The shoes. There was something about the red shoes. Something sinister. They drew her closer and closer, till the tip of her nose was pressed up against the glass display cover. They were ordinary enough, just a pair of red canvas shoes. Cute and casual, nothing worth a second look.
But they were far from run of the mill for Elsa. Everything faded away, everything except the red shoes. They filled her vision, the buzz of voices around her died, and she was transported to another world, which was strangely, full of scents. In fact, dominated by a dizzying whirl of scents, which she couldn’t even begin to decipher. Strange, but also kind of exciting. Her breath became all ragged and her head started to throb.
The fat lady who ran the shop This & That noticed the girl glued to the shoe display and went over. “Girl, do you want to try out those red shoes? Or would you be interested in that pretty pair of sandals? They are just the perfect shade of blue, don’t you think?”
Elsa, though startled by her voice, just couldn’t bring herself to look away from the red shoes. True, there were a dozen other pairs on display, including the pretty blue sandals, shiny black slippers, pearly white speakers, and a sleek pair of boots ( “that just anyone would die for” ). But she had eyes for one thing only. She was attracted to the red shoes like a fly to a carcass. “Oh, I see you would just rather have the red canvas shoes then!”
At last, she managed to tear her eyes away from them and turned to face the fat lady. At first, she couldn’t recollect anything. It took her a moment to return to her senses and to realize that she was at the little shop by the town library with her step mom Joanna. It was the start of a brand new summer, and Joanna had wanted to buy a straw hat, or perhaps a nice scarf that would go well with her new summer dress. This & That was just the kind of place to find something to complete your look. It sold all kinds of accessories, right from bags & clutches, hats & scarves, bangles & watches; to neat little accessories for your phone & car, and of course, the shoes (Also, not to forget, socks!). Basically, everything you don’t absolutely need, but must have.
Elsa had tagged along, since she wanted to borrow a few books from the library next door. For Elsa, there was no better way to spend a summer than reading (she could read anything, though lately she tended to be partial to Sweet Valley and stuff about wildlife!), eating mangoes, swimming, cycling through the woods and playing badminton with a friend. And now, taking a run in those red canvas shoes! Oh how splendid her summer would be, if only she had them!
“How much do they cost?” she asked the fat lady. Ms Grimett named a price that Elsa knew she couldn’t afford (even if she emptied out her entire piggy bank L), and Joanna would surely refuse (but what’s wrong with the shoes you already have? They’re perfectly good for the summer!). “Can I try them on?”
But Ms Grimett had seen the way her face just fell when she heard the price, and replied with a frown, “Girl, don’t waste my time unless you can come up with the money to buy them. There are other customers I’ve to attend to, ones that are actually going to make a purchase”.
“Well no, I don’t have that much, at least not right now”.
“I thought so”. Ms Grimett the fat lady added smugly, “Come back when you do, just make sure it’s before the summer’s through!” and started to walk away, but then turned to Elsa and said with a laugh, “Though it’s alright if you don’t, that pair ain’t nothing to die for!”
Elsa watched the fat lady waddle over to a woman examining a row of aviators, her heart in her shoes (her dull, boring, lack lustre shoes from two summers ago) and thought to herself : Oh, I would kill for that pair.
The next 24 hours Elsa tried forgetting about the red canvas shoes. She tried to immerse herself in the Sweet Valley book she’d borrowed, and when that didn’t work, in the murder mystery novel by a new author she’d discovered. And when even that didn’t work, she gave up and went for a stroll in her favourite part of the woods. She lived in a dusty little town in the state of Mexico, that was on the fringes of the busy, crowded Mexico city. The forest was literally just a hop, skip and jump away. She much preferred roaming (and sometimes napping) in the woods near her house than hanging out at the tiny mall-cum-cinema in town or the bigger malls in the heart of the city.
But she found that didn’t work either. Nothing worked. She just could not stop thinking about the damned shoes. That night she even dreamt about them. She saw herself running through the woods in those red red shoes and seeing, hearing and smelling things in the forest that she’d never noticed before. She woke up feeling scared, but also exhilarated. She knew then that she had to have them.
She thought she’d ask her dad if he would give her the money. Her dad, although always kind-hearted, had drifted further and further away from her, after her biological mother Leila had left them 6 years ago. He had since remarried a woman who was the exact opposite of his first wife. While Leila had been liberal, spontaneous and free-spirited, a woman of the earth; Joanna was prim and methodical, her life depended on order. Perhaps it was the fact that her biological mother was originally from South America (she’d left her homeland when she met Elsa’s dad) and her step mom was American, same as her dad, that Elsa found them to be such different people. Anyway, she reflected that he’d become more and more like her step mom, more and more stilted over the years.
When he came home from work that evening, she did ask him. But to her mild surprise and major disappointment, he said he wanted her to start learning the value of money. He said the impressionable age of 12 was the perfect time and that she should get a summer job. “The money you earn by your own sweat is the sweetest and most satisfactory of all”, he said in his gentle and somewhat stilted way. Laughable really. She tried convincing him but he had made up his mind. He said he had got his first job when he was a 12 year old as well. Elsa was never one to throw tantrums. She just went for a walk in her favourite part of the woods.
The next day, she went over to This & That with all the money she could scrounge up (including whatever she’d saved in her piggy bank L and last year’s birthday money from Gamma). But it still fell short by almost a thousand pesos. She thought she’d try bargaining with the rude fat lady Ms Grimett, though she doubted that would work.
She was right. She glanced at the red shoes still waiting patiently for her in the display, and with a heavy heart, decided that the only way she could come up with that much money ASAP would be by selling off her cycle. She’d give up cycling through the woods, for running through the woods instead, in the precious red canvas shoes.
She dumped all the money she’d brought along on the counter and said to the fat lady, “I will pay you the rest tomorrow. I’ll surely have the money by then; I’m selling my cycle today for it. So please let me have the shoes now!”
Ms Grimett, seeing how desperate Elsa was, gave in and got out the key to unlock the shoe display. Elsa’s heart started racing and her mouth went dry. The moment had arrived, when she would slip her feet into them and feel the – suddenly, Ms Grimett stopped and turned to Elsa with a wicked wicked glint in her eyes. Elsa couldn’t speak. Her mouth formed an ‘O’ of horror.
“I’ll tell you what, little girl”, said Ms Grimett. “No need to sell your cycle; after all, what’s summer without racing around all day on a cycle?”
Elsa gaped, uncomprehending.
The fat lady lumbered closer and stretched out a hand towards Elsa. Elsa shrank back, frightened. Ms Grimett caught hold of the necklace Elsa was wearing and peered at it. “What’s this around your neck? I noticed it the other day as well! It would be perfect for my collection of trinkets! Oh yes!”
“No”, whispered Elsa, full of terror and hatred. She wasn’t going to part with the necklace given to her by her biological mother. It was a chain with a little gold pendant of a jaguar with eyes of jade. It had been in her mother’s family since ages (in fact, made by her Mayan ancestors) and passed on from generation to generation. It made Elsa feel closer to her mom, especially since she’d left.
“Oh tell you what”, continued Ms Grimett, warming up to the idea now. “Don’t sell your cycle, keep your money, just give me the necklace and the red shoes are yours!”
Elsa’s head was spinning. “But I can’t!”
“Can’t or won’t?” A wicked glow was spreading across the fat lady’s face. “Well in any case, I won’t be selling you the shoes unless you hand it over. That’s the deal!”
Elsa felt a lump forming in her throat. She pocketed the money she’d kept on the counter and ran out of the shop, tears stinging her eyes.
“Goodbye!” called the fat lady with a cackle. Oh she did enjoy torturing little children every now and then. And if in this case, it acquired her a nice little piece to add to her collection of knick-knacks, well then that was just the icing on the cake, wasn’t it?
Elsa spent the rest of that dreary day sitting at the edge of the little river that ran through the forest, staring at her reflection. She’d been wearing the necklace ever since her first birthday. She rarely removed it. But it hadn’t faded. It seemed more beautiful every time she looked at it. The time would come one day when she would pass it on to her own child.
Or so she had thought. Until this day.
She couldn’t believe she was even entertaining such a thought. Handing over something that belonged to her to that fat witch. All for a pair of shoes! Oh but what shoes they were, she thought, as she drifted once again into an all too familiar daydream about the red shoes.
She didn’t know how long she’d been dozing. When she finally snapped out of it, it was almost dark. She splashed some river water on her face to wash off the drool and stood up and stretched. She had made up her mind.
That night, she slept better than she had in two days.
The following day, she walked over to This & That with a spring in her step.
“Oh! You’re back I see!” exclaimed Ms Grimett. “Have you decided then?”
Elsa nodded and handed over her necklace without a word. Somehow, she thought her mother would understand. Elsa even had a creepy feeling that her mother would actually approve. Anyhow, she felt no guilt. She just knew with frightening certainty that everything would be set right once the red canvas shoes were hers.
Elsa bit back a scream of frustration, as the fat lady fingered the necklace and examined it for what seemed like hours, with a look of smug satisfaction. She finally stowed it away in one of the shelves behind the counter and fetched the key that opened the shoe display. She picked out the red canvas shoes and placed them in front of Elsa. Everything had seemed to be moving in slow motion and then it was like everything stopped moving. Time itself had stopped for Elsa. She kicked off her old shoes, wriggled her toes and slipped her bare feet into the red canvas shoes. They sunk in and it felt like they belonged there. She felt calm as she bent down to tie the laces, but her hands shook a little. As she took her first step in her red shoes, she couldn’t believe how marvellous it felt! She slowly walked out the door (it was like walking on air!) and somehow restrained herself from breaking into a run, at least until she got to the edge of the woods. And then there was nothing to stop her.
She was flying through the trees, the mid-morning wind slapping her face, and she forgot everything but how the forest felt around her. She felt powerful. She felt strong. Her senses were sharper and she was noticing things in a way which she would have never thought humanly possible. She could hear every rustle the breeze made, the sound of every twig that broke, the lurking of every creature in the undergrowth, the buzz of a bee far off in the distance. But what was overwhelming was the variety of scents, that hit her in waves. She followed scent after scent; sometimes it led her to a tree in full bloom, sometimes to a decaying mass of dead roots. Sometimes it led her to a pool of stagnant water, sometimes to the mound of an anthill. Often it led her to small mammals resting here or scurrying there; but always unaware of her presence until she was almost upon them. Who would have thought she could creep up on these forest creatures which had till now been so elusive!
She had lost all track of time long ago and when she finally returned home, dusk had already fallen. She was tired and went up to bed earlier than usual. She couldn’t bring herself to take off the shoes though and fell asleep with her feet nicely ensconced in them.
When she woke up, the first thing that hit her was the smell. It was a horrible smell and it was coming from her. A fly buzzed around her annoyingly. She looked down and saw that the front of her t-shirt was stained chocolate. Her eyes went from there to her red shoes, which seemed to have turned a shade darker. Her eyes followed what looked like paw prints imprinted in blood, going from her bed to the single window in her room, which faced a large banyan tree.
Her mind was blank. She did not remember anything.
The same thing happened for two nights in a row. Elsa knew at the back of her mind that it had something to do with the red canvas shoes, but she kept pushing that thought aside. She couldn’t give them up now, she enjoyed her jaunts in the woods too much for that. But she’d started noticing other strange things as well. She’d lost her appetite and picked at her food. Even Joanna was beginning to notice this, but Elsa convinced her that she was alright. In fact, she looked better than she usually did - healthier, positively rosy! And when she was wearing the shoes (which was almost all the time), she felt so good. She felt like she could do anything she wanted.
It was the third day after she’d got the shoes, and she was at the dinner table. Her parents were talking about the mysterious deaths of pigs two nights in a row at the town’s only piggery.
“They think it was some wild animal that did it. Maybe a puma that strayed in from the woods”, her dad was saying. “So tonight they’re going to keep a watch”.
“Oh my! Nothing like this has ever happened before out here has it?” replied Joanna. “I should think it pretty rare for a wild animal to willingly step into human territory. Especially with such a good forest around. Surely can’t be lack of prey!”
“Happens sometimes. Usually in case of old or wounded wild animals that are unable to hunt. Domestic animals are easier to kill!” said her dad. “In fact, this has happened before around here. Six years ago. I remember because it was around the same time that Leila disappeared”.
“Really?” asked Joanna, her eyes wide. “What happened?”
“Well, people kept reporting that something was getting at their cattle every few nights. It got one of Mrs Philippa’s cows as well”. Mrs Philippa lived a few houses away. “So all the farmers in the town decided to keep a look out and a few nights later, one of them spotted a jaguar sneaking up on his animals”.
Elsa’s heart stopped.
“A jaguar! I didn’t think you get jaguars up here in Mexico!” exclaimed Joanna.
“A very few of them remain. Most of the population’s found in Central and South America”.
“So what happened to it?”
“Scared it away with a few shots in the air. Probably a female, from the size. She wasn’t seen again around here, anyhow”.
It all came back to Elsa now, what had happened six years ago. But she hadn’t thought the stray jaguar and her mother’s disappearance were related, until now. She remembered how her mother had seemed unnaturally distant, not her usual self. She’d acted strange all week, going out the whole day, sometimes leaving so early, even before sunrise and before anyone else had woken up. She made dinner, but never joined them, saying she’d already eaten. And then, she just disappeared. They’d woken up one day, and she was gone. They’d waited the whole day, and then the next, but she never returned. At first, they’d thought something awful might have happened and got the cops involved; search parties were formed, but they never found a trace of her. Then they’d thought she’d run off with someone she’d met, but neither of them ever truly believed she would do that. They’d enquired with her folks back in Colombia, but they were equally shocked at the news of her disappearance. They’d never gotten in touch with them after that.
In the beginning, it was very hard for them, but slowly as the years went by, they got over her. Elsa thought that for her dad, Leila was dead. That was the only way he could move on with his life, marry someone else. Elsa simply told herself that her mother had left for greener pastures. Though a small part of her still hated her for leaving her behind.
Now Elsa realized that her mother had left the night after the jaguar had been spotted.
That night, for the first time after she’d got the shoes, Elsa did not wear them to bed. She had an eerily real dream about her mother Leila. It was like she was beckoning Elsa to come, join her! All of a sudden, Leila morphed into (what else!) a beautiful jaguar; going up and down trees, leaping into a stream of water, catching fish, killing a tapir with a single bite to its poor head ( Elsa could swear she heard the sickening crunch, it was so real!), lazing about in a dense tropical heaven. Elsa woke up with a start, the dream still fresh in her mind.
She looked at the red canvas shoes, lying there so tantalizingly close. It took everything to stop herself from slipping her feet into them. She knew they were the key to finding her mother who was somewhere in the forests of Colombia, but though the temptation was great, she just wasn’t ready. There was also some unfinished business to take care of.
The next few days there were no more swine deaths, and people let their guard down again. These were the most agonizing days of Elsa’s life, a lot of tears were shed (she’d never cried so much in her life ever), but she’d come to a gut wrenching decision. She picked the following Friday (Friday being her favourite day of the week, for no particular reason), to leave behind her old life and start a whole new one. As soon as the sun set, she walked over to the little shop This & That, red shoes in hand, and waited in the shadows for the last customers to leave. When she was sure the fat lady was all by herself, she strode in purposefully, giving Ms Grimett quite a surprise.
Ms Grimett saw the red shoes in her hand and exclaimed, “You’re back! No return or exchange policy here, I’m afraid!”
“Oh, you better be afraid”, replied Elsa with a smile that never reached her eyes.
She put on the red shoes.
The next day, the news of Ms Grimett’s death spread like wildfire.
“A gruesome attack! Horrible bite wound on the skull that killed her, they say. Guess that animal that’s been killing those pigs is back after all!”
“But nobody saw anything remotely suspicious!”
“Happened between dusk and dawn”.
“Did she put up a fight, try and defend herself?”
“Don’t know, but the shelves behind the counter were all in disarray!”
“We got a man eater on the loose!”
“A woman eater!”
“But why her? ”
“She was a pretty fat lady, lot of meat on her. Can’t blame the animal for its choice of dinner!”
By then, Elsa was well into the journey that would take her from the wilderness of Mexico, through the forests of Central America and finally to the lowland tropics of South America. She’d never been out of the dusty little town in the State of Mexico before, but she knew the way as if by an animal instinct. It was in her blood. The red shoes would finally take her to the place where she belonged. She was going home.
Copyright 2011-2012 by Sharada Mahalingam,
I am a veterinary graduate working out of Mumbai. I am interested in creative writing in my free time. My other interests include reading, swimming, cycling, trekking, camping out and watching movies.
Shirley Gerald Ware-Publisher