There once was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
This might sound a little odd, but the fact was that it was actually a rather large and well appointed shoe, carved from fine-grained sandstone and riddled with a myriad of tiny rooms which comfortably contained both her and the scores of children who were her charge. A second shoe, standing not far off, served as barn and stable. From both shoes arose gargantuan sandstone legs. The children loved to climb the sculpted calves and thighs of the legs, carrying the packed lunches she made up for them so they could picnic on the broken tops and look out over the fields and the forest.
No one knew where the shoes and legs came from, but they assumed some giant from long ago had been turned into stone by a great magician, and that time and wind had eroded the torso and arms. The giant’s head, which lay a mile or so off in a forest clearing, both terrified and delighted the children. They had a game of dares, running and climbing up to touch first his beard, then his mouth, then his nose. No child had ever dared climb high enough to touch one of the blindly staring eyes, but the children told each other that if anyone ever did so, the giant would roar back to life, reuniting with his missing body to wreak havoc across the land.
Mary (Mary was the name of the old woman) had often wondered what the real story of the giant might be. The only clue was a few lines of ancient writing on a slab of stone lying between the two feet. Neither Mary nor the children could read particularly well, and besides, the writing was in a long-dead and quite undecipherable alphabet. Once, years ago when Mary was still young and pretty, and before the children had come, a young English poet seeking shelter and food had caught her eye and tarried a while. He was very excited by the writing, which he could apparently read, although he never bothered to tell Mary what it said. She had been plucking up the courage to ask him when her father returned unexpectedly from a trading trip and the poet had to leave in rather a hurry.
A few years later, another traveller told her that he knew of the poet, and that he had written quite a famous poem about the shoes and the legs and the head. He recited to Mary what he could remember of the poem, but she thought perhaps he got it wrong, because he described the legs as being in a great sandy desert, which clearly they were not. Although if these children kept eating her out of house and home, maybe one day they would be.
On the day on which the events unfolded which concern us in this story, Mary had slept late. She had slept through the crowing of the cock, and the first red rays of dawn had slipped through her window and beneath her notice. She had slept through the lowing of the cows lining up to be milked, and the scraping of buckets and rattling of milk tins as the children went about their chores had failed to disturb her rest. By the time her gummy lids had prised themselves open and she was finally ready to greet the day, it was past nine o’clock, and the hum of children milling around the kitchen-yard waiting for their breakfast had risen to a dull roar.
She threw on a robe and raced down the front stairs to the enormous kitchen, which filled most of the toe of the shoe. Casting open the shutters, she filled her lungs and cut loose.
“What is wrong with you children? Are you completely useless? Can I not have one morning to myself without having to pander to your every whim? Jocelyn, Kate, Michael, Sarah, John – how old are you five now?”
A long moment of silence, and then little Sarah piped up uncertainly. “Twelve, Ma’am?”
“That’s right. Twelve. And since none of you little ingrates was more then seven or eight when you came here, that means you’ve been helping me prepare breakfast for five years now. You know where everything is – the porridge, the cream, the flour, the eggs, the skillets – can you not, for once in your short, miserable lives, prepare your own damn breakfast?”
A shocked gasp rose in unison from the four-score little mouths outside the window. She sank into the nearest chair and rested her head in hands. Five years, and this was the first time she had ever cursed in front of the children. What was happening to her? She supposed it was the fatigue. She worked her fingers to the bone all day, then lay awake most of the night fretting over what was to become of her and the children. The children weren’t really the problem. They were good children, and they helped out as much as they could, but they were so very, very young, and so very scarred.
She had managed to look after them well enough up until now, although it concerned her that she had been unable to give them more than the rudiments of an education, but time marched on, and she could feel her wits slowing and her bones beginning to freeze. What would happen to the children when she was gone? It was not as if they could turn to someone else; there was no one else. Not any more.
She never knew why the soldiers had left her farm alone. They had certainly visited every other farm in the district: she had seen the pillars of smoke, and heard the screams on the wind. The river that flowed through the back fields had run red with blood and the only birds she saw for weeks were crows.
It was on the third day the children had begun to drift in. Wide-eyed with terror and stumbling with fatigue and shock at the horrors to which they had borne witness, they had come to her for help, and she gave that help gladly. They had all seen things no one should ever see, and they had all somehow survived relatively unscathed. She had fed them and dressed their wounds, and they had stayed.
Lost in the past, she was awakened to the present by dozens of feather-light caresses on her back and shoulders. Raising her head, she saw all the older children were clustered around her. Sarah, the most serious and responsible of them all, stood before her, looking nervous and afraid.
“We… we’re sorry ma’am,” she stuttered. “We didn’t know… we weren’t sure were you were, and we didn’t want to disturb you, and we weren’t sure if we should just go ahead and feed the little ‘uns, and we’ve milked the cows and fed the pigs and everyone’s washed their hands and faces, and, and…” she trailed off, wringing her hands frantically and blinking tears from her eyes.
“Little ones, Sarah. “ Mary said gently, “It takes no effort to try and speak properly. And I’m sorry, children. I’m just not myself today, and I did not intend to speak so harshly. Why don’t you all pitch in and help me with breakfast, and then we’ll make up picnics of bread and cheese and a few apples and declare today a national holiday.”
The children brightened noticeably, and in the sudden rush of activity Mary managed to briefly forget her troubles. When all the children had breakfasted well and raced off in their little groups to play the day away, she brewed herself some tea and settled down in her rocking chair on the porch her father had built, reached by a spiral staircase and jutting proudly from the giant’s outside ankle. She watched contentedly as the groups of children played tag in the cornfields, skipped rope in the yard, and brought ponies out from the stables to braid their manes and plait their tails. Hidden from the other children by a windbreak of fir trees, but clearly visible from her eyrie, a dozen or so small boys were making their way to the edge of the forest. She hoped they would be careful. In the handful of years since the soldiers had come, wolves and bears had returned to the woods.
She sipped her tea and rocked, rocked and sipped her tea. Slowly, she let her eyes close and slipped away into a dreamless sleep.
Joshua and his friends drifted aimlessly around the kitchen yard, trying not to attract attention as they waited for the other children to become lost in their activities. They didn’t want to be followed – the game would be no fun if a bunch of girls and babies followed them and wanted to know what they were doing.
Finally he decided it was safe, and nodded subtly to the others. They snuck around the toe of the shoe, then put their heads down and ran until they were safely hidden by the wind break. “On to the forest!” he whispered importantly, and they all set off in single file along the track, well armed with sharpened sticks and wooden swords lest they encounter wolves, bears, goblins or trolls.
Today was the day.
The last time they had played the game, Joshua had taken a running leap up the beard then climbed to the bridge of the nose – higher than any other boy had ever been. He had been desperately proud of himself, but that night, as they lay talking themselves to sleep, Peter had begun to denigrate Joshua’s achievement. Surely, argued Peter, anyone who could climb as high as the bridge of the giant’s nose could probably climb about as high as they liked. Why would someone who could climb so high not want to climb just that little bit further and touch the giant’s eyes? What could possibly stop them from doing so, except for rank cowardice, the fear that the stories used to frighten toddlers were true, and that the giant would return to life?
In his fury at being branded a coward, Joshua forgot that Peter had never climbed as high as the lips, and rashly promised that the next time they played the game, he would not rest until he had touched one of the eyes with his bare hand. That had been two months ago, and today they played the game.
As they walked down the gloomy forest trail, Peter found himself doubting the wisdom of his rash boast. It was not that he thought the stories were true – how could they be? Stone was stone and flesh was flesh and one could not change to the other at the drop of a hat – it was more the thought of how very high the giant’s eyes were, and how very far the fall would be if he slipped, and how very hard the rocks were below.
When they finally reached the clearing, all doubt fled. He knew, absolutely, that this would be a very stupid thing to do. But Peter was a twelve year-old boy, and to a twelve year-old boy, matters of honour can seem far more significant than mere mortality.
He prepared himself as the others watched, stripping down to shorts and rubbing chalk dust stolen from the potting shed over his hands and feet for extra purchase on the smooth stone. He really didn’t want to do this anymore. But time was wasting, and everyone was watching, so he took a deep breath, coiled himself for the spring, and launched himself at the lower curls of the beard.
He had no memory of the climb.
The next thing he knew he was clutching a stone eyelash with one hand and bracing his right hand and feet against the side of the nose. He couldn’t quite see over the rim of the eyelid, but he was sure that if he thrust off with both feet he would be able to slap his right hand over the edge and onto the eye itself. He had no idea what would happen then – probably he would fall to his death – but it seemed like the right thing to do.
He pushed off.
He felt strangely scattered, and bits of him seemed to be missing. He concentrated, and drew what he needed from the land around him. As a binding agent he used the spirit of a human woman who had recently died at his feet. She was a part of him now, and their themness would fuse, changing him irrevocably. Little matter. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.
As he came together, he noticed the little humans at his feet. He had never had much time for humans before. It wasn’t that he disliked them, more that they were below his notice; little more than mice scurrying around at whatever business occupied their tiny minds.
Now, however, he felt himself imbued with a strange desire. He wanted to protect these little humans. To tend them, guide them, protect them. He supposed it was the influence of the old woman he had been forced to take into himself.
He would do what he had to do.
Time would pass as it always had.