Excerpt from The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Binding Chair

or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society

by Kathryn Harrison

The Binding Chair
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2000, 312 pages
    Jul 2001, 352 pages

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The fifth and sixth changed their minds.

The seventh, who was the last, would have to do. He was taciturn; and that, anyway, she approved.

"When do I start?" was his longest utterance.

"Today," May said. "Now." And the houseboy provided him with bathing costume, towel, and robe, a room in which to change.

May, using her jade cane, slowly climbed the stairs to her suite of rooms, where she took off all her clothes except the white binding cloths and red shoes-for without them she couldn't walk at all - and put on her new black bathing costume. She pulled the pins from her hair, brushed and braided it, and, wearing a white robe so long that it trailed, began her long walk down the stairs. On the way she met Alice, her niece, breathless and ascending two at a time.

"I'm late," Alice explained, unnecessarily. And then, "Please!" as May blocked her way with her cane.

"For what?" May asked. "For whom?"

"I'm meeting him at the Negresco. We're having tea, that's all, so don't let's quarrel." Alice tried to push past, but May held the cane firmly across the banister. "Look, he'll think I'm not coming!"

"Just remember." May pointed the tip of her cane at Alice's heart. "We all die alone."

"Please! I haven't time for this now!" Alice made an exasperated lunge for the cane, which May abruptly lowered so that Alice lost her balance; she ended sitting on the step below her aunt's feet.

May looked down at her. "I'm more fortunate than you."

"And why is that?" The words came out tartly, and Alice scowled, she stuck her chin out belligerently; still, she considered her aunt remarkable for the tragedies she'd survived.

"Because," May said. "Opium is a better drug."

"Well," Alice said, after an amplified sigh. She stood up. "Any advice?" she asked, sarcastic.

May shrugged. She raised her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows and turned up an empty white palm. "Avoid marriage," she said. "Obviously." She continued down the stairs, Alice watching as she navigated the foyer, her white robe trailing over the parquet, her abbreviated steps invisible, disguised. Through the salon and out to the pool: who could guess how she hobbled?

In the garden, on a chaise he'd pulled from the shade of an umbrella into the afternoon sun, the young man was waiting. Sprawled long-legged on its yellow cushion, the robe folded, unused, at its foot, he opened his eyes at the sound of the patio door; he stood as May approached. A low stool had been placed just at the very lip of tile that overhung the stairs descending to the shallow end of the long blue pool, and May sat on it. The young man watched in silence as she untied the sash of her robe and pulled her white arms from its white sleeves, let it fall back from her shoulders before bending to unbind her feet.

Because she was so graceful in all her movements, the clumsiness with which she entered the pool surprised him. Still, the young man said nothing, he made no move to help May as she used her arms to maneuver herself from the low seat to the edge of the pool and from there onto the steps.

For a moment she rested on the highest one, submerged only as far as her waist and looking into the water. Under the pool's refracting surface her feet appeared no more foreshortened than any other woman's.

She turned to him, her hand on the side. "Well?" she said, and he nodded. He used the diving board to enter, executed a conceited dive and came up gleaming, grinning, as relaxed and easy in the water as a Shanghai boatman.

SHANGHAI. What city could be farther from the pristine and clear, the enviably sparkling coast of southern France than dirty, seething Shanghai, her filthy waterways? The other side of the world, and yet as immediate and implacable as the underside of consciousness: flowing, undammed. Undammable. May carried it with her, the fetid Whangpoo hung with haze, busy with ferries and junks, the occasional body of a dead addict or whore bobbing between hulls. Barges sinking low under the weight of coal and cabbages, steamers along the jetties exchanging cases of biscuits for crates of tea, wines for silks. Mail boats disgorging their sacks of correspondence and journals, wedding banns, death notices, the occasional love letter smothered among missionary reports and month-old European newspapers.

Excerpted from The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison Copyright© 2000 by Kathryn Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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