When the Shoe Won’t Fit
By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
Tiptoe pushed the cradle, her stiff overalls rustling with the movement. Her large, flat foot almost crushed the delicate vines making up the cradle’s form. “Hush, little one. I’m here.”
She looked down at the cherry red face of her newest charge and frowned. Tiptoe could feel heat radiating from the infant. She’d never seen a fairy grow hot before, or turn red. The warmth pulled her closer, so different from the chill most fairies radiated.
Stroking his face, she cooed at the baby and rocked the cradle in time to the sound of her deep, gruff voice.
He turned, his eyes still screwed shut, and latched onto her little finger, sucking vigorously.
“Oh, you’re hungry.” Without shifting from her position by the cradle, she reached across the room and grabbed one of the bottles filled with flower juice. Then, she teased the side of his mouth to get her finger free.
The new infant didn’t like that at all. His body swelled as he drew in a deep breath. He opened his mouth, releasing such an angry roar that the little house shook.
Tiptoe cringed, sure the other fairies would blame her if even one root pulled free. She jammed the nipple into the baby’s mouth, sighing with relief when he started suckling.
The red color subsided from his face as fast as the juice vanished from the bottle. He became a pale pink as different from the gray of Tiptoe’s skin as hers was from the usual fairy blue. She pushed back his fine, blond hair and smiled down at the child, grabbing his bare toes gently with one hand and playing with them.
“You’re a little thing next to me, but my cousins are much smaller. I wonder where they found you.”
The boy’s grasping fingers caught her coarse, black arm hair and pulled.
“Ouch!” She untangled his hand, letting him grab hold of her fingers instead.
He pushed the bottle from his mouth and chortled, jerking her hand about with more strength than she’d ever seen in a fairy baby.
“You have my strength too. Maybe your feet will grow big like mine and we can be different together. It would be nice to have a cousin who stays with me. All the other babies get their magic shoes and fly off.” A flicker of movement outside the window caught her attention. She stopped speaking and the muscles along the top of her curved neck tensed.
Laughter came first then four fairies followed, popping into the nursery with their magic shoes chiming. Their soft petal dresses and suits rustled.
“You’ll never be like him, Tiptoe. You haven’t a chance.”
“No chance at all.”
“Nope, not a dream of one.”
“Not even a fairy dream.”
They laughed again and Tiptoe turned her head away so they couldn’t see the tears welling up in her big brown eyes. Her dirty eyes, or so the other fairies said when they teased her. She wished she had just one thing to show that she belonged with her cousins. She could manage the big feet, hairy arms, and dull gray skin if only she had green or blue or violet eyes.
Blinking away another wash of tears, she looked at the pink baby. He didn’t have the pale blue skin, but his fine, blond hair resembled her cousins’ more than her own coarse black strands.
Then he stared back at her for the first time. “He has brown eyes just like mine.”
Tiptoe didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until the other fairies laughed harder.
“You think brown eyes make you the same?” The first fairy shook her head as if in sympathy.
“You’re only good for doing chores and watching the babies,” the second added. “Your feet are too big.”
The third floated over the cradle, his form barely longer than the baby within. “He’s a prince. He’s special.”
The last fairy fell to the floor, kicking her sparkling slippers in the air as she giggled. “You can’t even fit the tip of your toe in a magic shoe. You’ll never have magic. Nobody wants you, Tiptoe.”
The fairy’s voice hardened on Tiptoe’s name and the others started with a familiar chorus, calling her name over and over again.
“Go away!” Tiptoe waved her arms at them and the four fairies scuttled back. “Just go away and leave me alone.”
They left, still laughing.
“She’s so sensitive.”
“She might be strong, but not where it counts.”
The youngest of the four looked back when she reached the window. The little fairy stuck out her tongue before winging away in cartwheels, something Tiptoe would never be able to do. If she could only fit the shoes, she would have fairy magic too.
Aiming a glare at the oversized feet that kept her from being a real fairy, Tiptoe vowed, “Someday, I’ll prove I’m just as good as they are. I’ll prove I’m better.”
The baby prince gurgled his agreement before voicing a complaint and thrashing his legs around.
“At least you’re wanted, little prince. What have you got to complain about?” Despite her words, she’d worked in the nursery long enough to know what he needed. As she changed his diaper, she wondered if she had made the same sound when she was little.
“You look big for a fairy prince, though I suppose you could be like me no matter what they say. Sometimes babies just turn out different.” At least that’s what she’d told herself when she noticed her huge feet.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the little prince. If he really was wanted, then someone would miss him. None of the fairies in her village had birthed him. They just brought him to her one day. They must have found him somewhere.
“Dewpetal?” Tiptoe approached one of the older fairies who sat perched on a tree branch, sewing a dress from freshly picked petals. Though Tiptoe worried about leaving the prince alone, she needed an answer.
The fairy smiled when she saw Tiptoe.
Tiptoe sank to her knees, bringing her face level with Dewpetal. “It’s about the prince. Shouldn’t we try to bring him home? Won’t his family be looking for him?”
Dewpetal’s eyebrows rose until they disappeared under her cap. The fairy shook her head. “We’re his family now. We’ll look after the prince.” She turned away as if to end the conversation.
Tiptoe stood up, frustrated. “But they’ll be missing him. Wouldn’t you miss your child?”
Dewpetal turned with such a glare that Tiptoe stumbled backwards, barely avoiding the front wall of one of the fairy houses.
“I do miss my child. Where do you think my little one went when the prince came?”
Confusion welled up in Tiptoe as she remembered Dewpetal’s sweet little boy. “Didn’t he go to the training?” she asked.
“He was a baby! He didn’t even have a name yet. His feet were still too small to fit in magic shoes. And now he’ll never have magic.”
Tiptoe struggled to understand. She thought all the babies who disappeared went to join the swarming cloud of fairies in the village. Though she couldn’t leave the boundaries, the others danced away all the time, returning with food and gifts.
Dewpetal’s high voice turned bitter. “My child now rests in human arms. A price we had to pay.” With a grimace, the fairy shrugged. “But we have a prince. We got the better of the bargain.”
This time Tiptoe didn’t try to stop Dewpetal from leaving. The fairy flew off, unattached petals scattering around her.
Tiptoe’s mind whirled with what she’d learned. Humans. She’d heard fairies outside the nursery talking about the strange beings. The younger fairies even said she was a human sometimes when they teased her about her size. Why give up their baby? Why let fairies take the prince away? Didn’t they love their children?
She walked to the nursery, too caught up in her thoughts to notice the young fairies until they appeared in a swarm around her head. An older fairy flew up behind, but he goaded them on rather than shooing them away.
“Come fly with us, Tiptoe,” they chorused. “Come see the wide, wide world.”
“Oh, that’s right,” one added. “You can’t.”
The little fairies laughed so hard that they tipped upside down, too young to control their shoes without paying attention.
Tiptoe batted them away from her face, anger rising as she recognized the youngest two. Not so long ago, she’d fed them and rocked them to sleep. When did they turn so mean?
“Uh oh, Tiptoe.”
“Be careful, Tiptoe.”
“Don’t be clumsy, Tiptoe.”
She tried to catch one to teach them a lesson, but then she felt it–the sticky, clinging touch of fairy thread as it wrapped around her big feet. Before she could stop, they jerked hard on their ends, strength magnified by the fairy filament.
Tiptoe let out a startled cry and twisted at the last moment, just barely avoiding a fairy house as she fell.
“Here now!” yelled a grumpy old fairy from inside the little dwelling. “You get back to the nursery where you belong. We’ll all be safer that way.”
She glanced at her feet, her mouth opening to accuse the fairies. The threads had vanished as if they’d never been. The fairies themselves had flown away with their magic shoes. Tiptoe sighed. “Yes, I’ll go back to the nursery. And I’ll be more careful,” she told the little man, forestalling his next comment.
Tiptoe rocked the cradle with her hated foot and wiped away tears. Her hair fell over one eye and she shook the strands back. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone?
The prince cooed, as if trying to comfort her.
She glanced around, checking for fairies. “They’re so mean,” she whispered. “They haven’t a nice bone in their tiny, little bodies. I hate them.” The last came out as a growl, but the prince just stared back at her, his eyes solemn.
“You understand, don’t you? Even if they aren’t mean to you, you’ve seen how they treat me.”
He squirmed and Tiptoe sighed, reaching for a clean diaper. “You don’t know anything. You’re just a baby. I’ll bet you don’t even know your family traded you for one of those tiny fairies.” She waved at the other room where the fairy babies rested. Though she checked on them frequently, Tiptoe always came back to sit with the prince. He had a separate room because his body heat irritated the others, so different from their icy skin.
His little face folded up and his skin turned dark. The fairy plants withered out of the way, liking his heat no more than their creators did.
“Oh, no, don’t cry.” She offered a finger to see if he needed food, but the prince pushed her away. She checked his diaper, but it was dry. Rocking the cradle faster, she tried to stave off his crying fit. Sometimes the prince just cried, no matter what she did.
She glanced around, knowing the fairies would come to scold her if she didn’t keep him quiet. Scooping him out of the cradle, she pressed him against her broad chest, a motion she couldn’t manage with the smaller fairy babies. She swayed back and forth to calm him and tried to keep the panic from her voice.
“You have to stop,” she said. “Stop crying or they’ll yell at me.” Tiptoe fought the need to join him and bawl out her misery.
He finally calmed a little, hiccupping as he warmed her with his heat.
“You’re so sad sometimes, little prince. Just like I am. Why are you so sad?” she murmured. “I think you miss your family. Your real family.”
With one last hiccup, the prince fell asleep, exhausted. She held him for a little longer before lowering him into the cradle. “I don’t know how your family could give you up. You’re such a precious little baby.”
She twisted a white-gold curl around one thick finger, staring down at his beautiful face. It was so much broader than the fairy folk, another thing they shared. “If I were your mother, I wouldn’t give you up for anything. I wouldn’t give you up even for the ability to wear magic petal shoes and do magic.”
Tiptoe slept poorly, struggling with why the prince’s family gave him away. She kept dreaming about the humans crying. How they must miss him. She couldn’t imagine why they would do such a thing.
When sunlight hit her window, she sat up on her reed bed and glowered at brightness. She was never at her best when sun first touched the sky, but this morning she felt even worse than usual. Fairies swarmed through the air, discordant chimes from their magic shoes battering her ears. Even when they didn’t try, they managed to hurt her.
She stomped into the main nursery, glowering whenever one of the windows displayed the throng on its way to spread fairy charms. Tiptoe didn’t know what they did in the world, but she doubted whether they helped anyone.
The prince looked up as she entered his room. He cooed a greeting and she smiled back. At least he wanted her.
The thought soured in her gut as she stared down at his pink face. “You’d be even happier to see your real mother, wouldn’t you?” she said. All night she’d felt an idea just beyond her reach.
He cooed again and she picked up his bottle, still puzzling over the thought. The prince pushed the flower juice away and grabbed her hand. Wrinkles appeared in his face and red flooded it.
Tiptoe sighed, ready for the caterwauling she’d come to expect.
Instead, he just stared at her as if demanding she make it better.
“I don’t know what you want. If I were your real mother, maybe I would, but I’m not.”
The prince hiccupped.
She swept him into her arms and rocked back and forth. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? You miss your real mother. I imagine your mother wants you too. She’s probably missing you something awful.”
Tiptoe held the baby away from her, staring down at his little face in surprise as something important became clear. “Your mother didn’t give you up at all. Your father didn’t make any bargains. The fairies stole you,” she said facing his unblinking eyes.
The prince lowered his eyelids once, tears dripping down his red cheeks.
Tiptoe firmed her jaw as determination swept over her. She would do the right thing. She would give the prince back. She’d always done what they told her to do, but this time they were wrong.
Using the blanket he’d arrived in, she swaddled the baby. Tiptoe had never been outside the village, and it could be even colder. She squared her shoulders and tucked two bottles of flower juice and some diapers into her large pockets. The branches that formed the ceiling lurched away from her head, rustling in anger.
Tiptoe walked into the other room and glanced at the tiny, pale blue babies. She’d miss her charges out in the wild world, but they only grew up mean.
The prince squirmed in her arms, a reminder of why she had to go. If the older fairies wouldn’t make it right, she would. She’d bring the prince home. Tiptoe crossed the doorstep with a baby in her arms for the first time ever.
The nursery twitched. Thick vines sprouted from the doorway and grabbed at her ankles.
Fear raced through Tiptoe at the rough scrape of bark. She jerked against the hold then flinched when the whole building shuddered. The fairy babies let out their whistling cries; they sounded afraid and helpless.
Tiptoe stopped fighting and turned back. She had to comfort them.
The prince screamed loud enough to curl the vines and to remind Tiptoe of her promise. Frightened, she couldn’t decide what to do. The babies needed her, but the prince needed her more.
She looked above the sheltering trees, and in the distance, she saw a cloud forming. Bright, shimmering lights gathered where she’d expected water droplets. The fairies were returning. They’d try to stop her. They’d take the prince away.
Anger rushed through Tiptoe as she remembered every time they’d been mean, every time they’d hurt her. She wouldn’t let that happen to the prince. He had a family somewhere that loved him.
Hunching her shoulders to protect the baby, she slammed her way past the vines that wound between huge tree trunks. She couldn’t fly like the fairies, but for the first time in her life, she stretched her legs and ran.
The forest floor passed beneath her feet, the first tall trees with vines giving way to younger ones that she could bend out of her path. Soft moss yielded to small plants that crunched when she stood on them and thrust thorns into her callused soles. She kept going even though her skin ached from all the scratches and scrapes.
The trees ended without warning and Tiptoe stumbled. She twisted around to protect the baby as she fell. Her back hit the ground, forcing the air from her lungs. Bright sparkles danced in her vision, and she thought the fairies had found her.
Shaking her head, Tiptoe looked back the way she’d come. She drew in a sharp breath, shocked to see broken tree branches and trampled undergrowth marking her passage. In the distance, she could see the edge of the fairy grove.
Tiptoe shuddered. She’d done that. She’d exposed the fairy village.
With a shudder, she stared around her. The fairies told of all manner of dangerous beasts that would charge down the open path and attack the fairy babies she’d left all alone.
The baby prince gurgled in his wrappings.
She smiled. “It doesn’t seem so bad out here.” Tiptoe sat down and placed the prince next to her. She rocked back and forth on the sun-warmed ground, soaking in the heat. “It’s warm…and pretty,” she added, watching the waving green grass and scattered wildflowers. Reds, oranges, and yellows dominated, unlike the pale blue and purple flowers in the fairy village. Fairies didn’t like heat, and they didn’t like bright colors either.
Tiptoe found she liked both.
Plucking a bright red flower, she smelled its sharp scent before waving it in front of the prince. “Isn’t it pretty?” she asked. “Oh no, you can’t eat it.” Tiptoe snatched the flower from his hand. She tucked it into her pocket and pulled out a bottle instead. “You can have some of this.”
His nursing sounded strange to her ears, carrying a buzzing sound as if air slipped through a break in the nipple. She tried to take the bottle back, but he resisted, only sucking harder.
The sound grew louder and she finally recognized it.
Tiptoe pushed off the ground, grabbed the prince, and started to run. Her feet pounded against the grass, crushing flowers of every color as she sped away from the fairy woods. The scents rose, a sickly cloud of sweetness. She sneezed.
The fairy charge grew to an angry buzz, but her long strides kept them behind her. Tiptoe laughed from the joy of it. She didn’t need magic shoes. She could fly across the ground as fast as they could in the sky.
The land changed with every stride. Grass became dirt; dirt became rock. Tiptoe ran faster, but the fairies kept coming. The smells changed too. The flowers’ sweetness turned sharp and stung her nostrils.
Tiptoe took a deep breath, savoring the bite of a scent she didn’t recognize and yet seemed familiar and welcoming. The rocks under her feet pulsed with warmth, growing hotter with every step.
Her whole life she’d listened to those high-pitched voices, and her whole life she’d obeyed.
Tiptoe stopped and turned to face a crowd of more fairies than she’d ever seen. Several villages must have joined to chase them down.
Dewpetal fluttered forward, but halted some distance from Tiptoe. “You’ve done a very bad thing,” she scolded. “You know you’re not allowed to leave the village. You’ve exposed us to the eyes of man. We’ll have to move our home because of you.”
Tiptoe hung her head.
“We’ve cared for you your whole life, made you one of us, and this is how you repay us?”
Tiptoe’s head jerked up. “But I am one of you,” she said.
The angry buzz broke into laughter. Dewpetal sank close to the ground, trying to control her mirth. “You? A fairy? With your huge body, ugly hair, and dirty brown eyes? With your gigantic feet?”
The fairy no longer laughed. Tiptoe flinched under Dewpetal’s glare. “No, you’re not one of us. None of us would have taken such a prize changeling out into the world where he might be found.”
Tiptoe’s dirty brown eyes narrowed as she found her own anger. “Who would be looking for him then? His family? His mother who bore him? His father who sired him? You wouldn’t want them to find what you stole.”
Instead of looking ashamed, Dewpetal put her hands on her tiny hips. “Of course we stole him. How do you think we get the changeling babies?”
Tiptoe took a step backwards. The ground shifted under her weight. “He’s got a family that loves him. You can’t keep them apart.”
Four more fairies moved next to Dewpetal.
“We can and will. Bring him back right now,” one of them said.
“Come and get him if you can,” Tiptoe cried, taking another backwards step, preparing to turn and run.
“You’ll kill yourself and him. Who will that help?”
The angry question stopped her even as her muscles bunched in readiness. She looked back. “I wouldn’t kill him. I’m going to bring him home.”
“No you won’t,” a fairy screamed in anger, surging toward her.
She flinched, and a strange thing happened. From where she’d shifted her feet, a gust of hot steam rose and brushed against the fairy. He flew sideways for a moment then began to fall, one of his magic shoes breaking away in a cloud of glittering powder.
The other fairies threw out thread to pull him back to them before he could hit against the hard, rocky ground.
She stared for a moment then laughed. “You can’t come any closer. It’s too hot for you.” Tiptoe peered into their faces with a grin on hers.
“It’s too hot for you too, Tiptoe. That lava crust will crack. You’ll slip into the melted rock and die.” Dewpetal sounded cheerful. “Don’t make the prince suffer your fate. Give him back to those who will care for him.”
Tiptoe stepped even closer, anger tensing her arms.
The prince squirmed. She loosened her grip, muttering an apology even though she never broke her locked gaze with Dewpetal. “You don’t care for him. If you cared, you would have left him with his family. You would have left me with mine.”
Her words spilled from somewhere deep inside. As she heard them spoken aloud, everything become clear. “I’m really not just a different fairy. You weren’t being mean. I’m something else. I once had a family that loved me too, just like the prince.” Sorrow filled her eyes with heavy, salty tears.
“We’re your family, Tiptoe. You need to come back.” Another fairy moved up to the line, speaking with a sweet tone.
The sound curdled in Tiptoe’s ears when she recognized him. He had encouraged the younger fairies to tangle her with fairy thread only a few days before.
“I’m never coming back to you. Never,” she yelled.
More fairies rushed the line, their beautiful faces transformed as they snarled, sharp teeth glinting in the fading sunlight. Claws appeared on the ends of their fingers, and their eyes turned cold enough to make Tiptoe shiver.
She froze, forgetting they couldn’t come closer. Then she caught movement in the corner of her eye. A magic thread hovered past where the fairies had stopped. Another appeared and then another until it seemed as if every fairy had sent a strand toward her. She wouldn’t be able to break through a fairy net like she had the vines. No one could.
Pain made Tiptoe glance down. The prince had wrapped both fists into her arm hair, his face a brighter red than she’d ever seen it. When she looked back up, the threads had almost reached her, though the heat slowed them as well.
“No! I won’t let you have him,” she cried. Clutching the baby, she ran with all her might. The lava crust broke and shifted under her pounding feet but their broad surface spread Tiptoe’s weight so she didn’t fall in.
Behind her, the fairies howled in anger. She waited for the sticky touch of thread as she poured on another burst of speed.
Tiptoe ran and ran, slowing to a shuddering stop only when her lungs were too tired to draw a full breath. She turned to look, unable to go any further. The dark lava crust lay in every direction, broken only by an occasional outcropping of rock.
The fairies were nowhere to be seen.
She moved to rest against the nearest rock, soaking in the heat that proved she wasn’t a fairy. Tiptoe grinned, amazed she’d never considered the possibility before.
Then she frowned. “But what am I?” Tiptoe asked the prince.
He squirmed and panted in his blanket, as if he’d been running not her.
“You must be hot.” She flipped back the covering to find his whole body a deep red. “We have to figure out what to do next,” she told him. “And how to cool you off or the fairies will be right.”
Tiptoe gave the prince another bottle. Her empty stomach rumbled and tears slipped down her face. She’d rescued the prince from the fairies, but how could she get him home? She couldn’t even keep him cool.
Twilight enveloped them and Tiptoe lay down with the baby on her chest. Though she held her eyes shut, sleep wouldn’t come out here in the wild world.
Her stomach rumbled again and the ground rumbled along with it. She jerked upright, clutching the prince.
“Oh, what a beautiful evening.”
“Just smell the sulfur on the air.”
Tiptoe turned to see two huge beings step out from behind a rock. She shrank back and trembled.
They had black hair poking out in all directions around their heads. Long, hairy arms brushed the ground as they walked. When she saw their feet though, her fear melted away and her lips curled up in a smile. Their feet spread out on all sides just like hers.
“Hello,” she whispered.
The larger of the two turned toward her. He peered down. “Hi there. I’m Igneous and this is my wife, Mica. What’s a little troll like you doing on our doorstep?” The harsh noise pounded at her, but unlike the high-pitched squeals of the fairies, it sounded kind.
“I’m a troll?” she asked, grabbing on to the most important part as she slide off the rock with the sleeping prince.
Igneous’ booming laugh caused the lava crust to shudder. “Of course, you’re a troll. What else would you be?”
Large tears poured down her face and splashed onto the ground where they sizzled into steam. “I always thought I was a fairy.”
“Oh you poor dear,” Mica said, pulling her into a hug. “Those nasty little pests are always stealing children. Fairies are most horrible creatures.”
“They took the prince too.” Tiptoe raised the baby up for them to see. “I promised I’d find his parents. Can you help?”
Mica nudged the blanket off the prince’s face and her eyes widened. “A human child?”
“Of course we’ll help him,” Mica said. “Prince or not, it’s the right thing to do.”
Igneous put a hand against his head and his forehead creased. Then he laughed. “We won’t have to look far. King Bandor’s son became sickly not so long ago, remember dear? They were shocked at how much he’d shrunken.”
Tiptoe looked up and her face split into a grin. “Fairy babies are much smaller,” she said.
Mica brushed a gentle hand against the prince’s cheek. “Don’t worry, little one. We’ll get you home. Home to the family that loves you.”
More tears welled up in Tiptoe’s eyes and her throat closed. She looked away, unwilling to let them see.
Igneous put his hand under her chin, “I thought you wanted him to go home,” the big troll said. “Why are you so sad?”
Tiptoe sighed, staring down at her hands. “I just wish I had a family that loved me,” she whispered.
Mica laughed. “Is that all? Don’t worry. After we take your prince home, we can find your parents. I’ll bet they miss you just as much as you miss them.”
Happiness filled Tiptoe and she wanted so much to give them something in return. But she had nothing. She slipped her hand into her pocket. Her fingers brushed against the crushed red flower. “Thank you.” Tiptoe held up the flower. “I know it’s not perfect, but I have nothing else.”
“A poppy. How lovely. We don’t get many flowers,” Mica said, reaching for it.
As her large hand closed around the petals, her husband smiled. “Come on. I’m sure you’re hungry. Let’s get you something before we set off.” He took Tiptoe’s arm and pulled her toward the cave opening.
Tiptoe followed them, truly happy for the first time in her life. They would help find the prince’s family and even her own, a family that loved her.
“Would you like some sulfur tea?”
She nodded as her gaze swept a room with chairs too large, a ceiling much too high, and smells…that smelled just right.