Malachi’s Shoes – a retelling of The Elves and the Shoemaker by the Brothers Grimm

Malachi was the toast of the town. He had opened his shoe store almost a decade ago in Town Square and it was now legendary. All the prominent folk of Sutchbury bought their shoes at his store because they were beautiful and comfortable. But it was more than that. People came to be near Malachi, for he was very charismatic. They had also heard strange rumours about how he came to be so affluent and they hoped that some of his good fortune would rub off on them.

Of course it had not always been this way for the famous shoemaker. Before the Elves had arrived, times had been tougher. Malachi’s shoes, though sturdy, were rather ordinary. His wife, Reba, had been the driving force behind the business in those days. She spent every evening cutting out the leather patterns, moulding them over the iron last and stitching them to wooden soles. Her days were spent sourcing materials for the shoes and cooking the many varieties of savoury pies that Malachi so loved to eat. Rabbit pie was his favourite. He used to hunt and kill the rabbits himself, but once Reba had become his wife, he let her see to all that.

Malachi’s chief contribution to the business consisted of supervising and criticising Reba’s work and goading her to go faster. Naturally, due to his expert knowledge of all things shoe, he also handled the sales. He enjoyed winning over customers by matching their feet to the perfect shoe while apprising them of his most excellent craftsmanship.

Malachi thought back to the night when the elves had arrived. Reba had been sick and had left an urgent order for Mrs Puckerton, one of the town’s wealthiest women, for him to complete.  But he had fallen asleep early from too much beer and the order did not get filled.  When he awoke the next morning, Mrs Puckerton was banging on the shop door, demanding his attention. On his way to her, Malachi started rehearsing excuses in his head. But before he could come up with anything remotely satisfactory, he glanced over to his workbench, where he saw the most remarkable looking shoes he had ever seen. They were fashioned from blue leather with matching silk ribbon trim and ties. They were astonishingly beautiful and impeccably stitched.  He scooped them up promptly and ran to the shopfront. Mrs Puckerton was so impressed with the shoes, which happened to fit perfectly, that she paid substantially more than was required.

Wondering what had just happened, Malachi suspected Reba of funny business. He accused her, on her sickbed, of deception and of trying to make a fool of him. ‘Where did you get those shoes?’ he demanded.  ‘You leave me all the work to do and then you play tricks while I sleep!’

Malachi ripped off Reba’s bed sheets and cast her into the street. A funny way to act when one has just been struck by fortune, but there you have it. He was not a rational man.

The next night, Malachi took what leather he could find in the workshop and begrudgingly cut out some basic patterns in a variety of sizes then headed off to the tavern for the evening. He came home close to midnight and retired to bed in a state of disrepair.

The next morning, he teetered into the workshop and was once again rewarded by the sight of freshly formed shoes of tremendous quality. These he sold with no trouble at an elevated price.  Though Reba had now been ruled out, Malachi did not even wonder about the identity of the nocturnal shoemakers for many months to come. He simply cut out more and more patterns each night and waited for the magic to happen.

One morning Malachi woke up parched, just before dawn. He stumbled past the workshop towards the kitchen. What he saw there gave him quite a start. Four tiny people were standing on the work bench inspecting a selection of newly fashioned, enormous (when compared to their own lilliputian bodies) shoes. As in a dream, Malachi kept on to the kitchen, where he partook of a glass of water then returned to bed.

As his fortunes grew, Malachi got lazier and lazier. After some more months, even cutting out the patterns became too much of an imposition on him. Why not let the little people do it?  So every night from then on, he left large rolls of leather in his workshop for the elves to cut.

What Malachi didn’t see, of course, was how difficult it was for those tiny creatures to move and cut the leather. It took them a long time. Nor had he noticed that the elves were naked. And thin. Very thin.

Indeed, for the elves, life was not so good. They had come to the village to try and change their fortune. They worked tirelessly for Malachi, hoping that their good deeds would be rewarded. But they had surely picked the wrong man.

There were four of them. Palen was the oldest elf and was the leader of the group.  Sarantha was his soul mate. They had met during a time of plague, when their clan had been decimated; very few elves had survived. Some said it was this plague that caused the Elf God, Tirrinus, to vacate the elf world—possibly forever. The clan’s magic was now weak, but Palen and Sarantha forged a new life in Greybleak Forest, where their son Boalch was born. Now absent, Tirrinus did not bestowed his usual gifts upon the newborn child, yet Boalch became strong and brave and everything an elf boy should be.

The fourth elf, Neisha, was from a different clan. She had fallen out of an oak tree when she was a baby and Sarantha had found her and kept her. No one ever discovered what had happened to Neisha’s family but Palen and Sarantha were happy to have her join theirs. Boalch was particularly fond of Neisha and protected her with a fierce heart.

Neisha had found life difficult from the day she took her first breath. Her wings had come in late and she never developed the balance and poise that is usual in flying elves. And although she was over eighty years old now she had never grown to full size. Some said it was because her mother had not loved her enough when she was born. Though Sarantha tried to make up for this shortcoming and was a loving mother figure, Neisha had never recovered from this lack of love during her first days on Earth.

The elves spent many prosperous years in Greybleak Forest, where they were part of a syndicate of barkers, stripping bark from the trees for the tanner elves to make leather for shoes.  The tanner elves were generous and paid Palen and his family well for their services. But there were some more traditional elves in the forest who resented the destruction of the oaks and sought to shut the syndicate down. These elves had powerful friends in the forest: wolves who were willing to do their bidding for a price; wolves who, had Tirrinus been around, would never have been allowed to prevail. Palen moved his family from the forest when the wolves came to call one evening, leaving little doubt of their malicious intent.

With no other nearby forest in which to settle, the family arrived in the town of Sutchbury and tried to formulate a plan for survival; a way to sustain themselves. When Palen saw the shoemaker’s shop it occurred to him that some work might be available. He knew a lot about leather from the tanner elves and he considered this to be their best chance of making a living. According to elf law, they were forbidden to ask for help directly, or take what was not theirs. Surely though, Palen thought, if they served this shoemaker well, a reward would be forthcoming.

But the idea of reimbursing the elves never occurred to Malachi. He thought only of himself and how clever he had been in precipitating the elves’ arrival. Indeed, he considered their arrival a reward for his laziness, one that would not have been forthcoming if he had completed the work Reba had left him that fateful night. For Malachi, whose hands were now idle, this justified his current existence. Surely the Lord would not have sent the elves if he did not mean for them to do the work, he thought.

Eventually Malachi even stopped going to the market to select the best leather, instead asking the town tanner to choose and deliver a range of good leather. The tanner, however, was cunning and greedy and started to include some inferior leathers in Malachi’s order. So the shoes that the elves made were not always to the standard that Malachi or his customers expected. Money started to dwindle again.  Malachi blamed the elves and took to leaving strict instructions for them regarding technique and time management.

The elves became dismayed.  They had expected gratitude. More than that, they had expected food and clothing. Had they received some recompense from the lazy shoe man, their lives would have transformed; for as all elves know, a kind deed in a weary world can restore magical powers. More significantly, if Malachi had shown some kindness, Neisha may have lived. For though the elves had found a large olive tree above the shoe shop to spend time recovering from the hard nights of work, Neisha slowly lost the will to live. It was not just the cold winter and lack of food, though these no doubt played a part, but more so a deep sadness that lay within her soul. Boalch cried out in sorrow when he found her expired body limply suspended on a low branch of the tree.

But following Neisha’s death, when spring arrived once again, the elf world unexpectedly righted itself. Two hundred nights had passed and Tirrinus, the Elf God, returned to the world.  He appeared to Palen, Sarantha and Boalch, telling them their hard times had ended.  He endowed them with a forceful magic and restored them to Greybleak Forest, their original clan land, where they once again worked in peace with the tanner elves.

That night, Tirrinus spoke to Malachi in a dream. “The elves’ obligation is complete” he said. “They worked hard for you and you never repaid them. Neisha has given her life. Lazy man, you will now see what real suffering is.”

Malachi was forced to start making the shoes again himself.  But the shoes he made were no good.  He couldn’t sell a pair. Though he followed his usual methods and was using reasonable quality leather, the shoes were most unappealing. He couldn’t give them away.

Memories of the elves haunted him. He pictured their waif-like bodies bent over the work bench.  He dreamt about feeding them tiny little rabbit pies. He prayed to Saint Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers. Crispin made shoes for the poor. Perhaps, thought Malachi, I too could be redeemed through such service.

And so it came to pass that Malachi, once lazy man, found himself working tirelessly to make shoes for each and every villager. After this task was complete he felt at peace and his fortunes began to improve. He was never able to repay those elves but he had learnt about generosity and gratitude. From this time, just like the elves, Malachi lived happily ever after.

(This story is based on ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker,’ by the Brothers Grimm) 




About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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