "Otherwise she'll be just like you!" She turned back to me, "Get up!" Looming threateningly above me, she held her cane high. I stared defiantly at her. "Or you won't eat tonight," she said loudly enough for the maids to hear.

I looked away towards the maids and reached out my hands once more.

"Help me," I groaned.

Thwack! came down the cane on my thighs.

"Aaaaaaahhhhhh!" I screamed, tears pouring down my face, mixed with sweat and, as I then believed, blood. I fell flat on my stomach. My outstretched hands dropped onto the ground and my palms curled into fists. Thwack! again.

"Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" I wailed louder. In my blurred vision, I saw Niang walk away with her maid. The maids scrambled away. I was drenched in my own sweat and urine. I pounded my fists on the ground, pressed my wet face against the earth and cried until the sun set.

My childhood ended that day. I was only five years old. As compensation, Niang gave me a new friend, Xiao Yu. She was to follow me everywhere and spend every moment with me. I later learned that the young maid who attempted to come to my aid that evening with a bowl of porridge was Xiao Yu. She was given five strokes of the cane by my mother who had hawk eyes. Xiao Yu limped for three days.

Every three or four nights from then on, Niang commanded Xiao Yu to leave my room. On those nights, my feet were bound tighter than before as my mother chanted "san cun, san cun, san cun." Before she came in, I hid in a cupboard or under my bed hoping Niang couldn't see me and would go away. But she always managed to find me and dragged me out of my hiding place while I howled for release. When I knew my protests were futile, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, pressed my lips together and gripped the edge of my seat until my fingers were white and numb. And throughout the process, I clenched my jaw and thought of that day I fell on the ground in my own urine and ate dirt.

Every day for two years, I sat in the confines of my courtyard, learning how to embroider shoes for my then four-inch feet. From where I sat each day, I could see the hills beyond the courtyard walls and the swallows that flew above my head. I embroidered images of them onto my shoes while my brothers ran past me, carrying with them wicker toys. One day, they saw me gazing dreamily at the swallows and paused in their step.

"Look at you!" elder brother scoffed. "You're such a miserable sight! You'll be shut in here forever while we enjoy the warm grass beneath our feet!" I looked at their feet and then mine while they continued to laugh derisively. I glared at them and fumed. There was only one thing I could do; mustering all my spit, I did it.

"Xiao Jie!" Xiao Yu gasped, shocked. "They are boys and can do what they like. We must accept our fate." I stared at her with disbelief.

"No! That's not true! I can do what my brothers do! I will!" I heard my brothers' laughter in the distance as they ran off. "I've forgotten how it feels like to run and skip," I said softly, head bowed. "But one day I will fly away like a swallow."

The day came when I turned fifteen. Father announced that I was to be wed. For nights, I lay awake, thinking what would become of me. Then one night, I realised the time had come.

After the night's meal, I pulled Xiao Yu aside.

"Xiao Yu, we leave tonight." I whispered.

"What?" Xiao Yu exclaimed. "Where to? Why?"

"Shh! I am serious about this." I looked at Xiao Yu desperately. "I will soon be Merchant Wang's fourth wife if I stay here. He is older than father, Xiao Yu! I heard that he even beats his wives." The image of Niang holding the cane above my head flashed across my mind and my stomach lurched. "If we don't escape tonight, I'll be trapped forever. Forever, Xiao Yu."

"Escape?" Xiao Yu gasped. "Master will beat me to death if he finds out, Xiao Jie! I can't, I can't do this. How could we escape? They'll surely catch up with us!" She backed away and shook her head vigorously.

I seized Xiao Yu's hands and said, "Do you remember what I said many years ago that morning in the courtyard? I'll do anything to run away. Believe me, Xiao Yu, we can do this together, we can! You will help me walk. We'll go far, far away where they can't find us. This is my only chance! Help me. We will leave at midnight. There's no moon tonight; no one will see us. Xiao Yu, please, I can't do this without you, you must help me!" I began to drop to my knees.

"No, Xiao Jie, no! Please don't kneel," Xiao Yu whimpered. She bit her lip and looked up at the sky. Then she slowly nodded, looking like a rabbit caught in a snare.

After everyone had retired to their bedchambers, Xiao Yu and I gathered our money and some essentials. We stole through the kitchen and past the outdoor waste chamber. The only sound we heard was the scurry of drain rats. I carefully unlatched the backdoor and stepped across the threshold.

"Don't look back," I said.

We started walking very slowly but we kept our pace. I leaned heavily on Xiao Yu and staggered on in silence. The air was heavy with fear. When we heard a clang in the distance, we jumped. It was the gengfu shouting out the time and clanging on his cymbal. We realised that we had walked for an hour. The gengfu's voice moved slowly out of earshot and silence hung heavily in the air once more. I dug my fingernails into Xiao Yu's arms like my toenails dug into my soles. The blood and pus that oozed from the ruptured boils seeped through the crevices of my feet.

"Let me carry you, Xiao Jie," Xiao Yu murmured. She bent down and I climbed onto her back. Her frail body quivered as she tried to secure me on her back and maintain her balance at the same time. Then, we continued our flight, slower now than before.

The wind began to howl, first like a lost child, and then it became louder and louder til it sounded like a hundred restless souls weeping. Leaves swirled around us as the strong wind blew. The dimly-lit lanterns which hung outside the doorways that we passed cast an unearthly luminescence on the walls as they swayed and creaked. An animal ran across our path. Xiao Yu let out a small yelp and staggered on.

Not long after that, we came to a bridge. Xiao Yu paused and panted. I saw a stone at the other end of the bridge but could not make out what was etched on it. I sucked in a deep breath and gripped her shoulder tighter.

"Don't look back," I said in a barely audible whisper as I breathed out. She carried me slowly across the bridge into an unfamiliar territory. We had left our village. We moved cautiously in the dark across the field and into another village. Lanterns were scarce. An animal yowled in the distance.

Suddenly, there was shuffling of feet behind us.

"Listen!" Xiao Yu gasped, freezing momentarily in her step. My hair stood on end and I darted my eyes to the left and right.

"Can you hear that sound? Is master catching up with us? We will die, we will die," she whined. Twigs broke on the ground behind us. I gripped her shoulder tighter. My heart pounded like a big magistrate's gong against my chest.

"Don't follow us. Go away, go away," Xiao Yu sobbed and wobbled forward as quickly as she could. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. "Faster! Faster!" I tried to say but only chokes escaped my lips. The sounds behind us came closer. In her panic, Xiao Yu stumbled on a hard object and all I saw then was the ground coming up and slamming on my face. I shook my head in shock while Xiao Yu got back on her feet as swiftly as lightning.

"Crawl! Crawl!" Xiao Yu almost shrieked. I looked up at her, dazed. She grasped me by my arm and pulled hard, dragging my knees over the stones on the ground. I whimpered but nonetheless clawed my way over sand, earth and puddles. We dared not stop to look back. I clambered on for what seemed like an eternity.

When we made a turn around a corner, Xiao Yu exclaimed, "Look!"

In the fog, I could make out the silhouette of a derelict temple. I heaved a sigh of relief and without letting my gaze leave the dilapidated building, I crawled towards it as quickly as my raw knees could endure.

Once we reached the step, we scrambled past the cobwebbed doorway and hid behind the front wall. There we sat huddled, panting and keeping as still as statues, as though a single movement would shatter the fragile calm. We remained in that position for a long time, listening intently for any more sounds. When we heard nothing else save for our own breathing, we regained our spirits.

"Xiao Yu, please get me some water," I said wearily and closed my eyes. Hearing no response from her, I opened my eyes and saw her gaping.

"Where…where from?" she stammered.

"There must be a well at the back of this temple," I sighed, fingering my foot gingerly. "Go quietly and be careful." She gaped at me with her wide terrified eyes. I squeezed her hands and said, "Guan Yin will watch over us."

When she had gone, I tenderly removed my shoes and unwound the soiled bandages. Upon her return, Xiao Yu stood still a few steps away, staring fixedly at my naked feet. Then she hurriedly dumped the bucket at my feet and shrank back. I heard her retch in a corner. I avoided her gaze; neither of us spoke a word. I cleansed my wounds and decaying feet, and cut away the rotten flesh while Xiao Yu made a fire, occasionally clutching at her throat when stealing glances at me.

"Xiao Yu, you are no longer my little maid but my dear friend," I whispered to her later as we huddled together, before sleep claimed us. I dreamed of swallows in flight above green hills and rolling waters.

When we awoke, my feet had dried and the fire was still kindling. I tossed the ten-foot soiled bandages and my three-inch shoes into the flames. The bandages turned into ashes and were carried away with the wind. The shoes blackened and shrivelled. I wrapped my feet with soft cotton cloth and pinned it securely. The sun was rising from the horizon when we headed to the jetty, hand-in-hand.
We boarded the boat just as it sounded its horn.

"Don't look back," I said.

We never did.