The Red Shoes

by Sarah Beaudette


 
A train whistle wind blew through the tall Indiangrass and the bluestem bushes shone dull green under the harvest moon, bereft of their summer bouquets.
 
“The fire’s gone cold and the world’s so old…” Willa tried to finish the song, but she couldn’t hear herself over the wind. And her mouth—she wasn’t practiced at bidding it to shape words. From the trundle bed by the fire, Marie watched Willa with liquid eyes.
 
“Didn’t leave nobody but the baby…”
 
As she sang, Willa rubbed her unfamiliar hands together and Marie watched her, both mother and daughter mesmerized by the flame shadows that flapped over the hands like scraps of silk.
 
He was coming. She had to finish the lullaby before he left for Hell again.
 
Willa tried, but her voice was alien—rough and dark as smoked glass.
 
Marie propped herself up on her elbows. Willa wanted to cry at the outline of the tiny body in the nightdress—the precious body she knew like a Bible verse. Marie nodded, and Willa nodded, and Willa kept on trying to sing.
 
“Mama’s long gone without her red shoes on, don’t need no other loving, baby…”
 
The hoofbeats came first as a faraway rumbling on the long dirt road. They grew louder and louder until they dissolved into a great rushing, as if the Red Man were flying toward them on a winged juggernaut horse. Willa and Marie’s eyes met—to each it looked as if the fire flared orange in the other’s.
 
Three knocks sounded on the clapboard door. Willa hadn’t heard him land or walk, or rustle through the dry grasses as a normal man must have done, but he stood outside their door just the same. The Red Man.
 
“You’re a sweet little baby…”
 
Only one more line to make it final, but the words wouldn’t come. Willa froze, staring at the door.
 
She forced herself to pull the leather latchstring and leapt backward as the door fell open. The night breeze would have brushed her cheeks and the moonlight would have spilled onto the floor, but the breeze was overwhelmed by the sicksweet scent of rotting roses, and the moonlight skulked away from the Red Man’s heels, retreating into the dooryard.
 
His skin had no color—betimes he’d been known as the Black Man and other names besides, but he was no-colored, parchment flickering in light and shadow, rotting soda cake pocked with holes that began to stink. He wore dusty boots under buckskins and a cotton shirt. Willa couldn’t tell if he had wings, couldn’t tell if he was fat or thin or young or old. He could have been any man if it weren’t for his molten eyes and the storm of white hair blowing unnaturally around his head. The Indiangrass outside had fallen still when the first knock sounded.
 
“Thought you might run.” He stepped inside. A wicked grin skinned away from broken yellow teeth, reaching into the room’s corners and pulling the shadows into long crooked shapes. “Some sense in ye, I see.”
 
“We’ve a bargain,” Willa whispered.
 
He laughed. “Aye, witch.”
 
The Red Man hadn’t yet looked at the trundle bed, though all the room’s gravity bent around it. The way he stood said he owned it sure, had no need of looking just yet, and this selfsure arrogance jolted Willa just enough to remember the song’s last line.
 
“You and me and the Lord makes three—”
 
The Red Man spat loudly, and she couldn’t finish. She tried another tack.
 
“My first child died in the womb, Red Man. Our bargain’s settled, so hie away from my door.”
 
He laughed, a slow dry sound like a tree branch creaking under the weight of a man. “God took that baby. Don’t that beat all, witch? You parlayed with me for your life, and He took that babe before I had my due. Don’t that just beat all.” He laughed again, but his eyes slid to the girl in the trundle bed and then trawled slowly to Willa. “Now this un’s six seasons. And it’s mine.”
 
“And after this night I’ll ne’er see you again?”
 
“On’y in nightmares,” he croaked.
 
“...then I don’t need no other lovin’ baby,” When she said it as if it weren’t a song but the truth, she could finish.
 
Quickly, Willa bent down to embrace Marie. “Wear the red shoes,” mother whispered to daughter. “Wherever you go, wear the red shoes always.”
 
The daughter nodded. “Mama…”
 
“Enough.” The Red Man stomped. “I’ve other souls to tender.”
 
Marie bent to pull the shoes from under the bed, but the Red Man flew forward to enfold her. Then they were gone, the two of them dissolved, leaving nothing but the red shoes under the bed and two yellow tendrils of Hell that unfurled like smoke in the doorway.
 
Willa heard a great rushing outside, which could have been the beating of a winged horse with rolling eyes and lathered flanks and a red, gaping mouth. Or it could have just been the wind, which had begun to whistle again through the field. Willa wept, keening until her voice died and only gasps escaped her.
 
When the fire succumbed, the moon shone through the window and Willa flexed the hands that had been her mother’s hands, and whimpered in the voice that was her mother’s voice, and pulled the red shoes that had been her mother’s shoes onto the feet which had been her mother’s feet, carefully looping the thirteen buttons that climbed from the top of her foot to her calf.
 
As long as Willa kept those red shoes on those borrowed feet, she’d live, lonely but safe. She’d finished the switching spell just in time and donned her mother’s shoes to make it final. It was only an old lullaby, but every lullaby is a spell, Mama had said—mingled truths binding mother and child.


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