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This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website.
Ruby shoes dance; red
ribbons lace them up. Inside?
Blood laces ribboned flesh.
The shoes cost my mother a month’s wages, but she was so proud to give them to me. And to show the neighbors that, whether or not her husband had run off with another woman, she could afford to dress her daughter well. No second-hand shoes with holes in the soles for me, and no patches on my dresses, either. Well, not visible ones. My mother’s needle was so clever that the mending never showed. But she couldn’t mend shoes. Hence, the red ones.
I didn’t dare get them dirty; she’d have wept if I ruined that shiny leather with mud, or leached the dye from them with ditch-water. She gave me a loaf of bread, however, and told me to take it to my grandmother’s house—right along the mud-slick road through the woods.
The bread cost a day’s wages. The shoes had cost a month of my mother’s life. I teetered at the edge of a bog, not knowing what to do. I couldn’t go back, having failed to follow her directions. I couldn’t go forward and ruin those shoes.
A crow on a tree branch croaked advice: “Tear off pieces of the bread, throw them in the mud, and walk on them.”
A nightingale, not that I’d asked her advice, chirped, “Oh, but that would be wicked, wasting food so.”
The crow cawed in laughter. “It wouldn’t be wasted, Sister Nightingale. We birds would feast.”
“Surely,” a robin commented, preening, “you must be a very vain girl, to worry about something as meaningless as your clothing.”
“You’re one to talk, Robin,” I told him boldly. “Your feathers are just as red as my shoes, and aren’t you proud of them?”
The other birds tittered in laughter. The robin trilled in annoyance. “My beauty is natural. Your feathers are artificial. You should accept being the drab little wren that you are.”
All these woodland creatures seemed to think they knew a lot about me. Yet they didn’t mention how my mother stayed up late every night, taking in extra sewing and mending to give me these nice clothes, so that we could go to church and hold our heads up, in spite of the neighbors’ whispers. So I found a log and sat on it, careful not to ruin my mother’s careful sewing, and took off those fabulous shoes. I tied their laces in a knot, put them around my neck, and then started to set off down that muddy path. “What about your stockings?” a squirrel chittered. “Won’t you ruin them on the mud and the rocks, too?”
This presented another quandary. Decent women didn’t go around without shoes, and they most certainly didn’t go around without stockings. But I took them off too, draping them around my neck. “Don’t ruin your petticoats,” a fox sniggered from behind a rock. “Lift them up. Who will see your legs but we forest creatures and the trees?”
“Sensible advice,” I told him. I didn’t like the glitter in his eyes, but dragging my mother’s work along the forest floor would snag the cloth on branches and drag it in the mud. I hiked my skirts up (the fox howled) and tucked them through my girdle.
“Immodesty to go with the vanity!” the robin shrilled. “Going about with your bare legs showing! You’ll be set on and attacked, and have only yourself to blame.”
“With all of you around to protect me?” I asked, feeling beset on all sides.
Suddenly, not a one of them found words to speak. “Ah, I didn’t think so. You’re quite free with criticism and complaint, but not a shred of help. Are you perhaps our neighbors in disguise?”
Still not a peep from the branches, and I walked and squelched through the mud, carrying my basket of bread. Wondering if my red shoes, like another girl’s red cape, might attract a wolf. What would a wolf say? Would he berate me for my lack of shoes and stockings? Or would he say “My, what long legs you have, my dear?” and eat me up? Perhaps it might not be so bad to be eaten. I certainly wouldn’t have to listen to the neighbors—or the birds—ever again.
Consumed with these intemperate thoughts, I plodded on. After a mile, my feet, unused to rocks and stones, were raw. And by the time I reached my grandmother’s house, my shoes still around my neck, my feet left bloody tracks on the green of her grass.
It wasn’t a wolf who waited on the porch with my grandmother, but a man, whose mouth fell open at the sight of me. He actually blushed—him, a man grown!—and turned his face aside violently, choking out, “Cover yourself!”
My legs were filthy to the knee. “If I let down my skirts, I’ll get my dress covered in this muck, sir. Grandmother, may I clean myself at the pump?”
She creaked to her feet. “Go ahead, my dear, but don’t set foot back on the dirt before I’ve bandaged you.” She opened the door to go fetch strips of linen, and added, smiling, “This nice young man is writing down all my stories. Isn’t that an amazing thing?”
I sat on the edge of the pump’s station, hiking my skirts up further, to keep the cloth from getting wet, the basket of bread beside me as I cleansed myself, hissing a little as the water hit my blistered, cut feet. And as my grandmother bandaged my cuts, she scolded me all the while, “Girl, shoes are made to protect your feet. Protecting the shoes doesn’t do any good.”
I heard her nice young man call from the porch, never stepping down onto the dirt of the yard with us, “She must be a vain and prideful child, putting her clothes first.”
He sounds just like the robin. Fussing and fretting. “It’s a pity you’re not a wolf,” I told him, while my grandmother frantically tried to shush me, and apologized for my bad manners in a rush and tumble of words. “A wolf would have been more interesting. And I think you must never have been poor. Otherwise, you’d know how important clothes are. Poor children get clods of dirt thrown at them on the way to school. Children who go to school dirty get mocked. Pride isn’t a sin, when it’s the only thing that keeps you going.”
“Pride and vanity! You should teach her better, madam! You should beat the seven deadly sins out of her, before their taint ruins her completely.” He still wouldn’t look at me, his cheeks red as a robin’s breast in his indignation. Which is why I laughed at him, dithering and fussing and twittering as he was.
In response, he glared and scribbled in his book.
When I was older, and read what he’d written, I saw that I must have really bothered him that day. Perhaps a little bit of wolf rose up in his heart, and made his palms sweat at the sight of me with my skirts raised up. In his story, he made it so my red shoes danced, and forced me to cut off my own feet to keep myself from dying of exhaustion. An apt punishment for vanity and pride, I suppose, but an entirely fictitious one. I’m only surprised that he didn’t have me cut out my own tongue at the same time, since surely it was my tongue that offended him, as much as my pride. But then, I learned how not to embrace poverty and shame from my mother.
So what really happened to me? I wore red shoes to my graduation from school. I found myself a wolf who walked as a woodsman by day, and who didn’t expect me to act like a wren.
And at our wedding? I danced all night.
Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Reno, Nevada, but she received her MA in English from Penn State. She currently lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and son. For more about her work, please see www.edda-earth.com.