HEAD TO TOE by Molly Montgomery

One day, Penny woke up with her consciousness in her feet. She could still feel her head, blink her eyes, watch the procession of sunlight from her shutters ripple onto her bed, but it all felt very far away. Closer to her, the flannel blankets cushioned her arches and as she flexed— her feet that is, but it felt like she was stretching a larger muscle, like her back— her toes popped out of the warmth of the blanket, giddy like bright-eyed children, singing at last, at last it’s our turn now. They waved, creating a breeze in the rumpled blankets. She sighed with her feet, her heels arching and releasing, breathing, in a way. It didn’t occur to her that it would be strange to go through the day with her soul stuck to the floor. After all, she was a yoga teacher— maybe she had jumbled around her energy a bit too much the night before while performing a handstand. She rolled out of bed and let her feet sink into the carpet. She hadn’t vacuumed in a while, she realized as she felt the sharp edges of leaves and other unpleasant textures prickling the pad of her feet. The dead skin on her heels caught on the carpet, tugging painfully. How could she not have noticed before? It was like waking up to realize you hadn’t combed your hair in a week. She had to do something about it, immediately.

The cool bathroom tiles sent a shiver of pleasure up her legs. In the shower, she commanded her arms, which felt like phantom limbs, tingling and barely present, to twist the knobs and release a stream of hot, hot water onto her thirsting feet. The rest of her body winced, but her feet, tougher than the other parts and tired of taking beatings for the rest of her body’s sake, incited her to turn the temperature higher and higher until, at last, they eased. She flailed her feet before her, the rest of her body sinking into the bathtub. Finally, the pressure released, the terrible pressure, which she hadn’t realized was there until it was gone. It was like a migraine lifting, as she let go of the pounds and pounds of useless flesh pressing, pressing, pressing on her feet all day long. She scrubbed the hard calluses that roughened her feet like stubble, stripping off layers until they were raw and throbbing. The throbbing filled her. Her hands turned the water off, and she crawled out and wrapped a towel just around her feet, writhing with pain and pleasure.

Her toenails, slicing menaces, cut into the neighboring toes. Stop stabbing, stop stabbing, please, she pleaded and grabbed a nail file from her box. These toenails had not risen up in protest this much since her pointe days when they would rip her already demonically twisted feet to shreds and bleed on her satin shoes, the resin mixing with the blood to make a crusty callus of its own.

How much damage had she done her poor feet, she now wondered as she struggled to calm their fiery furor. Massaging them with a soft towel, she reached for some eucalyptus lotion she had in her medicine cabinet and began to knead the ointment deep into the crevices of her feet. She felt the blood vessels in them opening and a calming feeling spread from her feet, up her legs, and to her core.

Now that she was down in her feet, things seemed so different than they did above. She didn’t recognize herself. Who was this woman who could have exploited parts of herself, treated her own foundation like it didn’t matter? She would have never banged her head around like she had her feet, or let it get cut and scraped and swollen with infection like she had when, as an impetuous college student, she launched herself foolishly into a bacteria-laden river from a rope swing, the heel of her foot catching on sharp jagged rocks on her graceless tumble downward. She would have never choked her mouth the way she had choked her feet in sweaty, unbreathing sneakers in PE until a fungus invaded her toenails. She would have never constricted her fingers like she did her toes when she shoved them into wedges that narrowed to an inhuman point. Even her moment of triumph, the highlight of her career— stepping onto that stage with steady powerful strides that she had taken for granted and accepting the award for her choreography— it twisted horribly in her memory as she let herself feel the pain she had held back that night, her feet strapped like hostages into those teetering, torturous stilettos. How she resented her selfishness now, so bent on recognition, her head taking credit for the work of her feet.

After her injury, the one that ended her career on the dance floor, she had hated her feet, her weak left ankle in particular, which cracked under the stress of night after night of pirouettes. Her feet had failed her, so she stopped paying attention to them, like a mother who stops reaching out to her son after he breaks her trust one too many times. Then came the endless months of physical therapy, which she performed diligently, though she knew her body would never be the same. She built strength back into her muscles until they contained not as much as before, but enough for her to feel dignified. But how could it be even after she had recalibrated her relationship with her body, finally finding a sort of equilibrium in yoga, she still wasn’t at peace with her feet? Then again, she wasn’t at peace with her mind either, and that’s where she spent most of her efforts these days. Rewiring her circuits, talking through her loss with her therapist, trying to figure out how to her meld her mind into a body that no longer obeyed like it used to. Fuck that, she thought. It was a relief to be in her feet; the darkness in her head hovered like a thundercloud, but it couldn’t reach her down here. Still, she couldn’t hang out on the floor forever.

Vaguely, she reached for thoughts in her cerebrum, like rummaging in a dark cabinet. She had appointments, a class to teach; her daughter, still asleep, needed a ride to school and back. But her feet, objecting to her wavering attention, sprang with cramps that undid the tenuous connection to her task-oriented brain. Pedicure first, cancel everything else, spa day, spa day, they cried, and soon a chorus of rebellion resounded throughout her bounded body.

Massage me, her knee croaked as her consciousness jumped to it, then to her strained back tight with resentment. I’m next, cried her neglected neck. And her feet continued to pound, pulling her down, down, down.

Yes, let’s, she thought, let’s spend today together just for us. Her feet sought her soft slippers, kicking off whatever attachment she still felt to the rest of the world.

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