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the shoes that were danced to pieces

Return to the fairy tales - book two


A retelling by J. Kearns

Twelve princesses are locked in their room every night, yet each morning their shoes are worn to pieces, and everyone who attempts to investigate why falls into a deep, unending sleep.

ust like the year has twelve months, there was once a king who had twelve daughters. One would think that the daughters of a king would each have to themselves their own grand bedroom; instead, these twelve daughters of the king all slept together in the same bedroom, their beds lined up side by side. At night, after the daughters had settled into their beds to go to sleep, the king would come in to wish them a good night, then, of all things, as he left the room, he would lock the door and bolt it not once, not twice, but three times. The key he would put in his pocket and take to his own bedroom, where he placed it under his pillow. Each morning, he would personally go to his daughters' bedroom, unlock the door, and slip inside quietly. His breath held in suspence, he would go to the foot of the bed of the first daughter and examine her shoes, and then go on to the foot of the bed of the second daughter and examine her shoes. Each morning he would examine the shoes of all his twelve daughters, and each morning he would find at the foot of each of their beds their beautiful satin shoes worn to pieces. How this was happening he had no idea, for, as I've mentioned, the door was always locked and triple-bolted at night by the king himself, and there were no windows in the room.


Not only were the shoes of the princesses in tatters every morning, but the princesses were always exhausted, and complained that they felt as if they never had enough sleep. Like the majority of princesses, who have no early morning chores to do, they never got out of bed until at least noon. As they slept so late, until the sun was high in the sky, they should have been fully rested. On the contrary, when these princesses straggled out of bed, one by one, at noon, they would be yawning and have dark circles under their eyes, just as if they had been up all night long.
Must affected of all was the youngest princess, who had lost all the color from her cheeks, which some call the bloom of youth.
The king was thoroughly puzzled. The room in which his daughters slept couldn't have been more like a prison cage if it had bars all around--and, still, he was certain that somehow his daughters were, each night, managing to slip out of the room. Each afternoon, as he wandered the castle he would find his daughters stretched out here and there on the castle's sofas dead to the world. When he asked them what they had been up to all night, they would each reply that, as far as they knew, they'd been asleep in their beds. Each of the princesses insisted that they hadn't a clue why they were so exhausted every day, or why their shoes were in tatters each morning, every one of them unable to remember anything after they dropped off to sleep each night, not even their dreams.
Finally, the king proclaimed that whoever could discover how the shoes of the princesses came to be worn out every night, could choose one of the daughters as a wife and rule the kingdom after his own death. However, if after three nights the candidate has not solved the mystery, he would die.
From all around, men presented themselves who were resolved to solve the mystery. For three nights a candidate would hide himself in the princesses' room to watch over them, and the first two mornings the candidate would be found in such a heavy sleep that it was almost impossible to wake him up. On the third morning, the candidate would be found in a sleep so heavy that it was impossible to wake him at all. Thus they each escaped execution, as none of them woke up to tell whether or not they had seen what caused the princesses' shoes to be worn to tatters. There was an old wing to the castle that was not much used, and the king had the sleeping men all laid to rest there, each in his own bed. Every time another candidate appeared, who wanted to try his luck at discovering the secret of the princesses' tattered shoes, the king would take him to this old castle wing and show him all the men who had fallen asleep, never to wake up.


In the meanwhile, there was a young man, called Stargazer, who had been a cowboy. Some say he lived in the village of Montignies-sur-Roc, which is a French place, and what they mean when they say he was a cowboy is that he kept a herd of cows in the way a French person would keep a herd of cows. I don't know if he really did live in Montignies-sur-Roc, but I do like it that he was a cowboy, because I like thinking of him as being like an American cowboy who lived in the old west and rode a horse on the open range, under the shadow of the mountain ridge where the West commences.
This cowboy was called Stargazer because they say that as he drove his cows he would go along with his head in the air, like any fool, gaping at nothing. The village girls used to call after him, "Well, Stargazer, what are you doing?" He would answer, "Oh, nothing," and go on his way without even turning to look at them.
But what if he was called Stargazer because he liked to look at the stars?
There is a song about cowboys and how they like to gaze on the sky. It goes like this.

"Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above.
Don't fence me in.
Let me wander through the wild, open country that I love.
Don't fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze,
Listen to the murmer of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever, but I ask you please,
Don't fence me in.
Just turn me loose,
Let me straddle my old saddle underneath the western sky.
On my cayuse,
Let me wander over yonder Till I see the mountains rise.
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences,
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses,
Can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences,
Don't fence me in."


I like to think of the cowboy, Stargazer, riding about the western range. He wears a bolo tie around his neck, and maybe he even wears a poncho, which is like a blanket with a hole cut in it for you to put your head through and the blanket is thus worn like a pullover shirt and keeps you warm. Wearing his poncho and his leather cowboy hat, riding on his horse as he drove the cattle along, he would sing,

"Raleo, raleo
How the cattle go."

One day--it was about the middle of August--at noon, when the sun is quite hot, Stargazer had sat down under a tree to eat his meal. Out there on the wide open range, where one would only expect to see the occasional cowboy with his herd, who should Stargazer see but an old man. The old man asked Stargazer for some money, just like he was a panhandler you meet on city streets. Stargazer had no money, but said he would share his food. So, the old man and the young man sat under the tree, and the Stargazer gave the old man half his food. When they had done eating, the old man gave the Stargazer a stick and a ball which he said would bring him luck. If Stargazer was to lift the stick before him, he would become invisible. If he hit the ball with the stick, the ball would roll before him and show him where to go.
Star-gazer thanked the old man for the gift. He threw the ball to the ground, hit it with the stick and the ball quickly rolled ahead of him. Leaving his herd of cows, for Stargazer was ready to go out into the world to find his fortune, he followed the ball which rolled on and on until it came to a big town where there was a castle called Beloeil. This was the castle where the twelve princesses lived, whose shoes were mysteriously worn into tatters each night.
Hearing how the king was looking for someone who could solve the mystery of the princesses' tattered shoes, Stargazer went before the king and asked for the job. The king took Stargazer to the old castle wing where laid all the others who had tried their luck before him and who had fallen asleep on the job, as it were, and not woken up. "Who knows," the old king said, "but it may very well be that each one of these men here discovered the secret of the tattered shoes, and this is the price they pay for having found it out. Are you willing to risk becoming as they, trapped in a land of dreams?"


"Who knows," Stargazer said, "maybe they are happy where they are, and that is why you are unable to wake them."
That night, Stargazer was taken to the princesses' bedroom and hidden there. He was supposed to observe, from his hiding place, where the princesses went and danced. Where did he hide? If I told you, then it would not be much of a hiding place.
Stargazer knew that he had three nights in which to discover the secret of the princesses' tattered shoes, and that if he had not discovered it by the third morning, he would be put to death. The first night he kept his secret watch in the princesses' room, he was confident that he would find out the secret, especially since there was such a harsh penalty if he did not. But, alas, the first morning, when he heard the king unbolting the door, he realized that he had fallen sound asleep sometime during the night, and all the princesses' shoes were in tatters again. Thus, the first night passed and he had not solved the mystery of the princesses' tattered shoes.
The next night he was determined to stay awake. But, again, alas, the second morning, when he heard the king unbolting the door, he realized that he had fallen sound asleep sometime during the night, and all the princesses' shoes were in tatters as if they had been dancing.
Then it was the third evening, and the last chance Stargazer had to discover the secret of the princesses' tattered shoes. This night, Stargazer wondered what would happen if he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. He even pretended to snore, which immediately gave away his hiding place behind the curtain in the closet, but he supposed his hiding place had been discovered already.
As soon as he began to snore, he heard a commotion, as if the twelve princesses were up and about.
"Too bad for him," one said.
To which one of them replied, "It seems he's fallen sound asleep already."
Then another voice, quite unlike any human voice he'd ever heard, said, "Nevertheless, I must make sure he really does sleep."
Stargazer dared to peek just long enough to see the twelve princesses were indeed up and about. Not only that, but there appeared to be another woman in the room. Oddly enough, she looked very much like the youngest princess, their resemblance being so close they might have been twins, but this thirteenth woman was white all over and dressed entirely in white.


Stargazer saw her approach the closet and quickly closed his eyes just as the pale woman pulled back the curtain. In a voice that sounded like the hum of crystal when you rub your finger round the rim of a glass filled with water, she said,

"Stargazer, Stargazer, sleep sew fast your eyes,
that our secret you do not spy."

Then, the woman who was pale all over took a golden needle and pricked Stargazer in the heel. Though it hurt, he did not move, and she left the golden needle in his foot.
Peeking through his eyelashes, Stargazer saw the pale woman go to the head of the youngest princess' bed. She tapped it, and the bed immediately sank into the earth, revealing that it was a trap door which led to a hidden staircase. One after another the twelve princesses descended through the opening, the youngest of the daughters the last one to disappear. As soon as she was out of sight, Stargazer pulled the needle from his foot and put it in his knapsack. He picked up his stick and ball and followed the princesses and their pale guide down the secret stairs.
Stargazer held the stick before him, which made him invisible. They were halfway down the flight of stairs when he, following close behind the youngest princess, accidentally stepped upon her cloak. Looking behind her, but seeing no one, she cried out, terrified, "What is that? Who is pulling on my dress?"
The pale woman replied in her strange voice, "It is a nail. You have only caught your cloak on a nail. Think nothing of it."
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Stargazer saw that they had entered a forest all of silver. The trees, the flowers, and the grass were all of the whitest silver, while the leaves on the trees were made of diamonds, so that it seemed they walked through a forest of ice. Stargazer thought, "I must carry a token away with me, to show that I have actually been in this strange forest of silver and diamond ice," and he broke off a twig from one of the trees, upon which the tree cracked with a loud report. Again, the youngest princess glanced back, and though she saw no one she called out to the rest, "Did you hear that crack? Someone is surely following us."


The pale woman discounted the young princess' anxiety, saying, "It is the wind. That is only the wind you hear, rustling the leaves of the trees. Think nothing of it."
After that they entered a forest where all the trees, flowers and grass were crafted of the finest gold. Again, Stargazer broke off a twig from one of the trees, which made such a loud snap the youngest princess leaped in fright.
Continuing on, they came to a great lake upon which a boat awaited the princesses. The pale woman and the twelve princesses climbed into it. No sooner had they taken their seats, Stargazer hopping in last and settling himself close behind the youngest princess, when immediately the boat glided across the water as if rowed by invisible oarsmen. The youngest princess, however, noted that the rear of the boat was weighed down more heavily in the water than it was usually, and that the boat's speed was slower than normal. "Look," she said. "The rear of the boat rides lower in the water than ever before. And as we pushed off from the shore, the boat shook as if someone else had jumped into it."
As before, the woman in white didn't heed the young princess' observations. "The boat is indeed heavier," she said. "But it is nothing. Think nothing of it."
The boat swiftly arrived at the opposite shore where there stood a castle which was brightly lit, and from which music poured, as if a party was well under way.
The princesses first went to a grand room where they sat down to dine at a table laden with golden plates and goblets, and all kinds of wonderful foods to eat and beverages to drink. Though there seemed plenty, each time the youngest princess turned her head from her plate, when she turned back there seemed to be less food on it than before, so she had hardly anything to eat at all. It was Stargazer, who was hungry, who was eating her food, but she didn't know that. When the princesses were done with their meal and got up to dance, he took the youngest princess' plate and goblet, her fork and spoon, and put them in his knapsack, alongside the branch of silver and the branch of gold.


All the while they had been traveling to the castle, the youngest princess had become more and more lively, and her cheeks began to bloom with color. Now, so rosy was her complexion, she seemed as if possessed by a fever.
For the next few hours, the princesses danced with twelve partners who sometimes looked like princes, but from other angles looked like trolls. Unseen, Stargazer made merry and danced along beside them, and when the youngest had a cup of wine in her hand he would drink it up, so that the cup was always empty when she raised it to her lips to drink. They partied until three o'clock in the morning, when the princesses' shoes were worn through with holes. Then the princesses climbed back into the boat which returned them to the other side of the lake.
This time, Stargazer sat in the prow of the boat. As it touched shore he leaped from it and ran all the way back to the princesses' bedroom, where he hid himself again behind the curtain and pretended to be as heavily asleep as when they had left, just in case they looked.
In the morning, the old king ordered his daughters to appear before him. Of course, they each assumed that Stargazer had succumbed to the same sleeping spell as had all the other men before him. When they got up to find him no longer in the closet, they had no reason to think that he had not already been carried away and placed in the old castle wing along with all the others who had failed to wake up. So, you can imagine their surprise when, after all the daughters had wearily presented themselves before their father (the youngest daughter more pale than ever), the king called for Stargazer, who entered the room very much awake.
"Stargazer," the king asked, "did you discover the secret of the princesses' tattered shoes?"
Stargazer replied, "I slept so heavily I might as well have been taken for dead."
The princesses were delighted at this response.
"But," Stargazer then said, "I did have a dream. It was a very strange dream too. Do I have permission to tell it to you?"


"You have," the king replied, though he was not much interested in hearing dreams.
Stargazer said, "I dreamt that a pale woman in white appeared in the princesses' bedroom. She pricked this golden needle into my foot to find out if I slept." Stargazer pulled out of his knapsack the golden needle and placed it before the king. "The princesses," he said, "followed the pale woman through a trap door under the bed of the eldest princess. We went through a silver forest, and I took away with me a silver twig." Stargazer placed a twig of silver before the king. He continued, "We went through a gold forest, and I took away with me a golden twig." Stargazer placed a twig of gold before the king. "We rode on a boat to a far shore where the princesses ate on platters of gold and drank from goblets of gold at the castle of a troll. I took away with me this golden plate and goblet and this fork and spoon." Stargazer laid the plate, goblet, fork and spoon before the king. "The princesses danced until they wore their shoes out, then returned home, and I ran ahead of them and was already in their closet again when they arrived in their bedroom."
The king was amazed by Stargazer's story, and the evidence he had placed before him. He asked the princesses, "Is all this true, which Stargazer has told me?"
The eldest princess replied, "How can we tell, for none of us remember our dreams when we wake up in the morning, so if indeed we did share such a dream with this man, it is impossible for us to prove it."
The king was a little amazed at his eldest daughter's answer. Still, he believed Stargazer spoke the truth, and as he had promised the hand of one of his daughters in marriage to the man who solved the mystery of the tattered shoes, he asked Stargazer to choose which daughter would be his bride.
Stargazer said, "There is something I must first do before I can marry one of your daughters." And he asked the princesses if one of them would be willing to lend him a golden thimble. The youngest princess, after a moment's silence, stepped forward and taking such a thimble from her pocket gave it to Stargazer.


Stargazer took the thimble and immediately returned to the castle where the princesses had danced all night. The surprised troll didn't have a chance to act against him, as Stargazer took the golden needle, and pricking it into the troll's heart, killed him. His heart must have been nearly bloodless, for only three drops of blood fell from it, which Stargazer carefully caught in the golden thimble. He intended to take these drops of blood back with him to the king, as evidence that he had overcome the troll. But, as Stargazer was walking through the golden forest he accidentally let fall one of the drops of blood on the ground. The trees and flowers and grass became men and women and children who had been cursed by the troll and redeemed by the drop of blood. Then, as Stargazer was walking through the silver forest he accidentally let fall another one of the drops of blood on the ground, and the trees and flowers and grass became men and women and children who had been cursed by the troll and redeemed by the drop of blood. With one drop of blood left, Stargazer returned to the king, but as he passed by the princesses the last drop of blood fell out of the thimble and onto the left shoe of the king's youngest daughter. As soon as the drop of blood touched her shoe, the color returned to her cheeks, and the dark circles of weariness vanished from beneath her eyes. She also had been redeemed from the troll's curse, and along with her all the other princesses were redeemed, as well as all the men that had tried in vain to discover the mystery of the princesses' tattered shoes.
That very day the youngest princess and Stargazer were married. It was a beautiful ceremony. At the reception afterward, the princess and Stargazer danced until dawn.

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retelling by j. m. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm version of the tale.

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