Once upon a time, an old woman lived in a shoe. She had so many children that she didn’t know what to do. How an elderly dame beyond childbearing age acquired so many younglings when residing in a boot is a story for another day. Perhaps we might technically call it a cautionary tale.
The rhyme next informed us that the poor, beleaguered caretaker fed her foundlings some broth without bread and sent them to bed. (Note: broth is even thinner than gruel, which is in turn poor man’s porridge).
Dear reader: have you ever seen a hungry child fall asleep without whinging incessantly? Or, for that matter, even a fully fed child? Perhaps we should revise that line to say that the aged lady ‘tried’ to send them to bed. Except that the stanza no longer scans correctly due to the additional syllables. Phooey. Either way, this is where our yarn departs from the traditional narrative.
Driven to distraction by the sniveling and lack of (blissfully quiet) snoozing children, the long-lived and long-suffering matriarch decided to visit her sister to ask for advice. Because she obviously wouldn’t have any peaceful reading time after bedtime that night anyway. Oh… you didn’t know she had a sister? Just because she had all custody of all those children, you assumed she had no other family? That’s a little presumptuous and over-familiar, isn’t it?
Over their horrified objections, our heroine set the four oldest children (each a full fifteen or sixteen years old) in charge of the others for the remainder of the night and departed her leathery abode for the shadowy and silent woods. A pleasant breeze stirred the evening air, accompanied by the droning hum of crickets and the sporadic vocalizations of a particular vociferously opinionated owl.
Such a harmonious change from constantly complaining human chicks, she thought. At least it will be a challenge for the mob to set fire to the shoe in my absence. Boot-leather has its uses.
Briefly, she considered abandoning her errand altogether and absconding for the nearest market-town to escape her weighty responsibilities. Surely it would be far simpler to feed one mouth than eleven… sixteen… twenty… well, however many mouths it was that occupied her footwear residence. Yet she rapidly and reluctantly acknowledged the unseemliness of her speculation; rather than a flighty milkmaid of nineteen years, she was a mature widow with sixty-four winters behind her. She was supposed to be above such frivolity.
Perhaps another venerable matron might have shrunk from entering the poorly illuminated woods where many dangerous fables and mythological beasts (and perhaps a jabberwocky or two) undoubtedly lived on a moon-dark night. Yet, as our story is set in the land of fairy-tales, it so happens that the lady’s older sister was a witch. A very dangerous witch. In fact, let us acknowledge that the witch owned a cottage constructed of candy, cake, and other sweets, and that she subsisted primarily on a diet of small children who strayed into the forest.
As all denizens of fairy-tale land who survive for more than a few decades have at least a passing acquaintance with the origin stories of their fellow residents, none of the other inhabitants of the forest would consider interfering with the shoekeeper due to her blood-relationship with the witch. Particularly after what happened to the last set of pigeons that dared to nibble on the witch’s cottage’s gingerbread shutters…
Thus, the bold beldame resolutely set her feet on the thicket-overgrown path that led into the very depths of the woods. Even if my sister fails to provide any useful advice, at least I’ll have a night free of bellyaching bairns, she shrugged.
As she penetrated into the dark heart of the forest, vines slithered serpentinely down tree trunks and groped towards her as if they had eyes and intelligence, winding ominously about her left ankle and tugging tentatively. Dead leaves and branches drenched in dew crunched underfoot, rendering her footing treacherous.
“Cease and desist!” she barked. “My patience grows slim tonight. You know who I am. Having ventured forth in search of my sister’s wise counsel, I shall not be dissuaded by unnaturally animated vegetation. In fact, I could use some greens in my diet these days. Broth and gruel grow tedious quite rapidly.”
The vines promptly recoiled.
Out of nowhere, as if rising from the very dirt beneath her feet, an indistinct figure appeared before her. Valiantly, she suppressed a startled jump. In the distance, as she peered between ominously gnarled trees, she could just make out the outlines of the witch’s cottage. Now that she concentrated, she could also smell the same aroma of densely concentrated sugar that surrounded a bakery in the early morning hours. The shadow-shrouded individual stepped toward her.
“Bertha,” gushed the witch with outstretched arms, as if they had not seen each other for ten years, rather than having drank tea together last Tuesday. “I am delighted to see you. What urgent errand carries you into my woods this late on a moonless night?”
“Giselle,” she… or, rather, I answered. Surely you have guessed by now, dear reader!
My sister’s body felt comfortably soft and pillow-like in my arms. She’d clearly eaten heavily and recently. I hoped that meant there were no children currently caged in her hut; I could never fully suppress a feeling of helpless guilt during my visits when one was present. Their whimpering sobs made my crumpets taste oddly sour and my tea unnaturally salty. Yet I did not wish to starve my sister. “I wish your counsel on an important matter,” I continued, ending our embrace reluctantly.
“Is this an official or unofficial consultation?” my sister demanded peckishly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Because, if it’s official, you know a price must be paid in exchange for access to a witch’s preternatural wisdom.”
I sighed. Truly, Giselle could be such a rules-martinet. “An unofficial consultation only,” I clarified.
“Are you certain?” she pressed eagerly. “You know my price. Could you not spare just a few children?”
As deeply tempting as it was to answer in the affirmative, and as relevant to my current predicament as it was… No, there were at least a few of them that I was fond of. Frida and Helga and Erich and Molly and, occasionally, on good days, Adelbert. It would be hard to look them in the eye after dispatching some of their adopted siblings to a witch’s oven.
“No, Giselle. I cannot,” I retorted. “The rules that govern me are just as rigid as the rules that govern you. Would you be more comfortable with an informal question if I asked over tea?”
“Bertha, it’s almost midnight,” she answered flatly. “No tea. Not even one?”
“A night-cap, then?” I parried.
Letting out an impatient sigh, Giselle huffed, “All right. Let’s have it then.”
“Dear sister,” I began, choosing my words carefully to avoid any implication that I was posing a formal request for advice. “As you might imagine, feeding fourteen… seventeen… twenty-one… oh, however many children… rapidly becomes quite expensive.”
“I already told you I could help you with that,” Giselle muttered under her breath. “It’s not my fault that you didn’t like my first suggestion.”
Summoning up the withering look I generally deployed when the nefarious little spawn were attempting to garrote each other with my home’s oversized boot-laces or engaging in similar socially impermissible activities, I firmly declared, “I will not hear another word on this point, Giselle. I can no more deliver them to you than I could sell them into slavery. While witches are permitted to consume children, the conventions are quite clear that surrogate parents are prohibited from participating in such activity. Unless they’re wicked stepmothers, which I’m not. That loophole is closed to me.”
“Not even one of them was Waldo’s?” she interrupted incredulously.
“No, Giselle. Sadly, none of them belonged to my dear late husband.” Thus, I couldn’t be a wicked stepmother and, thus, I couldn’t funnel any surplus children in her direction.
“Then how did you end up with so many…?” she sputtered.
I cleared my throat. “We’re traveling a bit far afield conversationally here, Giselle. Let’s focus on the solution instead of fighting the hypothetical scenario. Just assume that I need to feed the children and I can’t afford enough food for all of them. You’re the one with a house made of baked goods: what’s your secret? Surely it can’t be cheap to replace the various fixtures that have been devoured by passing children. Do you have some sort of inside connection with a reasonably priced bulk supplier?”
“Oh,” my sister scoffed dismissively. “No such luck. I worked out a trade with a baker. He periodically requires four-and-twenty blackbirds to bake into a pie to set before one king or another. I transform the skinny children that I don’t eat and the ones with sweet voices into blackbirds. He doesn’t ask any awkward questions about where the birds come from and dedicates one day every fortnight exclusively to baking for me. Though I doubt I can renegotiate with him to obtain sufficient provender for your massive flock of foundlings. He already periodically wails that I am taking advantage of him and starving his family. Hardly likely: I’ve seen the well-fed little butterballs he calls children. And to think he won’t sell me any of them either…” she pouted, a gesture that highlighted her puffy lips and make her look rather like a fish. “Kings must pay extremely well for singing pies.”
Well, that line of inquiry was a dead end. “I don’t suppose that, during any of your… consultations… you’ve encountered a wicked queen or a previously-cursed princess looking for household help?” I tried instead. “None of the children are particularly gifted when it comes to cleaning, but a few of them can do wonders in the kitchen with tree roots, mushrooms, the occasional pile of unripe berries, and bone-marrow. I’m sure that with some brief training and access to the standard contents of a castle pantry, they could become excellent cooks.”
Giselle’s eyes closed briefly and a disturbing smile, composed of equal parts smugness and wistful hunger, crossed her wrinkled features. “Ah, bone-marrow,” she sighed. “I do so like to crack their brittle little bones and spread the gooey insides along my rolls like jam. Honestly, Bertha, are you truly, truly certain…?”
“Giselle,” I grated through clenched teeth. “I really need you to move past the idea of eating your honorary nieces and nephews. Besides, we don’t have enough food. They’re too skinny to eat, unlike the human veal you usually cage up. And they would make terrible blackbirds to bake in a pie: they would squawk and squabble raucously rather than sing. Trust me: I already would have sent some of them out to sing for their supper if they showed any musical talent whatsoever.”
My sister blinked. Then her yellowy eyes widened. “Honorary nieces and nephews? Huh. I never considered it that way before. You’re right: it seems a step too far for even me to devour family. Wait a moment. Let me see what yarn I can weave with that particular skein that might change your rhyme-scheme.”
She reached into thin air and muttered something. A thick book simply fell into her hands. Much simpler than dedicating the space for a full library inside the cottage. Bread was too crumbly a building material to make an effective set of shelves. Quickly, she thumbed through the pages. “Nieces and nephews… nieces and nephews…”
After a moment, she looked up and paused. “Ah, here we go. An wicked witch for a godmother or, in some retellings, an aunt. I could enchant a spindle to put them to sleep for a hundred years, until they’re full-grown. If they’re unconscious, they don’t need to eat. You would just have to figure out how to make them each prick their finger on it in turn. Surely some would become wise to the trick after watching the first few fall into near-deathly slumber.”
“But wouldn’t I have to fall asleep for a hundred years along with them? And wouldn’t thorns sprout all around my shoe?” I objected. That sounded like an extreme solution. Also, dangerously likely to result in punctures. Don’t laugh, reader: do you know how much a cobbler’s services cost when including travel expenses to leave their shop and patch a building-sized shoe? I already can’t afford to feed the children as it is!
“Hmmm, that’s true. It would put a massive damper on the mahjong group if you were incapacitated for a hundred years. We might have to find a new fourth,” Giselle conceded.
I gasped in outrage. “You wouldn’t dare! Those are my tiles!”
“All right, all right. We can’t weave that pattern then. Let’s see if we can find something else more appropriate.” Adjusting the wire-frame spectacles perched on the bridge of her pointy and generously be-warted nose, Giselle began to rifle through the book once more, pages whisking rapidly like moths’ wings.
After several moments, she looked up once more. “I have rediscovered a classic. It’s not a yarn in common usage and stretching the aunt relationship may ripple the weft slightly, but it might still do well enough.”
“I’m all ears,” I exclaimed, stretching out my hands imploringly. “Please, anything is better than the pattern we’re currently working with!”
“Are any of your foundlings particularly lazy?” Giselle inquired with careful precision.
Contemptuously, I snorted. “A baker’s dozen. Take your pick.”
“Don’t tempt me, Bertha. I’m trying to behave here. Are any of the lazy ones also adolescent girls who know how to spin?”
That’s an oddly specific line of inquiry. I thought hard for a moment. Spinning wasn’t generally a part of our everyday lives. “I’m reasonably sure Ella knows how to spin. She’s sixteen years old, give or take a year, and she’s one of the laziest of the lot.”
“Excellent!” Giselle slammed the weighty tome shut and tossed it casually into midair, where it disappeared once more, without hitting the ground. “Go home and tell her that her name is now ‘Sarah.’”
I blinked. “Wait, what?” How would changing Ella’s name alter the pattern?
Without responding to the interruption, Giselle continued, “Next, in a few days, beat her for her constant laziness.”
Even as I opened my mouth to object, she barked, “All right! I don’t believe you actually have to beat her! Just reprimand her loudly and threaten to beat her. Since you claimed her to me as an honorary child a few minutes ago, you should be close enough to being her mother to warp the pattern in the correct direction. I hope.” Rolling her eyes, she muttered, “Faint-hearted softie,” under her breath. I didn’t think she was referring to Ella… no, Sarah.
“As soon you do that, a queen should stop by your house… I mean, shoe… Now, this part is important: whatever you do, do not tell the queen that Sarah is lazy. Instead, you must tell her that Sarah is such a good spinner that you can’t buy enough flax to keep her busy. In fact, that’s why you’re so poor that you live in a shoe. Because you spent all your money on flax.”
That hardly seemed likely. “You want me to lie to royalty?” I asked incredulously. “That sort of behavior results people being cursed or beheaded! What if the queen ends up being a wicked queen?” And what would happen to the children if I found myself abruptly decapitated? How would they eat then?
“How badly do you need food and wealth again? No risk, no reward. If you cling closely enough to the archetype, you should be safe. If this all works out correctly, the queen will take Sarah back to her castle and offer to marry Sarah to the prince if she can spin an entire room full of flax within three days.”
“But Sarah can’t spin an entire room full of flax in three days!” I protested.
“Of course she can’t! That’s precisely the point. During the third night, when she’s on the verge of failure, three women will show up in the room and offer to help her as long as she calls them her aunts and invites them to her wedding to the prince. One will have a deformed foot, one will have a massive thumb, and one will have a fat lip.” She gestured to her own face. “I’ll recruit two of my coven sisters and we’ll cheat a little by using magic to spin for her. If this tale-weaving holds, we’ll enjoy a high quality, free dinner paid for by the queen’s coin (hopefully with steak), Sarah will marry a prince and never have to spin again, and you can demand a steady income from Sarah and her rich husband to feed her siblings. I just hope that no pies sing at the wedding banquet.”
How marvelous: to never worry again about my foundlings starving to death, or to have to listen to them snivel at night with aching, empty bellies! But what about Giselle? “Won’t you get in trouble for helping us out like this? After all, you are supposed to be a wicked witch.”
Giselle shrugged. “Witches are still allowed to have families, even honorary ones. A witch tended and cherished Rapunzel for a time, after all. Once you claimed your brats as family rather than potential food, you made it possible for me to temporarily circumvent the rules that govern me. I’ll go eat a few extra children lost in the woods, or pinch one of the baker’s tender little morsels, and I’ll be safely wicked again soon enough.”
And, so, we lived happily ever after. Until a little man with an extraordinarily long name fleeing another tale deposited his unwanted offspring on the threshold of my shoe…
L.M. Lydon writes science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction short stories. She has been published in a 4 Horsemen Publications anthology and two other stories will be published within the next few months. Assorted short fiction can be found via her Facebook author’s page.She is currently working on the final draft of her first fantasy novel, an alternative history set in ancient Greece. While she has written fiction for private amusement since she was a teenager, she only recently escaped a nearly two decade-long career as a commercial real estate attorney. Even in the throes of drafting loan documents and contracts, it had always been her dream to pursue publication of her fiction.