When Amalia’s father shows her the shoes this morning she wants to cry. She wants to laugh. Call him a fool. But she doesn’t. She is too tired for that.
The shoes are leather with delicate lines and pointy toes. Elegant shoes for elegant feet. They might have suited her too if she had yesterday’s feet. Chicken’s feet. But today her feet are that of an otter’s, stubby and covered in wet, glistening fur. They are webbed with skin. Not quite a duck and not a ferret either.
Her legs are still human down to the anklebones. The thick, reddish fur of the otter’s feet begins from the soft curve of Amalia’s ankles.
Where her human skin stops, bone and muscle twist and take shapes. Shapes that should not be there. Her feet are only sometimes covered in fur. Other times they are sleek and lustrous as if draped in sequins, or cloaked in glossy, kaleidoscopic feathers.
Each pair of feet has its own beauty. So she takes time to examine every new version of her feet, love them for what they are. Learn what she can do with them each day and start over the next, and the one after that. Her mother taught her this.
Amalia does not feel the same about the shoes in front of her. She circles the table, eyeing them. Her father could not have made them. He is a carpenter. Leather and thread are not the tools of his trade. And the pungent smell that clings to them leaves only one answer. The same as every time.
“Was the Artisan here?”
Her father shifts in his chair and with his handkerchief pats the sweat from his creased forehead.
“He left these at the doorstep for you,” he mumbles. “Good lad.”
The Artisan always brings goods with him when he returns from his journeys around the county, collecting the right materials for his creations. His family has old roots in this place, but his craft has taken him much farther than their small village. His carriage—pregnant with precious wares—moans and grinds against the stone-paved roads of their village in his return.
Every time he brings a new pair of magic shoes with him. Shoes to make Amalia’s feet match the rest of her.
Despite the Artisan’s efforts the shoes never fit her, neither do they change her feet the slightest bit. But she tries them on all the same, because it is harder to say no to her father. Harder than walking on tight, uncomfortable shoes that stab her paws, twist her hooves, or threaten to break her long, sharp talons.
She takes the shoes in her lap and caresses the leather with the back of her hand. Feels their warmth against her own skin as if the leather were still alive and breathing. Her father holds his breath expectantly.
There was no curse cast down upon her, no witch or fairy her father offended, no transgression that could account for this. Her mother died when she was four. It was sickness that took her, not a curse. Yet, her father accepts pair after pair of shoes, hoping to change her. Shoes of leather or fur, lace or embroidery. Some of them sturdy boots, others delicate slippers.
None of them she wants to wear. Because how can you change with magic what is natural and not invite misery?
There is a dance between them every time a new pair of shoes appears in their house.
Her father dances around the fact that he would have preferred her to be the same as everyone else. He doesn’t say a word about the other girls. The ones like her. Standing out is never a good thing, he says. What he means is that he is worried she will be alone, without a husband, when he is dead and gone.
Amalia dances around the fact that she likes who she is with or without a husband. It is an awkward dance, speckled with sparse words and side glances, and by the end of it she gives in and tries on the shoes.
The shoes don’t fit quite right, as expected. Amalia feels her claws poking holes in the leather, turning it into a sieve. But they really do breathe. They make a sound like a sad song with every breath, and when they exhale Amalia thinks she hears a small, small sigh.
Nevertheless, whatever magic the shoes have, it doesn’t change who she is. Her feet are still furry, with sharp claws and an ache to soak in the water. As Amalia takes the shoes off her father’s back slumps a little more.
“It’s alright,” he says, consoling himself. “Next time it will be the right fit.”
She stretches an arm to touch his shoulder. There is a tangle of words in her throat that begs for release. But this is their dance after all and they have been doing it for quite some time now, with or without shoes, so she says nothing. Instead, she picks up the shoes gently and hides them inside the old chest with the rest of them.
Today her feet need to extend and taste the river. The water tugs at her from afar and she runs to it.
“Be careful out there,” she hears her father say before she closes the door.
Walking like an otter feels strange. Otters walk on four feet and they prefer to move in water. Amalia has only one set of webbed feet and they are stiff when she tries to run, they tread on the ground almost sideways, crab-like. But she doesn’t care because once she reaches the river they will be glorious.
This time of the day the village used to be full of girls. They worked in the fields or washed clothes by the river. First to wake and last to sleep. But now the only sound is her claws scratching at the hard soil.
When the first girls started disappearing everyone thought it was because they were not careful enough. When some of the careful girls went missing too, the villagers could do nothing but escort the remaining ones everywhere.
Only, there are still girls that go everywhere alone. There is so much work to be done in the fields and too many chores outside the house, too many siblings to be looked after, services to be attended. And it has only been a dozen girls. So the do-nots slip from people’s minds as fast as the missing girls’ names.
But Amalia won’t let herself forget. She carves all of their names in her memory. Both the names of the girls she knew well and those of the girls from other villages. The last ones she overhears from the tradespeople who pass through their village, or the Artisan himself when he sits with her father at their old crusty table and they empty a whole bottle of raki between them.
Niki, Eleni, Vasilissa, Themis, Zinovia, the names go on. Those who she met, who she washed clothes next to, worked the earth alongside to, or even danced and laughed with, they had magic in them one way or another, just like her. And she is certain the other ones had as well. All of them related to each other like a long chain that might eventually reach her. Before that happens she will find what really happened to them.
And that means she has to remember them all.
As for Amalia, nobody thinks she needs protection except for her father. She is unpredictable in her own skin, her feet forever changing shape. Strong and elusive. Part of why her father thinks she is never going to take anyone as a husband and why some men don’t look her in the eyes. She never goes where they tell her to but she always brings food to the table, like how she plans to catch those fishes when she reaches the bank.
When each day is a surprise, people stop being surprised, are either accepting or indifferent. And Amalia is at peace with both.
Under her gray dress Krini’s muscles bulge as she drops cut wood on the pile.
“Need help?” She waves at Amalia from the half-lit woodshed.
Amalia shakes her head. Krini runs to her anyway because what she really needs is an excuse to leave her brothers to their own devices and together they walk all the way down to the river. A comfortable silence lingers between them.
The feet never come alone. There is a need that sprouts every time Amalia finds a new set of feet attached to her body. Today Amalia catches fish with her mouth. She pulls them out of the water by the tail and as they sway, she yanks them to the bank, all the way to where Krini sits cross-legged. The fish glisten under the sun, they writhe. Their mouths shape a silent scream, their faces stunned. Amalia swallows, licking fish blood and scales from her lips.
Krini doesn’t seem to notice, lost in her own thoughts. So the next time Amalia sinks her teeth in a fish she tosses it so hard, its tail slaps Krini’s cheek. It soils her slick black hair before falling on the grass.
Krini strokes her face and shoots an angry look at Amalia.
“Still thinking about Eleni?”
“How can I not?” Krini asks. “She was just downstream when her sisters lost her.” She gestures not far away from where they are and shoots an anxious look at the trees around them.
“Maybe it’s not safe for us to be here,” she whispers.
Sometimes Krini acts like a bear, strong and moody. But when they talk about the missing girls she behaves like a small, frightened animal, searching for a way out. She doesn’t dare say out loud how Eleni reminds her of Amalia and herself, but Amalia already knows this.
Eleni was the youngest and the boldest of her sisters. She would always split up from them and hold her breath the longest underwater like a fish, hungry to see what was hiding between the shadows of the deep.
When Amalia thinks of her now, she imagines empty lungs and a breath stolen too soon with trickery and force, even though there is no body to prove it.
Amalia dives. She holds the air in and lets her feet glide in the water, take her downstream.
“What are you doing?”
Krini’s voice is only a gurgle when Amalia swims underwater. It’s better that way because Amalia can pretend she can’t hear the fear in it.
I just want to see, she thinks. There might be something of Eleni that still lingers. But when she finds the spot all the smells have blended into one. The footprints are long gone. What remains is a rapid, where there wasn’t one before, threatening to pull her down. When Amalia stretches a hand to touch the river stones, a force jolts her backwards and she flails, swallowing water.
A hand grabs hers and pulls her back ashore. Krini’s face is flushed. Amalia feels the weight of her clothes as she struggles to steady herself.
“Are you okay?”
She forces a smile and doesn’t speak of the dregs of magic at the bottom of the river. Nor how the water tasted acidic like burnt coffee and blood.
From her spot on the topmost branch of an oak tree Amalia can see the Artisan approaching. Her body quivers at the sight of him. Everything but her delicate feline paws balancing with ease on the moss-covered bark.
Krini is not with her today. She followed her brothers deep inside the woods. It’s better that way. Krini can read Amalia’s silence better than anyone, and today it’s not a good day to be inside Amalia’s head.
From the Artisan’s carriage dangle all sorts of wares; powders of excessive airiness, potent as they are pricey, that ordinary folk would have to go hungry half a lifetime to purchase; dresses and shirts with more layers than a red onion, and more crimson than blood, that the process of undressing from one would last a week if a person were to do it by themselves, and it still wouldn’t be enough to shed the lingering rosiness off their skin; elegant music organs shining white under the sun, their voices so melodic and sorrowful that her skin crawls with unease.
And amongst all the trinkets the Artisan carries in his wagon, there is a pair of shoes meant just for her.
Amalia’s eyes travel to the crest of the hills beyond the forest, where Petra the goat herder went missing just two weeks ago. The only thing they found was the scarf she used to tie up her impossibly long acorn-brown hair.
With feet so agile and strong, Amalia can go much further today. They carry her from tree to tree all the way to the base of the hill. There she drops to the goat trail. She relaxes her torso, trusts her wildcat feet to steady her, and sniffs the air. It’s bitter like ashes. A nasty smell. And there is something hovering above, something small, almost invisible. But not to her.
When she returns home her father is not alone. Even before she enters the cottage she can smell the astringent scent of the Artisan barely concealed under expensive perfumes. Amalia can’t tell if it’s the layers and layers of fur covering his broad shoulders that give off that smell, or the scent of magic hidden underneath. He doesn’t part from his garbs, not even in the summer. If he were a snake at least he would shed his skin once a year.
Her father turns his attention to her. The Artisan stands next to him, casting a long shadow from the one side of the house to the other. His head snaps around when he hears her.
“Could this be sweet Amalia?” The Artisan feigns surprise.
Her claws scrape at the floorboards.
The thing Amalia sees first is the new pair of shoes. The most elaborately woven sandals her fingers have touched. They look charcoal black under the dim candle light. When she caresses them, there is the softness of fibers like hair and strings like ligaments tensing underneath.
They feel unlike any other pair of sandals. Not made by anything she can recognize. She shuts her eyes to kill the thoughts that try to squeeze their way into her mind.
“Gone.” The Artisan shares the bleak news with Amalia’s father, while his eyes ogle Amalia’s feet without shame. “The goat herder with hair like silk, from the third village eastward. Her goats scattered without her, got eaten by wolves.”
“A pity.” Her father shakes his head. He looks at Amalia as if she were the one gone or eaten. His fear is clear as day.
“But come,” the Artisan touches Amalia’s shoulder just so. He doesn’t want to offend her father. “Try on your new shoes. I have used only the finest materials.”
Her father’s eyes brighten under the Artisan’s tall shadow. He wants her to try the shoes on. They both do.
These sandals might even fit her.
One of these days, she thinks, will be the day that the shoes will finally change her. Into what, she doesn’t know. The wildcat in her thinks of scratching her way out or leaping into the dusk and vanishing in the night, until the Artisan is gone from the village and then her father alone will be softer, less demanding. He will just nod and she will avoid his stare once more, because she cannot explain that she doesn’t want this. They both lost the words a long time ago, when her mother died. Now all she has are herself, her feet, and Krini. And maybe she can evade wearing this pair.
“Another time maybe,” she whispers.
The Artisan comes close and examines her feet, with the same cold stare he sells his wares. His smell almost makes her faint. His face could have been handsome if it weren’t so unflinching.
“Are you so selfish to deny your father this favor?”
She can never deny her father anything. So she steels herself for what might be the last pair of shoes she will wear.
Her father. If only he hadn’t let the Artisan into their home, into their lives with his need to make her like the rest.
Then someone bangs on the door and air releases from inside of her.
Krini stands behind the door, looking ready to knock it down if someone doesn’t open it soon. Her dress is dirt-crusted from the forest and on her back she carries wood for Amalia and her father. Her eyes shift inside the cottage and fall on Amalia and then on the Artisan.
“Good evening, Mr. Zamani,” she says to Amalia’s father. “Sir.” She turns to the Artisan and bows with grace, leaving the wood by the door. The Artisan is not a man to be ignored.
She must have seen the Artisan’s carriage in passing and knew he would visit Amalia’s house first. He always does.
But before Amalia has the chance to usher herself and Krini outside, the Artisan’s face lights up. He takes the sandals from the table and offers them to Krini.
The girls hold their breath.
The glint inside the Artisan’s eyes is dagger-sharp. Krini glances at her.
“Come, my dear.” He gestures for Krini to sit at the table. As she stumbles inside, uncertain, he kneels in front of her.
He takes Krini’s ragged shoes, throws them to the side and takes her foot in his hands. Krini pulls the hem of her long dress even further down and curls her toes, ashamed of the dirt in her toenails, of her blisters from years of hard work. Amalia clenches her fists, a hair’s breadth from the Artisan. If there’s one moment that tests her restraint it’s this one.
The Artisan keeps Krini’s long foot in his grip and smiles a too-bright smile as she slowly calms down.
Amalia’s heart thrums inside her ears.
It’s the moment she wishes she were a whole animal, free from the silent rules she must follow. But she isn’t for now. And she watches her friend’s breath get caught up in her chest as the Artisan tries to fit the sandal to Krini’s human foot.
Amalia is almost certain it won’t fit Krini. Her human feet are bigger than the sandals. Almost. But she is not willing to try the Artisan’s magic on her friend. The shoes are meant for her. So she drags her claws across the wooden floor and sits on the chair right next to her father.
“I’ll wear them,” Amalia says finally. Her face is stone.
Before the Artisan can complain she pries the sandals from his hands and pushes her feet inside them. Again, they don’t fit. The pads of her feet stretch out the soles, and the sandals recoil, tighten, resist. She looks at the Artisan, expecting disappointment or rage. But there is an even bigger smile there, toothier, full of promises.
“Now I know how to make the perfect shoes for your daughter.” His eyes become so narrow they could cut her in pieces.
A worry creeps inside Amalia. Her father nods satisfied, trusting and pats his daughter on the head as if she were little again.
When Amalia searches for Krini’s eyes she finds them lingering on the Artisan, her shoulders slumped, her body losing some of its vigor, her edges becoming curves.
When she touches her shoulder, it is almost as if she touches a different person. And there is a sinking feeling in the pit of Amalia’s stomach, because now she is certain about the Artisan, his scent, and his magic shoes.
Amalia stands proud in these feet. She is fast and graceful. The horse legs sprout just under her kneecaps. Long and sinewy as they are, they need more space to stretch. Her bed sheets are twisted in a tight knot from her stirring all night, and she is out of the house before her father wakes.
She can’t enjoy the full extent of her limbs, the rhythmic galloping of her steps. She can’t enjoy anything because Krini is missing.
One day after the Artisan touched her, Krini changed. He had already moved on to the next village but her friend was still thinking about him—How light his touch! How bright his blue eyes! How warm his smile!
They were not.
She would never forget how cold Krini’s face grew when she said that. Krini has never given her a hard stare in their lives but now there was a veil of iciness about her. She withdrew inside her house, closed the door and wouldn’t come out again, no matter how much Amalia pleaded with her.
The next day when her brothers took her with them to the forest, she left for the dark woods without looking back and was never seen again. Vanished, like all the girls before her. But for them there was no one to witness how they must have fallen under the Artisan’s spell. Or if they did they must have thought it an infatuation.
But Amalia knows better. She smelled the dregs of his magic in every place a girl had gone missing. And she finally has all the pieces of the puzzle together. Because of Krini.
She only wishes she had been there to stop Krini from going after him. That she could have locked her up in her own house and guarded her until her mind cleared.
A horse is a proud animal that can run long distances; and she does run. She runs as if the world is on fire. She scours all the main roads and the other, smaller ones that could break a cart in two if someone is not careful. But she finds nothing. No trace of her friend but no trace of magic either. Not even a distant echo of it.
Then she turns to the forest, to the copses of birch woods Krini’s brothers make into firewood. And then further, deeper, to the trees behind the trees, the rivers that run sideways, and the trails treaded only by hooves and paws. Even though a carriage cannot cross these paths, this is the only place left to look. As the day draws to an end she finds the thread she knows she must follow. The bitterness in her mouth tells her she is right.
The ground is covered with something not quite like frost. They are well into spring but when Amalia touches the ground it’s icy, and hard like Krini’s face the last time they spoke. The undergrowth in these parts looks like something that belongs to winter. There is a trail of snowdrops going deeper into the forest and to either side of them, wheel marks, already fading into nothing.
So she keeps running before they are gone for good.
At last when she reaches far away, far enough that if she looks back she cannot find any trace of road that might lead her home, she finds the carriage next to a cluster of pine trees.
It’s night by now. The quietness that spreads around is so complete that she flinches at the creaking of the steps and the screeching of the door. Amalia steals behind a small tree.
There is pungency in the air, a thick stench that settles on the back of her tongue, no matter how many times she swallows. She digs the ground with her hooves, kicking up dust.
When the Artisan comes out he is not covered in blood. His teeth are not sharper than what they were before and his clothes are perfumed as usual. He is calm and smiling, his flaxen hair falling on his shoulders in graceful locks. But the promise of pain is all around him.
Amalia retreats in a puddle of shadows and watches. Her body becomes one of the trunks in its stillness, yet her eyes dart after every odd shape, follow any movement around the carriage and her ears sort even the slightest sound, tracing them back to its source. None of them is Krini.
There is something about the Artisan that makes her stomach suddenly hollow. In his right hand he holds out a new pair of shoes. Blood red and sinewy. When Amalia lays her eyes on them she can hear them pulsate.
“These are the right ones for you,” he says. His eyes teary, like an artist that has just completed a masterpiece that eluded him for a long time.
Amalia hesitates, uncertain if it was her heartbeat that gave her away or the beating sound of the shoes.
She comes forward, lets her face become illuminated by the lamp shining through the open window of the carriage.
When she finds enough spit to wet her tongue she asks:
“Where is Krini?”
He doesn’t answer her. Instead he dangles the shoes and smiles.
“Wear them,” he tells her.
“Wear these and you will be reunited with your beloved Krini.”
Something makes her want to take the shoes away from the Artisan’s hands, protect them. And she does take them even though she is certain these will be the right ones at last. She wears them because there is nothing else to do. She wants to be with Krini again. And this is the only way.
The shoes cloak her hooves like a beating heart. Krini’s heart. And then they expand and stretch and settle on her like a second skin. She has feet, human feet, girl’s feet, but they are not her own.
The girl whose feet she is wearing have broad, human toes, calves sturdy enough to carry timber half a day’s walk through the woods, and calloused soles that take firm strides wherever they need to be. Krini’s feet and Krini’s heart. They don’t belong to her but she knows them just as well. You can’t conjure something out of nothing.
She knows that if she tries to take the shoes off again they will not peel off. She feels her own feet already somewhere else, severed without blood, but the pain of the loss runs deeper than skin.
“This is how you can live forever,” the Artisan tells her. “You give something of yourself to make into a beautiful thing.” He looks at her feet when he says that.
He tells Amalia exactly how he does it: he pulls them apart and severs them from their most prized possessions. Not their parts, but themselves. What makes them them. He is an artist but also an inventor. His creations will live long after he is gone. Part of her will live on long after she is gone. But is living forever in parts living at all? She wants to ask.
It is and it is not, Krini’s voice replies from somewhere inside of her.
A small sob leaves her chest. The voice sounds as familiar as her own. So much so that she thinks she dreamed it up.
She caresses the feet and the beating heart underneath. They are, for now, a part of her, shackling her down with the Artisan’s magic.
There is no greater cruelty than to pit the love of one friend against another, she thinks.
We are not one person anymore.
Krini’s voice comes clear for a moment and then it splits into a thousand cries. Amalia covers her ears. Their wailing is too violent. But it’s not one of sadness. It’s a blazing fire. Its intent flows through her like boiling water.
He took us apart but brought us all together. And we have no love for the Artisan.
The voices splice into one big shout, then come apart, and splice again, in their unwavering effort to be heard.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have matters to attend.” He gives a small bow, opens the carriage door and disappears behind it.
“I want to set you free,” Amalia whispers to the girls. “But I am shackled myself.”
And Krini, the heart, the feet, the voice, and all the parts of all the girls in unison reply:
Let’s strike a bargain then.
Niki, Eleni, Vasilissa, Themis, Zinovia, Petra, Krini. The girls know where the Artisan is keeping Amalia’s feet. And they know how to give them back to her.
It takes them some time to undo what has been done. It is the first and only time they try to use their magic and it has to be done well. They have seen the Artisan do the trick so many times. One after the other they watched it happen, over and over again. Unable to stop it. Divided. But Amalia gives them her body to find each other. It is their body too now. Their mutual bond is Krini.
Amalia’s heart drums in her chest when she glances at the carriage, but the door never opens. The Artisan is confident in his success.
She repeats the girls’ names like a lost song, keeping their connection alive, for the spell to be undone. Slowly, Krini’s feet feel foreign again, familiar but separate.
When Amalia sheds the shoes like dried rose petals, her feet have soft paws and razor-edged claws.
The Artisan is busy inside his carriage, drawing maps of her body and how it will come apart and be used. But her body belongs to her again. She is free and she is more.
All the other girls live inside her now, and they wait for the right moment.
He doesn’t hear her creep under the first rays of sunlight. Her steps muffled, a soft sigh of wolf’s feet, heartbeat, and earth. Her lethal paws gliding up the stairs are not yet an idea inside his mind, lulled as he has become by his own success.
When he sees her it’s too late. He sheds his furs and his layers of trickery like a stale onion sliced in half. What’s left in the core is bitterness and a man that is nothing without his priceless possessions, without the fear and the respect of others.
Amalia tears the tender meat of him with her claws and the appetite of the wolf in her mouth, and all the girls that came and went before smile inside of her.
When she is done, she washes herself of his blood in the stream, erases every trace of him off her body. As she waits for her clothes to dry, she decides that she will find the words to tell her father what he must hear. And he will have to hear it, even if it hurts him.
There will be no more dancing around.
She has a purpose now and a promise to keep.
She will travel on her animal feet, wherever the girls whisper to her and collect all their parts the Artisan has left behind: the powders and the musical instruments, the knife handles and the cushions, the clothes and the shoes.
Until even the last of them comes home with her.
(Editors’ Note: “How the Girls Came Home” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 40B.)
© 2021 Eugenia Triantafyllou