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If the Shoe Fits

At the beginning of the year, I resolved to write one short story a month. It was the minimal amount of work I felt I could do and still call myself a writer. To inspire me, I used prompts from various writers’ forums and entered competitions. My work If the Shoe Fits ended up winning  the Conflux Short Story competition.

https://conflux.org.au/

Conflux is a annual convention for speculative fiction writers, readers and fans organised by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. The theme for the competition was Blood, Gold, Lies. My work If the Shoe Fits was first published for the convention magazine. A big thank you to Conflux for your fantastic work organising the conference and for allowing me to re-publish the work on my website.

 

If The Shoe Fits

The message appeared at midnight. For sale. One glass slipper. Good condition (small rust stain on the inside of heel). Worn once. Price on request.

I inhaled sharply and looked up from my laptop. The waitress behind the cafe counter stood up hopefully; I signalled for another coffee. She stifled a yawn as she ground more beans and frothed the milk.

‘You finishing up soon?’ She set the fresh mug carefully beside my laptop.

‘Almost.’ I’d half lowered my laptop screen even though she was already looking at the couple to my left, a smug pair of lovers wrapped around each other; their soy chai lattes sat untouched.

Of course, she could be feigning a lack of interest but I waited until she’d resumed her post behind the counter before studying the ad. The user ID read The Footman. They had no sales history although Ebay had curated a list of related items. Twelve satin slippers (worn soles). A pair of red ballet shoes (perfect for dancing). Traveller’s boots (To go the extra mile).

I ran my hand through my cropped hair. I’d shaved it a while ago and the re-growth felt like freshly mown grass beneath my hand. ‘Keep calm,’ I muttered.

This could be a false alarm. As a professional fairy tale relic collector, I came across a lot of well-meaning amateurs who wouldn’t know the real artefact from the counterfeit. There was also the possibility that I was dealing with a foot or amputee fetishist who had no idea of the treasure they had stumbled upon. I could gain the most sought after shoe in fairy lore for the price of a foot job!

My fingers flew over the keyboard. Hi Footman. Your advertisement tickled my fancy. At this moment, I am lying in bed looking at your photo, my silk stocking slightly moist (I say stocking as I only have one foot). Please let me know the price to handle your slipper.  Sincerely Charlotte Rose

Was it over the top? Reading had been my forte at school, not flirting. I considered sending a draft to my sister Kat who was a fellow collector. Then again, she might go behind my back and try to outbid me. I perused my reply again, removed the bold text and hit the send button. My coffee was getting cold but I refreshed the page once…twice… three times. The number of views went up. Nothing else changed.

*

The stench of fetid cheese woke me. I buried my face in the pillow but it was useless. I must have forgotten to open the window last night. I rolled out of bed and stumbled over to my dresser where a wooden tub sat innocuously next to a trail of make-up powder and used tissues.

I dry retched as I slid back the lid on the tub and was hit with a wave of rancid goat whey. On the window sill, my Rapunzel saplings seemed to stretch their scrawny stems toward me as if sensing their meal. I’d paid a high price for these heirloom Rapunzel seeds from the eponymous tale but it was worth it. They ate only fetid goat’s cheese for the first six months of their lives. My apartment stank but I never complained, not even silently to myself. You’ve got to prove your worth for fairy tale relics to work and mature Rapunzel plants can restore youth and fertility.

It took all morning to care for my bitter greens; when I finally logged on to the Fairy Ring, everyone was talking about the advertisement.

‘Does the Footman have the pair or is it just the one slipper?’  GooseGirl21 asked. She was a bit of a celebrity on account of her owning the relic Falada’s head. Her profile pic showed a striking, Asian woman posed next to the taxidermied horse’s head. I got the chills every time I saw the bits of white mane caked with dried blood.

‘It’s just the right slipper. He’s a German collector from the Schultz family. He’s got a certificate of authenticity.’ ThumbelinasThimble replied.

‘The left slipper disappeared twenty years ago,’ I added helpfully, and immediately felt a flutter in my stomach when GooseGirl21 upvoted my comment. I was halfway through reading the thread when I received notification of a message.

Hi Charlotte Rose

Thanks for getting in touch. It’s always great to meet a fellow fairy-tale enthusiast. As you can imagine, I have been besieged by requests. Cinderella’s slipper imbues its owner with grace and charm and would be life changing for the right person. I would like to offer you the opportunity to bid on the item in the next 24 hours but, please note, starting price is $10 000. I look forward to receiving your offer.

Kind regards, The Footman

Inexplicably, the grandfather clock in the hallway ticked louder. There was no point logging into my bank account. I was broke. I’d sold my car as partial payment for the Rapunzel seeds. Perhaps I could sell one of my relics. I jumped onto eBay and typed fairy tale relic into the search bar. There were over nine pages of minor artefacts. A ribbon from Briar Rose’s collection. A calcified hairball from the Beast. Nine sellers claimed to own the dehydrated pea (the one that made the Princess’s mattress lumpy). I rolled my eyes. There were so many shonky dealers out there. In such a flooded market, even my Rapunzel saplings wouldn’t fetch a high price. Fairytale botanicus weren’t highly valued because their effects were considered medicinal, not magical.

If only I could borrow an item from Kat’s collection. My fingers twitched as I thought of her faerie grimoire bound in antique leather with a bronze medallion on the cover. That would fetch a couple of thousand easily. Or her soiled bed sheet from Bluebeard’s thirteenth wedding night. Or her Emperor’s new silk pyjamas (I am yet to see it but I’ve boasted about it to the rest of the ring, basking in the reflected glory). My hand was poised at my cheek, caressing an imaginary piece of silk fabric against my skin when the phone rang.

It was Kat. Sisters always know when the other has intentions to pilfer their property.

‘Are you planning on bidding on the slipper?’ she asked. I considered feigning ignorance but she was using her sensible older-sister voice. She knew this annoyed me because she was younger than me by several years.

‘Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford it. The starting ask is ten grand.’

‘That’s too bad.’ Kat switched back to her normal voice, nasally like she was on the verge of a cold.

‘You could at least sound sympathetic,’ I snapped. ‘I suppose you’ve already put in your bid?’

‘I told you before. I’ve stopped collecting!’ Now, she sounded annoyed.

‘Well, I guess I didn’t believe you. Why?’

There was a pause on the other end. ‘Because it’s gotten out of control. I’ve been chatting to Marie—’

‘Who?’ I interrupted snidely.

‘Our sister!’

‘Oh, you mean our stepsister.’

‘Hold on a second.’ In the background, I heard her blowing her nose. She really must have a cold. That was why she was calling me on a work day. She was probably at home right now wearing some lacy negligee, wrapped up in Bluebeard’s bloodstained bed sheet. ‘Look, I admit I was as gung-ho as you were about the whole fairy tale relic collecting thing when we were teenagers. Remember that time the museum got in the collection from The Grimm Society and mum wouldn’t let us go?’

‘You slipped the security guard a fifty and we went after hours!’ I reminisced, ‘The charred remains of the witch were gruesome—’

‘My point is that we went too far,’ Kat interrupted hastily. ‘It’s what all young people do but you gave fairy tales too much power. They’re not meant to be taken literally. They’re more like… metaphors for life but you have to get real and start living your own.’

‘So when did you and Marie become so friendly?’ I changed the subject abruptly. I tried not to think about my stepsister. She was lifted straight from a fairy tale. She floated instead of walked. She slept with her mouth slightly open, a pout on her lips as if she was expecting true love’s kiss. I know because we shared a bedroom for years and I often watched her sleep. She had a laugh like clear, pure silver bells so every day was goddamn Christmas.

‘She’s been helping me sell my collection. Marie is an art historian. She knows a lot of rich people interested in antiques.’

‘But relics are divine, not antiques! What about,’ I lowered my voice even though I was home alone, ‘What about their magical powers?’

‘Charlotte, grow up. Think of all the money we’ve wasted over the years chasing relics when we should’ve just enjoyed being young.’

Her comment stung and I was glad to make up an excuse to end the conversation. My Rapunzels were heat sensitive and had to be kept exactly at 27 degrees. I covered their beds with a special insulation blanket and measured their temperature every two hours. Kat never had my level of commitment.

*

Hi Footman

It’s good to know you’re a fellow fairy-tale collector and not a foot fetishist! I have not written before now as I have been seriously considering what to offer. No amount of money can equal the true value of Cinderella’s slipper. I propose an exchange. I have in my possession Bluebeard’s original marital bed sheet from his 13th (and final) wedding. This relic has been in my family for generations and brings the holder virility as well as dreamless slumber. A worthy exchange for Cinderella’s slipper, I think.

Regards

Charlotte Rose.

I didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, I walked to Kat’s apartment even though we hadn’t made any plans to meet. It took almost an hour but I had no choice. I’d sold my car as part of the payment for the Rapunzel seeds. It didn’t occur to me to ring first, perhaps because, in the back of my mind, I knew it would be better if she wasn’t home.

As I cut across the communal car park of her apartment complex, I spotted her cute Mazda with the number plate BLUEFAIRY1. And when I finally caught my breath and rang the doorbell, there were muffled tones on the other side.

Finally, Kat answered the door and gaped at me. ‘Charlotte Rose! What did you do to your hair?’

I blushed and ran my hand over my cropped head. In my haste, I’d forgotten to cover it with a cap. ‘I shaved it to raise money for cancer.’ The lie rolled easily off my tongue.

She chivvied me into the living room where my stepsister or perhaps an enchanted swan reclined on the chaise, looking ethereal in a white, lacy dress with a silky plume for a collar.

‘Hello Charlotte Rose.’ She smiled, showing her pretty, even-sized teeth. ‘Love your hair.’

‘Hi,’ I mumbled and sat on the edge of the sofa, as far away from her as possible without leaving the room. ‘How’s Jonathan?’

Marie’s screwed up her perfect features. ’Who?’

‘Jonathan! Your boyfriend!’

Kat put one hand on my shoulder. It would have been placating had she not dug her nails in. ‘Marie only went out with Jonathan on one date when she was eighteen. She hasn’t seen him in years.’

‘You’re so funny, Charlotte.’ Marie laughed as if I really was quaint as a button. ‘Why would you suddenly bring him up?’

And even though it’s been years since high school, she’s still got the same innocent look. Her eyes are the turquoise of a glacial lake, you can see all the way to the bottom. Her snow white complexion was once used by an artist as the template for a Photoshop filter. And through her sparkly sandals, I caught glimpses of her size four feet, pink and tiny like a fairy’s. Kat nudged me and I realised I’d been staring at Marie for the past minute. It was rumoured that ThumberlinasThimble owned the Wicked Witch of The West’s pointer finger. If you waved it at your enemy, you could curse them with warts and not only the type that grew on the face. I wondered if I could borrow it.

Kat cleared her throat, ‘So, Marie’s found a buyer for Bluebeard’s bed sheet—’

‘I still need to consult my colleague but the exquisite embroidery on the linen appears to be a unique Basilian pattern from 17th century France which makes it practically priceless,’ Marie beamed.

‘And it also blesses the owner with virility and peaceful slumber.’ I added.

‘This fairy tale stuff is getting out of hand,’ Kat snapped.

‘Fairy tale stuff!’ I exploded. ‘Who’s the one who still sleeps in Bluebeard’s bed sheet?’

‘That’s because it’s made from a hundred percent flax and its super soft!’ Kat shook her head and sighed. ‘We’re really worried. You don’t have a job. You hardly leave the house. You’re off with the fairies.’

To be fair, it must have seemed that I was going ga-ga to my sisters. I was very careful to preserve my divine calling. They would have been shocked if they knew how much I sacrificed to caring for my relics. It wasn’t just living in an apartment that smelled of rancid cheese. I’d bought the Rapunzel seeds from ThumbelinasThimble. We met up at a public library to make the exchange. To my surprise, ThumbelinasThimble was a young man, only a few years older than myself although I towered over him by at least a head. He was drawn in pastel — soft features that looked like they could be smudged out. When he removed his green liberty cap, he was completely bald.

He caught my surprised expression. ‘It’s because of my Rapunzel crop. You gotta keep your head shaved. Otherwise, soon as they turn to saplings, they’re strong enough to pull out your hair, braid a rope and strangle you in your sleep. Twisted, bitter greens.’

He looked earnest and showed me some of his favourite scars on his arms and legs from tending the tendrils. Most buyers would have walked away but not me. Some relics required you to prove your worth. I couldn’t expect Kat to understand this but I still didn’t like the way Marie and Kat exchanged a look. For a moment, they were the real sisters and I was the imposter.

‘You two are so wicked!’ I stood up, intending to storm out of the house, but then remembered I hadn’t done what I had set out to do. ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’

I retreated upstairs and sat on the laundry hamper for a few minutes, before padding down the hallway. Kat and Marie were speaking in low solicitous tones from the lounge room.

‘…being too harsh?’ Kat murmured.

‘It’s for the best… head’s in the clouds all day long.’

‘…and you really think your buyer’s keen to pay that amount?’

‘We could ask for gold nuggets and she’d pay it. She’s an embroidery consultant and academic from the University of Manchester.’

I hurried into Kat’s bedroom where Bluebeard’s sheet was spread over her four-poster bed. I never understood how she dared to lie in it. If it was mine, I would have locked it up in a shrine. I deftly stripped the bed and stuffed the sheet into my backpack. Without saying goodbye to my sisters, I ran out the door. Hopefully by the time Kat caught up with me, Cinderella’s slipper would be mine.

*

Hi Charlotte Rose.

You have my attention. I like a virile girl who isn’t afraid of messing up the bed sheets. At the moment, the auction is tied between three bidders. I propose that we all meet so that I can properly appraise your offer (and in return, you can examine the slipper). I have set the meeting for midnight in the heart of Darwin’s Dungeon.

Regards, The Footman

A dungeon may sound like the perfect location for clandestine fairy tale activity but it was actually an abandoned quarry. A long time ago, the mega-company Darwin Tech mined lead in the ranges but the pollution leached lead to the town settlement. Eventually, the mining company abandoned the quarry but stories about the haunted mines circulated. As I stood in the quarry listening to the wind howl through the open mine shaft and cave system, I wondered how painful it would be to die from lead poisoning. I gathered Bluebeard’s bed sheet to my chest and giggled as the ill-fated bride must have done on her wedding night.

With the torch held in front of me, I stepped into the winding passageway that led into the caves. Some sections of the cave floor were flat and easy to pass through but the path disintegrated the deeper I went. As I made my final descent, my sneakers scrambled to cling to loose scree and my fingers clawed at rock crevices. The entrance into the dungeon’s heart was nothing more than a fissure in the wall. I had to turn sideways to squeeze between the two rock faces.

On the other side, there was an underground lake, a vivid shade of green. Perhaps it’d been brooding far too long for sunlight and other unattainable things. I refolded the bed sheet and laid it carefully onto a boulder.

‘Charlotte Rose! How lovely to meet you in person.’

How had he managed to get through the gap so silently? The Footman grinned and touched his hand to his head, as if he was doffing an invisible top hat.  He had very thin lips that practically disappeared when he spoke so it looked like he was grimacing. His eyes lit up when he spotted the bed sheet. He took two steps forward but I whipped it behind my back. ‘Show me yours and I’ll show mine.’

‘You don’t trust me.’ He sighed dramatically, rummaged in his Driza-bone coat and brought out a fancy, wooden box inlaid with ivory. He made a show of taking a key out of his pocket and unlocking the box. He was a magician building a trick, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. When the glass slipper finally appeared in his palm, I let out a small gasp of surprise.

The Footman grinned. He spun me around and lowered me onto a flattish rock that was smooth as a tortoise shell. He kneeled with a flourish. ‘May I?’

I think I nodded but he had already unlaced my smelly sneaker and was wiping down my foot with a silk handkerchief.

‘You have very dainty feet, my dear. May I ask, what size are your feet?’

‘Um… Size six.’

He nodded but didn’t reply. I noticed his shoulders sagged ever so slightly as he reached for the slipper.

‘I mean, it really depends on the shoe and the time of day, doesn’t it? If I’ve been walking around all day, I can barely fit into my sneakers. But first thing in the morning, I could easily fit into a five.’

The Footman looked dubious as he held the slim slipper in his right hand; he extended his other palm to gauge my foot size.

I curled my toes under and begged, ‘Let me at least try it on.’

The Footman took a step back. ‘I’m sorry. I already have two interested buyers waiting outside. And one of them has a perfect size four foot.’

The Footman wiped the moisture from his disappearing lip line. At that moment, I knew that relic hunting and foot fetishes were not mutually exclusive things. Suddenly, I got an image of Marie sitting daintily on a stone slab in her feathery gown, one leg crossed over the other, her heel peeping out of her sparkly sandal as she swung her size four foot back and forth.

The revelation hit like a clock striking midnight. Kat’s apparent disinterest in collecting fairy tale artefacts. Marie lining up potential buyers for her relics. They were here! I could sense them through the stone walls.

I could almost hear Kat asking, ‘Do you think we should have lied to Charlotte Rose?’ There’d be a hitch in her voice, because she would never set out to deliberately hurt me but Kat was a follower. And Marie was persuasive in her honey voice. She was probably rubbing Kat’s arm consolingly, ‘The shoe is authentic Venetian glass from the artisan Paolo Lotto. Do you know how much its worth?’

The Footman glanced towards the entrance, ‘I’ll bring in the other prospective buyers.’

As soon as he squeezed through the gap, I snatched up the shoe. There were no joints, seams or stitching. It looked as if it had been carved from a single slab of glass. A myriad of facets reflected the green of the lake, or perhaps it was the colour of my heart. I couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

I lowered my foot into the shoe—it felt better than slipping on a pair of Ugg boots at the end of the day. This was bliss – until my toe rammed up against the pointed cap. I wriggled my toes around and tried again and again. My heel hung out by about two or three centimetres. I took off the shoe and examined it all over. The smooth surface, the blood stain on the heel. The previous owner evidently had oversized feet but was still worthy of the shoe. The relic was testing my mettle. When babies first learn to walk, they don’t use their heels. When Achilles went into battle, it was an arrow in his heel that caused his demise.

Footsteps approached the entrance. The Footman said something in a low, amused voice and someone chuckled in response. A girlish feminine sound distorted by the chamber. I couldn’t work out if it was Kat or Marie but I felt a surge of anger. All I ever do is lose.

I dipped my hands into the green lake, letting my fingers shift through the sand. The icy water numbed the tips of my fingers so I didn’t feel the tiny cut at first. It took a second to spot the shining, black stone, looking innocent with its smooth flat side that fit snugly in the palm of my hand but when I turned it over, I could see its razor sharp edge. Perfect. Kat would be so sorry that she chose Marie.

Oh. So you can draw blood from a stone. Quite a lot, it turned out. I stared numbly at my fist which was clutching the piece of flesh. Funny how once it parted from the body, it looked more like meat, raw and messy. The wetness was spreading, wrapping around my fingers, running in rivulets down my forearm, dripping onto the slipper. And then the pain registered, a dull ache at first that quickly escalated into a raw beat, pulsing and pounding in my head, screaming in my ear.

‘What have you done?’ The Footman shrieked. He took a couple of steps forward and recoiled. Through the pain, I noticed two people flanking him. One was a delicate, bald man with soft dreamy features, and the other an elegant Asian woman. ThumbelinasThimble and GooseGirl21! I was momentarily confused. Where were Kat and Marie?

My audience stared at me, mouths hanging open.

‘A perfect fit,’ I stood up slowly, taking the weight on my good leg. I pointed my amputated foot in their direction. Blood was pooling around the heel. Instead of tainting the glass, it only made my foot sparkle like rubies.

At last, I was truly worthy.

 

2017-10-09T12:24:52+00:00

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