Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood
I’ve kept them. Stowed them away on the top shelf. Where there’s no dust. Where nobody can see them. Few people can reach that high. I don’t know where they came from. I must have been born wearing them. Maybe I came by them as my mother struggled in labor, just as the obstetrician’s metal scissors cut into her puffed up vagina, accidentally brushing against my tiny, mucous head as it was pushing its way out. Just for a split second. The cold metal reverberated on the skin. Like a saw touching a sheet of paper.
Snip. My brain was preparing for the birth, ready to instruct my lungs to draw breath and my vocal cords to emit a scream. And suddenly, snip. Metal. Cold, since nobody thought of warming it up. Something snapped in my head. Metal. Like a damaged diskette. Not completely, just enough to erase the information. With a pair of scissors. Their coldness. Their sharpness. Instead of calm. A pair of shoes. Shoes that leap into the dark instead of walking. They were invisible at first. They had not yet acquired the garish color that would later hurt the eye. Invisible, they slept inside baby blankets, carriages and strollers. In order to grow. In order to let my feet grow stronger and my heels harden. How many years did they need before they reached the right size, the red shoes? Ten years, maybe fifteen? Before I became fully aware of them, they were already a shiny, dazzling red. Red like blood. Like spilled wine. They held my feet tight, keeping them firmly on the ground that would start rocking again and again. They kept me safe. My red shoes. They acted like a magnet, like a weight. The invisible, still point of my universe. But you know what they’re like, red shoes. They’re too unruly. They have a life of their own. Before long they started to drag me around. Along roads leading nowhere or straight to hell. Across abominable dirty swamps full of demons and death. In and out of sex. In and out of love. They tested me to see how much I could take. Whether I could take it. It never occurred to me to ask them to stop. I was their slave. Their instrument. They knew what I desired. Always. No sooner would an idea or an image start forming in my brain they would go off in hot pursuit. Always knowing the right direction. Taking short cuts, of course. Insane, rough short cuts that nearly gouged out my eyes. I would reach my destination half-blind, only to be forced to keep going on and on.
They made me dance when I couldn’t take it anymore. Like that time.
It was an ordinary, dismal summer day. People had sweated off all their dirt. They stank, leaving huge puddles of sweat behind. I jumped over them. I trusted the shoes. That day was so dismal, so ordinary it made me want to cry. I leapt over a streetcar lazily dispatching sun-drunk people to their destinations. Even the clouds in the sky were devoid of charm. They looked like scraps of paper. Or rags scattered on the ground. My shoes were the only things gleaming. I was besotted with them. It never occurred to me that I should not obey them. And that’s how it happened that on that dismal, god-awfully ordinary day, as I recalled the face of a man I had dreamt of the night before, they went “hop”.
Hop is an easy word. So easy it’s hard to believe that a single word could have propelled me. Right into his apartment. Into his bed. Into his hands and his… The man I saw in a dream. He said there was no need to take my shoes off. I think he did it on purpose. He noticed what kind of shoes I was wearing. Had I taken my shoes off in the hallway like a good girl, maybe I might have felt the whiff of death emanating from his skin. Maybe. But I’m not a good girl and the little red riding hoods on my feet took a short cut straight into his…
I felt like it. Felt like dancing a little. Just like that. Felt like jumping up and down on his white bed linen in my red shoes for a while. Until the open bottles of wine started to rattle. The shoes’ soles were on fire, too. I could hear them hissing. I laughed. Those red shoes are a scream. They don’t know how to tread seriously. The man said… fuck.
Fuck is a complex word. I don’t know what it means exactly. Whether it’s meant as an insult, a slur, an expression of desire or astonishment. So I waited to hear what he would say next. Surely you can’t begin and end a sentence with a single word. You’re not going to finish your sentence? I asked. It was a sentence, right? I inquired, intoxicated by the shoes, disgusted by the ordinariness of the sun. But the man stood his ground. I guess men always do. He started skinning my neck. The way you shuck corn. The way you pull meat off an overcooked duck. As if he wanted to tear my body into tiny pieces. The first message that reached my brain said: it hurts. I tried to explain that I just wanted to have a little dance and that was no reason to hurt me, I really had to go, ouch, ouch! He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And as my neck started to swell, like a twisted ankle or a skin eruption that had got infected, I realized he was about to kill me. Fuck. It’s such a complex word. It didn’t occur to me that it could also mean to kill. Because of my red shoes. Out of envy.
I couldn’t let him skin me completely. Till there was just a bare skeleton left that he would toss out of the window. A skeleton wearing red shoes wouldn’t look right. So I kicked him. The way one kicks a dog on heat. In the neck, where his Adam’s apple was going up and down. It was a very precise kick. Thanks to the shoes. I kicked him with all my might. I kicked him hard. I kicked him so that he would understand that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I kicked him again and again. I went on kicking him as if I there was no tomorrow. My feet fired off arrows, lances, weapons of every kind. As I kept kicking out, the red shoes turned into two jumping red blotches that glued his eyes together. He went blind for a moment. For a while it was like floating in space in slow motion. I felt carried away by the shoes. I could feel them running, leaving a black mark on the lino. I heard them wheeze and shriek. Bristling cats. Red-eyed cats. They ran fast. Like seven-league boots.
That was the first time I took them off. Standing in front of the mirror. Feeling my purple neck. And realizing it really was purple.
Purple doesn’t suit me. It makes me look cadaverous. The shoes were dangerous. Wearing them made me dangerous. I took them off and put them away. They sobbed. They begged. I tucked them away on the top shelf of the closet. Where no one can reach them. Where there’s no dust. But I have kept them. I hardly ever wear them. Only when you’renot looking. When the full moon slices the countryside like a silver wheel. When the earth begins to sway beneath my feet and I start losing my way. That’s when I jump onto a chair. It’s so simple. Up I leaponto a chair. I put them on. I polish them. They glow red, lighting up the room. I go wandering about, but only when the moon is full. I visit unhappy weddings. Burnt-out marriages. Non-existent lovers. My solitude. Whenever I dance on top of the table I run the risk that the shoes will sweep something off the table. Empty words. Knives of obligations. Your perfectly-baked idea of me. Hacking it to pieces. So that a new idea can be born. It might be better or worse, but it’s always new. I’m keeping them.
So that I don’t forget. So that I don’t lose my mind out of boredom. Just for a day or two. Never longer. I wear them to bed. I kick you away in my sleep. My sense of freedom grows with every kick. I like leaving and coming back. To find myself. Finding myself again. Is that a bad habit? Like biting one’s fingernails? Every time I visit a lonely woman I check the top shelf of her closet. Where there’s no dust. Where they are asleep. A fixed point in the universe. A mad point in the universe. The unruly red shoes.
Uršuľa Kovalyk is a feminist Slovak writer, playwright, and social worker, based in Bratislava, where she runs Theatre With No Home. She has written two novels and several collections of short stories, characterized by surreal plotting and imagery and the explicit, exuberant celebration of female sexuality.
Julia and Peter Sherwood are freelance translators based in London. They have jointly translated novels by Peter Krištúfek and Jana Juráňová. Julia has also translated works by Daniela Kapitáňová, Petra Procházková, Balla, Ján Rozner, and Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki. Peter taught Hungarian language, literature, and linguistics at the universities of London and UNC Chapel Hill. His translations from Hungarian include works by Miklós Vámos, Noémi Szécsi, Béla Hamvas, Dezső Kosztolányi, and János Pilinszky.
Original text: Uršuľa Kovalyk, “Červené topánky/Story,” from Travesty šou. Bratislava: Aspekt, 2005.