Restraint: a foot-binding story

Daniel Enjay Wong
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, United States

 

My grandmother is with me.

She sits perched on the edge of the bed, where I’m lying with my feet propped up by pillows. My feet hurt from running.

I’ve asked her to tell me another story, and for a moment she looks back down at her Chinese newspaper. “Ai-yah, I should not tell you any more of these—too scary.”

Still, Grandmother knows that I secretly look forward to her stories. Each one is a fragment of the past she shares with me, dropping into the present like a rice grain.

Every night, after their bandages were taken off, she and her sister would sit on the bed and cry together. She was fortunate enough to suffer with company.

“All kinds of ghosts,” says Grandmother. Her wrinkled body is full of memories wound like thread. Every now and then, she’ll unwind the spool and weave another treasure, just for me. Most often, she’ll tell a ghost story: a childhood friend, left unattended, who drowned in the village septic tank. His mother lost her mind; the villagers believed the boy’s ghost had come back to punish a negligent parent. I would watch Grandmother’s face recount this memory, her quiet eyes staring into the emptiness behind me—she’s learned to live with ghosts.

As much as the stories frighten me, I still find myself starving for more of my grandmother’s past. I collect the bits and pieces of a mysterious life and play them in my mind like old films. Hungrily, I beg for more.

“Enough for today, xiao gui,” Grandmother laughs, using the nickname she’s always called me: little ghost. With a pat on the knee, she returns to her room for a nap. Sometimes, I imagine a spool winding as she rests, pulling chaotic strings back to a center.

She was never the obedient one. Only a few days had passed since the first time. Biting a towel to keep from screaming in agony, she wobbled on unfamiliarity, making for the back door. While her family slept, she stepped outside into the dark, damp air and found herself painfully free.

The sizzling smell of garlic awakens me. I hear the familiar shuffle of slippers. Eventually Grandmother emerges, carrying a steaming bowl of tofu in both hands. She joins me on the bed, watching me find my appetite; I don’t realize how hungry I am until the sweet sting of chili touches my tongue. As I eat, I imagine Grandmother busy in the kitchen, using the weight of her body to tilt a wok or strip the scales off a snapper. How difficult her life would be now if she’d always done what her parents told her—if she’d allowed her bones to be broken, her toes folded, and the bandages applied with pressure, pushing the blood into tight spaces and allowing dead ends to rot.

Another image follows, of a woman from Grandmother’s village whom I’d met as a child. Unlike Grandmother, she obeyed. I remember seeing the frail stumps, toes folded over into the tough flesh beneath. I remember watching as she was carried by her son to the dinner table, helpless like a fish on the sand.

Grandmother sees that I’ve stopped eating. She takes the bowl from my hands and asks me what’s the matter—is there something wrong with the food?

We both see through the mask of an empty question. Even in a new country, Chinese tradition possesses us; we skirt around emotion, dance around weakness. We fear pain. Pain in our feet, in our heads, in our hearts.

Grandmother’s feet are wide and full; the bonds of an old world are no longer visible. How can I explain terror for something that never happened? I am haunted by a past that isn’t mine.

I want her to give me this memory entirely, to empty the spool into my hands just so she can carry a little less. But in the dark room with Grandmother, age-old habit keeps me from saying what I think. My mouth conforms to silence. We refuse to acknowledge the ghosts, even as they lie beside us.

She is back home again, but now she is free.

She watches her mother dispose of the bandages, the ointments and salves, and the tiny shoes that were supposed to “fix” her. Her feet had not yet been broken—they will return to the way they were—but now she fears what the village will think of her family. They are delinquents, disobedient children, for challenging the authority of history. What ghosts have they awakened?

I bought new shoes. Grandmother is curious. The abundance of luxuries in this country never ceases to amaze her. “What kind of shoes are those?” In her day, there was only one kind.

“Running shoes,” I say, “new ones to replace the old pair. They gave me athlete’s foot.” Grandmother smiles approvingly and I feel a pull inside—a brief closeness between us.

She waves me off to begin my run. As I leave the house, Grandmother remains standing where I left her, fixed in my mind, holding root.

We’ve thrown away the shoes that made us sick.

 


 

DANIEL ENJAY WONG is currently a rising senior at Stanford University. As an artist, he produces work depicting the human body and is fascinated by blending art and medicine. He plans to attend medical school and has a strong interest in pursuing a career in reconstructive surgery. Wong is a native of Los Angeles.