Reflection on a Shrine

          Like a happy dragon, red serpentine letters coil over the doorway proclaiming this place a haven, a temple surrounded by a parking lot on bustling Beretania Street. It is almost deserted on this workday morning as two women enter and move along the aisles to alters stacked with fruits and vegetables. The one wearing a dark tunic and pants stops to meditate before a pyramid of star fruit. She is ascetic looking, hair in a bun at the back of her neck. thin and willowy, with an upright grace of movement at almost ninety years of age. Her face is an inanimate object, her eyes guarded and private. The other woman kneels beside her, a supplicant. She has a small child by the hand and an infant on her back. She seeks answers.
          She is fairly bursting with questions, not having seen anything like this since elderly missionaries, expelled from China, had shown her the venerable and rare porcelains they were safekeeping for families caught in the cultural revolution. Among the relics she had seen exquisitely embroidered silk shoes, compellingly attractive, and yet repellent in their shape. And here was a woman whose feet were made for them. She was in awe of the connection.
          “Justina, let me fix your sandal,” she whispered to her daughter, bending down on pretext to get a closer look at the old woman's feet. Thin white ankle socks and tiny cloth slippers peeked from beneath trouser hems. At the front of her ankles her insteps swelled precipitously into graceful shapes that brought to mind antelope feet, both having functional bones budding in a little white sock at the top of a small pointed black hoof.
          The old woman stared straight ahead giving no acknowledgement of the other's presence. But she observed. “That woman is showing her child my feet. But what can one so small remember? I was twice her age when I got my golden lilies. It seems so long ago. We were living with my father's mother as is the custom. Grandma Chang made shrines everywhere in the house and garden. They were all different, little houses, little bridges, sometimes a simple rock upended. Anywhere you looked was a shrine. We sometimes burned incense and brought food offerings to them. Whenever I'd go out to play, she would say, 'Calm yourself! We don't want to disturb the spirits!' So when I opened the door, I took a deep breath and slowly closed it behind me so Grandma would never know how I ran and jumped and climbed all over the place.”
          She believed spirits could live anywhere, in trees, wells, stones, even the fishpond; even in dreams! For luck, we fed the hedgehogs milk at night, watching them come from the fields to drink. We had house gods, too, who protected us. One was the fox and we would leave an egg at his shrine. One time Grandma found a fox in the hen house and they were both surprised. Such a commotion, those hens never laid another egg!
          I remember we were visiting my other grandma in the city when I was six. I'd had to leave my goose with Grandma Chang . She handed me a hot cracking egg one day and there he was! We used to love to wander around catching bugs and lizards and lots of frogs down in the lotus at Grandma's fish pond. We played near the old sheds where pumpkins grow and made nests in the tall grass so we could hear grasshoppers coming and eat them. I asked mother when we'd be going back.”
          She'd gotten no answer but later she heard her mother in the kitchen, saying, “That goose is another story. You know Grandma Chang was born in Shanxi Province and before her feet were bound they were softened in the stomach of a still living lamb for two hours. She said it worked very well and she can't remember suffering a bit as the lamb took all the pain on itself. At the time she didn't understand and confessed to being terrorized. Personally, I think that is why she has so many shrines, to atone for that lamb. However, from her comments, she has that same use planned for Mei Ling's goose!”
          There was a pause and then the other grandmother replied, “As far as I know we've always used ointments and herbs in this family. I think we'd better do Mei Ling's binding here. It is our choice, after all.”
          And that is how she met her cousins, Crystal and little Jasmine who was six months younger but on seeing her, Grandma said, “Jasmine, you're really growing fast now. If everything is ready, you may have your ceremony with Mei Ling.”
          She had always wanted to meet the cousins, especially Crystal whom she thought was a ghost, having died at the age of five during a typhoid epidemic. She was put in the cold room to await burial but when they went for her two days later, she woke up. No trace of that now. She was nine, laughing and smiling, rosy cheeked and very pretty….and wearing the most beautiful shoes Mei Ling had ever seen. Made of delicate sky blue silk and decorated with flying cranes, they were smaller than Mei Ling's own feet. “And,” said Auntie, “she made them herself!” “Well, I can do that too,” said Mei Ling. “I can actually thread needles.”
          Of course, the mothers had prepared for months and everything was at hand for the ceremony. Soon fruit and red bean dumplings decorated the alter, incense diffused in the air and prayers drifted up to the goddess “Little Footed Miss” asking that the binding would produce perfect feet for their daughters, full and rounded like the lotus bud, yet slender, pointed and less than three inches long.
          The soaking, massaging, toenail clipping, exfoliation and powdering with alum proceeded as it had for a thousand years. Then, with a shock, the old woman recalled her mother's determination. “She bent my four small toes flat toward the bottom of my foot and wrapped them tightly with long wet bandages, around and around in a figure eight, leaving the big toe free but bent up slightly. I was forced to walk within an hour lest the foot atrophy. The wrapping was repeated for years, bringing my heel toward the front of my foot at an angle that caused the arch to break sharply, creating a crease on the bottom, tight enough to hold a large coin.
          Jasmine and I screamed for mercy but our mothers had turned into fire breathing dragons. We entreated goddess Kuan Yin who was supposed to protect children to no avail. Crystal tried to encourage us with a story of Buddha. “At one time Buddha was forced to leap from a tall cliff to escape a devil. His fall was broken by a lotus flower in the pond below. The humble lotus, so like ourselves, sometimes mired in mud, some of us able to rise up and finally bloom. Each foot in the shape of the golden lily, the pointed lotus bud, shows our willingness to likewise blossom and serve our lord Buddha.”
          By walking, the toes broke quickly and our feet began to conform to smaller and smaller shoes. Winter's cold was supposed to dull the pain. Maybe it did because as the snow melted I ventured out the front door. There I met Mrs.Lo from across the street who could tell the future. “You must be Mei Ling whom I've heard singing these several months,” she said. “From what I've heard, you will have perfect golden lilies and prosper in life. Through many changes you will find a Safeway.” Content with her memories, the old woman realized she had finished shopping. She did not need any star fruit, they grew on a tree in her yard. Floating gently across the floor she took her basket to the check out lane. The strange woman was still close behind her, looking hopeful. Of what? “I'd better tell the check out girl to keep an eye on her. No telling what she's thinking.”

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