Each morning she awoke blind. The softness of her sheets, the faint warm sensation of the sun streaming through the silk curtains, the quiet pitter-patter of servant's feet in the corridor. At times she awoke to the sound of her maidservant sweeping the room, but she could see nothing until she swung her feet over the edge of the bed and made contact with the ground.
Then she would recognise Xiu-li, the servant girl, sweeping the floors. The girl immediately paused and bowed to her before she continued sweeping. She could identify the footfalls in the corridor as two of the cook's servants, and she knew that it was drizzling from the faint fuzzy feeling that came to her from the verandah outside of her room. Grinning wide, she headed toward it with the intention of playing in the rain. Xiu-li stopped her with a gentle hand.
"Please, little mistress, your father has requested an audience with you this afternoon," the maidservant said gently as Toph tried to break away from her grip. "We must give you a bath. Your mother is coming soon to help you dress." Xiu-li was relatively new – Toph had demanded a new maidservant after she'd caught the last one trying to spy on her while she practiced her earthbending – and very young. At times she was assertive and tried to be firm with Toph, but overall she was a gentle and joyful servant who tended to indulge Toph rather than otherwise. Toph set a pleading expression on her face as she gazed blankly upward.
"Can't I sit outside while you get the bath ready?"
"You'll run around. You know your father doesn't like that."
"I won't. I'll sit in the rain."
Toph felt her hesitation and knew she had won. She reached up on impulse and hugged Xiu-li around the neck, then ran out onto the verandah. Looking after her, Xiu-li shook her head and smiled.
Outside, Toph pondered briefly whether she should honor her promise, and she decided not to make trouble for Xiu-li. She sat down on the verandah and enjoyed the breeze and the rain, which was slowly turning into a mist.
Always it had been this way. Demand or plead, and what she wanted was hers. Dimly she recalled arguments between her parents about her clothes, hair and activities. She preferred loose clothing and a simple bun for her hair; her father wanted her to wear elaborate dresses. She wanted to play outside; her father told her to sit by the pond and listen to the fountains. Since hearing her old sifu's tales of earthbenders, she wanted to learn to earthbend; her father was horrified. In all of these cases her mother would murmur "Have patience," while Toph fumed and cried, and eventually her father caved – to a certain extent. In his presence, Toph was required to dress properly. She was allotted an hour of 'exercise' per day. And she was allowed to train with Master Yu, on the condition that she learn only basic breathing and technique.
To her father's credit, he had adapted relatively well to having a blind daughter. When Toph demanded to know how sand felt, he ordered a sandbox installed in the garden. Whenever she expressed interest in a creature or toy he purchased it for her; now, at age six, she had a veritable menagerie of animals and a whole vault full of toys and other curios. The only things he absolutely forbade were travel outside the grounds of her home and any kind of contact with other children her age. She only saw her father once a week, when she was presented before him to recite her lessons, which were taught by the old sifu. Toph learned to sing, to recite poetry, and memorized the customs and etiquette of the nobles; as well as some history and simple mathematics with an abacus. She offered to demonstrate her earthbending for him, but he did not wish it.
Toph was permitted to see her mother whenever she desired, but as she grew older she took advantage of that privilege less and less. Her mother was invariably in her rooms (though sometimes, on clear and sunny days, she would come out and sit by the pond or underneath a peach tree) doing something dull. When she was younger, at least, her mother would lift Toph onto the couch with her and tell her silly or scary stories, answer her endless questions, and allow Toph to explore her face with her hands. But as Toph grew her mother was increasingly silent, especially when the little girl demanded answers to difficult questions, such as why her father did not permit her to leave the grounds. Thus, save for her lessons with the old sifu and Master Yu, and the occasional conversation with Xiu-li, Toph was mostly alone.
She liked it that way.
She wondered why her father wanted to see her in the middle of the week, and why it was necessary that her mother dress her for the occasion. Perhaps he'd bought her a new pet.
"Mistress! Your bath is ready," Xiu-li called from inside her room. Toph rose and came obediently, still wrapped in her own thoughts.
Hours later, Toph and her mother knelt before her father. There was a woman with him, heavy and old, Toph judged from her movement. They exchanged formal greetings and then Toph's father called her to him.
"My daughter, I have a surprise for you," her father said warmly. "This is Eu-ha. She's here to aid you in becoming a young lady."
"Greetings, young bud-about-to-bloom," Eu-ha said in a dreamy, singsong voice.
Toph shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. "Hello," she replied. She disliked the feel of the woman's body in the ground, heavy and somehow misshapen.
"I know we've been lax," her father was saying to Eu-ha. "She'll be seven with the turning of another moon. But perhaps it is not yet too late."
"We shall see," Eu-ha said serenely. "Come here, little bud."
"May it please you to show me your foot," she continued, and Toph sensed that she was holding out her palm, with her other hand outstretched so that Toph could grip it for balance. Toph rejected the hand and instead thrust one dirty foot into the old woman's face.
"Toph," her father warned her.
Eu-ha laughed, a sound like the croaking of a frog. "No, Master Bei Fong, all is well." She seized Toph's foot and twisted it, clucking in her throat and humming. "I see you've allowed the young lady to go barefoot."
Her father sighed. "She puts up such a fight. I didn't think it would do any harm, especially since she wanted to learn earthbending."
"Earthbending?" Eu-ha laughed again. "The daughter of the last great noble family in all the Earth Kingdom, playing in the dirt? I should think not." She twisted Toph's foot again and nodded. "The calluses are bad, but they won't be in the way. But I'll soak them in salts to soften them beforehand, just to be sure. For a daughter to become a perfect noblewoman, we start with the feet and the rest of the body, including the manners, will follow. She's headstrong now because she is a child, yet within her are the makings of a fine daughter to make you proud and bring the Bei Fong family much honor."
"Excellent." Toph's father sounded relieved as Toph wrenched her foot away and demanded,
"What's going on?"
Silence. Her father shifted uncomfortably and said, "Go with your mother and Eu-ha, now."
Puzzled, Toph sensed her mother's approach and allowed herself to be led away. Once they were out of the main chamber and out of earshot of her father, she asked again,
"What's going on?"
Her mother gripped her hand more tightly. "You're growing up, my dear. Your father has asked the same wise woman who helped me become a young lady to come and assist you. She'll be here only for the night, but her visit is an important one. You'll be glad of her coming."
"Hmph." Partially satisfied, Toph lapsed into a sulky silence and allowed her mother to lead her back to the bathing chambers, where she could feel Eu-ha was already waiting, tottering around the chambers.
"She's a noblewoman, isn't she?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Her feet are like yours."
Toph felt her mother stiffen. It was a few seconds before she replied, "Yes, darling."
In the bathing chamber, Eu-ha instructed Toph to sit on a low stool and immerse her feet in a basin of hot, odd-smelling water. Although it made her uncomfortable, and effectively blinded her, Toph complied. She could still sense vibrations, but they were murky, like echoes heard through a wad of cotton. Her mother knelt beside her, reading from a small handscroll to pass the time.
"Here, little bud. Feel this." Eu-ha handed Toph a small, elaborately wrought object. After a few passes of her hand, Toph could identify it as a lotus slipper, such as the kind her mother wore. It was heavily embroidered and felt uncomfortable to touch. She handed it back to Eu-ha.
"Young women, like blossoms in late spring, are delicate and beautiful. They seem to float over the ground, moving with a slow grace. Their presence is quiet, but sublime." Eu-ha settled herself down on the other side of Toph with a sigh.
Toph wrinkled her nose. The idea of floating over the ground slowly didn't much appeal to her. She preferred to roll on the ground, rub her feet over it, feel the shock of connection between a bare foot stomped down hard on the earth.
"You are none of these things, little Toph, and I don't think you much like the idea of becoming a blossom," Eu-ha continued, as if reading from her own mind. "Am I right?"
Cautiously, Toph replied, "Yes."
"Ah, and that is fine. Childhood is a time for playing, for running through the grasses and for getting our feet wet with the dew. But you, Toph, will soon be a young woman. You will no longer be a child. And you must turn, then, from the ways of your childhood. This will be difficult for you, and I am here to make it less difficult."
Toph could hear her mother's breathing, and it seemed to her that her mother was holding back some terrible emotion.
"You see, little bud, you have been a disappointment to your parents. You are blind, and cannot learn the most sacred or the most simple of the arts. Your parents have spoiled you, and you are accustomed to having your own way. But the only way to follow is the way of tradition, the way of our ancestors. You have a duty to your parents and to your family name to become the right kind of young woman, the best and most beautiful blossom. Therefore, we will start at your stem." Eu-ha lifted one of Toph's dripping feet from the basin. "Ah, very good. And now, Lady Bei Fong, if you please…?"
Toph felt her mother grip her shoulders and then hold each of her hands, supporting the little girl's weight against her breast.
"What – ?" she started to cry out, but Eu-ha was only massaging her feet, drying them with a towel.
"I'm here," she heard Xiu-li say from the entrance, and Eu-ha called her over and instructed her to hold Toph's other foot. Toph could feel her mother's rapid heartbeat and the clammy hands of Eu-ha and Xiu-li's earnest but firm grip on her foot. She felt Eu-ha gather silk against her leg and she shifted, puzzled and a bit afraid.
"You must not squirm," Eu-ha said severely, all dreaminess gone from her tone. Her mother squeezed her hands and whispered,
"Be a good girl, Toph. Be brave."
Pressure. Eu-ha was wrapping her foot tightly, so tightly that it hurt, but Toph bit her lip and resisted the urge to kick and scream. She inhaled sharply as Eu-ha traveled up from her toes to her ankle with the ribbons of silk, it hurt and it just felt bad and wrong and her mother kept whispering into her ear, saying, "Be good, Toph. What would you like? Father will buy you a new rabbit-dog. Be good, my darling. Don't squirm."
When Eu-ha moved on to the other foot, the foot that was already wrapped began to throb. Toph whimpered and clutched at her mother's hands until her fingernails drew blood, and all the while her mother kept whispering, "Father will buy a whole room full of windup toys. Father will let you eat a whole table of sweets. Be brave, my little darling. You must be brave. Would you like a new pony? A new statue in the garden? Toph? Be a good girl. Be good."
It was over as abruptly as it began, and Eu-ha wrenched her away from her mother, lifting her up into the air. "It's done," she said curtly, and set Toph down on the ground. "A fine job."
Toph immediately fell to her hands and knees. The pain was intense, but what was worse – she struggled back to her feet, forced to stand awkwardly. A few seconds passed, and then she screamed.
"I can't see! I can't see!" She blundered into the basin of salt water, and overturned it in a mix of fury and blind fear. "Mama!" She started to cry, shrieking and sobbing and hobbling around the room. "Mama, I can't see!" Slipping on the wet silk, she fell on her face and wailed again, beating the floor with her fists.
"Such a fuss about a simple foot-binding," Eu-ha said calmly over her cries and sobs. "You must not give in to her selfish whims."
"Toph, please don't scream like that," her mother chastised, but her voice was uncertain and she stumbled over her words. "What would you like? If you're good, Father will – "
"I can't see! Mama, Mama! It hurts! I can't see…Mama, Baba," she sobbed. She had not called her father Baba in years.
"Ignore her," Eu-ha said. Toph managed to get to her knees and crawled out of the room, sobbing for air and crying with every movement. Her feet were like two little fires at the end of her legs. They felt like they had been smashed with a hammer. And the worst was that they could feel nothing – not vibrations, not even the ground beneath them – just the burning, throbbing pain. Toph dragged herself into her room and then out into the garden, her sobs exhausting her, the rain ruining her dress. Once she was beside the pond she forced her feet into the cold water and tore at the bonds, to no avail.
She moaned in frustration and, panting, brought one foot to her mouth and bit at the ribbons with her teeth. They ripped with an unpleasant noise against the silk, but could not tear it. Finally, gritting her teeth, she kicked her feet against the sharp rocks bordering the pond and managed to rend the fabric, though her feet also were cut and bleeding when she finally tore the last of the ribbon away. She lay by the pond with her feet in the water as feeling slowly returned and the pain subsided into a dull ache. The rain fell slowly on her upturned face; at length she was aware of the koi fish nibbling at her toes. Then, from the verandah, she heard her mother call. She did not move, listening to the sound of her heartbeat and the soft noise of the rain on the face of the pond.