It becomes a sort of test, to give each new girl the red shoes.
Some, already inclined to treat any act of kindness with suspicious, look at the shoes, stroke them gently (they are so fine, so soft, so red), before handing them back with a smile or snarl or a fist. Others, equally wily, demand to know the price, a demand that results in the immediate removal of the shoes, and a promise that they will know, quite soon. Just as soon as the next new girl arrives.
Most, however, never question this unexpected generosity. Instead, they eagerly put the warm shoes on their cold, swollen feet, gasping with pleasure as the shoes mold against their skin, sending warmth throughout their bodies.
At this point, the other girls crowd forward.
It does not always happen immediately. Sometimes, the shoes stay quiescent for two, even three days. Some of the oldest girls even claim that one new girl – a particularly skinny urchin of about four – had managed to wear the shoes for a full ten days before a single twitch, although no one is quite willing to believe this. Everyone knows, after all, that the oldest girls lie.
More often, the shoes start to twitch immediately.
The new girls seldom notice at first. Some are still shivering and shaking from the cold; some are still hoping that someone will take care of their bellies as well as their feet; some are so tired that they fall asleep even as their feet continue to twitch.
Eventually, however, they start to dance.
This always angers the caretakers, who believe, with reason, that young girls brought beneath this roof must be quiet and good, or at least quiet and still. Girls that raise their hands above their hand to trace patterns in the air are not still. Girls whose feet tap patterns on the floor are not quiet. Girls who stand and begin to dance about the room are most definitely not quiet. Rods are brought out and placed quite firmly against the backs of the new girls. Everyone giggles or looks away. The new girls dance on. The guardians sigh; they have seen it often enough. Severe punishment will be needed. Food will be withheld.
An excellent time for others to sneak into the kitchens and find enough food to live, or to collect scraps of cloth to stuff into their dresses as a small lining against the cold.
Sometimes the rods and the starvation are enough to quiet the new girls, at least for awhile. And sometimes the new girls are able to stop the shoes, or at least manage to move nothing but their feet as they sit at their hard desks or lie back on the small hard cots in the drafty dorms. Sometimes, the others help these new girls, or try to: pulling at the laces of the red shoes and tugging at the heels, or, in especially bold cases, finding a sharp knife in one of the kitchens and handing it to the struggling new girl. This must be done quick quick – knives, especially sharp ones, are immediately missed – but sometimes, very rarely, it is enough, even if the new girl never quite walks properly afterwards.
Most of the time, the new girls give into the shoes, and dance. And dance. And dance.
They are warm, they say. They are warm. They hardly seem to hear the cries from the guardians, hardly seem to notice the blood pouring from their feet, hardly seem to notice the way they sway and tremble as they dance. Sometimes they manage to grab a bite or two of food or a sip of water as they dance, or half sleep in their beds as their feet rise up, beating against the air. And sometimes they manage to gasp out “warm” one last time, before they fall over, eyes open and glazed, the red shoes falling from their dead feet.
Some of the girls – the ones who refused the shoes when they first came, the ones who risked the knives and blood – cry a little when it all ends. The rest of the girls say nothing, instead turning their eyes to the door, wondering when the next new girl will arrive, and dance just long enough to let them steal more food, and survive.
Mari Ness is only slightly less obsessed with fairy tales than her work would suggest. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Strange Horizons and Goblin Fruit. For a longer list of works, check out her official blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.