The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Shoes on a Doorstep

“A Pair of Shoes” (1885) – Vincent van Gogh

(Gentle Reader: We at the Cabinet have been taking an extended and unannounced leave of absence these past few months, due to various ailments and nervous breakdowns related to the hazards of our occupation. We feel more or less recovered now, and will be resuming a more regular posting schedule in January 2015! In the meantime, here is a brief and simple tale from Curator Bachmann, with which we would like to wish you a lovely holiday season and a happy new year!)

*

There were once two children who lived on an island far in the stormy, frosty north. Their village was small and damp. It clung to the edge of the cliffs like a barnacle. Life was hard. But every twelve months, when the year came to a close, and the nights grew long and bitter, something wonderful happened there that made everything worthwhile. In December, always on the same day (the 6th for those of you who are curious) the children of the town would set out their shoes on the front steps of their homes, and the next morning the shoes would be full. Good children found sugared nuts and raisins and apricots and boiled sweets in their shoes. Bad children found nothing but ashes.

No one knew who it was who gave them this bounty. Not even the parents, for they had set out their shoes too when they were young, as their parents had before them, and as their parents had before them, and no one had ever caught the one who did it. It was thought to be an ancient creature from the mountains, older than time, there long before the barnacle village was ever built, and everyone agreed in hushed voices that it would have been rude to look into it too closely, because after all, it was done for free.

*

We return now to the two children at the beginning of this tale: they were not related. They were not even friends. They were neighbors, and that night, the night of the 5th of December, they both went out onto their front steps at the same time with their boots to be filled, and saw each other.

Now, on this island, at this time of year, the wind is so fierce and the snow so cold that anything weighing less than a teakettle is in danger of blowing away. So when the children stepped out of their houses, they were bundled up to their noses in scarves and coats, and they really only saw each others eyes.

One of the children was named Anna. Anna was small and pale and pretty as an elf. The other child was named Jón. Jón was large and looked rather like an ogre. He was cruel to all the other children of the village, except for the few equally ogre-like boys who were his friends. He never helped his father, and he spoke rudely to his mother. He brought out his shoe and Anna saw that it was massive, for he had taken his father’s boot instead of his own, and she smiled to herself because she knew Jón Einarsson would get nothing but ash the next morning. A bigger boot would only mean more ashes.

She set out hers, a dainty slipper that she had stitched and weighted down with stones, and darted back inside.

The next morning dawned, clear and glittering, and the children of the village all leaped from their warm beds and went outside to fetch their shoes. All over the town, whoops and shouts were heard, and not a few angry tears and knowing nods where only ash dripped out of boot-tops.

But Anna’s shoe was full to the brim, and she had no reason to cry. She brought it in and showed it to her parents, who beamed at her with pride, and though Anna was very happy, a little corner of her heart wanted to see Jón get his ashes. So while her parents smiled and sorted through her treats, she crept back to the door and looked out. And what should she see but Jón Einarsson dragging his Father’s great boot up off the step. . . . And it was full of jewels! Treasures and pearls and bits of ribbon! Walnuts and prunes and gingerbread! So many wonderful things that they fell out of the top and rolled into the snow.

Anna watched, open-mouthed from the step. Jón saw her, and grinned most wickedly and kicked his door shut after him, and when Anna went in and sat down with her treats she scowled at them and could not eat a single one.

*

The year passed, and summer came, which meant rain and wind, instead of snow and wind, and then it was December again, and Jón was no kinder, and Anna was no happier. She had watched him through the months, looking for some secret goodness that perhaps she had missed, some hidden well of kindness that would make him deserve the rich gifts he had received. She saw no evidence of it. In fact, Jón seemed to become more unpleasant and ogre-like by the day.

December 5th came again, and again Anna went out with her shoe. She did not feel bad that her shoe was a little bigger this year. Her feet were a little bigger too, after all, and she had been extraordinarily good the past twelve months. She had helped old Elinsdottir with the milking and had shoveled snow and baked bread and worked very hard. And just as she was turning to go in, she saw Jón come out of his house. He was carrying a sack this time! Not even a shoe! And he was grinning ear-to-ear as if he deserved it, being a greedy pig, and he had not done anything kind in the entire year!

She scowled at his closed door after he had returned back inside, and went into her own house digging her nails into her hands and muttering. Last year had been a mistake, she was sure of it. Whatever creature came down from the mountains and filled their shoes, it would realize its folly and it would give Jón ashes this year, just as he deserved.

The next morning, when Anna rushed from the house, she did not even glance at her own shoe, which was very well-filled. All she saw was Jón’s sack, brimming with honey-cakes and peanuts and raisins and crowned with a diamond the size of a pigeon’s egg. She wanted to shriek. She threw her shoe inside, not even seeing where the contents fell, and when Jón came out to collect his sack she stood on the step and glared at him, trembling with rage. He grinned again and took the sack inside, and kicked the door closed after him, and Anna stood fuming in the wind and the snow until her nose was red and her eyelashes coated with snow. Her Mother noticed her before she froze solid and dragged her inside.

*

The next year was a bad one. Jón was a horrid oaf. He seemed to have gotten very swollen and sick, and Anna could hear his parents fighting through the walls of their house, which seemed to only increase Jón’s horribleness. Anna sulked sometimes and snapped at her parents, but only sometimes, and in general she was as industrious as ever. Most of her spare time she spent watching Jón, and she witnessed his horribleness with glee, for surely this would be the year where their benefactor realized his mistake and brought justice to their doorsteps.

When December came again, Anna set out her shoe confident in the knowledge that Jón would receive ashes, lumps of coal, perhaps a switch. Other bad children received ashes. Jón was not good. He would too.

But it was not so. The next morning Jón received a large sack of salted fish and pretzels and tangerines and cinnamon cookies, and Anna received a shoeful of ash.

This was too much for Anna. The injustice of it made her cry and wail. Had she not helped Helgi Georgsdottir with the new baby? Had she not been quick and smiling the whole year, and only sulked a little? And Jón, who did nothing, and sulked a thousand times worse than she, had received better and more? So the next day, she packed a small bag and went up into the mountains to search for the one responsible.

It was a dangerous path, and unwise to undertake alone as the light was short and the nights deadly cold, but Anna could not abide this injustice any longer.

She walked until her breathing came fast and hard, winding through the gray craggy peaks, and at last, when she was sure she would have to turn back before the sun went down and she lost her way, she happened upon a small cave next to a brook. There was a man in the cave. The man was very tall and dark. So tall, he had to fold his stick-thin legs and arms around himself so that he would fit. She walked up to him and poked him and asked: “Are you the one who fills the shoes every year?”

He opened one glassy eye and looked at her. “Yes.”

She quailed somewhat, because the voice that came from him was old and rather sly, but she would not be deterred: “You have been making mistakes these last three years. You have been giving Jón Einarsson jewels and pretzels, far more than anyone else, even more than the good children, and he has been dreadful. And this year, I, who have been very good indeed, received only ash.”

The tall man opened his other eye and looked at Anna sharply. “Yes.”

“Well, it’s not fair! He has been bad! I have been good!”

“Oh? Did you not receive a lovely shoe the last few years, every year but this one?”

“Yes, but- ”

“And was it not full of raisins and gingerbread and good things?”

“Jón is bad! You gave him diamonds!”

“And you think that makes me unfair? Jón received many pretzels, yes, so many he got a stomachache and was sick for all of December. And he received jewels, it is true, so many that his parents fought and are very bitter now. And he was greedy, and it will do him no good in later life when he thinks that this is the way things will always be. A bad man will be his own unmaking, whether he is dressed in silk or rags.”

He paused, staring at her very darkly. “And a false little girl will be her own unmaking too. Was your shoe not full of just enough lovely things that you were not ill? You had everything you needed.” The tall man extended a finger at her. “And yet you were far too busy looking at Jón’s diamonds to be happy. If you want more, be as wicked as Jón, but do not be surprised when your wickedness turns and bites your foolish hand.”

And then the tall man closed both his eyes again and did not speak another word.

Anna shivered then. The sun was going down outside. A cold wind was whistling around the mouth of the cave. She felt afraid, and she ran, ran, ran and became very lost and very tired. Night fell. And when at last she saw the lights of her village twinkling through the snow, she was cold to her bones and covered in frost. She came to her house and burst in, and her parents, sick with worry, sat her by the fire. She did not speak a word, but looked around her as her fingers thawed, and she saw that the cottage was warm and the fire stoked and the curtains drawn against the wind and snow outside, and her parents were cheery and red-cheeked with relief, and her shoe was full of ashes but she did not care. Tomorrow she would mix the ashes with grease and make pencils.

As for Jón Einarsson he died of liver failure and was thrown into the sea.

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