The Awlings: A Fractured Fairytale (The Elves and the Shoemaker)

Jobst Schuster did not believe in magic. He wished he did. If he believed in magic, he might not think he was losing his mind. 

Dare he cut the leather tonight? If he wanted this devilment to stop, he knew what to do. He would not leave soles atop his workbench. 

“Will you come up to bed, dear husband?” Gertrude gave him a start. 

“Oh my love, don’t creep up like that.”

“Ha! Is a wife not allowed to run a dainty fingertip along her husband’s spine?”

Jobst gathered himself. “It’s been a long week.”

“And do you mean to work all night? I hate to see you like this. We have enough to eat, Jobst, and plenty besides for a Christmas feast. You needn’t work yourself to the bone.” She rubbed his chest with one free hand. In the other she dangled a lantern. “Come up to warm me.”

He’d tell her. He’d been wanting to tell her. “I did not make these shoes.” He whispered, as if the walls might judge him. 

“What do you mean, you didn’t make the shoes?” Gertrude held her light to the beautiful footwear rayed along the ledge. She’d admired them greatly when she noticed the new styles—outrageous styles, inspired by faraway lands. Her husband had created a novel fashion of brogues, with extra tassels near the tongue. He’d embroidered mules in the French way, and an Italian pair in yellow silk with shining buckles. Gertrude favoured the peacock blue with three-zoll heels, but knew they must be sold. She’d no place to wear them herself. 

Most impressive of all was a new kind of slipper, crafted with a pointed, up-curved toe, reminiscent of local roofs. This new product would find its own fame. Shoe enthusiasts would come from far and wide. Once the king and queen saw these slippers, the palace would source their footwear locally. This new fashion would change the town. It would change Jobst Schuster’s dwindling fortune.

 Gertrude repeated her question. “Who else would’ve crafted all this beautiful footwear?”

“I know it sounds mad,” Jobst said. “Sit down for this. Please, dear wife, join me here on the bench.”

Gertrude rolled her eyes a little. This much was visible via lamplight. But she sat, and she listened, tight-lipped, smiling patiently.

“Someone’s been breaking into our house,” Jobst explained, stuttering a little. “They mean us no harm—not in the violent sense—so don’t fret.”

“What are you moithering about? Breaking in! It’s lack of shut-eye, that’s what this is.”

“I’m serious, Gert. Someone—or somethings—visit my workshop at night. While we doze upstairs, they use my tools and my lasts to craft their own shoes. I don’t know how long the break-ins have been going on, but last month the intruders started leaving product behind. These shoes are their doing.”

Gertrude laughed. “A new breed of reverse burglar? Breaking into Jobst Schuster’s workshop without dislodging the door, working by cloak of dark on masterworks then leaving them as alms? He hee! Oh Jobst, I told you to spin some fresh yarns, and you’ve come through for me. You really have! Who says marriage gets stale?”

“But Gert, I don’t remember making these shoes. Who’s been making the shoes?” 

Gertrude noticed the hint of desperation in his voice. “Remember you used to sleepwalk, back when we were newlyweds? Maybe it’s that, only sleep-working. Now here’s an admission. I sometimes dream I’m scrubbing floors. I must be a very boring sort of person,” she added with a sigh. “Come upstairs and liven me up.”

Attempts at confession were hopeless. But Jobst had assuaged his conscience, for now. He’d admitted to his wife that he had not, willingly, wakefully, crafted these magnificent shoes. He had not morphed into a master designer by night, as well as master shoemaker by day. 

Surely this wasn’t God’s doing, either. Jobst had done nothing special to deserve this. To test this idea, he’d skipped mass. Still the shoes came.

If only he felt good about these mysterious gifts. He was due a bit of luck. The Schuster finances had been dwindling for years, through no fault of his own. The more Jobst worked the less he earned. The value of footwear had simply plummeted. If he’d predicted this trend as a young man he’d never have continued the trade of his forefathers. He’d have established connections as a merchant. Yes, those travelling bloodsuckers had done well—very well, some of them, mastering no craft of their own. 

“I’ll be up in a jiffy.” Jobst smiled wanly, attempting to match the mood of his wife. 

She lingered in hallway shadow. “When you decide to let go of these beauties we’ll pay three-year worth of bills. You’re a genius, dear husband. I always knew you could make shoes with your eyes closed.”

Half the light retreated upstairs, along with his night-gowned wife. Against the glow of a single lamp, Jobst sensed his workshop housed secrets. Perhaps the walls were permeable, admitting master ghosts. It harboured nooks and crannies, as yet undiscovered by him. But even with the midnight moon peeping in, the workshop looked ordinary—a modest room with wooden floor and panelled walls. But there was always, always, more underneath. 

He knew this from a lifetime of measuring feet. The most beautiful shoes, the silkiest of stockings, concealed feet of goblin proportions—painfully knobbed, smelling of bad cheese. This applied equally to the desirable young ladies of the town, who hid discoloured toenails and calloused heels inside Jobst Schuster’s well-crafted footwear; footwear which struck him lately as clodhoppers of a cobbler’s apprentice. 

Jobst yawned and made a final check of the workshop. He swung his lantern and spooked himself with his own shadow. His eyes raked over the tools, arranged as they always were, and as he always found them. His fingers waggled above the buttoner. There were so many superstitions about shoes—if he believed any of them he was obliged to believe them all, and then his work life would be one long, ridiculous ritual. He’d never get anything made. But tonight he succumbed to the small, superstitious side of himself. He needed to sleep well, for he hadn’t in weeks. So he hung the shoe-buttoner on a nail above the door, obscured by the festive wreath. This wasn’t to keep out a burglar, as such. Gertrude was right—this was a reverse burglar—an early, unwanted Saint Nikolaus, to a house where children had grown and gone. So he rubbed his grey chin and thought for a moment. Then he reached to realign the metal ward, affixing it upside down.

Still the sleep-burglars came. They came first in his dreams, as they had all month, blunting his knives and cackling. They passed his precious lasts from one to the other, throwing the wooden feet as children throw balls. The creatures were the size of children, but naked as babes. And their faces! Their faces were tooled with the lines of unconditioned leather. These creatures had accumulated several lifetimes of mastery. Not once in those lives had they washed their filthy mitts. 

The eldest smoked a pipe. Jobst couldn’t see from the peephole that it was his own pipe—he simply knew that it was. In his dream he had etched that peephole using one fingernail, scraping through an interior door which wasn’t normally there. 

Then the door proved illusory, even inside the dream, and the elves—brownies, sprites—whatever they were—they saw him, standing with them in abject nakedness.

“Master, he’s looking!”

“Then poke his eyes out!”

That’s when they came for him, wielding his awl as a weapon against him. The fierce little pipe-smoker scooped out his eye, as a spoon dips into porridge. Jobst howled, startling his slumbrous wife. 

He awoke to the illusion of safety.

“There, there,” Gertrude crooned, stroking his back. “I’m really starting to worry now, dear.”

 He crouched for long minutes on the bedroom floor, palms to eyeballs, waiting for lightning to strike.

Jobst rose early and peered through the curtains down into the street. 

“What are you up to now, my addled husband?”

“Keeping watch.”

So far he’d seen nothing new—the boy with the produce, the youngsters with bundles of ruten for kindling. The women with the horses, the girl and her bucket; the old men with the axes, the young man with the sled.

“We need to call the doctor,” Gertrude said over breakfast. “If you won’t listen to me, perchance you’ll listen to him. You were up in the small hours, toiling away. I noticed.”

“I was briefly bothered by nightmare. But did you not hear me snoring beside you?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re working too hard.”

“Come, now. How would we pay a doctor?”

“Sell some footwear!” Gertrude spluttered as if everything were obvious. “Put the pretty ones on display! It’s time to let them go, dear. Those shoes are fit for royalty. They’ll fetch a pretty price.” She took a spoonful of porridge from the edge of her bowl. 

Jobst wished she wouldn’t scoop so. 

She blew gently. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to take oats with cream again?”

Jobst nodded, in genuine agreement. He missed little luxuries like cream, but more than that, he looked forward to getting rid of the ill-begotten shoes. He could not explain why, but he knew they were coal from Krampus. Those shoes would curse this house. 

Ah, what nonsense. Jobst did not believe in Krampus.

So he sold a pair of the fine boots, freshly waxed. They boasted wing tips of soft, tooled leather. They’d appeared that very night—four pairs in total. It was Jobst’s work to locate them. Sometimes he found shoes near the front entrance, alongside his own. He’d located a few more under his workbench. Sometimes they lurked beneath the kitchen table. One of these days he’d step out of bed and into a pair of malevolent slip-ons. He couldn’t bear the thought of them creeping in there, flop, flop, flop, like disembodied feet. But this morning’s offerings were found in the downstairs closet, kicked in hastily, as if someone had hurried out before dawn. The craftsmanship was fine, as ever.

Old Man Krause knocked early, before the wind stirred up. He was thrilled at the early Christmas gift to himself. “Such careful stitches! You’ve been blessed with the eyes of eternal youth! You’ve outdone yourself, Schuster. I’ll be talk of the town!”

Jobst accepted the man’s money but tried to decline the generous Christmas bonus. He eyed his faithful customer as he disappeared down Main Street. Passersby had turned overnight snow into slush. Jobst had wasted the early morning, peering out from behind the safety of glass. He should have ventured outside to examine the earliest footprints. He was starting to imagine the wingtips had walked themselves along the road. But how had they entered his house? 

Meanwhile, Old Man Krause made his own light footprints, swinging his arms as though twenty years younger. Passersby examined his gleaming feet, then looked in wonder to the shoemaker’s sign. Jobst ducked away from the window and pressed himself to the wall—panting, pale, hand on heart.

Jobst was in no mind for the workshop. Normally he loved it in there, especially with the fire burning bright, on howling winter days such as these. 

Instead he donned his thickest layers, only to find he could not bend down. He sat on the fitting stool and requested help from Gertrude to fasten his own boots. 

“What have you gone and done with the buttoner?” Gertrude could not put her hand on it. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Jobst. What’s it doing, up behind there? I hope you’re off to see the doctor.”

“Indeed I am, my love.”

But Jobst Schuster had no such plans. The doctor was good for broken bones and dressing wounds. There was no soothing tonic for maddening mysteries.

He set out into the cold, shivering, even inside his layers, which were clean but worn and thin. His boots were better than his clothes. A shoemaker is his own best signage. He’d considered claiming a pair of last night’s wingtips for himself. If he wore those magical boots into town every man would flock to him, requesting the very same. But he couldn’t guarantee the footwear would keep coming. Nor could he guarantee the boots would remain in their solid, earthly form. For all he knew, they would poof! into vapour. So he did not wear the magical boots. He regretted selling Old Man Krause the magical boots. 

A lifetime of making shoes had ill-prepared Jobst for detective work. Still, he must give it a go. He slushed towards the market square, in his watertight but unremarkable footwear. Here he would cast a shoemaker’s eye over any new men in town. He had mind-sculpted the figure of his enemy: A well-trained but destitute journeyman, who rode into town and never left. This mysterious young master was taunting Jobst with his own superior wares, sneaking in to use his tools and highlighting his inadequacies. This, he knew, was ridiculous. He knew it even as he thought it. This reassured him. He must not be truly mad.

Journeymen were few at this time of year, when the outdoor trades wound down. Still, a handful of travelling tradesmen had turned up for recruitment—desperate looking characters. All wore scuffed footwear, down at the heel. Not a cobbler between them, that much was sure. One lad with dirty fingernails found temporary work with the butcher, to help with Christmas deliveries. Another few went with the turner; the baker remained short staffed. 

“Can you make plaited stollen, Herr Schuster?” The baker leaned back, arms folded, eyeing the shoemaker up and down.

Jobst resented the question, though surely not meant in earnest. “I’m not here looking for work.”

“There’s nothing can be done,” sighed the baker. “I’ve seen the tiny perfect stitches on that factory-made footwear. I passed Old Man Krause just before. Beautiful new wingtips. Those factory machines work like magic. Soon the robots will be making our bread. Artisans can’t compete.”

Jobst knew that he would never touch robot-made bread. He conjured the image of a mechanical man, mixing dough with arms of steel. Another nearby tended a hot oven, standing too close to the flame. Might those machine-men wear painted faces, with burning hot coals for eyes? Next he thought of machine-men squeaking away, all night long, crafting beautiful boots. The baker had set him thinking about factories. ‘Elves’ indeed. Of course those beautiful shoes were factory made. 

“Well, then. Merry Christmas, Herr Schuster!” 

The baker has realised the shoemaker is no longer listening, absorbed in some terrible dream.

Jobst Schuster knew every street of this small town. Still, he must have missed something. Shoes do not materialise out of thin air. The answer to his mystery must lie within the city bounds. Therefore, he reasoned most rationally, if he walked the streets with his eyes wide open, scanning every building, searching every window, he would find some clue to the shoes. He may even sniff them out. He knew the smell of polished leather.

Starting from the north-eastern corner, Jobst trudged a sequential path through the network of roads. Up, down and across. Up, down and across.

When the heavens opened to thundersnow, he wished to return to Gertrude. But the dark mystery of preceding weeks had stolen the safety of home. 

Perhaps someone felt sorry for him. A factory worker knew that the old shoemaker would soon be run out of business. They were donating factory-made wares to Jobst in the night, hoping he’d assume it fairytale magic rather than pitiful charity. 

He knew he should be grateful. The obligation to feel grateful made charity worse. These so-called gifts felt more like taunts.

The streets seemed to whisper a shoddy semaphore: 

Jobst Schuster is past his prime. 

His stitches are wobbly and big.

His fingers tremble.

And his arms are too short

For his eyes.

A cruel commentary on his old man’s long-sightedness. Jobst could swear he heard the whisperings, and hated the choristers above, singing at him from high windows. Then he realised he’d composed the ditty himself, his tuneful opponents wholly imagined.

Jobst examined every face along his calculated journey through town. In cheery greetings he listened for foreign tones. He eyed all the footwear. But on a day like this, boots sank disguised into slush. And people hurried. His eyes wouldn’t focus and then the feet were gone.

He met no one suspicious; he suspected them all. 

The streets grew less familiar. Houses leaned into each other, as if huddling for warmth. The plague had malingered in these parts, taking every family. For years no one came here at all. The walls were cracked, the roofs had holes, and now the wind whistled through them. 

Despite the terrible history of these adjoining streets, Jobst hadn’t realised the degree of resettlement. A gaggle of red-cheeked children played near the crossroads. They wore few layers of clothing, as if to show Jobst how poorly they were fed. 

As the shoemaker approached the children paused their game. 

Jobst fingered the seven silver coins in his pocket, earned—or garnered—via wingtips sold to Old Man Krause. He could give these children the coins as a Christmas treat. Indeed, he’d be glad to be rid of his ill-gotten gains. 

He made a quick headcount. Seven coins, nine children. Three girls and six boys. There was no way to divvy this fairly. Besides, the coins were probably unlucky.

Jobst Schuster did not believe in magic, nor in superstition. But at this very moment he could see how people might. He strode past the children with his head down. 

“Merry Christmas!” One boy called after him, in a last ditch request for attention. 

Apart from anything else, Jobst Schuster may need these coins for himself. His eyes were failing, he had few savings and cheap factory shoes would ruin his business. This one time, for a final Christmas treat, he would buy Gertrude a magnificent dress before returning home at dusk. 

But first Jobst must trudge to the shuddery fringe of town. He had walked the city streets with no reward. Now he must approach the men who treat raw hide from the beast. Thus far, Jobst had avoided the tannery. He purchased fine leathers from an intermediary—the rough but amiable fellmonger, who carried about him only the faintest whiff of death. The tanners would understand a shoemaker’s predicament. Perhaps they would stop selling to factories, to protect local business.

Oh, this stench was something else.

The devil’s aroma grew stronger until it seemed he was wading through it. This could put you off dinners for life. But familiar analogies had their limits; the tannery smelt of gravy as feet smelt of cheese—not really, not even close. Words could not describe the stink which took hold of him now, grabbing at his throat, jerking his jowls and making him retch. 

“Could be worse,” he muttered. This was true. If he’d had any lunch he would have lost it. And if it weren’t a freezing cold day, this tannery stench would’ve knocked him down dead.

In hell there is no need for fences, no need for guards. No one ever wants in. And once you’re in, you’ll never see out.

No one seemed to notice him skulk onto the premises, though he felt out of place wearing a coat. The tanners wore little, even in snow. They even worked up a sweat. Two young, sinewy men in short pants waded in an odoriferous vat. They wrestled with a pole to remove a large hide. They poked the beast in the belly and hefted it from its hell bath. 

“Heave! Ho!”

Dripping with the evil liquid, one of the tanners noticed their visitor. Perhaps he knew how unattractive he smelt to ordinary folk, for he stayed put, on the other side of the vat. “What’s your business?” he called to Jobst, through a twisted maw showing no visible teeth.   

“I’ve come to speak with the foreman!”

“Foreman?” the men chuckled. “What you want with him?”

Jobst wished his story could be condensed to a pithy sentence. But it could not. “Private matters.”

“Oh, private matters!” the men guffawed, enjoying their rare visitor. One of them reached for a curved blade, handled at both ends. He brandished it in the flourish of a knight in stinking armour, then set about de-hairing the hide, deftly, dangerously.

The other fleshed a different pelt. Fat rolled off it in deft ripples, but still the blade clogged. Jobst conjured the thought of Gert making bread and wished he had not. The fat-slayer gave his weapon a reflexive flick. A piece of the terrible stuff flew across the vat, to land on Schuster’s boot. This was deliberate, of course, and impressive in the most awful of ways. 

Jobst turned away lest his face become target. Across the yard he witnessed another part of the process—three men, younger still, reaching into pails. They rubbed fistfuls of brown to soften different hides, smearing and slopping and chatting. If they hadn’t seared their nostrils they’d have kept their mouths shut, but to Schuster it was unmistakable—now he understood it was a base note of dung which set off the prevailing odour—an evil chimera of shit, mixed from various farm animals. He almost lost his stomach juices.

In the nick of time, he turned away from the dung-rubbers.

“Listen!” he called to the first men, while coughing into his sleeve. He took all seven coins from his pocket—the silver he’d gotten from Old Man Krause. 

“So who will tell me?” Jobst displayed the glint in his palms. “What new rogues have been buying your soft pelts?”

The workers were listening now. Others appeared from inside a sorry shed, where they did Lord-knows-what with Hell-knows-who. Now the unmitigated stench of rotting flesh—and piss pot—and dung—intermingled with the more familiar odour of stale human sweat.

A new man stepped out from the shed. “Ask me again for my client list,” he said, menacing, chin tilted low. 

“I come in peace,” Schuster replied. “I’m the local shoemaker. Jobst Schuster, from the other end of town.”

“I know who you are. And I know why you’re here. You’ve braved the stink to tell us you’re cutting out your middle-man. Listen to me, fool. Hard workers of this town look out for each other. We skip no part of the process—not in our craft, not in our dealings. Got it?”

“Then why are you selling to faraway factories?”

The foreman changed his posture to look even more menacing. Jobst had not believed this possible.

“We do not sell to factories.”

Jobst doubted that.

“Get outta here! Go on, git! Back to the sweet end of town!”

Jobst didn’t need telling twice.

As he left the tannery, Jobst Schuster wondered if his nose would ever come good. The white world outside smelt of nothing. He scurried as fast as his boots would carry him, which wasn’t fast at all. His legs wouldn’t stride as they used to, and now the snow had settled. He lifted his knees to plough through it, breathing hard. The exercise did him good. 

He had seen things he wished he had not. The stench had seeped into his marrow. It was a mistake to have come here. The tanners despised him as he feared them in turn; until now, such raw reciprocity had never crossed his mind. He’d never enfleshed the tannery workers. To him they’d been carved of wood—wooden lasts in the shape of men, rounded at the edges with concave slopes for features. But now his sculptures wore faces, each distinct as his own. Without those twisted faces, that rotten stench, there would be no beautiful shoes.

Dark was setting in. He must look on the bright side. He still had his silver, with more to come. The dressmaker might still be open.

Jobst made sure to check his tail but no one followed, thank goodness. The tannery road was deserted, but for one lone figure approaching from town. Jobst squinted to make out a smallish man; not a threat. But as the figure approached he saw it was a girl, and not more than twelve.

When they crossed paths he knew his senses had recovered, for he smelt what she lugged in her pails. She’d done her day’s work, even in snow, and her pails were heaped with dung. Her hands were dark with the filth, and she’d smeared it across her face, perhaps while wiping her nose. Her arms were too long for her coat. 

She regarded Jobst as if he might pounce; or perhaps it was general hate. This small person had accumulated several lifetimes of misery. 

He’d seen this girl with the bucket many times before. But now, after a day of practised vigilance, Jobst examined the girl’s feet. Her boots had no toes. The uppers had been chopped away to allow for growth. Those were swollen, and dangerously purpled from cold. 

He stopped in his tracks despite himself, and kept vigil even after she passed. She turned to check him also. Their eyes met, briefly, awkwardly. Under a flash of lightning Jobst saw himself in her face. For what was the difference between them? They each eked a living around this rotten hell-yard; she at one end, he at the other. He thought he had seen the stone-bruised, corn-ridden, bunion-rubbed miseries of this world but now he knew that he hadn’t. He thought he had touched the edge of poverty, yet tonight he’d return to a healthy wife who had stoked the fire at home.

The dressmaker re-opened for Jobst. She answered to frantic rapping, and assumed he was cold on the stoop. 

“Last minute gifts for Christmas, Herr Schuster?”

Jobst nodded and blew on his fingers.

It was wholly dark when Jobst sneaked back into his own house and wrapped all the presents in paper. 

One pretty apron for Gertrude. 

Four petite overcoats with matching mittens.

Thick woollen stockings in small. 

Woollen coats, the size of six boys. 

Gloves to match.

Numerous socks.

Late that evening Jobst cut soles from the last of his leather. After a lifetime of fitting and measuring he could size by mindsight, even as his eyesight waned. He knew the dimensions of the nine children. The tenth pair of boots were slightly bigger, made for the girl with the bucket of dung.

“Will you come up to bed, dear husband? It’s Christmas Eve, after all.”

“Soon, my love,” he said. 

This time the shoemaker saw them, manifesting from wall-shadows. 

They saw him there too and they paid him no mind.

This time the creatures made child-sized boots. They sat in a row along his bench and respected his precious tools, chatting quietly, stitching and awling to a joyful soundscape of distant carollers. They stoked his fire to warm their slim hands.

Jobst retired upstairs. He and Gertrude lay like spoons, nestled deep in their feather bed. Jobst dreamed without screaming.

He slept until late on Christmas morning. Jobst had never felt younger. His heart felt so light it might float. 

By morning the creatures had gone and they’d taken the child-sized goods. Jobst checked high and low. They’d taken the girl’s gifts too, and they’d lay them where she would find them.

Gertrude loved her new apron. She presented Jobst with an orange fruit.

The creatures had left Jobst their prettiest footwear—the tasseled brogues, the mules, the finely-stitched wingtips. The shoemaker must sell these beauties. He would buy more leather.

“You seem content,” Gert said over breakfast.

“Indeed, I am.”

Those guilt-shapen elves hadn’t come for him. 

They had never come for him.

The tale of The Elves and the Shoemaker you knew as a child may not align with earlier versions, in which the central message is quite different. I was spooked when I read a non-bowdlerised version!


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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