The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen is an incredibly compelling story but a very hard one to tell. A buttoned-down, rule-bound community condemns the girl who wears the red shoes, and she doesn’t survive their judgment. Hard-heartedness triumphs here, it seems. Or does it?
As you may know, I have a principle about these stories, which is that we don’t change them when they discomfort us. We leave them as they are, and try to come to terms with them by entering them and looking between the lines.
So I decided that in order to tell the story, I needed to find somebody in the community who had a compassionate view of the girl, and knew her well enough to tell her story from a place of love. Well, I found that person, unlikely as he may seem. The executioner loved that girl. So here’s his story, along with his song.
His song comes from Esther Mathew’s poem (entitled “Song”). When I heard the melody coming from the lines, I heard the executioner’s voice.
The Executioner's Story of The Red Shoes
I’ve tried for years to forget the red shoes. Then, just the other day, when I went lookin’ for somethin’ in the shed, what do you think I found? Yep. Them red shoes—jammed into a corner between an ol’ wooden crate and the wall.
Now I don’t mean to offend your sensibilities, but they were a grisly sight. You remember the story, I’m sure. The pastor likes to tell how a girl who loved red shoes got punished by the Lord. Well, I got a different version of the story, and it’s my own.
See, I knew the girl who wore them red shoes. I knew her from the time she was a little girl. Her name was Karen. She lived not too far away from here, in that ramshackle hut down by the creek. Her Momma suffered one too many beatings from her Daddy, and I can’t say I shed any tears when he got caught for murdering that man he robbed. Fact is, the day I executed her Daddy was a good day, and I don’t have too many good days.
I told that little girl to stay away from me, but she weren’t afraid. She ran round my garden and stole my carrots worse than any darn rabbit. She had no shoes, not in summer, anyway, and hardly no clothes to wear. In winter, I’d see her stumbling along in wooden clogs too small for her feet. I know how they hurt her. She showed me. They scraped her insoles bright red.
Then she disappeared for a summer. Her Momma got sick, I guess. Maybe she never did recover from the beatings her old man gave her. She died in the fall. Everybody went to the funeral, even me. People didn’t come to pay their respects, exactly. Karen’s Momma had a reputation from way back and the names people called her stuck to her like tar. But folks, bein’ what they are, are curious, so the funeral was well attended.
On the way to the cemetery, Karen trotted along behind the cart that carried her Momma’s body. To everybody’s shock she was wearin’ red shoes. The old shoemaker’s wife told me she made ’em for her. She couldn’t stand to see the child runnin’ around with no shoes on. She cobbled ’em together outta scraps of red leather and silk that were lyin’ around the shop. The child loved them shoes. Nobody’d ever given her anythin’ of her own before. She told the shoemaker’s wife that she was gonna save them for some special occasion. Well, it came along when her Momma died. Them church-goers didn’t know nothin’ about that. When they saw the shoes, all they saw was RED.
Now then, an old carriage comes clatterin’ along. There’s grand ol’ lady ridin’ in it, and she sees the girl runnin’ along behind the cart. She stops the driver an’ yells at the child: “Hey, child, come here. You got anywhere to live, now? Well then, why don’t you come live with me?” Sounded pretty fine to Karen. She climbed up into the carriage, and rode off with the ol’ lady.
First thing the ol’ lady did when they got to her grand old house was to throw the child’s rags into the fire, shoes an’ all. Some time later, she took Karen to town to get her some proper shoes. Karen looked into the window and saw another pair of red shoes, only these were finely made. The leather came all the way from Morocco, and they glittered and sparkled in the sun. They looked just like the shoes she’d seen on a princess, and she wanted to be just like that princess in her swan-white dress with her sparkly red shoes.
She tried ’em on and they fit just as if they were made for her very own feet. The ol’ lady bought ’em. She didn’t know they were red cause she were colorblind. But when Karen wore them shoes to church, the people were scandalized. They said to the ol’ lady,”What you doin’ lettin’ that child wear red shoes to church?” She ordered Karen to take ’em off and never wear ’em again. Then her first communion came round, and when Karen put on her pretty white dress and looked at herself in the mirror, why, she looked almost like a princess. All she needed was them wonderful red shoes.
When she and the ol’ lady came to the church, there was this ol’ crippled soldier sittin’ on the steps. He had a long white beard, stained red with his spittle. He made a big display of wipin’ the grand lady’s shoes, and then the little girl stuck out her own foot. “Oh, what pretty dancin’ shoes!” he said. Then he said somethin’ real peculiar. “Stick fast when she dances,” he said.
Now them shoes couldn’t sit still. All through the service they tapped and tapped, and Karen couldn’t get ’em out of her mind to focus on the chalice and the host. When she and the ol’ lady came back down the church steps, the ol’ soldier was still there. And he says it again: “Pretty shoes, stick fast when you dance!” Now the child starts dancin’ down the street, much to the shock of all those good church goin’ folks. The coachman catches her and puts her in the carriage, but the shoes won’t stop and they kick the ol’ lady, violently, in the stomach.
Now Karen knows she better not ever wear them shoes again. She puts ’em in her closet, and that’s that. A little time passes, and the old lady’s health starts to fail. She needs Karen to do double duty now: look after the house, and look after her, and she don’t have a moment to think about pretty dresses or shoes. Years go by and Karen grows into a lovely lookin’ young lady who ties her hair in a scarf and does nothin’ but work. Then, just like it happened in a fairy tale, the town holds a dance. And Karen, why, she wants to go. She thinks why not put on them pretty red shoes? After all, they’re dancin’ shoes!
Off she goes to the dance hall. When the music starts up, the shoes are as eager to dance and horses comin’ out of the barn. But Karen’s got no hold of ’em. She dances right, the shoes dance left. She dances left, the shoes dance right. Then they dance her outta the hall and into the street, and she can’t stop ’em. They dance her out into the field, and into the dark wood, and who do you think they dance her right up to? That ol’ crippled soldier with the red stained beard. He’s sittin’ on a log in the deep dark wood, and this time, he taps the soles of the shoes and tells ’em to “Stick fast!”
Now Karen’s real frightened and she tries to get the shoes off. She tears off her stockings, but the shoes are stuck to her feet. She goes dancin’ through the thick wood, and out into the hills. All through the night she dances, dances in the rain, dances right into the gloom of the followin’ day. She can’t get no rest. She dances in the churchyard and even on the graves. She dances through the town, where everyone can see her shame. Night comes and she’s still dancin’ in the fields. She dances past the church gates—grabs ’em and hangs on for dear life, pleadin’ for the mercy of the Lord.
And then, why, a great angel appears on the other side of the gate. It has long wings that go from its shoulders all the way down to the earth. And the angel says, “Dance you shall. Dance until you grow pale and thin. Dance until your bones clatter, dance through town and knock on every door so every child will hear you and fear you. Dance you shall!”
I’m just tellin’ you the way I heard it from Karen, and I trust her tellin’ better than I do anybody else in this town.
Now then, she was as desperate as anybody can get, and so she forced them shoes to dance herself to my place. I heard her yellin’ out in the yard, well past midnight. I went out and I caught her by the waist. She was like some wild animal, screamin’ that the devil had got hold of her. She wanted me to end her life, painlessly, like I did for everyone else. Well, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t, so there was only one thing left to do. I tied her to a post so the shoes wouldn’t carry her away. Then I gave her some strong whiskey. She was already bone-weary so it weren’t long before she passed out. Then I laid her on the kitchen table and tied the feet down. I cut ’em off just above the ankle, and them two bloody stumps dropped to the floor with a thump thump. Then they carried on dancin’ right outta the house.
I wrapped the stumps and doctored Karen for weeks until her wounds healed. I gave her the other room in my house which weren’t much of a room, just a narrow place for dryin’ wood. I made her a pair of crutches, and I even managed to make her a pair of wooden feet.
She firmly believed that the Lord had punished her for wearin’ them red shoes. She read her Bible every day, and tried to make her way to church on Sunday. But every time she did, them two shoes would show up with the stumps still in ’em, and they’d dance in front of her. She couldn’t bear the shame of it, so she’d turn back and come home.
She wasted away by herself in that little room. I just let her. It was her business, not mine, and I didn’t like to talk to her about my business any more than she liked to tell me about hers. I didn’t let her see the way I felt, though. I turned away when she lit up my eyes.
One mornin’ after I’d gone out to chop wood, and the townsfolk had gone to church, I came back to find her dead in her little room. She was lyin’ face down on her hymn book. A bolt of light was pourin’ in through the window, turnin’ her hair to gold.
Folks round here have made her death into a pretty story. They say her heart broke, and when it did, the angel of the Lord received her into the gates of heaven. He touched the walls an’ they opened wide. She heard the organ pealin’ and saw the congregation sittin’ there in their polished chairs with their hymn books open. The pastor and his wife were beamin’ at her, sayin’, “It was right of you to come, Karen.” She’d finally gained the mercy of the Lord.
I didn’t go to the funeral. I don’t regret that. I do regret that I didn’t show her the light in my eyes. I don’t know that I ever could have done it. I just can’t be talkin’ of love. Wouldn’t be able to do my job. I’d sing about that sometimes. I’d sing about that.
I can’t be talkin’ of love, dear,
I can’t be talkin’ of love.
If there be one thing I can’t talk of
That one thing do be love.
But that’s not sayin’ that I’m not lovin—
Still water, you know, runs deep,
An’ I do be lovin’ so deep, dear,
I be lovin’ you in your sleep.
But I can’t be talkin’ of love, dear,
I can’t be talkin’ of love.
If there be one thing I can’t talk of
That one thing do be love.
(Story and drawings by Michelle Tocher, poem by Esther Mathews, “Song.”)