F I C T I O N The last thing Lili expects to do this sunny day is take a two mile walk. She is comfy sitting on the edge of her bed and staring at her precious feet. They are the feet that have earned her a place in one of the best homes in Lonely River, a village in the Hunan Province of China. But they are not likely to carry her far from home because she can barely balance on them and when she does stand for more than a few minutes they begin to cause pain that starts at her toes and slowly travels all the way up to her hips.
Her feet are little more than three inches long, having been bound and broken so perfectly by her mother when Lili was six years old that the soles, all bent and cured up on themselves, resemble a lotus flower. It is not because of her lustrous black hair or smooth skin, but because her feet are so beautiful in the eyes of men that Lili was married to one of the richest, most important men in the village. And because she continued to keep her feet bound — did not loosen the cloths that wrapped them tightly at night as some women did once they had secured a good marriage — that she has been married now for ten years. And not cast aside, either, when a concubine joined the family two years ago.
Lili lets her eyes move slowly around the room, her own bedroom, that she occupies on the nights her husband does not call her into his room. She sees the elegant wooden dresser with the silver handles on the doors, carved with what she always imagines are scenes from life in the imperial palace. The curtains on the windows are of the finest brocade, colored in vivid reds and yellows. Even the chamber pot is beautiful to her eye. It has been painted by a fine artist with scenes of children picnicking in the lush Chinese countryside.
And at the foot of the bed is her favorite item of all: a huge travel trunk, exquisitely carved also, with a clasp as big as Lili’s fist. Folded on the chest is a beautiful bed cover, embroidered by Lili herself. The symbols she sewed around the edges hold a secret. They are not just a pretty design. They are Nu Shu, the secret writing of the women of Hunan Province.
Excerpt from Lonely River Village
Norma Libman is a journalist and lecturer who has been collecting women’s stories for more than twenty years. You can read the first chapter of her award-winning book, Lonely River Village, at NormaLibman.com.