Dragonfly Tea ran a short story competition for young writers in 2017. I submitted two pieces. One was shortlisted and, to my (delighted) surprise, was later announced as the winning piece for my age group.
Below is the winning piece (I still get the happy-fluttering-warbles bubbling up inside when I say that), and you can check out Dragonfly Tea in the link. I can also recommend their Oolong tea.
I perch on the stone back of the dragon-shaped garden bench, surrounded by snow. Blankets, layers of wools and silks, are tied around me, wrapped tightly as bandages and shedding fine dustings of snow at my trembles and twitches. My feet have been left bare and are submerged in white.
The skin on my legs has turned faintly purple, the colour of lavender that has been pressed, dried and forgotten. I shuffle my feet, noticing just how numb they are, how they feel bloated, awkward like fists. Folding myself over I reach down through the snow and place my fingertips on the skin of my feet, finding the chill twinned to the freezing bite of the powder that surrounds them.
Summer, spring and autumn move like generations, each one the off-spring of the last but never identical to what came before. Yet winter returns every year like an old acquaintance, never having changed. And it is with winter I share my most important memories. The birth of my grandchildren, Father’s death, the birth of my own children, marriage.
And the day I became the lotus.
Mother was strange, all those years ago, as the city was drawn away from autumn’s quivering hands, rattled by gales of wind, and passed to winter’s rigid grasp. The face of the woman who bore me is long ago smudged by memory, yet her mouth I’ll always know. It is my mouth, vibrant in colour like the flushed skin of a pomegranate and elegantly curved like a bow. That mouth had elongated to smiles many times during that long ago winter. My lotus winter.
“Zhi, you will dance as Yao-Niang is said to have danced on the lotus. You will become the lotus as she did.”
When I was five I hardly comprehended much of what happened around me; I only heard mother telling me how beautiful I would become without knowing what beauty was. Yao-Niang was the Emperor’s lover, and everyone that I knew in my tiny, child’s world adored her. The lotus was the flower that, in warmer weather, glided across the surface of our garden pond, petals rounded by the bud and pointing outwards, ending in the tips of blades. These things I knew but did not understand.
My fifth year was the first time I witnessed a true snowfall. Before I had only seen flakes shedding from the clouds, vanishing as soon as they kissed the ground. Heavy snowfalls muffled the sounds of the city. All went hushed, like the inside of a temple, every sound becoming a whisper of itself. Awakening to this strange silence I got up and rushed to the decking outside, shrieking and babbling at the sight of the vast blanket of snow that had crept upon us overnight. Beyond the walls of our garden I could hardly see a thing. I imagined the entirety of Nantang being dusted white by the snowfall, like a lady’s face after she has finished putting on her make-up, fields and cities as overtaken by the winter as our garden was.
I jumped off the decking, plunging my feet straight into the snow, and then my hands, gathering up the dainty crystals in huge clumps, ravenous to hold more. All too soon I was lifted out of the snow and carried back inside, my carer scolding me the entire way to my bedroom. Lu gasped at the blue tint spreading across my feet and my wet clothes, hissing and tutting. The ice melting in my clenched fists, escaping and trailing a tiny river along the dark wooden floor, was more important to me back then.
I was dried and re-clothed, Lu muttering through it all. During this particularly chilly winter my feet and the tips of my fingers were constantly numb. Winter sucked the warmth from them like leeches sucked blood from sick people. The numbing only hurt when it disappeared.
Mother saw me as Lu was bundling my icy feet in thick socks and rubbing them with her hands, warmth and pain wrestled back into my senses. However the sight of mother always brought a smile from me.
“Mother! Snow is outside!”
Her lips were pressed severely together, the mouth a straight, unreadable line. She clucked and said to Lu,
“It is better if they are numb. Leave them bare.”
Hesitantly, but ever obedient to her mistress, Lu set my feet free of the wrappings. I was instructed to stay indoors so I spent the morning poking my head out of the shutters to gaze longingly at the landscape of our garden, the feeling in my feet fading away again. But I did not disobey mother. My toes could have crusted over with ice and I would never have sought to warm them as long as she wanted them bare and numb.
When the sun was at its highest Lu came to find me, telling me that my mother wished to see me. Eagerly, I took her hand and was led to the sitting room. Our house was decorated with artwork grand and numerous enough to rival the Emperor. Father loved art and mother said she did. I liked the people in the paintings, especially the women with their flat, clear faces that reminded me of the moon. Father appreciated the dragons the most. They were arched like cats, bodies as supple as the cloth they were depicted on. He said they were symbols of honour, which must always be upheld. I thought the dragons were the scariest but dared not say that to father.
In the sitting room there were many dragons on the walls, watching everything, perhaps making sure our family stayed respectable. Lu brought me to the table where father and mother were knelt opposite a man. He turned, looked at me. A thin row of black hair made an inky line just above his upper lip, running to the corners of his mouth and down to his chin.
Father introduced him to me as a doctor, and me to him as ‘the patient’. I was not sick and wished to tell them so, but I had long ago been instructed to douse my voice unless it was requested. The doctor never spoke to me, only with father and sometimes to mother. Their voices were soft and I thought about the snow, muffling everything. Winter was an old soul, demanding a quiet audience to its presence. It put our senses to sleep and drew the nights in quickly.
“It is better if you are not present,” I heard the doctor say. Interested, I followed his steady eyes to my mother’s, noticing the way her mouth hardened. I recognised it as the way I formed sturdy barriers across my own mouth when I desperately wanted to speak.
“The procedure is absolutely safe,” the doctor continued to explain, “But there is little to be done for the pain during it.”
Mother met my gaze. Through lips as solid as cage bars she told me to go with the doctor and to do as he said. Without hesitation I obeyed, Father leading the doctor out of the room and me following behind them both. Mother stayed at the table.
We were taken to a room I had seldom seen as it was a place for the servants. I was instructed to sit on a prepared mat while the doctor stood and father left us. The mat was next to the wall which I leant back against as I waited, beginning to shiver in the chill air. There was a fervent longing in me that mother would come to find me, but of course that never happened. I sat still and furtively watched the doctor as he brushed the pads of his fingers over his beard. The long sleeves of his beige robe floated about him, reminding me of bird wings, like the crane I sometimes saw by our garden pond, standing among the lotuses.
Bowls with thick veils of steam puffing from their surfaces were brought to us by the servants and set on the floor. Kneeling on another mat, the doctor took one of my bare feet and gently lowered it into a bowl. It was warm and the liquid looked dark. He held it there for only a little time, rubbing and massaging the skin. I tried not to shuffle and was determined not to speak. My foot was lifted out of the bowl and it came away red.
When I saw it I thought that the skin had fallen away, like meat from a bone, and that the blood was entirely my own. Gasps and the beginning splutters of tears gurgled in my throat.
“Not to fear,” the doctor told me, using a damp rag to wipe away the red, revealing that the skin of my foot was still there. I caught the scent of metal, like the way my palms would smell after holding a coin between them. I swallowed, looking around for a familiar face. Only an old servant was present. She kept her eyes down.
The doctor cut away at my toenails, trimming them so far down that I wondered if he was going to begin hacking away at the tips of my toes next. Meanwhile the old servant dipped bandages into the bowl of red water which I was increasingly surer was blood. Lifting them out, she slid the material between her index and middle finger to coax away the excess liquid, bleeding them. The cold was beginning to numb my feet again as the doctor finished trimming my toenails.
With firm hands he took hold of my foot and pressed the heel of his palm against my toes. He pushed, curling them inwards towards my sole, further and further. I looked at his face, wondering why he was doing all this, wondering why he had not yet stopped pushing down my toes. The doctor paused for the briefest moment, quietly telling me to look away, to look at the servant instead.
And he kept pushing.
Snapping has me looking up, searching for the source. Crystals of snow fall from where they have collected on my robes. My hand is cold and wet from where I have been gripping the stone dragon’s muzzle. There, from near the house I see him approaching, another stick buried under the snow snapping as he steps on it.
“Mother, you should come inside.”
I remain where I am, and simply ask:
“The doctor says she is fine. He gave her willow bark for the pain.”
Momentarily my lips harden, barricading my tongue in my head, before I say,
“She will marry well. I have no doubt she will grow up to be the most eligible girl in the city.”
He nods absently, the way one nods when confirming something well-known. There is nothing solemn nor sunny in his expression; for him this is but another day. Never will he see the unwrapping and re-wrapping of the bandages on my granddaughter’s feet. Perhaps, before she marries, he will finally look and see that his daughter walks on lotus petals: rounded at the heel, with the toes ending in the tips of blades.
I take up my cane and rise from the bench as slowly as I know I must, the simple movements requiring as much care and skill as an artist takes in the trace of his brush. He waits patiently, ready to take my arm. I walk with him back to the house, catching glimpses of my own lotus-toed feet with every beautifully numb step.