Sadie glanced down at her feet. The windblown dust from the Loess Plateau, along with a layer of local coal dust, had settled on her shoes. She watched as her husband leaned to the side of the busy road and hopped off his bicycle. The green leaves of a bunch of leeks poked out of a plastic bag that hung from his handlebars. In greeting, Sadie held up a complementary bottle of black vinegar.
"Ni hao," he said.
With her free hand, Sadie put her arm around Heng's waist and felt him stiffen. She pulled her arm away, remembering that she was in Western China, where a husband and wife must keep at least a foot apart while walking out in public.
"How was your day?" he asked.
"You must try to get along with Ma."
"I do try. I really do. But your mother hates me."
"How many students did you tutor today?"
"Only about five, but it felt like a hundred."
"The students are poor, and yet their parents pay you very well."
"Yes, I know. But they use free chat to criticize me."
"You could do with a little self-criticism."
"What do you mean?"
"You have to constrain yourself. You're not in the U.S. any more."
"But, Heng, the students hassle me. They ask me if all American wives have lovers and if grown kids refuse to care for their old parents."
"It's true in America that old people are put in institutions or abandoned. Didn't you tell me about Granny dumping?"
"Yes, but that's no excuse for them to mock me. They point out how big I am. They stare at my feet and then they giggle."
"So you have big feet. You're my all-American girl."
They strolled through the work unit to the large parking shed, where Heng and everyone else who lived and worked at Wei Teachers College stored their bicycles. And then they dragged their feet to the apartment block, where on the second floor they shared a small apartment with his parents.
"We must make this work," he said. "Or my friends and students will laugh at me and not just because my wife has big feet."
Sadie scowled at him.
When they reached the front door, they ducked under a pair of Ma's underpants that were drying in the doorway and then followed the pungent smell of garlic to the kitchen balcony, where Ma took the vinegar from Sadie and the leeks from Heng. When Sadie offered to help with the cooking, Ma rebuffed her.
"Maybe you don't know how," she said in the Shaanxi dialect.
It wasn't the first time that Heng's mother scoffed at Sadie's offer to help with the cooking.
Sadie stood there awkwardly with nothing to do but watch Ma's small, but most capable, hands wield the heavy kitchen cleaver — what, in America, Sadie would have called a meat cleaver — with such dexterity that the radish and carrot and ginger were diced into tiny, perfect cubes.
Heng spoke with his mother, but Sadie couldn't make out much of what was said. She heard laoshi, the word for teacher. Earlier that day, she had tried to explain to her mother-in-law that she had been a teacher in America.
As if to be rid of her, Ma handed Sadie a broom. It was time for the sweep of the day, one of the few chores Ma trusted her American daughter-in-law to do. Sadie, feeling like a big oaf, bent over the short-handled broom and grudgingly swept the concrete floor.
The young woman had to heed the whims of Heng's parents, and they had decided that Sadie should not go out to work, but should stay in the back bedroom tutoring drop-ins. There were many college students who came by to see Sadie, believing that learning English, especially spoken American English, was a ticket out of poverty. But, if she taught English classes at the college, it would bring unwanted attention to the family. Heng, respecting tradition, agreed with his parents.
Later that night, as they lay in bed together, Heng said, "Let me see those big feet of yours."
Sadie grinned and stuck out her feet. "Do you have a foot fetish?" she asked.
He massaged her feet as she pretended to moan with pleasure.
Playing the hapless lover, Heng spoke Mandarin in a tone filled with yearning.
"What are you saying?" Sadie asked.
"I'm reciting a poem."
"A love poem?"
"Yes, from the late Song Dynasty."
"What's it about?"
"It's about a sad young woman whose feet fit in the palms of her lover's hands."
"Why is she sad?"
"Her feet hurt when she dances for him."
"Yes. That was the custom."
Continuing to massage Sadie's feet, Heng applied greater pressure. He bent her toes way under to the soles of her feet and folded the arch.
"Ouch!" What are you doing?
"Relax. I'm making your feet smaller."
"Stop! Stop it, right now! You're hurting me."
"You're not in America any more. Something can be done about this."
"This?" she asked.
He smiled. "Your feet may not fit in the palms of my hands, but they are perfectly formed. You are a half-Guanyin."
"A woman with a beautiful face and natural feet."
He held her feet in his hands and kissed them.
Sadie's mind wandered as they both settled down to sleep. Back in America, when she had asked Heng to someday show her his country, he had said, "China is a poor, backward country. My parents live in a small, dirty room. You would not like it."
But Sadie, filled with curiosity about a country so far away, had been eager to go.
In bed beside her, Heng brought her back to the present. "Could you move those big feet of yours over?"
"Sorry," she replied, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Xia, a young Chinese woman who taught English at the college, had offered to be Sadie's translator. She had earned Sadie's friendship with funny anecdotes, especially the ones about randy old college professors. Sadie had laughed to hear about the Dean of Foreign Languages scurrying under the cover of darkness out of the young teachers' building.
One weekend Heng and his parents had reluctantly agreed to allow Sadie to go into the city of Wei with her translator to buy a pair of shoes. Traveling in the crowded bus with Xia and anticipating a rare day of freedom, Sadie arrived happily at the busy, market-lined streets of the city.
As they strolled past the stalls, the peddlers cried, "Hello, Hello."
"They think you are a rich foreigner," Xia said, stroking Sadie's ginger hair.
Live roosters for sale lined the side of the road. Having had their feet tied, they squawked and flapped about. And there were dead roosters for sale too, complete with heads and feet. To Sadie, China seemed like one giant flea market. Looking about as she walked along, she saw a bit of red silk on the curb. An old woman had laid out some household junk on a cloth.
"Xia, let's look at the antiques."
Placed beside an opium pipe was a small shoe, a shoe for a bound foot. Since being in China, Sadie had seen a few elderly women hobbling on canes with their deformed feet enclosed in simple black cotton shoes. But this was the first time she had ever seen a shoe from old China. The hand-sewn, embroidered silk shoe was three, maybe four, inches long. It had a one-inch heel and a toe that curved upwards. So this was a shoe that would cover a foot small enough to nestle in the
bowl of a teacup, she thought.
"I have to have this," she said to Xia.
Xia frowned. "Foot binding is a great shame for China."
"Qing, Xia," begged Sadie. "Please . . . help me buy the little shoe."
Speaking in the Shaanxi dialect, Xia asked the peddler, "How much?"
The woman, looking at Sadie, answered, "30 kuai."
"Too much," Xia said.
After bargaining for quite a long time, Xia turned to Sadie, "Don't buy it. It's too expensive."
Sadie was already digging in her pocket for the money.
Xia offered the woman 15 yuan. The woman accepted.
"Xie xie," Sadie said, delighted to have the relic as she slipped the little red shoe into her basket.
Still frowning, Xia asked, "Why do Americans always say please and thank you? I'm happy to help my friend. In China we don't say please and thank you all the time. Anyway, why do you want the shoe?" she asked. "It's way too small for your foot."
"Don't start," Sadie replied.
At an open-front restaurant, Xia ordered a pot of green tea while Sadie balanced herself on a low rickety stool. "Xia, tell me about foot binding."
"During Liberation, Chairman Mao stopped the practice. In the old days, parents were told not to neglect their son's studies or their daughter's foot binding. But Mao said, 'Women hold up half the sky.' China is a developing country. We need women workers, as well as men, to improve our economy. But, Sadie, in your culture, small feet are valued as well."
"Doesn't Cinderella win the handsome prince because her foot fits in the little glass slipper?"
"You're right. But still that's just a fairy tale."
Sadie took the little shoe out of her basket. As she admired the exquisite handiwork, she thought of the lump of tortured flesh and broken bones that it had once covered.
"It must have been very painful," she continued. "I just can't imagine. Is it true that they broke the toes and dislocated the heel before breaking the arch? And is it true that it was done to girls as young as three or four . . . a practice done for more than a thousand years?"
"Yes. How do you know so much about foot binding?"
"I read about it on the Internet."
"The Chinese Internet?"
"No, back in America. But tell me, Xia, how did a woman manage to use a squat toilet if her feet were bound?"
"Yes. She had to."
"Let's go, Sadie. We need to find you a pair of shoes."
After walking a few blocks, they came to a small department store. When they entered the women's shoe department, Sadie was dismayed to see how small the shoes were. She looked down at her old clunky walking shoes, which seemed enormous in comparison. When Xia saw that Sadie was embarrassed, she suggested that they go to the athletic store, since women athletes tend to be larger than average Chinese women. But Sadie had already decided that she could wear her old shoes a little longer.
Sadie's mother-in-law was waiting for them when they returned. She exchanged a few words with Xia. Ma had asked Xia how much money Sadie had spent and Xia had responded, "Not much." All of which she translated for Sadie.
When Sadie showed her the little shoe, Ma turned her face away and spoke to Xia again.
"What did she say? Sadie asked Xia.
"She said you are bad to spend so much money on junk. She's also unhappy with me. I failed to help you buy a new pair of shoes, and instead, I let you buy a ridiculous shoe that you could never wear."
"But it's my money and my say."
Taking in her threadbare clothes and thinning hair, Sadie frowned at her husband's mother, who looked much older than her fifty-six years. Ma wore a dark blue Mao suit, reminiscent of a time when the fashion for men and women was indistinguishable. She wore no jewelry and did nothing to hide the bald spot on the crown of her head. She had had a hard life. But Ma had been born after the era of foot binding, and her natural feet were planted firmly on the floor.
The older woman spoke again and Xia translated. "She said you are a foreign devil who wastes her son's money."
"How dare she?"
"I better go," said Xia.
Sadie noticed that Heng had left his satchel with his textbooks in a corner of their bedroom.
It bulged with students' test papers. His classes were huge, so many students who, in turn, would become teachers themselves. Wei Teachers College prepared its students to return to their poor villages as teachers, teachers so badly paid that no one would want to marry them. Sadie decided to help her husband by putting the tests in a neat pile on the desk they shared.
While reaching into the satchel, Sadie found an old worn book hidden under the papers.
The words were printed in Chinese characters. As she leafed through the yellowed pages, she came upon erotic illustrations.
Wow, she thought. Heng has a secret stash of old Chinese porn. As she examined one of the pictures, her eyes were drawn to the woman's feet, which were lifted to the woman's shoulders and shod in tiny shoes. The bound foot was smaller, much smaller, than the vulva. Sadie closed the book and put it on top of Heng's school papers and then carefully placed the little red shoe on top of the book. She wanted to see his face when he saw it.
Later, when Heng came in, his eyes found the silk shoe and his book of erotica beneath it.
"Reminders of foot binding are taboo," he said.
"Why?" Sadie asked.
"Ma's right. You are a devil woman."
"Is that why she was so angry, not so much the money, but the shoe?"
"Ma doesn't need you, a foreigner, to rub her nose in a national disgrace."
Hoping to change the subject, Sadie asked, "Aren't you going to tell me about your book?"
"It's a famous piece of Chinese literature."
"What about the pictures?"
"They are Ming Dynasty woodcuts."
"You know," he continued, pointing to the little shoe, "I lost face marrying a foreigner, and if you go around squandering my money on objects of shame, people will ridicule me."
"Why do you care?"
Lighting a cigarette, he said, "Face is important."
"Heng, what's happened to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're different here in China."
"Maybe I'm disappointed. I thought that after a short time you would become an ordinary Chinese wife. If there wasn't a shortage of women in China because of the one-child policy, I'd probably never have married you."
"Stop . . . please. Think about what you're saying."
"Can't you take a joke?" he asked, taking a long drag and letting the smoke out slowly.
"Yes. And stay away from Xia. She's a bad influence on you."
"Are you still joking?"
"No. And get rid of that damn shoe."
The next day, done with her tutoring, Sadie stretched out on the bed. She had a little time before dinner. On the bookshelf by the window, Sadie saw Heng's book of erotica. She took the book from the shelf and leafed through it looking at the illustrations. Several of the woodcuts depicted a man and a woman having sex. Not only did the women have tiny feet, but also their legs were short, particularly from the knee to the ankle. In one picture, the woman's thighs were propped on the man's shoulders. Her body appeared distorted, her torso elongated, and her legs tapered to tiny feet covered with little sleeping shoes. Sadie smiled, thinking that the whole effect was of a Thanksgiving Day turkey trussed for the oven.
Sadie looked at the woodcuts, first hurriedly, then a bit slower. She sighed. How can this be? How could something so unnatural be a turn-on? In another woodcut, the man grasped the woman's ankles just above her diminutive feet, making her buttocks and exposed vulva look voluptuously large.
Heng, who had been teaching an evening class, came in. He was surprised when Sadie pulled him down.
"What's gotten into you?"
"It's this dirty book of yours."
"Jou Pu Tuan isn't a dirty book."
"What's the title in English?"
"Hmm . . . something like . . . "Prayer Mat of the Flesh. The writer, Li Yu, is a famous playwright and actor from the seventeenth century. You could say he is the Chinese Shakespeare."
"What is the book about?"
"It's about a man who abandons the straw mat. Instead of by practicing meditation, he decides to reach the divine by having sex with all the most beautiful women in the Middle Kingdom."
"Wow! All the most beautiful women in China. I guess they would all have bound feet."
"The tiny feet promised a tight vagina. It was believed that walking on the crippled feet strengthened the thigh muscles . . . and the muscles of the jade gate."
"So does our hero succeed with his quest?"
"Yes. After he has a dog penis grafted onto his own inadequate penis to enlarge and fortify it. And at the end of the story, although it may seem unlikely, he does become a devout Buddhist."
"A dog penis? Shouldn't this book have been burned during the Cultural Revolution?"
"I'm sure many copies of it were. In fact, it's forbidden today."
Sadie and Heng lay side by side. They had removed their clothing. Sadie glanced toward the bottom of the bed and secretly measured her foot next to Heng's. Sadly she noted that they were about the same size.
She reached under her pillow and pulled out the little red shoe.
"What do you have there?" Heng asked.
Without saying a word, Sadie put the little shoe on the end of his penis, causing it to stand up. He danced the little shoe about, and they both laughed.
"I guess you haven't changed so much after all," she said.
"Of course I haven't changed," he said.
As the snow began to fall, Sadie experienced the full deprivation of living in Western China. She suffered the daily indignities of anyone living in a poor region: the filthy squat toilets, the lack of privacy in the unheated bathhouse, even the recycled toilet paper full of splinters and bits of plastic. She was always cold and always hungry and had to withstand the frequent no water, no power — meyo shui, meyo dian — days. As the winter deepened, she washed in a bucket of tepid water because the bathhouse was always padlocked. Hoping to make her more like the Chinese wife that his son needed, Ba had forced her to learn how to wring the neck of a chicken and pluck its feathers.
Heng's father had said, "If you eat chicken, you must kill chicken."
Then, one cold night, her friend Xia knocked on the door. Tearfully, she told Sadie, "I have been forbidden by Chief Wang to see you any more. I think Heng and his parents asked the chief to speak to me. I have no choice but to obey, or I will be sent to the countryside for re-education."
Sadie felt both anger and fear. "Do you think it's because you helped me to buy the little shoe?"
"Maybe," Xia responded. "But also because I speak too freely with you. You know, about Dean Tai and his late night hobby."
A few days later, as Sadie was sorting laundry, she pulled a business card out of Heng's shirt pocket. Turning the card over in her hands, she wasn't able to read the Chinese characters but was curious about what they said. After dark, she slipped out of the apartment on the pretense of taking garbage to the chute in the hallway. Ugh! Rotten cabbage, she thought, as she passed the overflowing chute on her way down the stairs.
Defying both her husband and the Communist Party chief, Sadie ran over to the young teachers' building in search of Xia. Holding her breath in the filthy corridor, she found her friend in a small, dark room.
"You shouldn't be here," Xia whispered.
As Sadie held out the business card, she said, "Tell me what this says, and I'll never come again."
Xia said, "This place is for men."
"A men's club?"
"What kind of club?"
"It's called The Golden Lotus. It's a place where beautiful women with small feet entertain men."
"Women with bound feet?"
"But you said there is no foot binding in China now."
"Maybe there are a few for rich men."
"But Heng isn't rich."
"Eating vinegar?" Xia teased. "Don't be jealous. I'm sure it is just a harmless fantasy."
Sadie, already distressed, took in the stained chamber pot shoved under Xia's makeshift bed. Her spirits fell even more when she noticed the sheets of newspaper covering the dirty walls, the chipped jar of watery tea on the wobbly little table, and the broken panes of glass in the one window. She shuddered at the bitter cold that came in through the window and was sickened by the reek of excrement that followed her in from the unlit hallway. She left quickly, not wishing to make trouble for Xia.
Returning to her apartment, Sadie joined her in-laws, who were watching television. They were caught up in a soap opera. Sitting down beside Ma, Sadie took note of her feet beside the much smaller feet of the older woman. Sadie's own mother had had large feet. She recalled how Mom had talked excitedly about any man who happened to have big feet. She probably had a hard time finding a man, even in America, with feet bigger than hers, Sadie thought with a smile. And, of course, Mom had always joked about what those big feet on a man implied.
Unable to understand the language of the weepy drama that was taking place on the television, Sadie free-associated. If big feet on a man imply a large penis, then little feet on a woman . . . she suddenly sat up very straight . . . I get it!
Oh no! They all think I have a big one. That must be what Heng meant when he said something about his friends and students laughing at him. She jumped up, saying good night to her husband's parents.
Looking away from the TV briefly, they replied, "Wanan."
Sadie usually waited for Heng to come home before getting into bed; she couldn't bear climbing into the icy bed alone on cold winter nights like this one. But tonight she just wanted to hide under the covers. Keeping most of her clothes on, Sadie lay on her back on the hard bed and pulled the heavy woolen blanket up to her nose. As she positioned her head onto the bean-filled pillow, she easily imagined herself lying on a slab in a morgue. The only thing missing was an ID tag hanging from her big toe.
Listening to the anguished cry of a rooster outside in the dark night, Sadie's apprehension grew. The rooster was kept alive, so it would be fresh when eaten. But it seemed cruel to Sadie to leave the rooster, with its feet tied, on the freezing balcony. She began to doubt that she was strong enough to endure the harsh conditions of her husband's country. And she was afraid Heng would come to regret having married a foreigner.
A couple of weeks later, Heng said to Sadie, "I have a surprise for you."
"Yes, I made an appointment for a pedicurist to come by later this afternoon."
"Why do I need a pedicure? My feet are fine."
"I want to treat you to a luxury many women desire. It will relax you. It is a tradition from the days of Imperial China. The Emperor's concubines found great pleasure in a foot massage. Now that our economy is improving, women can once again experience long-denied luxuries."
"But what about Ma? She will not approve of your wasting money."
"Don't worry about Ma."
"I feel weird about this, Heng. Will you be here to translate for me?"
"You're being silly. The woman is known to be gentle."
While waiting for the pedicurist to arrive, Ma heated the kettle on the little coal stove for Sadie's footbath. Sadie's feet had gotten dry and rough from all her walking about in the cold. She began to look forward to the little luxury that Heng had arranged for her.
The woman arrived on time. She was a no-nonsense, middle-aged woman. She asked Sadie to sit on the straight-backed chair in the kitchen, and she put a large porcelain basin on the floor.
She called to Ma to bring the hot water. Steam poured from the spout of the kettle in the cold room.
Sadie removed her shoes and socks as the woman poured the boiling water into the basin. Sadie's feet were numb from the cold — they had been for days — yet she refused to put her feet in the water when the woman gestured for her to do so.
"Too hot," Sadie said.
The woman didn't know English, but seemed to understand. From a string bag that she had placed on the floor, she took some herbs, crushing them with her fingers as she sprinkled them on the water. Next, she pulled a large jar from the bag, a jar filled with blood.
"No," Sadie said. She was frightened and her mother-in-law scolded her. They began to argue as the pedicurist poured the blood into the basin.
All three women were yelling when Heng came in.
"Help me, Heng. They want to cook my feet in blood."
"Don't be foolish," he said. "It's just pig's blood. The blood and the herbs will soften the skin on your feet."
"Bullshit, this concoction will take the skin right off my feet."
"Come on," he said, gently dipping her toes in the basin.
The hot, bloody water actually felt quite good. Sadie closed her eyes as the woman massaged her feet. The numbness wore off, and the steady pressure of the woman's strong hands calmed Sadie.
With reddened fingers deformed from a lifetime of hard work, the pedicurist labored on.
She scraped off the rough spots, she pushed back the cuticles, and she cut the nails. When she was done, Sadie admired her pretty pink toes. The woman wrapped Sadie's feet in bands of cloth. Heng paid the woman and carried his wife to their bedroom. He put her on the bed and unwrapped her feet.
He held her feet in the palms of his hands and kissed them. Her feet felt tender and she had no desire to walk on them. She lay back on the bed, pretending that she was one of the sexy foot-bound women she had seen in Heng's book.
As the winter freeze continued, Heng's family struggled to stay warm and to find enough food to eat. One winter day Sadie found herself alone in the apartment. Heng had been given a ride in the college van to a university in the capital city of Xi'an for a math conference. And Ba and Ma had traveled by train to their home village for the annual New Year celebration.
Left to cook for herself, Sadie decided to buy some vegetables to add to the noodles she had made. She put on many layers of warm clothing to go to the local farmers' market, and she covered her face with a surgical mask, a protection from winter germs and sooty air. As she left the apartment building, she saw her neighbors digging up the carrots and daikon radishes that they had buried after the fall harvest. A small piece of communal ground was made available to the apartment dwellers to store their vegetables. Outside the college gate, she walked down the road, where the roar of tractors without mufflers was deafening.
The road ran parallel to the Qin Mountain Range; and while waiting to cross the busy street, Sadie gazed up at the high mountains. Heng had told her that on cold winter days like this one, wolves came down in search of food. And the students she tutored had told her that there were pandas and tigers up there, too. They also told her that when a baby girl went missing, it was a panda that took her.
She crossed the street to the market, but there was very little to buy at this time of year.
Looking up at a sky obscured by dust, Sadie longed for the clear blue skies of Florida, where she had met the handsome, young exchange teacher just a short time ago.
Because most of the food for the people of Wei came from nearby farms, now in the dead of winter many of the stalls were empty. She bent to poke at some frozen potatoes and selected a few. The farmer weighed them carefully on his handheld scale. Up ahead she saw some cabbage, the few heads having begun to rot and turn brown. That was all there was, so she bought one.
Turning back, Sadie spotted a bright red color that was in stark contrast to its monotonous gray surroundings, reminding her of a happier time at a market when another bit of red had caught her eye. As she walked closer, she saw that it was red meat. She was shocked to see the unmistakable canine teeth in the animal's skull. The farmer had hacked most of the meat away; a few bits of remaining flesh gave the skull its crimson color.
A butchered dog?
Questioning what her eyes saw, she barked at the man, "Ruff, ruff?"
He nodded with a big smile, hoping that the foreigner would buy his dead dog.
After arriving back at the gate of the college and wishing to delay her return to the empty apartment, Sadie walked toward the drab classroom building. Built in the Soviet-style, it was all right angles. Knowing that classes were over for the day and missing Heng, she decided to visit his room. There was nothing on the first floor of the rectangular building except the bottom of the staircase and an icy wind that had blown trash into the corners of the lobby. Climbing the stairs, Sadie carefully stepped over medallions of frozen phlegm, containing green and red swirls like diseased holiday décor, which the students and professors had spat out. As she reached the first landing, Sadie saw the mops and smelled the urine that the student cleaners used to disinfect the corridors. Through the open windows at the back of the building, Sadie could hear from below the clatter and whirr of roller skates. She had watched the students at their leisure once before as they skated listlessly round and round the fenced-in rink, the rusty, sagging fence almost as joyless as the somber-faced students. She recalled how one of the students had teased her when she had said something about fun, asking "What is fun?"
Grasping the sooty banister as she continued up the slippery stairs, she was thankful for her sturdy walking shoes. On the fifth floor, she entered the hallway that led to Heng's classroom.
Shoving the heavy door open, she choked on the black smoke that filled the room. The windows along the front of the building were open and smoke billowed in from a construction site below. Sadie glanced at the wooden desks, where the now-absent students sat two by two, with their pencil boxes and fingerless gloves, and at the cracked blackboard and the broken bits of chalk. So this was Heng's world, she thought and felt a pang of tenderness. The same student who had asked about fun, had also asked, "What is love?" She had felt at the time that the student suspected a certain American arrogance in Sadie's confidence that both fun and love existed at all. There wasn't much to see in the simple classroom: portraits of Marx and Engels hung above the blackboard.
Leaving Heng's room, Sadie turned in the opposite direction of the stairs and headed toward a small outdoor balcony. She was pretty high up and once again gazed at the snow-covered mountain range. The very top was hidden in clouds. The sky was a gray glare that hurt her eyes, and there were no birds. She wondered if it were true, that all the songbirds had been trapped and eaten. And she couldn't see the hermits that she had been told lived up in the foothills of the mountains. But once, along the road that led to and from the market, she had seen a tall, thin man with Western features wearing shredded rags, rags so shredded that they looked more like hair, like the hair of a golden monkey that was also said to inhabit the nearby mountains. At the time, she imagined that the man was a Qinling hermit, who had, as she had, come from far away.
She shivered in the cold, overcome by a desperate loneliness. She leaned over the crumbling balcony and looked down into the street. She thought of how casually the Chinese spoke of the many young women who had jumped from a similar height. "Woman's brain disease," they had said matter-of-factly. A graceful flow of villagers moved along the street, some on foot, some on bicycles, some on tractors, some pulling carts filled with old junk or a crippled elder, and one pulling a giant pig. Sadie thought of Heng, how he was one of so many and how small his part of this big country was. As she peered over the edge she thought for a moment that she saw him, but it couldn't be him. Heng was in Xi'an. The man she saw rode a Flying Pigeon bicycle with a petite woman riding sidesaddle on the rack behind him. The woman, her long black hair and yellow scarf flowing behind her, seemed to look up at Sadie and laugh. For a moment, Sadie saw Heng as he was meant to be, coupled with a heavenly-mandated Chinese wife. Her dry throat and burning eyes, aggravated by the thick smoke, nudged Sadie down the long staircase and back to the apartment.
As she unlocked the door, she no longer believed that Heng was attending a two-day academic conference. During her walk through the frothy mud that had been whipped up by the many feet that had taken the path before her, she had remembered the business card that she had found in his pocket and convinced herself that he had gone to The Golden Lotus. And he was probably, right now, in the arms of another girl, a Chinese girl with exquisite feet.
After making a pot of tea on the little kitchen balcony, Sadie spotted the meat cleaver. She picked it up and ran her finger lightly over the blade. She located the whetstone and slowly and methodically honed the blade. The rasp of metal on stone filled the silence of the small, empty rooms. She then wiped the dust off the carving board. As she chopped the potatoes and cabbage for her solitary dinner, she became more and more wretched as she decided that her lanky body could never compete with the delicate beauty of a Chinese woman's body. Wind came through the old window frame, mimicking the wail of a hungry ghost. Or maybe it was just another rooster crying out into the cold night from a neighbor's balcony.
Going into the main room, she put her pot of tea and a cup on the dining table, which was pushed up against Ba and Ma's bed. She went back to the balcony and returned with her simple meal. As she took a sip of tea, she glanced at Ba's cabinet and recognized the green bottle of liquor that was saved for special occasions. She took the bottle out and set it on the table. She then went into the bedroom that she and Heng shared. She rummaged in the back of their wardrobe until she found the shoe that she had hidden from her husband. Returning to the main room, she put the shoe in the center of the table. Pushing the teapot away, she poured herself some liquor and toasted the shoe, "Ganbei! "
In return, the shoe seemed to mock her as if it could speak: "You cannot fit in me, you foreign devil. You'll never fit in." And then Heng's words from a night not too long ago came back to her. Squeezing her feet until they hurt, he had said, "You're not in America any more. Something can be done about this." She went out into the hallway and dumped her supper into the garbage chute. She had lost her appetite but had come up with a plan.
Sadie recalled the day when the pedicurist massaged her feet in the water that Ma had heated in the kettle. Tonight in the cold kitchen, she missed the warmth of the other women's bodies. On the floor beside her feet, her big hideous naked feet, Sadie had piled strips of cloth that she had torn from an old bed sheet, emptying the bottle of mao-tai as she worked. The liquor gave her courage, and along with the extremely cold temperature on the balcony, it helped to numb her feet.
Sadie hammered two large nails into the carving board, one on the right side and one on the left. She cut two pieces of string, knotting each piece onto a nail. With two more pieces of string, she bound the first four toes of each foot, leaving the pinky toe unbound. Sadie lifted her long leg and placed her right foot on the carving board. She tied the other end of the string that was knotted to the right nail to her right pinky. Even though some Americans like to say, "It's all good," the Chinese know better, she had concluded. They are resigned to taking the bitter with the sweet. Likewise, she had accepted her fate to suffer the bitter, to eat the vinegar. Having cut up many a chicken that she had killed, she had learned how to use the cleaver. Ba had taught her well. Toe bones can't be much different from chicken bones, she thought. She pulled her pinky toe as far away as possible from the bound toes and gripped the sharpened cleaver.
"Eat vinegar!" she shrieked. The cleaver came down so hard the little toe flew away.
Sadie's long body crumpled onto the concrete floor.
She pulled herself up, knowing that her job was only half done. She wrapped the wounded foot loosely in a strip of cloth. And as the pain throbbed in her right foot, she repeated the process on her left foot and crumpled again. But she did not pull herself back up this time.
Sadie woke up in bed to find her feet now tightly bound. She was filled with shame; she had done something irrevocable. Ba and Ma hovered over the bed. When they saw her eyes open, they motioned to Heng, who had been standing at the window, watching his neighbors coming home from work with their plastic bags of tofu and onions, and their bottles of black vinegar.
He went to his wife and, looking into her strange blue eyes, said, "Thank you."