Once there was and once there wasn’t, an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do . . . . until she did. Her husband was a shoemaker and he made the finest shoes to be found anywhere. From far and wide people came to have their feet outlined by his delicate long fingered hands. These tracings he’d turn into a pattern from which to stitch them their shoes, and oh the shoes he made! The lightest yet strongest of shoes, high heeled, stillettoed, or flat, sturdy, buttoned, laced, or pointy, to dance or walk miles and miles in::whatever your fancy he could stitch a shoe for your foot, a shoe to match your soles deepest longing. He was descended from a shoemaker, who was descended from a shoemaker, who was descended from yet another shoemaker, who was the son of a poor man, a no body, happily making shoes in a small village, until one day he was found. Discovered, uncovered, and recovered he was brought to a jolly jostling city to the door of a wealthy tradesman, a merchant. When the merchant saw the shoemakers’ shoes he knew the man would make him richer than his wildest dreams. He employed the shoemaker, who worked and toiled and labored. For his service he was given a modest salary and best of all::the merchants youngest daughter to wed. Now the daughter was considered not much of a prize, to be honest the shoemaker was doing the merchant a favor by taking her off his hands, but he didn’t know this. She did, she was canny and clever and had a keen mind, the bane of her father’s existence. She was a lusty wench with a hearty appetite and had one child after another with her humble shoemaking husband whose biggest dreams never foresaw a woman such as this to heat up his bed, warm up his heart! Ah, but he was happy and had more than he had ever imagined possible. His heart was overflowing with gratitude. Not so his bonny bride.
The merchant’s daughter watched her brothers, 7 strong, drink and gamble and carouse. They grew fat in belly and fatter in head off the coin earned at the hands of her man’s hard work. She watched her children, crowded and cramped in the close quarters they called home, and knew her father to be a slaver, a rich man who justified his actions by extending her as evidence of his largesse. There went her sisters in law, keys jangling from the belts around their waists; keys that by rights of the labor done should be hers! They wore jewels in their hair and around their wrists bangles of gold, while she had glass, plain breakable pitiful glass. Her nieces and nephews had round rosy cheeks, wore silks, and ate mutton and cream, while her children had stale bread for their daily fare. Her heedless father never gave her husband more pay even though he asked more work of him! And here she was, growing to be an old woman before her time, with tattered shoes, eyes wrinkly and lined, when her man was the finest shoemaker of all. Having fed on comparison, contrast, and contemplation, she put her heart and her head together and bade her body to motion; she swore she’d walk shoeless, bare foot, until she found a solution. She wasn’t going to wait for someone else to come find her, give weight to her problem, free her, give her some rights; she was going to walk and talk and mutter and murmur until she knew what to do, how to make and give herself what was hers to be had, by gad!
Older hills than these have seen her footsteps walking around and around in spirals, seeking. She is drawn first, then drawing her answers into the ground. Round and round she goes until she stops and hears the voice that bids her pause. Older feet than hers have walked these spirals twisting turning questing, older feet have felt the ground beneath, seen what her eyes finally see::she puts her feet in the water and bathes them, slips them into a pair of threadbare slippers and walks back to where her husband sits working, squinting now in the dimming light of day, his hands working the needle in and out of leather. She takes his hand and they walk to where their children, 13 in all, six boys and seven girls, play in the fading light of day. They’re running and rolling in the sand, wildly shrieking from time to time, a boisterous lot. She teaches them all in turn; to cook, to clean, to defeather the chickens and to wring their necks, to butcher the cow, to plant the seeds, to tend the field, to make jam and wine, to empty the outhouse, to make their own beds where they lay their heads. She’s a busy woman with no keys on a ring, no ring in her nose, but she knows how to teach them so they hear their own souls sing. Then they all learn how to make shoes, shoes to make grown men weep for want of a pair. Shoes that are life changing. And she knows that some day one child may wander, one may forget, but she has thirteen and doesn’t fret for all it takes is one. One giant leap, like the one she tells her no body of a husband he must make. Now.
He trusts this ferocious bride of his implicitly. Never has he known one so fierce! He’s heard her called witch, some have called her bitch, but he knows the truth of her. She’s free. Mistress of her own destiny. Sometimes he wonders if his employer ever knew the treasure he gave away when he gave his daughter to him one day? He knows not simply thanks his lucky stars, so when she says, enough, to him where they lay tangled in a pile of hay in broad daylight having delighted in one another yet again he doesn’t question her. He knows, it will be so.
He goes the next morning to his employer, his father in law, and thanks him for all he’s done for him. Then comes the rest::he’ll be setting up his own shoe shop, it’ll have a name, Bojangles & Co. and would the venerable senior please grace the opening?
The old man is apoplectic, purple with rage!
“Impudent thankless dog!” he shouts, frothing at he mouth, “Cur! Swine!”
His seven sons come to see what their father is in a rage about, and they join the refrain.
“Viper, a snake in our midst!”
“It will fail as it should, thief, sneak, miserable hound!”
“Karma will bite your rotten behind!”
“Biting the hand that feeds you, the shame of it!”
“After all we’ve done for you, even married you to our sister, our poor sister!”
The shoemaker is surprised by their reactions. He shrugs and goes about the work of setting up shop. It thrives. It grows. From far and wide, young and old, people come with their feet ready to be touched, drawn into patterns at Bojangles & Co. They leave, soles on fire, joy lifting higher, comfortably shod with happy feet, no two pairs are alike. His wife glows and wears a bundle of fifteen keys at her waist, the sound of them jingling and jangling fills her with happiness. She goes everywhere shoeless, the soles of her feet caress the earth. She insists upon wearing only glass bangles for the rest of her days. Their children grow too and go on their ways; this way and that. One wanders, one dances, one heals, one mends, some disappear around hidden bends, but this is not really their story in the end.
Not the shoemakers, not his brides’, for while she and her tribe prosper and live on in wealth, her brothers hold venom close to their hearts with which they refuse to part. They walk no walk, quest for no questions, instead they swear a pact::for seven generations they will continue to remember this egregious act, this hideous crime that leaves them paupers before their time! When their children wonder and ask, where went their money, on what task? They do not speak of drinking it all away, spending it to watch women dance and play, betting it on horses dressed in fancy suits while parading on the race courses . . . instead in tones bitter and ugly they tell of the lout who stole their well, their sister, their inheritance, then they damn them to hell for they believe that it was out of greed and lust the shoemaker broke away their trust, and so they teach their children to look upon their cousins with disgust! For five generations this is the tale they repeat, this becomes the bitterness they eat. For five generations they look down their noses at the glowing roses of their cousins’ cheeks. They harbor them ill, and the ill does its will until on both sides there is damage in need of undoing. Then it is as the woman, the merchant’s daughter, knew, it only takes a handful, maybe one or two, to untangle the wrongs handed down in songs:: she is dead but she taught all thirteen how to make their bed and then lie in it, each one learned the heart and the art of the shoe:: so there is one who sits and makes them.
He has a shop tucked away on the corner of a street in a quaint town with clean streets, garbage disposal, homeless shelters, free kitchens, a community garden, food cooperative, farmers market thrice a week, a bookmobile, and recycling. It’s inhabitants drive cars fueled on vegetable oil and electricity, ride bicycles, motorized scooters. It’s got cobbled walkways and lots of cute places to drink handcrafted beers, artisanal meads, infusions and teas. To eat healthy meals prepared by happy cooks who dance to punk rock and ska in frilly aprons and military boots while they stir soup and wrap quinoa with multi grain flatbreads holding grilled tofu, sun dried tomato relish, and marinated artichokes. There is a community building where locals get together and have canning, fermenting, medicine making sessions, and contra dancing. The air is fresh and clear, the skies are blue, the rivers have fish in them and people too, often anglers, kayakers and canoers, inner tubers bobbing down and over the rapids while artists paint plein air. Musicians strum guitars on the sidewalks, stores leave bowls of water out for the dogs, and children scamper about playing hopscotch, hide and seek, and jump rope while their parents work. A storyteller keeps them occupied in the afternoons. As they grow, they apprentice with somebody or the other in the community discovering their vocation; what they’re drawn to.
In the countryside there are orchards and vineyards, farms big and small. Over a bridge crossing the river he lives: the old shoemaker with his old woman in a gigantic shoe. It’s an enormous straw bale, earth bagged boot. There are medicinals, edibles, ornamentals: a polyfaced garden grown to feed multi-beings surrounding the boot, out of the boot, which has a circle of sugar maples at its back. The couple feast year round on the abundance of both fresh and stored food from in a spring house and root cellar. They have an annual thanks giving celebration at summers end and everybody is invited. The locals love Bootville. They drive by real slow to get a peek at it, hoot at it, show it off to friends from far flung places. Some knock at the door set in the boot heel, ask for a tour please? They’re always obliged and invited inside, watered and fed; have their photograph taken with their faces sticking out the windows where the bootlaces are. It’s a passive solar boot, takes very little to heat. Electricity is generated via water, wind, sun. All the cooking is done outside in a cob oven and over a rocket stove. Clothes are washed by hand in the pond, hung to dry. They use an outhouse; bathe outdoors in a tub that waters the garden. The shoemaker goes to town every day on his bicycle, on horseback when it snows. A black leather hat adorns his head where one long white braid dangles behind him and one long white braid reaches down from the beard on his chin, tickling his belly. His glasses tint in the sunlight, he whistles while he bikes; a daily sight on the winding roads every morning and evening. He works all day, has lunch at The Happy Belly Café and The Melting Pot on alternating days of the week. Out of choice. Smokes a pipe after his meal, always shared in company with someone or the other. He’s got a laugh that comes easy; teeth slightly crooked and overlapped, a little bit brown from coffee and nicotine stains . . . remnants of the days when folks didn’t have straight, shiny, almost identical smiles.
He works inside on rainy days or when he feels like a bit of solitude, outside when it’s sunny, cloudy, or he is struck by the mood to move. People walk along, chattering and humming; the sounds weave a song while they pass. Tourists stop to watch his hands flying in and out of the leather with needle and thread, pop their head in the open door to his store to see what the whirring sound’s coming from when he’s using the machine. He makes shoes for money and shoes for free. The coin pays for the shoes he makes for runaway boys and girls, drifters, the homeless, refugees, or a soul in need of a pair of soles; he goes home each day knowing he’s doing what is his to be. Long ago his old lady had urged him to teach freely the skill he’d learned, inherited from his father and his before him. Those had been lean days; they’d been young then. Everything they did would turn upside down. Turn to ashes. Seemed like they were cursed and one day she’d simply said, “Enough is enough! How about you share the art of shoemaking, teach it openly, let it loose for the four winds to blow where they will.” He’d been hesitant at first but after deliberation figured he’d do it, they had no children to pass the knowledge on to, so he put it out there that he’d teach anyone who wanted to learn from him. When this became known he gained many students. Then he’d take them to the sparse land that he and his wife were starting up, perpetually beginning. He’d tell them they’d have to cook, to clean, to till and hoe, move rocks, build a chicken coop, fence a space for the cow, rake out the manure, attend to milking, churn butter from cream, and gather eggs. They’d have to plant the seeds, tend the field, harvest fruit from the trees for jam and wine, fill bags with dirt and stack the bales, sleep on flour sacks while they built a yurt, empty the outhouse, make their own beds where they lay their heads and after they’d done all that then in the evenings they’d work on shoes. Many people came and went sooner rather than later with this arrangement. The ones that stuck it out helped build Bootville, and they learned how to make shoes. Solid shoes. Really awesome shoes. All their lives changed after he began teaching the craft; they prospered and were happy.
Far away in a crowded city is a young man. His wife is ill. What ails her nobody knows. Her mind is tormented by images, her body wracked with pain. Yet time and test again show that there is nothing to be found that is wrong, the cause of her lack of ease baffles everyone for she is fit in tooth, lung, and skin, so what is it then? The young man sits with her in the courtyard every day, where she babbles and rocks to and fro, agitated until the sun sets. With darkening skies she calms a little and drifts off into sleep. He sings to her, plays her the flute, feeds her small morsels of steamed vegetables and fruit, holds her hand and one day she’s babbling like a brook and he catches the word “shoe” and tucks it into his pocket. Shoe? He wonders, could it be she wants shoes? He goes about the city in search of shoes for her. He seeks out shoes that he feels she’d like and takes them back to her. A spark lights up in her eyes when she sees them, she tries them on, excited. Then the weeping takes hold and he’s back to where he began. One thing has changed: he knows there’s something there, something to do with shoes. He determines to search until he finds a pair that she will wear, that’ll ease her despair. In his quest he learns of a shoemaker, far away in a rural town, reputed to be a maker of magic shoes. He packs a bundle and makes his way to where he finds the bearded braided old man stitching on the sidewalk. He throws himself on the man’s feet and clinging to them he sobs.
“Help me! Please, my wife is ill! She keeps talking about shoes and none that I have bought have helped her; she remains in pain. Tormented! Please will you accompany me back to where I live? Make her a pair of shoes? Help her?!”
The shoemaker is taken aback by this wild eyed young mans approach. Completely surprised by the touch of hands on his bare feet; he’d taken off his shoes on whim this afternoon, the better to wiggle them in the sunshine. He examines the crouched sobbing figure, takes in his unkempt appearance, the smell of him.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Me? I am nobody! What does it matter who I am?! My wife needs help, please will you come or not?”
“Surely you have a name?”
The young man looks up red eyed, confused.
“If I were to come with you”, the shoemaker asks, speaking slowly, “Who then would stitch the shoes that I’m working on?”
“Teach me! How hard can it be! I’ll follow your instructions and work on them while you go to my wife!”
The shoemaker is stunned for a moment, and then laughs at the youth’s suggestion.
“Young man, I admire your tenacity, your audacity! If you were to do the work I’ve done for a lifetime, then to your wife surely you’d be attending already! What need would you have of me?”
The young man blushes, but carries on, “I don’t know what else to do. It breaks my heart to listen to her babble and blather, watch her all day twisting and turning, with this strange burning affliction!”
He cries, tears pouring down his cheeks and the shoemaker watches them roll down, drop on the leafy ground. As fate has it, he’s almost done with the shoes that he’s been working on and the days ahead are open to him. He could easily sit in his shop and someone or the other would come and requisition shoes, but he could also go with this desperate young man and see what it is, if anything, he can do with his craft to assist the lad with his wife. He’s curious too, about something else. Something he felt when the young man grabbed his feet. Yes he decides, he’ll do it.
To the young man he says, “I will come with you, we’ll leave in three days. You’ll have to do my share of chores at home, help my old lady till we leave if I’m to finish the shoes I’m working on.”
“Anything, I’ll do anything if you’ll come with me, help my wife!”
And the shoemaker bikes home that evening with the young man following. When they get to the boot, he takes his wife aside and tells her to do her worst. She doesn’t question him, puts on her black cloak and hat, paints on a wart and greets the youth with broom in hand. Points him to the outhouse and tells him to git it done! For three days the young man works tirelessly, cooking, cleaning, defeathering the chickens, wringing their necks, butchering cow, planting seeds, tending the field, making jam and wine, until he finally gets to rest his head in a bed and before he knows it he has to make it and they’re off. Back to the city, to his wife; the daughter of a rich merchant. He takes the shoemaker to his home where she sits in the courtyard under a tree. She is rocking to and fro, shaking her head full of gnarled and matted clumps that snake this way and that, eyes rolling wildly back and forth. The shoemaker approaches with paper and pen, takes her foot in his hand and draws the shape of it. First the right foot and then the left. At the touch of his hand she calms. When he’s done drawing she’s clear-eyed, lucid.
“You came. I’ve been calling for you for so long but nobody was listening until him!” she says, pointing at her husband with a smile.
The shoemaker is surprised. A tingle goes up his spine at what he felt when he took her foot in his hand. It was the same feeling he got when her husband had grabbed his feet three days ago. He looks at her quietly for a while before speaking.
“Yes,” he agrees, “I only recently received the message, I came as soon as I could. Forgive me for taking so long, will you be returning with me?”
She looks at her husband and they exchange glances then she nods.
“Teach us, teach us what you know of shoes, we would learn from you,” she says.
“You will have to leave all this,” he waves his hand, “All of it behind, come as you are with only the clothes on your back. I have no children; it’s only me and my wife. She’s lean and she can be mean, what you make of each other remains to be seen, but first you have a choice to make::my path lies in town, decide soon, I leave in an hour.”
The couple look at one another once more, nod their heads. They have nothing keeping them in the city. The three set out together to where he lives with his old woman in their boot. He teaches them as he’s been teaching before, this time it’s different. These two have the touch. It’s in everything they do. Not only the making of the shoe, but the cooking, the cleaning, the defeathering, and wringing of necks; all of it, the very ground they walk on grows greener at the touch of their feet, cows line up to be slaughtered with smiling moo’s, birds bring them fish from the river, trees bend their boughs for them to pick the fruit, the sky pours rain at the sound of them singing, and oh the shoes they make! Magic shoes, shoes that’ll make a sole sing, shoes that dance themselves onto a foot! Shoes the shoemaker never dreamed of making. They build a second boot, there’s a left and a right, solar powered. The boots hold charges in their soles. They gain mobility, walking boots go strolling down the roads, their soles well worn and squeaky. Folks hitching a ride get to climb up to the top where the laces are reigns for steering. Years pass and the boots have a few sneakers behind them, dashing off ahead of them, squeaking happily! The shoemaker leaves them Bootville; rides off with his old woman on a purple broomstick with china cat sunflowers painted on the handle. They explore the rest of the world; dance amongst the stars that twinkle in the galaxies, their bones shake, rattle, and roll. They’ve got a sack of shoes with them, to give to people they’ll meet, the one’s who the shoe fits will wear them. They’ve got a satchel with soles, skins, tools. To make repairs and teach with along the way. They’re white haired, wide-eyed, wildly curious, their lives beginning in a stream of inifnite possibilities, the universe a playground for their imaginations! When they return to Bootville for the annual summer’s end festivity each year, their faces are less wrinkled, their bodies plumper, their bones and muscles supple. Each year their hair darkens, they grow younger, until once they were and then:: they aren’t.