An old woman lived with her husband the blacksmith in San Jiaoxing Village.
They got married when she was 13, sent by her parents from Si Fangxing Village, further west on the plains.
By the time she wore her bridal gown and headgear, her bound feet had long taken the shape of little cones, the ankles pressed into the mid-feet with soft creases, the skin pale and delicate as lotus petals.
They kept a brick forge in the backyard of their house on the western entrance of San Jiaoxing.
For many decades the husband worked with iron and steel to make chains, horseshoes, skewers, axes, farming tools, and most of all his long steel nails with the large smooth heads—people always need more nails.
He would fill up the old wooden handcart with nails and chains and horseshoes and his other wares and go by foot to the big market in the coastal town, several miles down the main road, where he could trade for food, clothing, cookware, even a map for the wall, a small grandfather clock, and other curiosities.
And if he couldn’t acquire anything they needed in particular, the old woman could always trade their new possessions with others in San Jiaoxing.
One day, she was preparing beef stew for her husband, who was expected to return that evening from such a trip, when she heard a commotion outside.
A group of farmers were in her front garden, carrying the blacksmith on a wooden plank.
They came into the house and dropped him on the bed-stove: sticking through his right foot was one of his nails.
He had just been approaching the entrance gate when the single wheel on his handcart came free, turning the handcart over and spilling its wealth onto the muddy road; he went over to the cart to assess the damage, but as he did so stepped on an unexchanged nail that had landed straight up and down.
The old woman and the farmers bickered over whether to pull the nail out, which they eventually did, wrapping the foot in pieces from an old shirt to staunch the bleeding.
“Your feet were cold in bed the morning you left,” the old woman said after the farmers had gone, “that was a bad omen.”
Her husband was sweating on the bed-stove.
“We need ointment from the apothecary,” she went on.
Her husband shook his head.
“We still have your best axe to trade.”
He shook his head again.
“If we don’t trade it for ointment then we’ll have to trade it for a saw to cut your foot off before the infection spreads.”
He stared at the ceiling.
The apothecary lived a quarter mile away, on the village’s opposite end that bordered the river.
She took the big axe off its hanging place next to the entrance to the door; its handle was dark and slightly curved, its cheek on one side embossed with a yellow dragon.
She held it in both hands as she kicked of her house slippers and slid her feet into her wooden shoes shaped like elongated bowls: it was autumn and the ground was soggy.
Step by step she hobbled over to the apothecary’s with the axe head resting on her right shoulder like a child or small dog.
She could not take too wide a stride, or she might lose her balance and fall over—her shoes in the mud may as well have been stilts—and once she had found a good rhythm, it was awkward to come to a stop without falling that way as well, and her feet ached from the exertion: they had been wrenched into their current small shapes with cotton rags soaked in sheep’s blood, just when she had started to walk on the feet she’d been born with.
The axe seemed to push her whole body downward into the earth.
The apothecary’s store smelled of sickly sweet herbs: he was placing some in a polished black drawer, one of a large array of drawers spanning the back wall.
He took a glance at the old woman in the entrance and said, “I already have an axe.”
“This is my husband’s best product,” the old woman said.
“I know the blacksmith, cranking out nails and whatnot in no time at all; if you think a thing quickly made can be valuable then I have news for you.”
“He hurt his foot and needs the yellow paste that smells like peanuts.”
“What do I care what medicines you need,” the apothecary said, “when the fact is you don’t have anything I need for a trade.”
“But it’s an emergency,” the old woman said, “so just take an IOU.”
“You don’t have any collateral, unless you’ll let me saw off a piece of that axe handle; it could be a pestle.”
The old woman smoldered for a moment, then asked him what he needed for a trade.
“I ran out of tea this morning: I’d pick up from the tea holder myself, but he doesn’t believe in medicine, only in his tea, and it’s rare when other possessions that come my way are of interest to him: I can’t get through the day without three cups of Huangshan Maofeng—truth be told, I was tempted to steep one or two of my poppy seeds before lunchtime; but anyway your axe should get a 10 pound bag, assuming he has any need for an axe.”
The old woman grabbed a handful of lozenges in the glass bowl by the entrance, stuffed them in her vest pocket, and set out for the tea holder, whose shop was the same distance from the apothecary’s as the apothecary’s was from the blacksmith’s house, nestled along the slopes that made up the village’s northern edge.
She plodded through the side street that went along the riverbank, her clogs sinking into the mud, which spattered the cuffs of her trousers as she pulled each foot out for the next step, thinking if only she could hurry to the tea holder faster, damn these lotus feet: she could feel her fourth and pinky toes as her soles ground them to pieces.
The tea holder’s store front had a classical roof made of glazed green tiles, adorned with swooping arches connecting each corner of the roof to the center, topped with strange animal statues, and the entrance was hidden behind several decorative screens; the soft sucking sound of the old woman’s shoes in the mud became a loud clattering sound on the flagstones, and she was tracking a lot of mud in, but what can you do with a little old woman with a big axe?
The room she entered smelled of incense, and was lined with burlap sacks full of dry goods.
She hobbled to the far side where a man stood behind a counter.
“Would you trade some yellow tea for this axe?”
“Sorry, I don’t need an instrument like that except for chopping up all the ice that gets trapped on my roof, and I already have this,” he said, producing from beneath the countertop a long sharp machete.
“My husband’s axe can do the job better.”
The tea holder granted the possibility but was used to his weapon of choice.
“The blacksmith hurt his foot and needs ointment but the apothecary only wants tea.”
“That guy is a little too self-satisfied for me.”
The old woman agreed.
“This axe would’ve got you 5 pounds.”
“It’s worth 20; this axe is special: my husband used the best wood for miles, and took extra time to make it perfect; he expressed himself with this one.”
The tea holder thought and said, “I guess that counts for something.”
He said to wait a moment while he leafed through some correspondence in the back room, and the old woman passed the time by looking at some drawstring silk pouches on display to the left of the counter: they were embroidered with little characters that she recognized from the newspaper comics.
“Here it is: my friend outside Tixing mentioned in his last letter that he needed a new axe for chopping fuel, and I’ve been desperate for salt to keep all this pork I just got; so if you got the axe to him, you can trade the salt with me for the tea.”
Tixing was the name of a tenant compound northeast from San Jiaoxing; the salt holder ran a general store by the road halfway between Tixing and San Jiaoxing.
Time was wasting, and the old woman set off along the northern edge of the village: trade the axe for salt, trade the salt for tea, trade the tea for ointment…
A knifing pain had started from the insides of both feet, and by the time the old woman approached her garden, she had started using the axe as a walking stick even though she didn’t want to get it dirty.
She got inside and—at last—kicked off her wooden shoes and looked at the hard pinpoint blisters that were forming on her bare feet: yellow and brown bubbles, as if her skin were a thin layer of foam.
Her two glowing embers of pain, longer and deeper life companions than her husband ever could be (and to think she’d been told the rancid smell from the binding process would be a turn on for the guys).
The blacksmith had fallen asleep on the bed-stove: she looked at him (his neck was stiff), then unwrapped the soiled red bandages on his wounded foot and put on fresh ones.
She padded across the dirt floor to set a pot of water on the stove, then took out some hard boiled eggs she had prepared yesterday, wrapped them in an old newspaper, and stuffed them in her vest pocket for the journey.
When the hot water was ready, she scooped some cold water from their copper pot with a rice bowl so that it was half full, then topped it off with the hot water, placed the bowl on the dresser next to the photographs of her parents, and deposited the lozenges from the apothecary there as well.
She stooped to the floor and picked up the wayward nail by the bed-stove, and when she looked at the grandfather clock and saw that the big hand and the little hand were both over the 6, she dropped the nail in the bowl and watched the water turn pink.
She needed to help her husband, and with that thought the old woman put the wooden shoes back on and hobbled out of the house and through the entrance gate of San Jiaoxing, wearing a conical hat and a green threadbare traveling cape, carrying the axe in both hands once again.
The road to Tixing went down a steep grade as the trees thinned out and gave way to the coast.
She plodded along, one foot a few inches before the other, and followed the road to a leftward bend along a bluff overlooking the lowlands and the sea, where in the far distance you could see great rocks poking through a thin strip of cloud that divided the sky into bands of mauve and turquoise.
Alex Lanz grew up in Portland, OR and lives in Brooklyn.
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