Dancing Shoes

This sudden moonlit path
was not made for dancing.
But tell that to the shoes,
red and shiny as new blood.
I must dance through the forest,
shoes bewitched to feet until I die.

Why did Mother have to die?
What magic put me on this path?
Wind is music in the forest
and nothing can stop the dance.
Pebbles, briars, brambles, blood.
Nothing can stop the shoes.

Some would cry and curse the shoes.
I’ll twirl and live until I die.
For me there’s none of childbirth’s blood.
Poor Gerda wept down that old path.
Man in the moon follows as I dance
through leafy ballrooms of the forest.

Some houses are colder than forests.
Most wives wear wooden shoes.
Leather and buckles invent my dance.
Small matter that I must die.
I chose the shoes. Shoes chose the path.
Tracks write my name in perfect blood.

The sun comes up red as blood.
Clouds pink as welts fly above the forest.
Trees thin out along the path,
but all that matters are the shoes.
Whirling through town where I would have died,
churchfolk gasp and watch me dance.

Young priest tries to stop the dance
with tales of sacrifice, of blood.
“Good souls will live when bodies die!
Beware the goblins in King’s Forest!”
I’d rather trust my shoes
and travel dappled darkening paths.

The living shoes, red as blood
trip down the forest path.
Propelled through wild and windy nights,
I will dance until I die.

Karen Peacock

Process Notes

The germ of this poem came during free writing. Who knows why Hans Christian Andersen’s “Red Shoes” popped into my head, but there it was. It was a story from my favorite book when I was seven or eight. Though I only understood every other word, I could tell what was going on and read it repeatedly. (The main character’s name was Karen so that was part of the appeal.)

If you don’t know the story, here’s what I remember: Orphan girl is taken in by a kind old lady. The old lady soon dies. Vain Karen wears her favorite red shoes to the funeral which was strictly forbidden. So she’s cursed to wear the shoes forever. They have a mind of their own and take her dancing through the dark forest. She begs a passing executioner (!) to chop off her feet. He does and the shoes dance away. He gives her wooden feet and later his family takes her to church. At last she learns piety and is so happy that her heart bursts and she goes straight to heaven.

I wanted to play around with the idea of what would’ve happened if she’d given into the pleasure of the dance, taking a different path than what was expected of girls at that time. As the drafts piled up, it occurred to me that this could be a metaphor for defying “normal” life and embracing any kind of art. Or anything else that makes a person stand out from the herd. Gerda and King’s Forest are inventions that came from who-knows-where.

I’ve been experimenting with form and this is my first sestina. The repeating words give it the sense of a fable and of time passing. I cheated a little with the verb tenses and the ending, but the structure mostly holds.