‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’ originally appears in Intan Paramaditha’s collection Apple and Knife. It has been republished here with permissions from the author and Brow Books. We highly recommend you snag your own copy ASAP.
In this edition, we also speak with Intan about disobedient women, life and myth, and her forthcoming novel in translation, The Wandering. You can read our interview here.
The Blind Woman Without a Toe
Come. Come, child. Sit by me. Are you sure you want to hear how I became blind? Oh, it’s a scary tale, child. So much blood was shed, like when an animal is sacrificed. It was an awful event involving someone very close to me. You may know of her. I was butchered. Yes, you could say that. And I even butchered myself. My eyes were pecked out by a bird. They say it was a dove from heaven, but it was actually a black crow straight out of hell. I screamed. I begged it to stop. But my shrieks were drowned out by its caws. It got to the point that you could no longer tell what was flowing, tears or blood. The crow only heeded its owner and she wasn’t satisfied until my eyes were hollow sockets.
Long ago, before I became blind, I lived with my mother and my two younger sisters. The youngest wasn’t my biological sister. She was my stepfather’s daughter. Her name was Sindelarat. You’ve heard of her, haven’t you? She is already legendary, so maybe you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you. Sin—that’s what we called her—was so dirty, she looked like she had powdered herself with soot. And she really did live in the attic. I won’t deny it (though I regret it, since that’s where she colluded with the thing that granted her powers). What I want to do is correct history. History has killed me off in favour of her, who people say lived happily ever after. You want to know the real truth? Sin is dead. I’m the one who survives.
Yes, we were unfair to her. We ordered her to do the heavy work. When she wanted to go to the ball, we threw rice in every corner and wouldn’t let her leave the house until she had gathered all of it in a bowl. Of course, it was wasted labour, but at that point we didn’t know she was being helped by a spirit, that accursed Fairy Godmother. That’s the story you’ve heard? Well, now I’ll tell you something different.
Our stepfather loved Sin very much. Before he died, she was sweet and gentle and innocent—at least, that’s how she presented herself. Father gave her beautiful dresses and a tiny tiara to sit atop her head of long gleaming hair. He admired his daughter’s long eyelashes, especially when she fluttered them. Meanwhile, we were given Sin’s old clothes. Good clothes, but hand-me-downs nonetheless. If he went on a trip, he would return home with a stack of presents for her, while my sister and I got a box of sweets. Our hearts burned with envy. How else could we have felt? A teenage girl’s greatest accomplishment is owning piles of fancy clothes.
Father didn’t scold or beat us, but he didn’t accept us either. At dinner, the only one whose day he would ask about was Sin. How is your embroidering coming along? How are the roses you’re tending? Is the chicken you’re keeping laying eggs yet? What about the finch you’re looking after, is its claw better? Has it healed? The cake you made is delicious! Oh, look, Sin is so productive! Meanwhile, Father treated us almost as if we didn’t exist, as if we were the remnants of a past that Mother had to lug around with her. His first wife had died and he needed someone to take care of him. He couldn’t live without someone else’s help. Someone to ready his breakfast, his clothes, his shoes. A companion to play around with under the mosquito netting. And he was crazy about Mother. She was a beautiful widow.
Mother was the flower of her village when she was young. Even though she was poor, all the men sought her hand in marriage. Back then only girls from rich families could go to school, so to make a living she worked as a maid in the home of a regent. Wanting to improve her station in life, she approached the regent after his wife died. Two months after that it was official: Mother became his wife. He was our biological father, though neither of us remembers him because he died when I was only two.
The people around us called Mother a harlot, saying she had used all the wiles at her disposal to get rich. Years later, they called my sister and me harlots too, when we were criticised for mistreating Sin. We got used to it, child. Our blood boiled like magma; we hated coming second.
For a dozen years, Mother lived off the wealth that our father had left behind. She was strong enough to care for us alone, but the estate of her deceased husband would only last so long. When I was fourteen, Sin’s father, a close friend of my own father, grew close to Mother. People started gossiping about her anew. But once again, Mother didn’t care. She married Sin’s father shortly after his wife passed away. See, child, our family is used to making do with hand-me-downs.
Our stepfather of course could never be our biological father, but we wanted his attention too. We had learned that, in this world, fathers reign over everything. So, we hugged him and longed to climb on his shoulders and ride them as if we were riding power.
Sin, our stepsister, was an expert at putting on a sweet face. One day when my stepfather was about to go on a trip, he asked what gift we would like. Of course, because we rarely got nice presents from him, we said a beautiful dress. Sin said a rose would be enough. No wonder—even without Father travelling anywhere she got all sorts of extravagant treats. Notice how she wanted to play the part of a nice girl who isn’t materialistic? Feh! Such a phony. If she didn’t care about money, then why did she insist on going to the ball to meet that filthy-rich Prince Charming?
Yes, that’s how it was, child. Because we resented Sin, we made off with her beautiful dresses as soon as our stepfather died. We gave her our old clothes—which were her own clothes, gifted to us by her father, now returned to her once more. What was once yours is always yours, right? So began life without my stepfather.
Years passed. We grew into flowers ready to be plucked. But who did the young men sneak glances at in the market and the town square? That damned Sin. Even though she no longer had such beautiful clothes, her face was beautiful. Her skin had a golden glow. Her hair was black with lovely curls. She had a slender waist and shapely legs. Her voice was soft, appealing. We, on the other hand, had inherited more from our father than our beautiful mother: we were big boned and dark skinned. We could only gnaw our fingernails as the neighbours constantly remarked on how perfect she was. How upset we were when we learned that every last one of the young men lining up at the front door had come to seek Sin’s hand! Mother tried to bargain, “Sin is still very young. How about her older sisters marrying first?” But apparently that idea didn’t appealed to anyone. Mother was angry and frightened that we might become old maids, so she sent Sin to hide in the attic whenever guests came. When in competition, women need to eliminate rivals and be unsparing in their hatred.
The ball was the climax of these events. We were merchandise in the market and Prince Charming was the sole customer. Of course, he couldn’t purchase everything on display. He had to choose the best to be his queen. He could have a thousand mistresses if he desired, but there could be only one queen. We felt threatened by Sin’s beauty that night so we did everything we could to prevent her from going. Sin whined that she wanted to attend, even though she had so many suitors already. Some were even sons of the rich! Why was she never satisfied?
As you well know, our efforts to discourage Sin that night failed because the Fairy Godmother considered her such a paragon of virtue that she waved her magic wand. Sin came to the ball. She was like a goddess sent from heaven and conquered Prince Charming by dancing flirtatiously with him. But the next day, news came that the prince had somehow lost his true princess. All that was left of her was a single slipper. The prince searched for the shoe’s owner at every house, including ours.
Mother, still dreaming we could find a match of royal pedigree, made Sin hide when my sister and I took turns trying on the slipper. But the slipper was too small. I tried to force my foot inside. Alas, my toes were so bulky! My big toe was larger than most. Mother handed me a knife. “Cut it off. You don’t need it. If you become queen, you won’t be doing much walking.” I took hold of the knife, bit my lip hard and amputated my toe. I tossed the first morsel of my flesh into the trash so that stray dogs could eat it. You would do well to know, child, that this world is filled with poorly fitting shoes that only accommodate the mutilated.
Once I had sliced off my big toe, I managed to squeeze into the slipper. I limped, grimacing. The slipper chaffed against the wound. Still, Prince Charming carried me off in his coach. I glanced at the dazed face of my future husband. He didn’t look happy. He must have thought he had drunk too much the night before. How could the beautiful girl of his memories be me? He said nothing during the trip, until the chirps of a bird sounded:
Lo, behold this girl who lies
Bloodying her slipper until it dries
That bird—the crow from hell—pecked at the coach, desperate for its augury to be heeded. My husband-to-be ordered me to take off the slipper. He bellowed, almost fainting at the sight of my butchered flesh. He said nothing, asked me nothing. Without further ado, I was dispatched back home.
The tragedy was repeated. My younger sister was asked to try on the slipper, but her foot was too large as well. Only this time, her heel was what wouldn’t fit. Like me, she carved off part of her foot with the kitchen knife. Like me, she stepped up into the coach and, down the road, was serenaded by the same snitch bird.
Prince Charming returned home, rage casting a shadow on his face. “Don’t you have another daughter?” he asked, furious at my mother for fobbing off rotten fruit. He wanted an unblemished apple. His viceroy ransacked our home, and found Sin in the attic. More precisely, Sin was waiting to be found; her sobs could be heard from outside. She was no less calculating than we were.
Yes, of course the slipper fit her foot; it was hers. Prince Charming lit up when Sin came down the stairs. He knew this was the woman from the ball. A woman who would make herself up every morning for him, who would anxiously await his return from the battlefield, who would bear his children. He immediately brought his beautiful princess home and they lived happily ev—
Wait, not yet. They didn’t live happily ever after yet. Mother fell ill. She was depressed about my sister and me; we still hadn’t found husbands. And butchering our feet had made our prospects even more dire. The townsmen looked away when we passed. Mother’s illness worsened. She wrote to Sin but received no reply. Maybe Sin knew she wanted to borrow money. Finally, my sister and I went to see her in Prince Charming’s magnificent palace. We arrived as she was enjoying her breakfast in a garden full of roses, jasmine, ilang-ilang and dahlias. The gurgling fountains were music to our ears.
Sin asked us to leave but we refused to do so until she gave us money. We also demanded to be mistresses to her husband, but of course thousands of beauties had already lined up for the position. Suddenly, that damned bird appeared, the same bird we had encountered on the road. It went after our eyes, stabbing at them with its beak, a knife weighted with vengeance. Again and again it stabbed. Sin, my stepsister, looked on. The last image I have of the world is the sight of her not lifting a finger to help, snacking on grapes.
Since then we have become the stuff of legend: Sin, the virtuous girl who wed, and we, the sisters, better off dead. We lived in poverty thereafter, supporting our ailing mother. She died with her eyes wide open. Until the end, she refused to accept the insults of those around her or the fact that we would forever be old maids. I left the village and now live as a wanderer with my sister. Two blind, useless women who survive by making music on street corners. My sister plays the harp and I sing. We must, for we have no Prince Charming, no Fairy Godmother.
Sin didn’t live happily ever after. She died giving birth to her sixth daughter. Before that, she was pregnant almost every year because the kingdom needed a crown prince. Her thighs grew chubby and her stomach turned as flabby as bean curd. Excessive blood loss did her in, a fitting conclusion for this tale of gore.
Sin is dead. But, ah, who will listen to a blind, mutilated woman?
Apple and Knife is available now from Brow Books. Our thanks to the author and publisher for allowing reprint of this story.