Dancing Shoes

Dancing Shoes

‘Pretty aren’t they?’ he said.

They were. Soft red leather with a sprig of daisies embroidered on each rounded toe, a heel, but only a small one, nothing to teeter on, beautiful shoes.

‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ she said. The Wednesday market was known for its vegetables, the artisan bread stall, wonderful sausages from Holly Farm, pottery sometimes, but never a shoe stall.

‘Hand stitched by me,’ said the cobbler. ‘Everyone should have one pair of red shoes. Try them on.’

He was bright-eyed, with dark curly hair and slender hands that did look capable of embroidering daisies onto leather — and the shoes were lovely. Jessie tried them on. They were a perfect fit, almost as if they were made for her. The price was ridiculously reasonable. She bought them.

Later, she wondered when she would ever wear them. There was nothing red in her whole wardrobe. They might go with black, she supposed, or navy blue, but her feet would be the most striking thing the whole outfit. It was a pleasure just to look at them, though. Perhaps she would do exciting things in these red shoes. She put them next to the chest of drawers in her bedroom and they were the last thing she looked at before putting out the light.

The next morning she noticed that the toes of the red shoes were a bit scuffed. How could that have happened? She had not even worn them yet, except for trying them on at the market. Had she accidentally kicked them last night? She could not see how, but that must be the answer.

That morning she bought some special red polish which covered scuffs, and in the evening, carefully polished the shoes, avoiding the embroidery, returning them to almost pristine condition. Jessie arranged a place for them in the shoe section of her wardrobe, thinking of saving them for her next special occasion.

She went to the pub with some friends that night. The red shoes definitely weren’t pub shoes. Even though they had not been expensive, they were so pretty that she wanted to keep them perfect, and she found herself thinking of them now and then. Admitting this to her friends started up a whole discussion about shoes. Pinching toes, heels — how high? How much agony to put up with just to look good.

‘None,’ said Beth, who wore Doc Martens with every outfit and in every season.

The talk made Jessie laugh, and when she got home she kicked off her everyday shoes and felt her footwear obsession go into the corner with them.

The night was filled with vivid dreams that faded as soon as the alarm woke her. She was stiff all over — probably too much booze. Dragging her eyelids open with the force of will, she saw, in the early morning light, something red by the closed wardrobe doors. Those shoes.

They stood together neatly, but when Jessie took a good look, she saw that they were scuffed again. Definitely too much booze. Definitely.

Polish the scuffs out again, put them away, promise not to drink so much in the future, and stop thinking about shoes.

She stayed in the following evening, feeling rather tired, watching five episodes of The Oracle, then going to bed and falling asleep right away. There were more dreams. When she woke, Jessie knew that she had been dreaming, but could not hold onto a single moment of it, and she felt more tired than the evening before. So it took her a while to notice that the shoes were out of the wardrobe again, and this time they were spattered with mud.

She stared them for a good long while, and the only explanation she could come up with was sleepwalking. Somehow, her mild obsession with the shoes had turned into a nightly expedition. She was getting up in her sleep, putting on the shoes, and from the mud on them this time it looked as though she was leaving the house. That was a terrifying thought.

People drove cars in their sleep, she’d heard of that, but where did she go in her pyjamas and red shoes?

By sheer good luck and persistence, Jessie managed to get an emergency appointment with her doctor. he was not wildly sympathetic, but she did get him to agree that she might be put in danger by her nocturnal activities. He prescribed some strong sleeping tablets, suggested putting an alarm on her front door that would be bound to wake her if she opened it, and referred her to a sleep clinic. The waiting time for an appointment was three months.

Before going to bed, Jessie put the red shoes downstairs in the kitchen cupboard, along with the saucepans. She had the stupidest feeling that, just before she closed the door on them, the shoes smiled and winked at her. Not possible. No eyes, no mouth, no winking, no smiling. Just another sign that she was suffering from stress, though she could not actually say that she felt stressed by anything other than the sleep walking.

The next morning the shoes were back in her bedroom.

Jessie stopped cleaning them and they became, day by day, more scuffed, muddy and worn on the soles. In desperation, she decided to try to stay awake the whole night. Coffee would do it. She was very sensitive to caffeine. Two cups, no sleep.

Sitting on the bed, watching the shoes, there came a peculiar moment. Something surged through her, and she was in the shoes, dancing out of the room. One look back and she saw herself sitting on the bed still, but she was leaving, too, wearing a red velvet dress. One, two, three steps and she and the shoes were out in the woods, which were all aglow with flying things, and people were dancing through the trees. They looked like people. They danced and she joined in. There was no choice, the shoes took her where they wanted. Someone with dark eyes and bright silver hair grasped her by the hand and they whirled and flew together through the night.

This time, she remembered it all in the morning.

It happened to be a Wednesday, and she was at the market early, shoes in hand. The cobbler’s stall was there and she marched right up to him, an angry tirade rising in her mind.

‘Hello,’ he said, smiling, ‘you’ve worn them out really fast, haven’t you? Need another pair?’

She did not quite know what to say anymore.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s been awful. What did you do to me?’

‘Really? I thought you were a party girl. My mistake. I don’t do refunds, but I can exchange them for you. Here, try these.’

He took the red shoes, and put a green pair into her hands.

‘No!’ she yelped. ‘I don’t want another pair of your cursed shoes!’

Jessie was looking right at him and his smile, but he was no longer there. She was standing in front of a fishmonger’s stall, shrieking and waving a pair of green shoes. Embarrassed, she turned away, noticing that these shoes were embroidered with dragons in glittering purple thread.

The shoes are in her bedroom, but she is afraid to try them on. They are tiptoeing their way into her heart, though, and she wonders where they will take her. Someday soon her feet will slip into them and she will find out.

Out of the Ordinary

Out of the Ordinary

Lucy bent to smell the scent of a rose, but was startled when a fairy leapt out of the flower. Oh. No, not a fairy, but a bee. The bee hung in the air in front of Lucy’s face as if it were wondering if she was a flower. Then, the moment of mutual misidentification over, it flew away.

‘Why did I think it was a fairy?’ Lucy asked herself. ‘What’s the matter with me?’

There had been something wrong for a while now. Things seen out of the corner her eye, strange things — an unexpected small person, and emerald snake rearing up, a cat in the corner of the room — but when she turned to look there was either nothing there at all, or only shadows, a twist of leaves, branches fluttering. Even so, she was left with an odd feeling that there had really been a presence until she turned her full attention to it.

That evening she was reading a rather dull book. Her mind, and then her eyes, wandered away from the text. As she was thinking of something else, she saw at the edge of her vision a large black spider detach itself from the printed words and begin to walk over the white page. Resisting the urge to scream and throw the book across the room, she watched the progress of the spider without looking directly at it.

It moved up the page, walked along a line of text, then settled down on one particular word, seeming to melt into the ink. Lucy looked to see what the word was.

Spider.

She put the book down and walked away from it. In the kitchen she poured herself a glass of wine and contemplated the idea that she was suffering the onset of schizophrenia or some other psychosis. Not liking the idea at all, she preferred to think that she had noticed the word, spider, on the next page and her unruly imagination had conjured up the hallucination of an actual spider for her.

So it went on. Day after day, improbable creatures appeared in the edges of her vision. Lucy stopped trying to look at them directly, instead observing by pretending not to notice them as they danced or loomed or lurked.

Then, a real cat turned up at her door. It was fearful at first, but she began to feed it and eventually it decided to move in with her, when she named it Henry, for no good reason, and began to think of it as a person, he.

The phantom cat shape appeared in her vision on evening as she sat watching TV with Henry. He noticed it, too. He sat up, flattened his ears against his skull and hissed right at the corner where the shadow cat sat. It vanished.

It was both comforting and disconcerting that Henry saw it. Comforting because it meant that she was not suffering from the onset of mental illness: Disconcerting because it meant that she was seeing things that were actually there.

The next time she mistook a bee for a fairy she looked at it straight on and said, ‘I know what you are.’ But it turned out that she did not. The creature dropped its bee disguise and she saw a peculiar twig-limbed winged creature. It buzzed angrily, gave her a small, but eye-watering smack on the nose, and flew away.

Henry had followed the whole encounter, and as the creature flew past him he leapt, like the predator he was, and caught the creature in mid air. He came to earth with it crumpled under his paws and leaned down, teeth bared.

‘No,’ said Lucy, ‘No, no.’

She prized Henry’s paws off his quarry and scooped it up. It looked like a collection of tiny sticks with a pair of transparent wings and a small, angry face.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and took it to the nearest tree where she laid it in the crook of a branch and watched until it recovered enough to fly away.

Lucy knew that if she kept on seeing these out of the ordinary beings, she would not be fit for normal society. People would notice, even if she never admitted a thing. So she refused to believe in their existence, even when Henry clearly saw them too. Gradually, with much practise, Lucy made them fade back into the usual world, to become shadows and nothing more. She was sad, but there really is no room for magical things in the everyday human world. Henry continued to chase shadows, but hardly ever caught them.

The Legend of the Mirror

The Legend of the Mirror

In the Shuckleigh Museum there is an exhibit labelled ‘Eve’s Mirror’. No-one seems to know where the name originated.

The object in question is a solid silver disc about twelve inches, or thirty centimetres, in diameter with a patterned rim and an elaborate twisted handle across it, terminating in stylised flowers. It is a mirror, but the plain polished surface faces away from the viewer in the museum for display purposes, or perhaps for other reasons.

It has the local reputation of being a fairy mirror, but the museum curators assure us that it is, in fact, Roman.

The first known record of this beautiful object in in the 15th century when it was in the possession of Eleanor Mosse, wife of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse.

Sir Thomas went away from his lands for two years and returned with a wife, Eleanor. By all accounts she was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, and she often wore green. She was tiny and most delicate looking, but with a fearsome glint in those dark eyes when she had cause for anger. The rumour spread that she was a fairy woman.

She brought with her a number of remarkable things which reinforced this idea, the mirror being prominent among them, and her pure white horse which only her own groom, himself an odd, taciturn fellow, was allowed to tend.

Having the reputation of fairy origins was probably an advantage to the lady. No-one would have been eager to anger her in any way, for then they would not only have had her to deal with, but also all of her kind.

Sir Thomas had a young niece, who came to stay in his household under the protection of his wife until the time came for her marriage. A rich baron had taken a great fancy to the girl, who was lovely in that pink-cheeked way of young girls, and the marriage was a significant step up for the Mosse family.

Eleanor showed every sign of fondness for the girl, and would allow her to sit in her rooms as she was dressed and her mirror was brought to her, covered in a silk cloth. The maid held up the mirror by the twisted handle and drew away the cloth so that only Eleanor could look into its reflective face. One day the girl asked to see herself in the mirror. Eleanor refused.

‘But why?’

‘The mirror tells only the truth, and the human is rare who can look upon the truth without harm. People must live in their lies in order to make life possible.’

The girl was indignant.

‘I do not live in lies! I want only the truth.’

‘That may be what you believe, but you are very young and have dreams and a world in your head that is not like the world that is.’

She put away the mirror and ceased to allow the girl into her rooms when she was dressing.

The girl was disappointed and angry, believing that she would see the truth of her own great beauty in the mirror, and that Eleanor did not want this. She kept her counsel and waited for an opportunity.

One day she was left unattended for a while, and Sir Thomas and Lady Eleanor were out riding. The girl took her chance and slipped into Eleanor’s chambers. Taking the mirror out from the box in which it was kept, she slipped off the silk cloth and gazed upon her own beautiful face in its reflective surface.

They found her there, the weight of the mirror dragging on her arms, her face haggard, eyes wide, unable to look away until the cloth was thrown over the mirror once again.

The girl spoke only nonsense afterwards, and she cried a great deal. when she was not crying or babbling, she fell silent and stared into the far distance at things only she could see.

She was quite unfit for marriage.

Sir Thomas was furious. He burst into his wife’s rooms and demanded the mirror.

‘It is not the fault of the mirror, but of the girl,’ the lady said, but Sir Thomas was in a high fury. He took the mirror, rode to the lake, and threw it in.

Eleanor called for her white horse and rode away from Sir Thomas’s house, along with her groom and the few things she had brought with her. When she did not soon return, Sir Thomas set off to find her. He came back five years later, a broken man.

He had the lake dragged and the mirror retrieved, polishing it clean himself. For the rest of his life, which was not long, he sat in his library staring into the mirror, weeping, and begging whatever he saw there to bring back his wife.

She never returned, for a fairy once offended can never forgive.

Sir Thomas’s line ended, and the mirror, boxed up safely and locked away, passed into the hands of his brother, and then down the generations until the last of the Mosse line donated it to the museum.

Did the curator who polished it for display wear a blindfold, or did they take a look at themselves and see the truth? The museum label does not say.

The image with this post is of the Wroxeter mirror, which is on display in Shrewsbury Museum. If you ever get a chance to visit this museum, I can recommend it highly.

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

One of the tales told of Sleetswood is that of the Old Lady. She must always be addressed as a lady, or she might take offence.

It is said that she lives in a house made of the bones of every animal that has ever died in the woods, and that includes people. It is also said that if you find her house then it will not be long before your whitened bones are added to its walls.

There are several explanations of who she is. One is that she is a witch, wrongly accused of blighting a farmer’s cattle and condemned to be burned, but the Devil himself came down and pulled her out of the flames, casting her into the woods where she remains to this day, bearing a fierce grudge against the rest of humanity. Especially men.

Others maintain that this is untrue, that no witches were ever burned in Shuckleigh. They say that the Old Lady is the spirit of the wood, one of the fairy folk left behind when the great forests were felled and her wood became an island surrounded by people. The wood is her home, her domain, and whoever strays into it is subject to her desires. She might leave you alone if the mood strikes her and you are attuned to the ways of the wood, but if you behave like a human – take without repaying, cast off your unwanted litter without thought, crash through the woods disturbing those who belong there – then she will make you pay.

There is one curious account from the 1920s of an encounter with the Old Lady.

A young man was visiting relatives in Shuckleigh, and having nothing to do one day, he went for a walk. The woods looked cool and inviting on a hot summer’s day, and, never having heard the stories, he decided to go in, looking for birds’ nests. In those days. collecting eggs from nests was considered a healthy hobby for a young person.

He climbed through the thorny undergrowth and began to wander about the woods, searching the trees for promising signs. After a while he found a few different eggs and stowed them carefully in a cotton-wool lined box he carried for the purpose in his knapsack.

Not long after his third or fourth depredation on the bird life of the woods, he became aware that there was someone else nearby. He heard a lovely song being sung, but could not make out the words. Following the sound, he soon found a sweet-looking old lady with long silver hair and old-fashioned green clothes sitting on a fallen tree trunk. She stopped singing and smiled at him.

He said hello and asked if she needed any help, because he was a well brought-up youth.

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘someone has stolen my eggs.’

Thinking she was talking about hens’ eggs, he sympathised with her and said how sorry he was to hear that.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you will be sorry.’

She stood up and stepped towards him, opening her mouth wide and letting out a wild and frightful scream. The young man should have been scared, but he was mesmerised by the strange scene, and she was only a tiny old lady. He stood there, wondering if she was perhaps a bit mad.

As she moved towards him, her mouth kept opening wider and wider. he could not quite believe what he was seeing. Closer and closer she got, and her mouth became a dark cave bearing down on him. Then he thought he saw in that cave darker creatures, with red eyes like hot coals, coming towards him.

He watched in puzzlement and fascination as the cave grew larger and nearer and the creatures within it approached and reached out for him.

All at once it occurred to him to be frightened. He still did not understand what he was seeing, but he understood that it was dangerous and that it was coming for him.

He screamed and ran, lashed by branches, slashed by brambles, but managing to break out of the wood at last.

He got away with his life and most of his sanity, but the Old Lady kept his knapsack and the stolen eggs.

A Note on the Reality of Fairies

A Note on the Reality of Fairies

It is said that the Fairy Folk used to be commonly seen in these parts. They were not the tiny, pretty bewinged creatures who danced through the addled Victorian imagination – that place where nature was defanged and submitted to the unnatural niceties of the new industrial age.

No, these Fairies were dangerous, quick to take offence and often deadly. They could give, but they were more likely to take away. Take your health, your spouse, your children, your sight, your life.

Cross them once and you would never have a chance to do it again, or even to make up for it – and it was not hard to cross them.

It was thought that they had lived in this land a long time before heavy, unmagical humans ever set foot here. Then we blundered into their world and took it away, shouldered them out, pushed them into corners and wastelands and tried to deny their existence.

Even so, everywhere there was a bit of wild, they persisted. If people kept them sweet, superstitiously leaving out the fairies’ share of the butter, the cream, the corn and the apples, then they left well alone. If they were forgotten or disrespected, they made the land wither, the cows dry up, the crops fail, and they crept into houses stealing away precious but intangible things.

They are beautiful, though, these wild, savage Fairies. Dressed in green, followed by enchanting strange music wherever they go (if they’re in a good mood), silver-eyed, dark-haired, golden-skinned.

If they discover that you have seen them, they will make you pay for the sight. Your sanity will be gone with the wind, and they might well curse you with the gift of poetry.

Some say they still live in those few lost places, where humans do not care to wander, but it is best not to go looking for them, unless you are prepared to pay the price.

Image: Titania by Arthur Rackham