Shivers ran down my spine as I carefully brushed my hair with the wide-toothed comb Mother had given me years ago when I had first bled and became a woman. My black eyes were pin-pointed at the dirty, cracked mirror in front of me, my gaze flickering from my hair to the calmness of my eyes. I should’ve been more outraged like Ting; it was only natural, right? Being married off was something to be angered about, right? Instead, I found her tantrum to be childish. We, as women, were going to be married off eventually, whether we liked it or not, so why throw a fit over the inevitable?
“Lihua?” Ting’s sweet voice lulled me from my thoughts to glance over my shoulder at her. Her eyebrows were knit together in worry and she was nervously brushing her fingers over the skirt of her hanfu. Her face was coated in a thick, yellow, skin-whitening paste; according to Auntie, she had spent too much time in the sun this past year and needed to ‘fix’ her skin. “Are you going to finish my hair?” she asked in a small voice.
She was unusually quiet today, but that was to be expected since she was going to meet her fiancé later this evening. It was apparently her first time seeing him; her parents had agreed to the wedding a few days ago and now she would finally see his face.
“Yes.” I nodded and placed my comb down on my dresser before sitting down on the floor next to her. I nimbly started braiding her hair while humming a random song that Mother loved to sing every time she cooked a huge meal.
“Lihua, I’m scared,” she suddenly whispered, soft enough that I almost didn’t hear her. Her fingers curled against the thin fabric of the hanfu and she breathed out heavily. “I . . . don’t know if I’m ready.”
“You’re ready,” I assured her as I clasped her hair into a tight up-do, pinning it together with the single silver hairpin that her family owned. “You’ll be fine, Ting.”
“N-No, I’m not ready,” she said, a tremor in her voice. She rose from the ground and spun around to face me, her black eyes wide with sheer terror. “I know that it’s normal to marry at this age, but I’m scared, I’m really scared. I don’t want to leave my mother and father and my brothers; it’s been three years since I saw my older sister! What if my husband doesn’t let me see my family like hers? Lihua, I don’t know if I want this.”
It was true that as women, we were treated as far inferior to men, and that we needed to listen to our husbands’ orders, but I knew that not all men were like that. Some men, the rare breed that they were, allowed us some rights. “Ting, I’m sure your husband won’t be like that,” I said carefully. I smiled to reassure her, but it felt painted on and fake. “Wash your face and relax.”
She raised her hand and opened her mouth to speak, her hand trembling and her eyes too wide and missing the cheery sparkle that was always there. “I’ve heard that some men won’t even—”
“Ting, our worth comes from marriage,” I said softly. A sting in my heart faltered my words but I persisted, “Having children is our duty. Other than that, we aren’t seen as much as anything else. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth of being a woman. Be kind to him and he will hopefully be kind to you; kind enough to allow you to do many things, such as seeing your family.”
“What kind of freedom is that?” Ting said hotly.
“There is no freedom,” I said with a sad smile. “That’s the truth; we are bound by our husbands.”
Her face crumpled together and tears welled up in her eyes. Before I could see her weep, she dashed over to the bucket near the door and started cleansing the paste from her face. I sat in the back of the room, idly watching her as her shoulders shook slightly. She had been eating far less than usual this past month, since she was heavier than most girls. Her mother—my aunt—had told her to lose weight so that she would be more acceptable for marriage. Ting had been happy to shed a little of the excess weight, but right now, all I saw was the sadness of a fourteen-year-old girl.
She wasn’t ready for this—I could see that, but what else did she expect? Did she expect to live with her parents for the rest of her life? It was expected to be married away at her age. I was only two years older than her and at that age, I had accepted the truth and continued on with my life.
Ting patted her face dry with a rag, her eyes a soft shade of red. “And you, Lihua? How about your marriage?”
“Ah, yes.” I folded my hands on top of each other and watched her coolly. “I’m like you; I haven’t seen him yet. We are to be married in a month, I believe.”
“He . . . Your betrothed . . . he is a soldier, yes?”
“Yes. He’s on his second campaign.”
“You’ve been engaged for a year, though,” Ting said distractedly. “Were you happy when your parents set it up?”
“In all honesty, I was fine with it,” I said truthfully. From the first second Mother had told me to dress up and wash my face to meet guests, I had known I would be examined as a potential wife. “I knew it was going to happen eventually, so when it was decided, I was . . . ready, I suppose. I was the same age as you when my mother decided to start searching.”
Ting’s eyes narrowed slightly and she stared at her feet. “I don’t know how you can feel like that. I feel trapped. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t figure out who my fiancé was right away; I would like to know, and settle my fate without fantasizing or dreading. What if he’s an old man? What if he’s hideous? What if he’s gorgeous? What if he’s evil? I couldn’t handle thinking these thoughts for one whole year and being unable to find the answers.”
“He’s nineteen.” I smoothed down my skirt and avoided eye contact. “It’s hard to figure out who he is, but at the end of the day, we’ll be married, regardless of what he’s like.”
“One whole year, though?”
“He’s on a military campaign, what do you expect?” I shrugged. “The engagement was decided while he was still on campaign; he likely doesn’t even know that he’s engaged. I’m fine with it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Are you really ok with that?” Ting swallowed the lump in her throat and turned away from me. “Never mind, I don’t want to hear your answer. You’re too much like my mother and all the aunties; you’ve forced yourself to be bound to a man.”
“I have to go and meet my fiancé,” she said abruptly. She patted down her hanfu and squared her shoulders, the mistrust and sense of betrayal radiating off her dangerously as she turned away from me.
“Ting—” I started as I rose from the ground. “You can’t—”
“I don’t want to hear whatever you’re going to say,” she said in a low voice. “You’re just like them! I thought that we were the same—”
“Ting, you have to understand that marriage is inevitable—”
At that exact moment, Auntie was at the doorway, her thin brows raised in question at Ting’s heated expression. Ting straightened herself and stared down at the ground, her cheeks flaring with color as her mother coolly stared at her. She smiled thinly at the both of us. “Ting, I see that you are ready. Thank you for helping her get ready, Lihua.”
“Of course, Auntie,” I murmured.
“Ting.” She turned to her daughter. “Your betrothed is here. Behave yourself.”
Silently, the three of us exited the room. Ting was staring straight ahead of her, not daring to look at me or her mother. Her movements were stony and although she had put up a wall around herself, I could practically feel the fear oozing out of her. She was terrified, but there was nothing I could do about it. None of my words seemed to reach her. She was fixated on the idea of not marrying. We were poor, however, so that idea was only a fantasy and a luxury we couldn’t afford.
When we entered the room, I saw Mother and Father sitting calmly on the ground. Father’s glass was full of cheap alcohol and Mother was speaking to another woman next to her. Ting’s Father was laughing with a man that sat next to him. Ting’s brothers were sitting in the back of the room, two of them too young to care about what was happening, and the other two looking too bored to bother with what was happening.
“Ting!” Uncle called out when he noticed us standing by the doorway. His cheeks were tinged with red from the alcohol and he was smiling widely, his crooked teeth nearly glimmering against the light of the flickering fire in the hearth.
Next to Uncle was a man with oiled black hair that was slicked back, his beard neatly trimmed and his black eyes flicking between Ting and I. He looked to be in his early thirties, easily twice Ting’s age. He smiled thinly, sending a wave of shivers down my back. The look in his eyes made me bristle on the spot and quickly avert my eyes. Ting paled considerably as she drank in his image, imprinting it into her mind.
“Meet your betrothed,” Auntie said to her cheerily, waving over to the man. “Aren’t you excited?”
Ting forced a smile and nodded.
Aren’t you excited?
My own marriage was a few weeks away. Although I had spoken highly about how marriage was inevitable and that it didn’t matter since there was no way out of it, I silently prayed that my betrothed didn’t have the evil, twisted smile that danced on Ting’s fiancé’s lips. If I was to be bound by a man, I hoped and prayed that he was nothing like the darkness that stood before me.