Hush, little baby, little kumquat, little bird. Ming–tian is sleeping. She has pruned the bitter melon vines and swept the porch while dancing with a broom. She has chased away the good luck fishes in the pond, where she has lost her shoe. Soon it will freeze over. Now Ming–tian is snoring. She is exhausted from hours of practicing embroidery, of practicing calligraphy, of practicing a love song on the er–hu. Her fingertips have started to bleed. Her hand has been bandaged, yet while she dreams, her feet move as if she were still dancing. She scratches her face, leaving red lines on her cheeks.
Hush — Wash — Massage
Mother, Ming–tian is wiggling her toes. Again.
Hush, little kumquat. Hold them still.
Why do you want to bind her feet?
It will make her beautiful.
She is already beautiful.
It will make her marriageable.
Someone wants to marry her?
Only if her foot can be held in the palm of one hand.
But your feet are not —
Hush. Keep massaging her feet.
Ping–an is an er–hu master, renowned in all of China for his skill with sustaining the highest, sweetest notes without breaking its strings. But his secret dream is to wield the calligraphy brush as expertly as he holds his er–hu bow. A master artist can draw a koi with only one brush stroke. Ping–an requires three. During his travels as an er–hu master, he has collected the thinnest rice paper and ground the finest ink stone. For his perfect brush, he has cut a stalk of bamboo and molded the horn of a water buffalo to hold the brush’s hairs. But throughout all of China, he has found no hairs fine enough for drawing, not from horses, nor rabbits, nor mice, not even the smallest hairs from the ear of an ox.
Ping–an has a daughter who is in love with the er–hu. She is not just in love with the ripping tinny sound. His daughter is in love with the shape of the er–hu; how the bow is forever connected and grounded by the strings; how the top of the neck, crossed by two tuning knobs, feels like an unsaid question; how its two silk strings, carefully twisted, are pulled straight yet give in to the pressure of the bow or plucking of a finger; how the box at the base, covered in python skin, is so perfectly balanced, with eight angles, eight sides stretching taut the polished scales. It is a shape only man can make. It is the shape of harmony.
Mother slaughters a chicken for the bath. Her arms are awash in its blood. White feathers stick to her red arms.
This only daughter of Ping–an is so in love with the er–hu that she would only marry someone who is completely dedicated to the cultivation of the er–hu.
Ping–an has an apprentice named Dong–sing who is desperately in love with his master’s daughter, who only notices him when he plays the er–hu. So he practices. He plays so much he forgets to eat. His skin stretches across his cheeks. His stomach collapses, then puffs out. His mustache grows so long that the ends sweep the floor like a wind–blown bitter melon vine when he sits to practice the er–hu. Sometimes when he practices, his bow slips slightly, and a high–pitched wail is coaxed from the fine fibers of his own hair when he sways just the right way. He wants his beloved to look at him when he plays, but she listens with her eyes and mouth closed.
Mother concocts a salve, mixing it over the fire. The herbs are so pungent she covers her face with a handkerchief. She covers her daughter’s face, too. Before the salve can cool, she begins to massage her daughter’s soon–to–be golden lotus feet.
The daughter of an er–hu master is not allowed to play the er–hu. Her father believes she needs to work on her dowry, so she sews. She closes her eyes and pictures the thread as an er–hu string. With each stitch the sound becomes higher, sighing a wail. She plucks a muted vibration, plucks against her heartbeat, until it shreds.
Dong–sing practices until he is ready for his courtship concert at noon. His beloved, attired in red bridal dress, sits in the front row next to her father, robed in white, his arms crossed. Wearing a blue tasseled hat and matching silk suit, Dong–sing is now a master of the er–hu, which sighs like a lover every time he sweeps his bow across its two strings. His mustache has grown so long it slithers behind him as he walks. His er–hu has grown a face in its octagonal base, and when he tilts it at a certain angle, he sees his beloved’s sleepy smile in the grain of the wood in back. He sees among the snake scales the shine of her onyx eyes. He tunes the strings too tautly, and yet he bows, and yet he plucks, and they remain whole until —
Another’s Dream Is Someone’s Reality
Someone winds and winds and winds pink satin ribbons up her legs. Too tight, and the blood will no longer flow to her toes, bruised and bandaged. Too loose, she might trip and fall on stage. She unwraps and rewinds.
The Number before Death
Mother plans meticulously. She has cut long cloths, more than twice her height. She has soaked them in a bucket of herbs and warm blood. She has studied the shape of each toe on each foot, clipping each toe nail, measuring the concave arches, guessing how far they will bend. She knows her own hands are too weak, so she has hefted the weight of three hammers. She hopes to only use one. She will need to strike swiftly to break the correct bones.
The apprentice holds his er–hu like a mother holding her dying child. His hat has collapsed over one eye, and his mustache, wet with sweat and tears, brushes the scales of his er–hu. As his apprentice weeps, Ping–an hears another sound, the voice of his daughter. Play so I can dance, she says. Play yourself. She runs to the stage and straightens her lover’s hat, trims and twists her lover’s hair, plucks at her lover’s mustache. The hairs vibrate, wailing louder as Dong–sing straightens, applies his bow. As his apprentice begins swaying, Ping–an hears another sound, the brushing of human hair, the finest in all of China, drawing salty koi across the stage floor.
Ming–tian is dancing like a flame while Dong–sing plays his hairs vibrating perfect fifths, resonating pentatonics. His fingers fly, his bow sighs, and melody wails in longing overtones. She twirls in excitement. Her beloved plays the perfect accompaniment. She poses and twirls and leaps and poses. Her slippers are a red that matches her dress. She steps on the broken er–hu string and hears a crack. She trips on her lover’s mustache. She shakes the stage.
The stage has cracks, Ping–an observes. He is crawling through the dirt. He sees Dong–sing’s hair falling through. He tastes the metal of his knife. He grabs a tuft and fingers the fine, wet hair. The stage creaks, almost groans. He pulls. He takes.
Mother breaks her daughter’s feet. First the toes, then the arches. Ming–tian is almost eight, too old, and her bones are too formed.
The first crack nearly pierces Mother’s ear, yet, strangely, Ming–tian does not move, does not moan. The second crack stings Mother’s eyes, yet Ming–tian does not speak, does not snore, does not even sigh. As she winds and winds the cloth, Mother finds she cannot open her eyes, glued shut by unshed tears.
His beloved Ming–tian limps to the audience, first row. Her bow–shaped lips quiver, and she is listening, open–mouthed like a bright koi. Beside her sits his master, clothes stained with dirt, eyes and mouth closed, arms crossed against his chest. What is he hiding? Dong–sing cares not. He is playing from his bones, and his fingers are slippery with blood and sweat. He watches the color rise in the cheeks of his beloved. Her dress the color of white, Ming–tian kneels and a pool of red blossoms around her. She is smiling. Her father snores. She is sighing: hush.
The bandages were wound in a figure–eight, over the toes, under the foot, around the heel, over the instep. Over Under Around Over — Over Under Around Over — Over Under Around Over… The bandages, dripping red, hold fast her feet. They cannot contain the stench of salve or the scent of rotted bitter melon vines. They cannot contain the hurt of cracking. Or the screaming like an er–hu bowed with a toothy saw.
After the concert, Dong–sing runs to his beloved, her eyes shining. They do not touch. They do not speak. He stares not at her eyes but her lips, her bow–shaped lips. He dives. They taste like soy sauce, rust and bitter melon.
Ping–an bundles the hair, still damp, into the well–worn horn of a water buffalo that fits into the hollow of a perfect bamboo stalk. At last. Grinding the ink against the stone, his hand is trembling, rustling the rice paper. With one single stroke, he draws a koi, lopsided, mouth closed. Perhaps the koi is humming. He draws another. With just one stroke.
Stirring of Golden Lotus
Ming–tian bites her lip. Mother wipes the sweat off her daughter’s brow. Mother hums a lullaby that no er–hu could ever play.
There is no screaming, no stringing, no wailing, no cracking of bone. Shhhh, my kumquat. There is only silence, and wrapped within the hush, Ming–tian is dancing, red ribbons laced around her legs, balancing perfectly on her beautiful, broken feet.