He Who Makes the Slippers
by Sean Robinson
In his dream, he slept beside a gloaming sea.
Porcelain sand pillowed him while red velvet wrapped around his legs and kept him warm. He listened to the lullaby of surf on shore and, for the first time in more years than he could remember, peace woke in the black belly in him.
It unfurled, digging roots into his pain.
Laughter split his lips like a newborn flower, echoing to the pregnant moon.
They walked the beach barefoot, before. Before the years had caught up with him and life moved away from her.
They had never been man and wife, but her fingers twined with his in dream. Her skin glowed in the moonlight and the wind danced through her hair with the promise of years to come together.
That night, they had made love in the sand, feeding from the darkness inside each other until there was nothing left but the beach, and the moon, and the lullaby of sea.
His name was Aarne and the dream faded with the dawn, leaving him in the garret room above the baker’s shop.
It held the tiny pallet and the starving stove he couldn’t afford to feed. In the last weeks of the year, the air had grown cold. His little table was how he left it—tiny hammer and chisel beside tinier needle and awl. Scraps of dirty silk sat next to the worn velvet Aarne had bartered the last of his money for.
His fingers shook, not daring to pierce the silk and velvet, not daring to answer the itch between his knuckles. The dream plagued his nights and haunted his dreams. He could not think of slippers or shoes without her.
Aarne did not eat that night.
The shoemaker waited until darkness came again, and the dreams returned.
On the third day, his stomach ached and even the memory of her kiss was not enough to rouse him from his bed and stoke some tiny trembling spark from the fireplace.
“Once,” he said to the conspiratorial dark, “I made slippers by the dozen. Twelve each night from cloth of gold and seed pearls. Pins specked with stars held their ribbons to ankles no man had touched. Every morning they would be danced to pieces and I would make them anew, whispering the ribbons between my fingers.”
“There was a pair of clogs I carved from the heartwood of fallen maple, gifted to me with a dryad’s sweet kisses. A girl came to my shop when the winter winds howled, her tiny fingers gone blue from the cold. I warmed her by the fire and set the clogs on her feet. She left to chase the winter to where it hid and take back the boy-child it had stolen. You may have heard that story.”
The pot-bellied stove starved silently in the corner.
He had all but faded back to sleep when a fist met the outside of the door.
“I have no money.” He called out. “No money. No money.”
The door shook again and again.
Aarne flung the door open and found himself looking up into the doll-like face of a girl.
She stood above him on long limbs. Her dress was homespun stitched with silver. The stick straight hair that hung past her shoulders was knotted with tiny bells and ribbons, feathers and sea glass.
“You are the shoemaker?” she said.
“I make no shoes.” The man replied and moved to close the door.
“I am your daughter.”
“I have no daughter. I make no shoes. Good day to you.”
But instead the door did not shut no matter how he pushed. The girl, with eyes that had remembered the glim-lit sea and her parents’ kisses beneath the pregnant moon, held two shoes before her. He remembered them—each rivet, each fold of hot lead and steel. They were rusted now and before he looked away Aarne wondered if the flecks of brown were verdigris from the years that separated them from the fire, or the blood of the woman who’d danced in them.
“I have no daughter.” He said, but believed it less that time. But lies—to yourself or to a daughter you’d never met –are best done with a great deal of disbelief behind them.
“My name is Opal. I have come to learn my father’s trade. I have already learned my mother’s.”
And with that the garret room was filled with a second occupant, who took up much more room than the first.
Between them grew the Customary Truce of Father and Daughter despite having never met the other. They found laughter between them. Opal prepared a pallet beside the fire, which she stroked to a blazing heat of fingers traced across the intimacy of the stove and fixed her looking glass above it.
Aarne threaded his needles and guided her hands to mate velvet and silk. But the metal shoes sat at beneath the tiny bench where they learned together, a reminder that the truce had not won the war.
* * *
Her first shoes were passable and were sold for day-old bread, a meat pie, and a bundle of sticks to feed the lonely stove. Opal cried when the woman with pixie wings walked away from them, leaving copper pennies in trade. His daughter consoled herself by clutching the burning pot belly to dry her tears until the morning light broke.
Aarne stayed awake that night, even though his bones ached for the lullaby of the sea and the feeling of laughter growing inside of him. He whispered to her as she cried; stories of the palaces he’d visited and the shoes that he made. It became a ritual repeated like a witch’s spell twice more—third time paying for all.
The second time they were boots trimmed with moth-eaten fur and paste pearls. The boy who bought them traded a silver to bring them home as a gift to his dying mother. That night they ate a smoked ham and bought more trimmings.
With the third the shoe maker’s daughter embroidered sandals with the motif of swans flying. By then she had learned to hunch her back as her father did and stare at the tiny stitches until her eyes went cross and watered. The man who bought the sandals gave them a sliver of gold, like ripe wheat and just as fragile.
“It hurts sometimes.” Aarne said.
“Is that why you dream?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you love her?”
He said nothing.
When the silence had gone so long and grown so large they could barely breathe through it. The shoemaker’s daughter faded from her eyes until the witch’s daughter trailed fingers across the belly of the stove, leaving tiny furrows in the steel. She unfurled her spine, each vertebra snapping till she stood straight and tall.
Opal reached beneath the table and sat the shoes between them.
Aarne looked away.
“Did you love her?”
“She left,” Her father said. “She left me alone in the house we built together because...”
Opal looked at him for a long moment and answered for him: “It wasn’t enough.”
“Make a pair of shoes for me, father,” she said closing the distance between them in the tiny garret room overlooking the garbage-clogged street, “like the glass slippers from the story, or the dancing shoes for the dozen princesses. Make them from fur or salt or lead. You made them for anyone who asked and a handful who didn’t. Write a story from me in stitches of silk or gold wire. Make the bastard daughter of a witch and a shoemaker mean something, father. It will be your penance.”
She blew the room empty of the unspoken. The truce had ended. With eyes that had turned the color of the angry sea, the shoemaker’s witch-daughter blew through the door the way she came. The pot bellied stove, filled drunk from her tears followed behind her.
Aarne cried that night, in the emptiness of his daughter’s departure. He cried and waited for sleep. But when it came, there was no ocean, no sea or sand delicate as porcelain and she did not come to dance with him on the sand. Only blackness met him. When he woke, he was still the same tired man—no—more tired, more worn.
The iron shoes sat in silent accusation where they’d been left.
When three days had passed and no dream fed his soul, when all was left but ham hock and broken dreams he dared to touch the shoes. They were cold like ice. He wanted them to be hot, hotter than any fire. Aarne wished in the wretched brokenness inside him that they burned his fingers to bone and charred the itch between his knuckles until he finally found forgiveness.
He went to work.
How long the shoemaker sat at his table, with the bits and baubles scattered, the iron shoes staring witness, he would never recall. Aarne did as he was told and wrote a story in the lacings, in the stitches, as he cut and sewed and trimmed he remembered that last time, after.
A woman with skin the color of milk, lips the color red dreams of being, and hair like unending midnight came to his shop. Her voice was dulcet, as though it had been unused. Her story has been told too many times, but he remembered the way she begged. Shoes to right a wrong.
So he had made them and given them to her, wrought from iron.
They set the iron shoes to burn till the sun rose from between the bindings. They forced her feet into them and she danced at her stepdaughter’s wedding while the world watched and no one mourned. A woman who had been a queen, fair beyond words and birthed a daughter whose eyes swam like the sea.
He dreamt of her that night upon his table, beside his daughter’s shoes. Aarne dreamed of before. Before she left and the road her to castles and kings. Before he had made the shoes she would wear at the end of the story and how they had walked beside barefoot together along the sands, while the glimlit moon hung overhead.
* * *
Sean Robinson is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author based in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Unlikely Story. He is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA. You can find him on Twitter @Kesterian.
Everywhere. Sometimes its the news, or something I read. I love fairy tales and re-imaginings. I keep notes of things that I like, or words or ideas.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Writing is how I perceive the world, how I interact and make sense of it. I have a harder time not writing than I do keeping writing.
What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?
Originality. Even if every story's already been told, you need to do it in an interesting way. The old stories are still viable, they just need to be refreshed sometimes.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
It's like asking "what if" and following things to their conclusion. What if Snow White and Jack had a son? What if the Little Mermaid hadn't lost her voice? So much fun to be had there.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Writing is one challenge, publishing is another. Learn to love rejection, and eventually you will break on through.