The following story received an honorable mention from Tales from The Lake Vol.3 editor Monique Snyman. ©ErikHoffstatter
SYMBOL OF BEAUTY
Lieng crept along the edge of the bed, her tiny feet sinking into the fluffy carpet. Daniel stirred and rolled, wrapping the duvet around his leg. The little girl stroked the feather in her hand and brushed it against daddy’s protruding foot. No reaction at first. On the second stroke, he twitched and moaned. Lieng giggled. This was fun, tickling her dad while he slept. She observed the shape of his feet. They were not beautiful. “I say wake father nicely,” Miya whispered, peeking through the bedroom door at her rebellious daughter. It’s been four years since she left China and married Daniel, but still she struggled to grasp the English language. “I am!” Lieng said. “What are you two plotting?” Daniel asked with a yawn, a grateful smile stretching across his thin lips. “Our daughter was ticking you with feather again,” she said, scooping Lieng into her arms. Daniel double blinked. “You were tickling me again, you sneaky little foot monster?” He reached for Lieng’s foot and put extra emphasis on the ling, hoping that Miya would pick up on her error. She could be sensitive at times when corrected, and Daniel tried his best not to sound patronising. As he tickled his daughter’s miniature feet, Lieng screamed, rolling and twisting in her mother’s arms like an overgrown worm. “That is enough, go and eat your breakfast,” Miya said, ushering the girl out of the room. Her eyes lingered on her movement as she ran. Lieng’s steps were too long, she lacked a womanly sway and Miya did not like it. “Come here, beautiful.” Daniel said, pulling his wife down onto the bed with him. She was eleven years younger. He stroked her velvet skin as she nestled into him. “I’m so grateful that your aunt arranged our rendezvous, even though I had to travel all the way to China to get you.” He remember he had very little going for him before meeting Miya, except for his job, where he performed reasonably well. At thirty six, he still lived at home with his mother, and most of his evenings were spent with a bottle of scotch, drinking and wondering if this really was everything life had to offer. He could hardly believe his luck when Jing-Mei, his Chinese work colleague, asked him to visit China with her for two weeks and meet her niece. Daniel dreamed of seeing the Great Wall of China and if he could bag a wife in the process? What was there to think about? “Me as well. You know how unhappy I was in China. Now I live in England with you, we have a beautiful daughter and a nice home. I will always love you for this happiness you gave me.” Miya said. Daniel kissed her sweet lips, inhaling the jasmine scent from her raven hair. He did not believe her. He knew how this looked. He knew what everyone at work thought. She married him for money. “Is your mail-order bride ready to be picked up yet?” They teased him. So what? They were only jealous. Whilst they watched their whale-like wives snore, he had a beautiful young woman to have sex with every night, and love? That’s something he could only hope for. “Do you think Lieng is beautiful?” Miya asked him, interrupting his thoughts. Daniel turned on his elbow, not quite sure how to interpret the odd question. “Yes, of course she is. Why do you ask?” Miya’s eyes rested on her palms. “I mean more in her motion. Like she walks?” “I don’t really know what you mean, honey.” Daniel said, confused. He knew Miya descended from a very traditional family and was raised in a strict manner, but when she came out with strange stuff like this, he was truly lost. As much as he tried, Chinese customs were wasted on him. “Never mind. I show you what I mean later. She’s ready, I think.” Miya continued. “Ready for what?” Daniel asked. “You’ll see. I’ll take Lieng to visit her aunt now. Meet us there for lunch?” “Okay,” Daniel said, trying to sound confident. He climbed out of bed, dressed himself and pondered Miya’s bizarre words. He really ought to double her English lessons. Jing-Mei’s detached house towered in the distance. Daniel admired the architecture and wished he could generate enough money to purchase such a luxurious property. He tightened the scarf around his neck and approached the building, wading through layers of thin snow. The woman could barely speak English, yet she drove a brand new Mercedes and lived in a friggin’ palace. The rumour was that she married a rich English guy, but then he died of a heart attack two years later and left everything to her. Some people have all the luck. Perhaps one day, when she popped her clogs the house would pass onto him and Miya. That probably wouldn’t happen, though. Chinese people live for hundreds of years. He knocked on the front door and waited, wondering once more about the meaning behind his wife’s strange words that morning and what bizarre Chinese tradition lurked within… Lieng hummed a tuneless melody as her aunt soaked her tiny feet in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood, massaging and softening the skin. She reached for the clippers and started trimming the girl’s toe nails. “Do you like auntie’s pedicure, darling?” Miya asked. Lieng nodded, not sure what pedicure meant. Jing-Mei produced a roll of bandages, several metres in length and soaked them in the mixture, too. Miya opened her handbag and pulled out a funny looking pair of shoes, passing them to Jing-Mei. “Are you ready to try on auntie’s special shoes, honey?” The child smiled and nodded once more, eager to look beautiful for her mother. “There will be some pain, darling, but you must be brave.” Miya said. Jing-Mei remained silent. She’d illegally performed this procedure on young girls many times in China. She slowly curled Lieng’s toes under, but then pressed with great force downwards, squeezing the sole of her foot until the toes broke. Tears of pain poured out of the child’s eyes as she began to scream. Miya stroked her daughter’s hair in a weak attempt to comfort her. “You must be brave, honey! This will make you beautiful. You will walk very elegant after this. Be brave! No boy will find you attractive otherwise.” The toes cracked even louder on the other foot. Jing-Mei knew the next part was crucial and even more painful. She ordered Miya to hold the girl tighter in Chinese. As Jing-Mei held the broken toes against the sole, she drawn it straight down with the leg and broke the arch of the foot, too. Lieng yelled as hard as she could, but her pleas were subdued by the rag Miya placed in her mouth. “There, there. The worse is over now,” she said. Lieng slipped into unconsciousness, her suffering too much to bear, and Jing-Mei wrapped the soaked bandages around the child’s broken feet. She started at the instep, carrying over the toes and under the foot, then around the heel—pressing the freshly broken toes into the sole. At each pass around, she tightened the binding cloth, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold under the arch and pressing the toes underneath the sole. Daniel heard the echoes of his daughter’s screams through the door. He kicked it down and barged inside the house, running from room to room—disoriented and frightened for his daughter’s life. What the hell was going on? What were they doing to his child? The rooms were all empty so he sped up the stairs. As he entered one of the bedrooms, he collapsed to his knees at the sight of his unconscious daughter and her lotus feet—the smell of herbs and animal blood still lingering in the air. “What in God’s name have you done to her?” He sobbed through his fingers. Miya glanced at her defeated husband, his distress twisting her face into a puzzled grimace. “A Chinese tradition, a mark of beauty. We’ve only just begun…” she answered. BIOGRAPHY: Erik Hofstatter is a schlock horror writer and a member of the Horror Writers Association. Born in the wild lands of the Czech Republic, he roamed Europe before subsequently settling on English shores, studying creative writing at the London School of Journalism. He now dwells in Kent, where he can be encountered consuming copious amounts of mead and tyrannizing local peasantry. His work appeared in various magazines and podcasts around the world such as Morpheus Tales, Crystal Lake Publishing, The Literary Hatchet, Sanitarium Magazine, Wicked Library, Tales to Terrify and Manor House Show. ‘Rare Breeds’ is due to be published in March 2016 by KnightWatch Press.