Tim Pratt's Journal
2803429 Curiosities served
2007-10-30 11:22 PM
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I happened across someone's blog entry listing favorite scary stories, which mentioned one of mine: "Dancing Shoes," a dark fairy taleish thing that appeared in online magazine Champagne Shivers way back in 2002. I didn't include the story in either of my collections because I thought it was too minor, and I hadn't thought of it in years, but authors aren't necessarily the best judges of their own work, and if one person liked it, maybe others will too. So here it is. Enjoy. Happy Hallowe'en.
"They’re so very red," said Princess Laney.
"Redder than red," the dead servant agreed.
Laney tightened pink-soft hands on her pink silk skirt. A servant, talking to her, offering to sell her red shoes. He should be expelled from the garden, fed to the hounds -- but he was already dead. That was the point. She wouldn’t be talking to him if he were alive.
"I’ll need to try them on first."
"No." He clasped the red shoes to his clattering chest. He had a body made of pig intestines, black mud, fire pokers, and blown glass, and his chest consisted of broken pots that clanged together loosely when he moved. His eyes were mismatched buttons, his head a haunch of raw beef, and whoever put him together hadn’t bothered with hair. Hands made from saucers. Fingers made of spoons.
Fingers holding perfect red shoes.
"I won’t buy them unless I know they fit." She stomped her slippered foot on the cobblestones. She’d never purchased anything, but she’d heard the servants speak, and she knew every seller was a cheater.
"Magic dancing shoes fit everyone. They’d even fit me. Want to see?" He raised one foot, a dead cat, splayed, fastened to an axe-handle leg.
Laney gagged. "You stink, dead man. Don’t put them on."
"You were always such a sweet child," he said. "Do you remember me?"
"You were a servant. Of course I don’t."
"You were only with us for a few weeks. I served in your uncle’s house, you know."
"So you said. Now, about the shoes --"
"Surely you remember my wife," he said, his voice issuing from a coffee-grinder in his throat.
"I’m sure I don’t. The shoes --"
"She was Queen Ella’s stepmother."
Laney closed her teeth with a clack. "Auntie Ella’s stepmother? The wicked, lying, conniving --"
"The beloved, my wife. If you can’t be civil, there are others who’d like magic dancing shoes."
"I’m sorry," Laney said quickly, sitting on a stone bench beside an overgrown rhododendron. "I remember seeing your wife, the stepmother, at Auntie Ella’s wedding. They made her dance."
"In red hot shoes made of iron, yes. And you clapped and laughed."
"I didn’t know," she protested. "I was only five. All I saw was a feast and a wedding and a white-faced woman dancing. That’s when I decided I wanted to dance. I started lessons as soon as I came home. I’m a very good dancer."
"I’m sure. You’d be even better with the magic shoes."
"Later, when Mother and Papa took me to visit Auntie Ella, I saw her... the stepmother..." Laney shuddered prettily.
"My wife. You saw her crawling, polishing table legs and scrubbing floors, yes? Her feet hacked off, because they’d been burned and ruined?"
"Horrible, horrible! But you see, it had to be -- It was a matter of principle, mother said -- "
"Oh, shh. My wife was very forgiving. If your Aunt Ella hadn’t burned off her feet, she never would have looked at me, a servant. She was a high-born lady, and she never would have married me. I should be grateful. And as I said, my wife forgave your aunt, forgave you all."
Wanting to change the subject, Laney said "How did you come to be dead, and peddling magic shoes?"
The coffee-grinder whirred, presumably a laugh. "A fairy woman brought me back to life, built me this dog’s dinner of a body, and she uses me to run her errands. Today, selling red shoes. Tomorrow, who knows?"
"What fairy woman? Not Auntie Ella’s godmother?"
"I hear they aren’t speaking anymore."
"My mistress didn’t approve of your Aunt’s behavior at the wedding. She believes unkindness deserves equal unkindness, but the iron shoes... and making my wife be a servant after that... and Ella putting her own stepsisters to death, for their rudeness..." He shook his head. "My mistress thought that was excessive."
Laney lifted her pointy chin. "Royalty is not to be questioned."
"Quite." The beef-head couldn’t smile, but Laney suspected it wished to.
"Enough of this," she said. "What is the price of the shoes?"
"Only permission to watch you dance."
"Is that all?"
He shrugged, with attendant clanging of pots. "So my mistress says."
"Then give them to me."
He did. The shoes were silky, soft, thin-soled. Laney removed her pink slippers and put on the oh-so-red dancing shoes. "They tingle!"
"That’s the magic. Now dance."
Laney rose to first position, then began her daily ballet exercises. No need to show this servant anything special. The shoes moved almost before she did, lifting her feet, bending her arches, pointing her toes for her.
"My wife died," the dead servant said. "Shortly after I did. She was old, and she could scarcely clean the floors. Because she could no longer work, your Aunt Ella dumped her into the snow. Wolves ate her hands."
"Stop at once! Do not tell me such things. Our business is done." Laney pirouetted on point.
"Not until you finish dancing, and I may talk all I like. You are not my mistress."
"Spoiled, snot-nosed, be quiet. You laughed at my wife in her greatest agony, you clapped. I’ll hear nothing more out of you."
"I didn’t know." Laney pleaded. The shoes danced her faster. It was all she could do to keep up. "And you said your wife forgave! My Auntie only did what she thought was best!"
"My wife was a better person than I am. I never forgave any of you. Neither did my mistress, the fairy godmother. Your aunt’s cruelty to my wife, and killing her stepsisters, she deserves equal cruelty in return."
"These shoes are beginning to pinch," Laney said. "And they won’t stop dancing. Ow! Are there fleas in them?"
"No. Keep dancing, princess."
"Ah! They’re biting!" Laney fell to the stones, hoping to relieve the weight on her feet, and found herself eye-to-eye with the servant’s dead-cat-foot. Her feet felt caught in millstones, jabbed by knives, bitten by dogs. She wept and curled her toes. "I’ve done nothing," she said. "Nothing." Her feet pattered against the stones.
"You did enough." He bent to remove one of the shoes. The agony didn’t stop; she felt skin and muscle tear away as he pulled off the shoe. He removed the other, and it was even worse. Laney shrieked against the cobblestones.
"My mistress is harsh," the dead servant said. "She repays cruelty with cruelty. Hurting you is excessive. Appropriately. And it will hurt your dear Auntie Ella very much."
Laney rolled over, drew up her feet. They were searing lumps of pain. Pale, white, drained of blood, punctured and shriveled and flayed. She looked away, hurting so much that her teeth chattered.
The dead servant held up the shoes. They were even redder than before, and looked wet. Drops of blood fell from them, onto the stones. "I’ll offer these to your mother next, and finally to your aunt. Then balance will be served, and my mistress satisfied. Perhaps she’ll let me go then..." He shook his head.
The dead servant tucked the bloody shoes into a cavity in his chest. "As for you, laugher, clapper." He grabbed Laney by the hair and one arm and hauled her upright. "Dance!" He flung her forward. She tottered on her ruined feet and fell, smashing her forehead on the bench, cutting her skin and spilling blood into her eyes.
The dead servant laughed his coffee-grinder laugh and clapped his kitchenware hands.
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