In Which the Girl Becomes a Woman
One could say that while much had to happen for our story to come to where it is, it only now begins. For in this book of woven tales, Nelumbella was the fruit of their goals. They were the ones who made her come to be, and their actions made her into who she is. Like all people, however, she will decide who she becomes. This is the story of Nelumbella, the ones who love her, loathe her, and those who follow her.
Unlike those who came before, Nelumbella was raised in a different Tarsus. The Tarsus she knew was ordinary and inhabited exclusively by humans, with no elves, no trolls, no talking trees, and especially no witches. Tarsus had become a kingdom where none passed through. The only traveller she knew was her Uncle Brevis, but he did not count. He was the Prince, and she believed he had the ability to do whatever he wanted. Of course, that was not the case.
Her uncle enjoyed what he did, but he travelled not because of choice. He travelled because he was the lone person in the kingdom who the King trusted and was willing to let leave Tarsus. Someone had to represent Tarsus over the borders. To her knowledge, he was the one person who crossed the borders. People did want to cross, and people did try. The western half of Tarsus was surrounded by a wall, and on the eastern half was a heavily guarded mountain; where one ended, the other began. No one left, and no one entered. Tarsus had become an isolated kingdom of one race.
As we know, Tarsus was not always like this, but Nelumbella did not. The changes happened within her first few years of life. Moreover, if she were able to remember her infancy, she would have recalled fond memories of the country manor she lived in with her Uncle Brevis, away from her parents who dealt with the matters of an unstable kingdom. She stayed in the manor until she was five years of age. Her life was sheltered, but she was dearly loved.
Every night, during those years, when Brevis tucked her into bed, he told her stories he hoped might teach her valuable lessons. They included tales of a conflicted king, elves, and explorers of the world. Her favourite story was the tale of the forgotten princess, Elmerrillia. She found the story fascinating, as each time he told it, the ending changed. Nelumbella learned a lot from the tale. She saw the way actions of an individual person, from the prince to a witch, could change the outcome. With all the love and lessons Brevis gave her, Nelumbella developed like any other child, into a beautiful, bright, and healthy girl.
Only when all had calmed in Tarsus did she return to live in the palace—without her Uncle Brevis. When he left her in her parents’ care, she cried and followed him to the gates, pleadingly clenching onto his trousers, pulling at the hem of his sleeve, and begging him to stay or take her with him. No matter what she said or did, Brevis did not allow her to sway him. He was the Prince, and he had dire responsibilities to attend. As a result, Nelumbella did not see her uncle for many years to come.
In his absence, her steady growth became erratic. The King and Queen constantly worried about the curse the other princess had bestowed upon their child. They only remembered it vaguely, being too much in shock at the time to focus on the witch’s words. Thus, riddled with guilt and mourning the loss of many Tarsusians, they watched over Nelumbella constantly, waiting for the worst to happen, rather than looking at the surrounding people.
The palace workers watched Nelumbella, but not in the same way as her parents. They hatefully glared at her. They said that she was a bad omen. They claimed Nelumbella was the one who caused all the changes. They said that the previous princess was better. They made their thoughts known to the young girl. In their eyes, Nelumbella, like those who left, was too different.
One night, the unexpected happened. One at time, her toes plumped, becoming berry like, double in size compared the average child her age. At first, her parents thought the condition was temporary, that she might be sick. A doctor inspected Nelumbella, but the doctor found nothing wrong, assuring her parents that the rest of her would eventually catch up with her toes. Such was not the case. Only the rest of her feet grew to match her unusually large toes.
Nelumbella’s feet no longer fit into little girl shoes. She tried her mother’s shoes, but they too did not fit. A few times, due to the shape of her feet, she became stuck. Without another choice in footwear, instead of concealing her feet, as a princess should, Nelumbella allowed her pink toes to peek out from beneath her dresses.
Feeling far from pretty, Nelumbella became a shy girl, never stepping outside the palace on her own accord. When she did leave the palace gates, for the people wanted to see their princess, the people stared, commented, and pointed at her feet. ‘She will grow into them,’ the kinder ones would say. Nelumbella was further discouraged.
In her own home, the staff continued to look at her with more distaste.
Children her age accepted the young princess, but that did not last long. Following the lead of their parents, the children avoided her, causing Nelumbella to be even lonelier. She had no hope of being friends with the children, but like any child, she wanted a friend. Despite her hopes, none accepted the princess.
To protect Nelumbella, her parents hid her in the palace. When visitors came, they kept her in a separate wing, away from prying eyes. The only people she saw were her family and the palace workers. For the rest of her childhood, she did not see another person her age.
Her only real company was her busy uncle. In comparison, her parents were even busier, as they were the King and Queen. Sorting the matters the King had Brevis attend took years, but the moment he did, Brevis returned to visit Nelumbella, spending every moment he could spare with her. From that day on, whenever Brevis was not in foreign lands, Nelumbella was no longer lonely.
Brevis played all the games Nelumbella wanted to, whether it was hopscotch or tea with her dolls. He told her stories like those that he had when she lived with him, which she liked most of all. She enjoyed listening to the stories he brought back with him. She was as excited for him to leave and bring her more stories, as she was excited for him to return and tell her the stories.
He was her best friend. During this time, her feet’s growth came to a stop. Her big feet did not shrink, but the King and Queen were grateful. Nelumbella noticed the palace staff changing too. The mean workers left and were replaced people who treated her kindly.
Nelumbella was happier at the palace, but she still wanted to spend more time with her uncle. Many times, she asked him to leave his country residence and move permanently back to the palace. She wanted him to spend all the time he could with her. For reasons unbeknownst to her, he never agreed to do so.
Determined to be with her best friend, Nelumbella requested her parents to allow her visit her uncle so that she may see him while he worked. They permitted her to do so and sent her to the country manor she once resided in. The manor was in an isolated place, with not many staff or neighbours, but those who did live near the manor, Brevis knew, and remembered Nelumbella as the delightful toddler she was. Brevis assured her parents that they were much friendlier than the folk in the capital.
No longer quaint and family orientated, the home of her Uncle Brevis was vastly different from she what remembered. In the years that passed since she lived there, he had eccentrically decorated the place with furniture and ornaments from all the lands and kingdoms. Nelumbella was sure there was no other place like her uncle’s home in Tarsus. She loved how unique it was. She wished that Tarsus knew such splendid variety. The few neighbours Brevis had adored Nelumbella, and she was able to converse frequently with them. Her uncle’s manor was her favourite place in the world.
Besides all of the objects that Brevis had collected, he also kept a variety of animals. The majority were native to Tarsus, but some were foreign. He had brightly coloured birds with long sweeping feathers, tall furry rodents with shaggy hair, and much more. When the weather allowed, Nelumbella ran in the fields to play with the animals. She became familiar with each one, taking particular interest in the wolves.
Nelumbella especially loved a puppy that was born to Brevis’ oldest wolf, Dira. While the mother wolf was so large a man could ride her, the pup was small enough for Nelumbella to cradle. Like Nelumbella, the pup had exceptionally large feet; but unlike Nelumbella, the pup’s feet were for him to grow into. ‘Wolves are much better than horses,’ Brevis told her. ‘They are always faithful and will never abandon you. Just remember to be as true to yourself as he will be to you.’ She named the pup Dirus, and he became her most trusted companion, next to her uncle that is. She saw that her uncle was right about wolves. Every time she returned to the palace, leaving the young pup with his mother, as he was too young to leave, Dirus sat by the window, waiting for her to return.
On rainy days, Nelumbella explored the various rooms in the manor, admiring the foreign art. The halls were lined with numerous sculptures and artefacts; and in each room were multitudes of paintings. Whenever she found art that interested her, she ran to Brevis’ study. She would have him lift her up, big feet dangling, and have him carry her to whatever caught her curiosity. He would then proceed to tell her the about the story that came with the piece. She wished she could go with her uncle on his journeys to the faraway lands, see all the sights, and meet all the people spoke of to her.
Among the paintings Brevis owned, he had a collection of portraits. They were paintings of friends he had made, of legendary people, and what each country’s epitome of beauty was. She observed various ideals of beauty from foreign humans and human-like creatures. Brevis could not explain why some were thought to be beautiful; and he could explain others in depth for hours; but he thought one was particularly beautiful.
The painting was of a legendary woman from so far east that the lands ended. Her figure was delicate and slender. ‘In every depiction, she is a youthful woman,’ Brevis said. ‘That is why they draw her eyes to be so big and her hands so finely. Her people loved her so much that they tried to mimic her. The practice was silly, but women bound their feet so that they remained as small as child’s, and they hid from the sun so that they could remain as pale as they were the day they were born. Thankfully, the practice is out of date. Those women did not walk properly, and they were unable to be independent. Men found them beautiful, and they were highly sought after, but their health suffered. I assure you, young as she appeared; their goddess does have the proportions of a woman. She also enjoyed the sun regularly.’
The painting Brevis showed her after was the one that Nelumbella remembered. Depicting women like the ones he had spoken of, the image fascinated her. The women wore finely crafted shoes, their faces were white, and their feet were bound and folded into triangular lumps. Nelumbella cared little for the pale skin, but she wished to wear shoes as lovely as theirs. The slippers were as little as the ones a girl her age should wear but as lovely as the ones her mother owned. Everything he had told her about what was past the mountains was so interesting. ‘I wish I could go east,’ she said wistfully.
‘You do not always need permission to pass to the borders,’ Brevis chuckled. ‘Do not tell your parents, otherwise you will ruin many things for many people, but a gap exists between the Eastern Mountains and the Western Wall on the northern corner. You see, mountains grow and pull land along with them. While the Eastern Mountains and the Western Wall were flush when the wall was built, such is no longer the case. Theoretically, you could go east or anywhere else in the world you wanted.’
‘Yes, that is what I will do!’ proclaimed Nelumbella. She would travel east and see all that it had to offer! She would meet all the creatures and the people who were not human.
As Nelumbella was giddy with the thought of adventure, she noticed that while she had seen many varieties in beauty, she saw none like her. Furthermore, she was especially different from the small-footed women. Her eyes cast downwards. ‘Am I beautiful?’ she asked.
Brevis cocked his head, looking at the girl he held in his arms. ‘That is decided by the eye of the beholder. Beauty often depends on the region and personal preference,’ he replied honestly. ′I think you are beautiful. I do not think there is anywhere in the world where you could find a person who thinks your eyes are not captivating. If I did not know any better, I would have thought you were an elf, which you thankfully are not. We would have to clean your ears far more often.′ He ruffled her hair. ‘Do not worry. Your strong feet will not let you fall. If I dropped you—not that I would ever do such a thing—could you catch yourself?’
Nelumbella nodded and gave him a deceiving smile.
Brevis thought nothing of her questions, but later that day, he caught Nelumbella, teary and with a foot on her lap, trying to squish it into the sort of feet the women in the painting had. Dirus was by her side, whining and licking her hands and feet. Brevis feared she would break a bone from the way she was crudely bending her feet. No longer were her feet pink from the power they held. They were warped red.
Brevis stopped her itching hands. Despite her protests, he packed her belongings and loaded them in a carriage. He took Nelumbella back to the palace, along with Dirus, who was finally old enough to leave his mother.
Upon returning his niece to her parents, Brevis relayed what happened to the King and Queen. Consequently, her parents set more boundaries. They did not want to expose their impressionable daughter to the judgemental world, or ideas of beauty that told her she was ugly. As much as they loved Brevis, they wanted to protect her. Brevis readily agreed to their terms. They forbade her from visiting Brevis and him from visiting her. She was not to step foot in his home until he removed all the art that depicted feet. However, the art he had was priceless. No matter how much he wanted to see his niece, he wanted to honour each culture and person they came from. Consequently, he was unable to toss them aside immediately.
The King and Queen no longer trusted Brevis with Nelumbella. They feared his impulsive nature, feared he might trigger Nelumbella’s insecurities again. To guarantee his distance, they Brevis sent on jobs that required longer travels. His presence became so sparse in Tarsus, that as the years passed, people forgot the King had a brother.
There was one who remembered. Nelumbella never forgot the stares bestowed upon her large feet; she never forgot the loneliness; and she remembered her dear Uncle Brevis.
The King and Queen assumed all was well, but Nelumbella’s feet began to grow once more. Her parents tried to still the increasing size of her feet, but no matter what they did, her feet continued expanding. Her feet became wider than the feet of a full-grown man, longer than any foot on a human, and too heavy for her petite size. She struggled to walk when they reached their peak. Luckily, her legs became strong, quickly adapting to the unusual weight.
In her teen years, her parents let her see her Uncle Brevis again. They desperately missed him. While he had yet to find a home for all his art that depicted feet, he took the opportunity to visit. Although he knew he could not show her any of the art she adored, he brought her many trinkets and books from foreign lands, always showing them to Talus and Navi, gaining their approval first. He also brought back plenty of stories from their time apart. Nelumbella’s feet ceased to grow.
Her mother was especially pleased that her daughter’s feet stopped growing. She wanted Nelumbella to feel pretty, and she knew the way to do it. The Queen commissioned shoes for her daughter by the most revered Tarsusian shoemakers. When Nelumbella saw the shoes, she thought they were almost as beautiful as the shoes in the painting.
Unfortunately, like all the shoes she tried before, Nelumbella was unable to wear them. When she put the shoes on, her feet would become stuck; and when the shoes did fit, the moment she walked, she would snap the heels and tear the fabric at the seams. From the heaviest to the lightest fabrics weights, she somehow managed to destroy her shoes. Once, when a shoemaker designed a dainty pair of shoes, sized properly in every way, the Princess split the shoe in half by simply putting them on.
Nelumbella gave up hope on finding proper shoes. Only when her parents requested did she cover her large feet with bag-like shoes that resembled finely crafted purses. Nelumbella disliked wearing her bag-like shoes because she found them impractical; they had no soles. The shoemaker had claimed her feet were too oddly shaped for soles. Nelumbella was satisfied with the ability to cover her feet when needed, but her parents wanted more.
Nelumbella was to be Queen one day. Thus, her parents decided that if they could not dress her like a proper princess, that they would groom her into the perfect lady. Nelumbella was made to study arts that were appropriate for a lady. She was not the first princess to go through such training, but it became apparent she was worse than her uncle was in his youth. At first, she refused, having no interest in such activities, but upon seeing how sad her mother and father became, Nelumbella was persuaded to attend the lessons.
While her uncle was a quick and flexible learner, even though he disliked his princely lessons, Nelumbella was barely adequate at best. When they tried to teach her to dance, she danced as if she had two left feet. In addition, unable to achieve finesse or flare in tasks such as sewing and embroidery, her skills remained at an elementary level; her hands proved to be as unskilled as her feet. Nelumbella was evidently not suitable for feminine tasks.
Her parents were at a lost with what to do. They could not dress Nelumbella like a princess, let alone make her act like one. If she was a commoner, they knew she would have no problems with her unique build, and her feet might have been useful, but she was to live a life of a princess, and she was meant to be Queen. She was to be a symbol for her people— a leader. Soon, she had to debut into society and come out of hiding.
The King and Queen tried other routes. Whether or not she could sew did not matter, but she did need to look the part. In an attempt to hide their daughter’s feet, they ordered dresses that were fuller and longer. Practically, the dresses did not function for Nelumbella. The thick layers of fabric entangled with her toes, tripping her frequently. She could not wear the bag-like shoes under the dresses either. For beneath the fabrics, the shoes caused her to slip and fall. Her parents saw this and pitied her. They wanted their daughter to be happy and free from her binds. After much discussion, Nelumbella was permitted to visit her Uncle Brevis in his country home once again.
When Nelumbella arrived at the country manor, her uncle gave her men’s clothes. ‘No one will tell,’ he said with a wink. ‘I once knew a princess who I thought was a prince. She had very short hair—shorter than your father’s hair. As long as you do not cut your locks, I am certain no one will mistake you for a boy.’ Nelumbella was developing into a much more feminine figure, far too soon for his liking. He thought that unlike the princess that he spoke of, even if his niece did cut off her hair, mistaking her for a boy was impossible. The one aspect that was physically masculine about Nelumbella was her untameable, but useful, feet. Even as a child, she had always been able to run alongside with Dirus.
During her stay, Brevis hiked with his niece and their wolves up a nearby mountain for picnics. They fished in the stream that flowed past his property, and she climbed all the trees she saw. Taking advantage of the open land, he taught her how to use a bow and arrow. He told her that all the women with bound feet were expert arches, and that if women who were barely able to move could do it, she could too. When she had mastered that, he wanted to see how quick she was on her feet and taught her to use a sword. Sure enough, the princess, who was far from the perfect lady, was able to excel in what they did together.
Their activities were not considered appropriate for a princess, but Brevis saw no problem, allowing her to indulge in all the sports she enjoyed. He saw her confidence develop, and not once did her parents question what they did when they saw positive changes.
One night, when Nelumbella returned to the palace after visiting her uncle, she did not change back into one of her thickly layered dresses, opting for trousers instead. Pants were much more comfortable and practical. As Nelumbella strode through the palace more freely than she had before, a couple of gasping young maids spotted her. Nelumbella had not expected them. The maids were new and awake in the late hour completing the last of their chores. They were not any older than Nelumbella and had not seen anyone so different before.
The next morning, when Nelumbella was back in her usual clothes, she saw the same maids staring at her. She overheard them compare both her walk and feet to that of an ogre.
Nelumbella cried. Even when she visited her uncle, she continued to cry. She was hideous! If only she could have little feet like the women in the painting. Brevis attempted to cheer her up and encouraged her to go out with the animals, but she refused to move. She wanted pretty feet, not the monstrous things she had. To make matters worse, he uncle did not allow her to wallow in her grief at his home. He sent her back to the palace, and he left Tarsus for months. She was alone again.
When he returned, she did not want to see him. She felt betrayed, but she instantly forgave him when he presented her with the most exquisite gift she had ever received: shoes that were like nothing she had never seen before. The shoes were designed in such a way that made her feet appear small. The style was new to Nelumbella. Shoes in Tarsus did not normally have steep inclines. These shoes had a heel that was a foot in length. The shoes were so steeply set that it lifted, and contorted, her feet in such a manner that they fit beneath a regular dress. Carved from a single diamond, the shoes were strong enough to contain her feet. In her shoes, she stood as tall as her uncle did, but it mattered not. Being tall was better than having ogre feet.
‘Oh, thank you, Uncle Brevis,’ she said, embracing him. ‘Where in the world did you find such lovely shoes?’
‘From the East of course,’ Brevis said. ‘Do the finest things not all come from the East?’
Nelumbella could not agree more. Her shoes were more wonderful than the shoes the women in the painting had.
Nelumbella had new dresses made to accommodate for her newfound height. She was able to wear dresses everyone else wore. Keeping her gift a secret, she wanted everyone to believe she had a growth spurt, that her body finally caught up to her feet, or that her feet were swollen and had finally reduced.
She stopped hiking with her uncle, opting to toddle around the palace, and showing off her newfound proportions instead. Her feet were strong, and she was able to walk around without falling over, or becoming tired. Her toddle soon turned into a stride, and the maids who had one laughed at her thought she was elegant. Finally, she was starting to look like a princess, and she loved how it pleased her parents.
Nelumbella finally had the perfect way to conceal her oddity for her debut. Coming of age, Nelumbella was to be introduced to the public as a woman, and she was now sure they would not stare at her as they once had when she was a child. She was intent on showing Tarsus they had an improved Princess.
Nelumbella decided she would learn to dance like a lady for her first ball. Pondering of who could teach a fumbling fool like herself, she thought of her Uncle Brevis. If he was able to teach her everything else so well, he could teach her to dance.
Upon her next visit to the country manor, she requested, ‘Uncle Brevis, please teach me how to dance.’
‘You dance so well,’ he said, reminiscing about the time the many times she danced when he played the fiddle.
‘I want to learn how to dance like a lady, not a brute,’ Nelumbella pouted.
‘Very well,’ Brevis agreed, albeit disappointedly. He understood her role as Princess of Tarsus, but he adored how she was in her element. He had to make her enjoy herself once more before she put herself through what he considered to be one of the most excruciatingly boring tasks in the world. ‘However, before I teach you to dance, you must go to the mountains with me. You will need to stretch your feet out first anyways.’
‘Of course, Uncle Brevis,’ she said, smiling.
‘I must warn you, I am rusty myself,’ he confessed. He had never been one who enjoyed functions that involved formal dancing and had avoided balls for many years.
‘I am sure you will pick it up again,’ said Nelumbella. She had faith in him. Her uncle was a man who could overcome any obstacle—any boundary. ‘Mother did say you were a splendid dancer when you had to be.’
They set out into the mountains with their wolves for a whole day. She wore her men’s clothes without her diamond shoes. She flexed her feet freely, ran, and climbed. They enjoyed their time, and the day ended too soon for their liking. Nonetheless, Nelumbella was determined. For months, rather than enjoying the sun, as they usually did, the pair stayed indoors. Nelumbella and her uncle practiced their dancing while their wolves curled up in the corner.
Initially, Nelumbella learned to dance without her shoes. The movements were awkward because her feet were large, but she was better coordinated that way. She managed to learn the intricate and small steps, which were unpleasant for her big feet. When she mastered that to the best of her abilities, she put on her shoes and learned to do the same with the accessory.
Dancing in her shoes was much harder than walking in them. She had to balance on her toes, and sometimes, she stumbled on her heel. After dancing for long periods, her feet were red and sore, causing calluses to form. They were uglier than before. While her feet were large, the skin had been smooth and clear. Despite the skin being the lone quality Nelumbella liked, she was willing to give it up. No one would see her feet anyways.
Diligently, after plenty of practice, Nelumbella was able to dance so finely that it was impossible to guess she had abnormal feet. Her dancing skills carried on to all that she did. She moved just as splendidly as any princess before.
The palace staff thought she had finally bloomed. They were elated for her, and her parents were proud. With her feet out of the way, people were finally able to see the beauty she had. They said that her face was as lovely as the King and Queen’s in their youth; and with her faux growth spurt, they said she was a stunning young woman.