As children we all read fairytales that give us a rough idea of the shape of the world and the rules that apply in it, until we grow up and discover it’s actually quite different. In this fairytale world girls are assigned a special role, different from that of the boys. The boys fight dragons, win fairytale kingdoms and beautiful wives, and succeed in finding magical plants and other enchanted objects. The girls are less often the ones who achieve success, though they do marry their princes; instead their roles are passive, as they face up to their tragic destinies (like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid or his Little Match Girl). And so girls read fairytales differently from boys, perhaps more thoughtfully, or even with a sense of rebellion. Most of them would be happy to make changes to the fairytale world that gives them such a dismal role.
That may be how the idea originated of getting some adult women who were brought up on those fairytales to re-write some of them and bring their plots into modern reality. The results are sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, and sometimes bring a lump to your throat. The authors are not necessarily professional writers (though they do include Grażyna Plebanek and Agnieszka Drotkiewicz), but are mostly literary critics, teachers or artists, and thus a colourful cross-section of female Polish intellectuals.
An undoubted hero of the book is Hans Christian Andersen, not just as the classic author of fairytales, but of fairytales about girls. It is in his work that the authors of these contemporary stories found images of themselves in childhood. But they don’t always like the fate Andersen has cooked up for them – it prompts them to object and to offer alternative outcomes, sometimes mocking or ironical. The Little Mermaid sexually exploits a gay prince she has rescued from the waves and then disappears into the sea, Gerda from the Snow Queen wanders endlessly in search of Kay the dog, but never finds him, though as she wanders she imperceptibly slips into the routine of life in a fairytale kingdom; the Little Match Girl turns into a woman who is disappointed by her marriage and ends up burning the house down. But perhaps the most dramatic stories are the ones that transpose the cruel denouements of the fairytales (and Andersen certainly didn’t show his heroines any mercy) to situations that could arise in modern times – as in the opening story by Justyna Jaworska, an adaptation of Andersen’s fairytale The Red Shoes.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Fairytales written by: Justyna Jaworska, Joanna Maria Chmielewska, Grażyna Plebanek, Natalia Bobrowska, Teresa Pietruska-Mrożek, Agnieszka Drotkiewicz, Beata Rudzińska, Maria Bereźnicka-Przyłęcka, Anna Dziewit, Edyta Szałek, Ewa Maciejewska, Wioletta Sobieraj, Jovanka Tomaszewska, Marta Łosiak, Marta Pwlik, Marzena Usarek, Kamila Waleszkiewicz, Zofia Soliłło.
The Last Pair (The Red Shoes)
Fifi saw them in the shop window. They were red, made of goatskin, with giddy stiletto heels and a little window for two toes tucked in tight like two little beans. The toenails would have to be painted blood-red to go with them. Somewhere she’d heard that Manolo Blahnik loves this style, and that they’re called “peep-shoes”, which sounded to her like “peep-shows” – definitely quite indecent. As she stood at the window she felt a massed attack of desire, enough to make her heart run down and pound beneath her respectable cotton knickers featuring Snoopy. She glanced at her… plimsolls? No way, plimsolls would at least have been a symbol of defiance, but what she was glancing at were her flat, eco-friendly moccasins with the straps, the immortal All-Purpose Shoes that she’d extricated from a pile of cardboard boxes at the cut-price shoe bazaar a few seasons ago. And then she looked in the shop window again. It had to be a really expensive shop, because there was only that one pair in the entire display, looking bored and haughty, with no price tag.
Like every woman who’s addicted to gluing her nose to shop windows, once upon a time Fifi used to be a little girl, not an orphan perhaps, but a rather neglected child. Maybe it was through her parents’ neglect that she’d been given a name that sounded like a punishment – “Fee-fee”. And as if she were being punished, she’d been dressed in her cousin’s hand-me-down corduroys, and her hair had been cut at home, with an original flight-of-stairs fringe. The acrylic sweaters were itchy, the socks were divided into ones with holes and ones that had been darned with a clashing thread – it was the early 1980s all over. …
And now Fifi was standing outside the shop, opposite a pair of crimson stilettos with a growing feeling that she was going to give in. She could pay by credit card herself – it might even go through without an overdraft. The only thing she didn’t really know was what they’d go with – for years she’d chosen colours that camouflaged her and had no taffeta dresses or stay-up stockings, no sequined tunic or dangly earrings – nothing in such a bold style. But it didn’t matter any more, not now, as the shoes emanated magnetic rays. …
The sales assistant greeted her with a sort of squint, because she didn’t know which look to use: the unseeing one (for those mousy women in moccasins who always just looked) or the alert one (for the spoiled, fussy customers). Fifi looked like a mouse, but a very determined mouse.
“Have you got these in a thirty-eight?”
“Yes, in the window. The last pair.”
Fifi tried them on. She wobbled, not just because she had suddenly become strangely tall. Standing in front of a slimming mirror, she felt as if her body was finally starting to belong to her. Her calf curved in an arc, into an upturned champagne-glass, with a gentle slash of muscle and a sharply outlined knee. Her thigh shot up, looking slender, and in the cotton Snoopy knickers her buttocks clenched together like a hard, crudely forged melon. Her belly flattened, her bust in a tatty push-up bra came sharply forwards, while her shoulders went back, like one of those wind-up models. “I’ll pay by credit card.”
She didn’t put them in the box – the moccasins ended up in there. She left the shop unsteadily, getting funny looks. She was only just hatching out as she glided down the pavement in her red torpedoes like a parody of Fashion TV, looking a little tipsy, a little bit detached from herself.
When she went to sleep, she put the shoes next to the bed. Next day she wore them about the house as soon as she got up, and that evening she went out in them to the Underscene Club, which the regulars called “the Andersen”.
Before now she’d been wary of these places – stroboscopic lights, lots of jiggling about, a racket from the DJ’s console, sweaty bodies on heat. But before now she didn’t have her red Blahniks (that was her pet name for them, though on the soles they bore the logo of a company she’d never heard of called “ID”). She took trouble getting ready: vodka and orange juice before leaving, a packet of L&Ms and some condoms in her handbag, make-up a bit desperate perhaps. She’d never imagined it was so simple. She floated through the entrance as if in a trance, ordered her first Manhattan at the bar and sailed onto the dance floor, under the fire of laser lights. The stilettos carried her along on their own, her hips went into motion, her shoulder blades relaxed as if at the tender touch of a Thai masseuse. Again she felt a pulse beating somewhere near her instep, tickling her calves and moving higher (this time the Snoopy knickers had stayed behind in the laundry basket; for the first time ever she had dared to put on a tiger-print thong). Purple apparitions flashed before her in convulsions as the violet fragrance of Fahrenheit grew stronger in the air. She felt someone’s hands on her hips, from behind. She didn’t look round, but started to wiggle her bum. The stilettos seemed to go into a slide, one move flowed smoothly into the next, and the hands on her hips became more and more persistent. Or more and more unstoppable. She couldn’t believe how long she’d gone without a man.
She only took a look at him in the taxi, but not too closely in there either, because it was dark. In fact she only saw his face in the morning. He had acne scars, a shaved ginger nape and enlarged pores, so innocent in the sharp light from the window. He was breathing like a baby, panting a little. The bachelor flat was his, so she quickly gathered up her thong (by the mattress), dress (hanging on a chair like a gutted trophy) and stilettos (lying casually here and there on the way to the bathroom, pretending to know nothing). And her handbag. She got dressed and slipped away, like a real lady.
At home something strange happened. She tossed her handbag and keys in a corner, but the shoes seemed to have attached themselves to her swollen feet. She threw herself on the bed in them, and for a while she passed out. She must have, because an angel holding a sword came floating down from the ceiling and, in the alto voice of the lovely blonde film star Magdalena Cielecka, it said:
“You must dance! Dance in your red shoes until you are pale and cold, until the skin withers on your bones like a skeleton. Dance!”
The angel was right about the skeleton, because over the next few months Fifi really did lose a lot of weight. Maybe because of the drugs she started taking in the toilet at the Underscene Club, or maybe simply the effort – after all, she’d never danced so much before. Or maybe she’d stopped eating healthily? The bachelors she met each evening had empty fridges in their bachelor flats, and her own fridge was no better – anyway, after a couple of drinks she didn’t feel like eating. … She danced come rain come shine, all day and all night, but at night it was worst of all.
However, the crisis came by day, the day she tripped over while shopping. She landed quite softly on a pile of clothes at the sales and couldn’t get up again. She just cried out: “Mercy!”
In hospital she slept for several days straight, but even in her sleep the spasms kept going through her calves. She was running breathlessly through rotten leaves, a ginger soldier was laughing towards her from behind a branch. She wouldn’t let herself take off the shoes. Finally she was discharged with the diagnosis: “nerves, more magnesium”, after which she took herself off to a torturer who, as it happened, received his patients at a smart consulting room in the city centre. He had manicured hands, and only his cruel, immobile face betrayed his real profession.
The short-term therapy brought results: Fifi’s legs were cut off. Not literally, perhaps, but she moved to lower heels and formed a healthier relationship with her body. At least that was how the torturer put it. She never went back to the Underscene Club and started going to church again. Someone saw her recently after mass in a weird sheepskin coat; she looked much older, and the only red thing about her were her eyelids. Apparently she’s off the anti-depressants now.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones