Dance Our Shoes to Pieces
"There once was a king who had twelve daughters, each more beautiful than the next. Their beds stood side by side, all in the same room, and after they went to bed the king locked and bolted the door. But in the morning when he opened the door, he saw that their shoes had been danced through…"
—Grimm's "The Shoes that Were Danced Through"
Once, we twelve sisters danced until our shoes wore through. Those days are over, our princes gone, our eldest sister off and married to the man who solved our riddle, put an end to our dancing. He came to us as all the other men came, overeager, salivating as we lent our hands for him to kiss. When he let them go, they smelled of wet dog spit. Still our father allowed him, as he allowed all men who accepted his challenge, to sleep in the room adjoining our bedchamber. We laughed to see the man at the head of our father's table, a feast before him the likes of which he had never tasted, for he was a poor soldier who limped as he walked and tore at strips of beef as if he were fighting to the death. We laughed to think that he would soon be no more than a head on the palace floor. We were meat to the men who came to win us, and so they were no more than meat to us.
But he was not like the others. We performed the same tricks: slipped the sleeping powder into his merlot, waited until his head lolled against his chair, and snuck unseen through the door below our eldest sister's bed into the other land. Our princes met us at the river of song. We danced until our shoes wore through. The second night we heard the trees shriek as we passed, the crack of a broken branch. The third night our youngest sister cried, each time I go to drink, my cup is empty!
The next day we expected the soldier's head, but he brandished three tree branches and a goblet and led our father to our beds and showed him the door beneath. He chose our eldest for his bride. Our father swore the soldier to secrecy, boarded the door, and forbid us from going there again.
Our father has always been unfair, full of admonitions, as kings so often are: don't speak to strangers, music makes the devil sing, there's no sin worse than the sin of vanity, except of course the sin of lust. He blackened our mirrors and forbade us from being beautiful.
There were twelve of us, you see, and now there are eleven, one of the beds empty and cold, and we wish a prince would fill it, for if a prince were to visit our chambers we would have someone with whom to dance. And if he would not, if he were like the spy who stole our sister, we would be ready. We would know the tricks this time, as we knew with the other foolish men whose souls now sing in the afterlife of our untouchable skin. Where our mother must be, dancing all she chooses with any number of princes.
We who have known another world cannot forget the land beneath the bed. We cannot forget the silver-leafed trees, the honeysuckle of real gold, the taste of which hummed on our tongues, the gondolas that ferried us on fog across the river of song, the princes who nightly met us at the docks, a brother for each sister, goldeneyed and eveninghaired. Atop our heads they placed garlands of ruby berry and rhinestone, which was kind but not necessary for our happiness. Our father calls us vain, but we have never cared for jewels. All we ask for is a prince with whom to dance our shoes to pieces.
Every evening after dancing we returned to our kingdom, to a father whose love was never large enough to stretch across twelve daughters. We knew we could not stay. We were loyal to our duties, and our father repaid us by giving our sister away, so that his love would no longer be forced to stretch so far.
Our princes had enough love for us. We remember the words they used to whisper. "You are beautiful," they said, "and you dance like angels."
"We are not allowed to see ourselves that way," we said.
"But you must know," they said, "that when you dance you shake our throats so the only words we utter are not words at all but prayers, for what god gave girls such beauty without pride, what god is so cruel to take such beauty from us as each new dawn appears?"
We did not speak in return, for the words which clogged our throats could never explain how we valued them not by jewels but by the weight of their hands on our hips, their lips against our ears, brushing the hairs we never knew were there, and of course the movements of their feet.
It has been weeks since we saw our princes. Our father took our shoes, but still he locks our door each night so that our room becomes a cage and we barefoot animals crooning in the dark. "You will be married," he says, "and what man would have a woman who cannot keep her soles from wearing thin."
Until one evening we found the courage to reply: "What sort of father forbids his daughters such simple pleasure as to dance?"
Our father's face burned beneath his crown. His servants, ash on their knees, quaked. They remember the failed spies' heads, the great thunk of separation from the body. Some of them say we are ruthless—how could we let men suffer so that our secrets might go undiscovered—but you must understand that in this land, in this palace, there is nothing worse than the absence of escape.
"Go to your chamber," father said, "and stay there until a man comes for you."
In our chamber, light filters through a single barred window. We take turns peeking through its glass. The view does not satisfy, for where are the trees whose branches, aflame with moonlight, carve our names like sparklers in the nothing black night? We are not weak women, we repeat to ourselves. After all it was we who slipped the potion of sleep into our suitors' glasses. We who smiled our way into their good graces so that they would not suspect our cunning. We will not be tamed without a way to let loose our wildness. Our feet jitter with unspent energy.
So this night we push the empty bed aside and run our fingers over the floor until we find the ridges of wood where our father boarded the door. We pry until our fingernails break. With bloody hands we claw the wood and wail.
"What's going on here?" the jester asks, breaking into the room. "What is this blood?"
"We have our monthly curses," we say. "We need assistance. We need hammers. An ax if you can procure one."
"What good is an ax for your curses?"
"We must complete the ritual or we shall not recover from the curse.”
"It is women's business, jester. We can explain, but we shall also have to demonstrate."
The jester's face contorts. "No, no, ladies, do not explain. I will ask His Majesty and return presently."
"No," we shout, "you cannot tell father! He has forbid us to speak of such things in his palace. Such matters are a woman's. If our present situation did not require, we would not involve you at all."
The jester pauses. "I should not like to make His Majesty unhappy." His bells jingle as he nods. "Very well."
The jester returns with an ax and hammer. Once the door latch clicks, we hack at the wood panel on the floor until our skin fills with splinters and the wood gives way to a passage. We do not dress, for we fear our jester will at any moment fling open the door and catch us in our heathenry, for what is escaping but worshipping the idols of another world? We descend into the damp earth smell. Even bloodied and sore, we are ready to dance.
At the other end of the tunnel shines a path of glinting sand, to either side of it a grove of tinkling silver suspended on branches of the smoothest white bark. With each step the sand lights the shape of our feet. After a while the trees change to glittering gold under the always-full moon. The tree barks are ridged and thick like the oil of the paintings that line the palace walls.
When we hear the river's hiss, we run to meet our princes. We stand on the bank and peer in. In a river of song you do not see your face but rather hear the music of your beauty, each face an instrument. The melody is usually so lovely soft we sisters cannot help but dance until our princes arrive, but this time the river screeches, and our reflections show our blurry faces red, all red. We look down at our bodies. Splinters stick out like pins in a cushion.
"No matter," we say, looking away from the river. "Our princes will make things right again." But when daylight comes, our princes still have not arrived. "The princes must not have known we were coming," we say. "We will swim to the palace and surprise them. They will be so pleased."
We dive into the song fog. It stings our open wounds. Once we reach the other side, we pull ourselves out and lie panting like dachshunds in the grass. Fleas nibble at our skin until we are forced to stand and take our chances on the path alone. Once upon a time we walked these paths hand in hand with princes. They pulled us tight to their sides and told us of the terrible lurking things in the woods. Walking alone feels wrong. We nearly trip over a fallen trunk at the edge of the final forest.
The fallen tree before us is crystal with leaves of diamond, and we try not to call out in agony, as the forest before us, our favorite forest, is littered with these fallen trees, their crystal tops shattered. The path is paved in shards of glass.
We pause, for we cannot walk farther on bare feet. In the distance we hear the crack of another tree fallen. Our youngest doesn't like the noise, and who are we to let her frighten? We tell her it's nothing but wind and nerves.
But she has been right before.
We search the shattered glass, the severed grass, for something to strap to our feet. We gather gold leaves that have traveled on the bottoms of shoes. Attached to the leaves is a thick bark. We gather all we can fit in our arms and pile it together. We strip the gold from the bark. We tear off pieces of our dresses, hold the bark against the bottoms of our feet, wrap the cloth around, and tie it at the top. We only find eleven pieces large enough, so that each of us can cover one foot.
With our single shoes, we crawl over the first fallen trunk and hop down the glassy path. Our balance is good but still we stumble, land on our bare feet, even once or twice fall hands first into the crystal gravel. Glass shards wedge into our palms. We try to pick them out as we go, but there is not enough time; we must make it to the palace by night, for without our princes to protect us the lurking things will surely come.
We arrive at a giant iron gate adorned with the corpses of red roses. Vines have crept across the handle, and we cannot open it without pricking our injured hands. We sit. You may think dirt which shimmers as you step would not stain, but dirt is always dirt, a lesson we learn as we inspect the fabrics of our dresses.
Through the iron gate we hear the faint trickle of the pond. We have known that pond from evenings past when beside it we kissed our princes and wished with them that the night would never end. Now we find we must suffer, perhaps, we think, because they begrudge us our disappearance. Perhaps they sit in their palace now, before fires of ice, their hearts as still as the flame. This could be our trial, for if one half of love suffers, should not the other half suffer as much, so that no side may hold the other in contempt? We decide we will open the gate, give a gift of our suffering, let ourselves be bit by thorns. But the gate is locked, and now our hands are prickled with the rose's defense. We try to pick the lock with sticks, wood and crystal, even the stiff chain of our necklaces. With each attempt the lock spits our makeshift keys in the dirt. We pluck a thorn from our palm and shove it into the lock. The lock chomps down on the thorn and the finger that holds it, and when it lets go our sister's finger displays a row of tiny tooth marks. The gate creaks open.
We hobble through the gardens along a path of pure white sand, lined with hedges shaped as birds of prey with wings like the fins of whales. The trees are made of wood and four-pronged green leaves. In their simplicity they are stunning, but no more so than the palace that looms as a backdrop, its pillared porch wide enough for twelve princes and princesses to stand side by side and walk through the thick glass door all at once as a many-legged beast making its entrance to a grand hall but finding upon arrival that it is alone, so it breaks apart into twelve pairs of four-legged creatures to beat the loneliness, and once those four-legged beasts break apart they find they long for nothing more than to meld themselves in sweat and shadow back together; they dance to push their skins as close as they may go. It is here, looking to the grand glass and ivory palace, still far in the distance, that we realize we have not thought of dancing since we arrived. Strange, that our whole reason for being here has slipped from us in the wake of terrible truths. We look from brutal face to brutal face and try to laugh the realization away but we cannot let it go.
It is, we decide, because we are not dressed for dancing. We must bathe and clothe ourselves in gowns and shoes, but since we have not gowns or shoes—the palace will supply us these finer things—we make our way to the pond and climb into the water so cold our nipples come to points like those at the edge of a spear. We rip the rags from our bodies and let them float away on the ripples. We pick the glass and thorns and splinters from our hands and feet. The water reddens. We splash the red water across each other's backs and rub dirt from our faces. We comb our hair with our fingers and clean our teeth with sand. The wrinkled curtain of night has once more fallen, and the moon showers us with light, and every breath we take feels like a breath of freedom. When we emerge from the water, the air on our bare skin is better than any embrace.
We walk naked through the hedges to the front of the palace and push open the glass door. We have had enough of waiting. On the glass our handprints remain, twenty-two palms now facing us, ghosts of touch.
The palace is empty, upon the floor a film of ash thick as carpet. The portraits on the walls, once gold-framed faces of knights and kings, have now fused to the wallpaper: a gallery of distorted faces, lopsided smiles dripping to the floor and collecting there like wax. There is one piece of furniture left, the dining table, and even its legs are deteriorating so that the table leans on its side. Upon it the goblets with which we once drank wine are arranged in a line.
As we clamor through the dust, it kicks up onto us, and though the dust forms a gown on our skin we search out the location of the winding stair that leads to our dressing room. When we find it we ascend single file, for though it still stands it no longer stands as firmly, and we fear that too much weight will bring it crashing and annihilate any link we have to the upstairs, where male eyes could never peek, where we have always been just us sisters.
The upstairs too is all ash and cobwebs in our path. We are struck in our dressing room with the smell of rot and mold. The door crumbles in our hands. The mirrors still stand. We rush to the closet, our hands instinctively groping the musty dark but closing in on nothing. We kneel and let our hands roam the dust. We pull a single pile of gold silk from the depths of the closet. It is all we find. Silver moths spring from the folds and float on the stale air. We shake the dust from the fabric. The dress was hers, and it hangs lifeless and deflated without our eldest sister's body to fill it.
We hold it out and peer at ourselves in the mirrors. There at the end of our line hangs our sister's dress, mangled, forgotten, and through the mirror we see, in a specter, her body fill it, her hands held out before her as though she is reaching through her world and into ours. Her ring glints in the moon, and her skin is all ash, except her lips, which are stretched into a crown-shaped smile.
We drag the dress behind us as we stumble from the palace, tripping on our feet which now, of all times, have a mind to dance. But this, this is no time for dancing. We want only to gulp the crisp air again, for this dust has coated our hearts, and we have never felt so ugly in all our days.
The sound of our heavy breath gives way to the crack of a branch, the thump of footsteps. When we look up from the ground, we see a shape, a beast but not a beast, for it resembles a man too, hunched, his back no more than a hump of flesh, his feet huge, hairy, his hands with claws like carving knives lying flaccid in the dirt beside him. His face is human except for the row of hundreds of crooked teeth all crammed into one mouth. His eyes bear a look of surprised recognition. He gazes at us, and knows us, and we don't think we could be more startled until he points with one long finger at the dress and moans.
Even scared, we are curious. We feel as if he is somehow safe, as if we have seen him before. His claw snags the dress, for his arms are long enough to reach us, and he pulls it from our grasp, lets it fall in the dirt, sniffs it. Moans again.
Our youngest kneels. She holds out her palm, its surface marred like a map charred by fire, and in a way it is a map, her life line, her fortune, disrupted by lines of crusted blood. The beast nuzzles his jaw against her. He lifts his head and nudges the broken dress.
"She's gone," our sister says. "Given to a man who can never love her like we love her."
His third moan stretches out like a song.
"The princes?" the youngest says. "He says the princes' spell has ended, says they have turned back, left this palace which does not belong to them, says they will not be princes again." She presses her ear to his mouth and lets the sound enter her body in a shiver. "He misses her," she says. "He wishes she had not gone. He wishes she were here to dance once more."
Though we have wept so much already, we do not dare weep. Instead we hold our heads, close our eyes, think of our princes as they once were, beneath the spell of this land gone like our sister, and we try not to imagine the hands in which they once held us as these new hands, claws and all.
The distant notes of wind through the crystal trees creeps up on us. Our feet tap of their own volition. In our veins the melody moves like sorrow, like blood. We clasp hands, all eleven of us sisters, break into pairs of four-legged beasts and wrap our arms around each other. The only one left alone is the youngest. She lifts the fallen prince's paw, drapes it over her shoulder, and leads the beast in a waltz fit for royalty.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Interzone. She lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program and curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, profiled in the March/April 2014 issue of Poets & Writers.