The Old Woman and the Shoe

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

—Mother Goose

In the woman’s first memory, an enormous eye peers down at her through a circle of glass. The eye looks concerned, which seems nice, but the concern is not for the woman, it’s about her. About doing the job right. The eye blinks, the back of a gloved hand rubs it quickly; the eye, now slightly reddened, zooms in even closer. The gloved hand flicks a brush over the woman’s body, giving her a semblance of clothing and a face. Also feeling, as the brush stirs sensation where none had existed before. The woman understands now that she is a being. She lives.

A blast of heat, and then she’s moving, on her back among many others who seem as surprised as she is to be there. She’s about to turn and speak to one of them when another gloved hand picks her up and places her arms, legs, and neck in wire restraints. Her back is against something hard. Right before all goes dark and silent, she notices there are at least two others in here with her, wherever here is.

Please note: I tell you this story not to excuse the woman’s later behavior. Only to try to help you understand it. As a mother and a goose, I know fear and desperation very well. I can see myself in the woman’s shoes.

Some immeasurable time later, the woman is released from her restraints into bright light. Another huge face looms in front of her, this time a child’s. Warm, milky breath envelops the woman as the child takes hold of her waist and struggles to place her on a small platform. The holes in the woman’s shoes secure her to two short pins, enabling her to stand upright, but the holes go deep into her feet and the pins stab her as the child tries over and over to set her on straight. The woman tenses her body to keep from crying out. She senses instinctively that she must not let the child know she can feel, see, and hear. Her life is a secret and always will be.

The child places the woman in an enclosure that the child calls “the kitchen.” The child names and praises the things in the kitchen: “There’s your new table and chairs, aren’t they nice?” Addressing the woman, the child points to a white, rectangular object: “There’s your nice new stove!” A man and another child, slightly larger and smaller than the woman, respectively, stand by the table on their own platforms. The woman gathers that she is supposed to serve this man and this child, using the stove. She has no idea how.

Does the giant child see the panic in her eyes? Or does training or innate kindness kick in? Either way, it’s Giant Child to the Rescue! Here come piles of food (cookie crumbs, tiny bits of bread and cheese) on miniature plates. There is even a plate for the woman. But no one can eat until Giant Child leaves, or they will give themselves away. They wait, their hunger awakened and growing, as Giant Child says, “Look at your nice yummy dinner,” and “What a nice family you have,” again addressing the woman in particular. Finally, Giant Child is gone, and the family scarfs the food down like there’s no tomorrow.

Giant Child feeds the family every day, and plays with them, mainly by placing them in different “rooms” in their “house” and telling them how nice everything is. The house has one bedroom for the woman and the man, whom Giant Child never names but only refers to as “you” and “you.” There is another bedroom for the small child (also “you”), who somehow belongs to the woman and man. There is a living room with a sofa and a coffee table and a non-functioning TV, and an attic at the top of the house with a slanted roof and nothing in it.

That is about it for the house, and the family agrees, once they get to talking among themselves, that this place is both dull and scary at the same time. There is nothing to do but wait for the next feeding. They can’t risk leaving to explore the much bigger world around them, in case they get hurt or can’t find their way back. There must be other giants around who could step on them or worse. They’ve heard voices raised in anger, as well as distant snuffling and growling sounds that terrify them so much they can barely speak of them.

Bored and needing solace, the man and the woman discover sexual intercourse. Their child looks on, first in amazement, and then, soon enough, with the glassy apathy that is the family’s default expression. Of course, no one makes birth control for dolls, much less explains the facts of life to them, so before long there is a new, smaller child, called a “baby.” Giant Child is delighted, assuming the baby to be a gift from Giant Parents, and offers milk in a tiny cup (“I’m sorry I don’t have a bottle”). When Giant Child’s gone, the woman sets the baby on her lap and tips the cup into its mouth. The baby manages to slurp a few drops.

It turns out, probably owing to their small size, that the gestation period for these dolls, or, more precisely, figurines, is only about a week. Very soon there are several more babies. At first Giant Child tries to keep up, bringing them milk and less-than-successful attempts at clothing (pieces of felt, Scotch tape). But each new arrival produces less joy. “I don’t want any more,” Giant Child says one day (it’s not clear to whom), and the woman couldn’t agree more. Still, she and the man keep having sex, and the babies keep arriving. They grow at an astonishing rate and begin fighting over food and territory and especially the woman’s physical attention—their aggressive demands for caresses exhaust her, and she yearns for the brief, gentle touch of the paintbrush back at the factory. Neither the woman nor the man has any idea how to parent, with no parents of their own and lacking access to other adults, let alone online groups or courses. They grow increasingly depressed and anxious and have even more sex to soothe themselves.

And then the terrible, inevitable happens: Giant Child Loses Interest. It would likely have happened in any case, though all the new babies surely hastened the estrangement; the point is, Giant Child now walks past the family’s house without so much as a glance at them, poking at a flat rectangle that makes blooping noises. The milky breath no longer warms the family’s faces, the words of encouragement and praise no longer raise their hopes for something they cannot name. Worst of all, there’s no more food, and the rapidly growing babies are screaming with hunger.

A week or so passes, and it becomes clear that there’s no other choice. The man and the oldest children, now adults themselves, must venture out into the giants’ house. The woman is terrified, not only for what might lie in wait for them, but because she’s realized, for the first time, that she loves the man, with whom she has endured and overcome so much (until this moment, anyway). She even loves all these children, though she’s lost track of the youngest ones—who are, by this point, her grandchildren, sickly and ill-tempered because their parents are closely related. This family is all she has in the world. What will she do if they vanish forever?

The man and the older kids break the legs off the kitchen table and chairs to use as weapons, and with a flurry of goodbye kisses and tears and promises, they’re off. They walk carefully across the glossy tabletop where their house sits, climb down the curtain behind it, then scamper through the open doorway into darkness. The woman stands at the edge of her ruined kitchen, listening. She thinks she hears snuffling and growling in the distance. She thinks she hears screams.

Needless to say, the man and all the other adults in the family—her healthy, even-tempered, grown children—don’t come back. The woman is stuck with her scrawny, shrieking grandchildren, who are becoming increasingly hysterical as they starve. She’s paralyzed with confusion and grief. She stares at the stove, willing it to produce something, anything. Its painted burners mock her like tyrants’ eyes.

The woman makes a decision. In spite of how awful life has been so far, she still wants this life for herself and her remaining descendants. She explains to the children why she must leave them temporarily, and how she’s going to come back with food, even though their granddad and their parents didn’t manage it. Despite her fear, she feels strangely exhilarated. For the first time, she is not waiting for someone else to help her. She is taking action, becoming the lead character in her own life.

She is just about to step out onto the big shiny table and clamber down the curtain when a giant man thunders in and picks up the house, gripping it by the empty hole that is the attic. The family slides backward into the rooms, rolling into each other and their meager belongings like sailors in a typhoon. They scream, but Giant Man doesn’t seem to hear them. He’s muttering to himself, carrying the house in one hand and swinging it back and forth as he walks. The family gets a brief, lurching glimpse of sky, which is gray, as Giant Man stuffs their house, and them with it, into a trash bag and slings it onto the curb. The house crashes into bits and the family falls into suffocating plastic.

I won’t detail how the woman and the surviving children punch their way out of the bag using the splinters from the only home they ever knew. Or how they make their way back to the giants’ house, nibbling grass blades on the way, and wait outside shivering in the rain, nearly drowning, till the door to the house opens again and they have just enough time to run inside. Or how, near the door, they find a huge bowl of meaty chunks swimming in a thick gravy, how they dive into the bowl to devour whatever this food might be, and how they narrowly escape the fate of their forebears, to wit, the slobbering, fanged maw of Giant Dog.

They discover an old shoe, actually a work boot, forgotten in the back of the coat closet. It is warm and dry and feels safe, but those are its only merits. Even though there aren’t as many children as before, the quarters are much too close for comfort. The shoe smells terrible. And although they have a reliable source of food nearby, the children continue to wail day and night.

What else would you expect of them? They have nothing. Their one protector, Giant Child, has forgotten them. The other figurines who loved them, in the bemused, distant way that figurines love, are now gone. And the woman who must care for them still has no idea what to do. All she knows is that she must keep feeding them, and keep them quiet, or Giant Man will discover them and throw them all in the trash for good.

They are low on food, but the woman is too tired to go out again tonight. She is so tired she can barely stand on her hollow, aching feet. Tomorrow, if tomorrow comes, she’ll pull herself together and keep their secret lives going one more day.

She feeds the children the last of the dog’s broth, and methodically, remorsefully beats them into silence.

Photo used under CC.