December 24, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Magic in the Night, By A. M. Offenwanger

Editor's Note: Magic can show itself in many different ways. There's the magic of elves, and there's also the magic of love and devotion. We hope you enjoy this twist on "The Shoemaker and the Elves" by A.M. Offenwanger from 2017.
Girls don’t count. Especially not the kind of girl I was, who was no good at doing housework. I burned the porridge, I broke the crockery, and I scorched the ironing. My mistress was kind and patient, but I could tell by the look in her eyes that I was not much help to her. I tried my best for her, but still the dishes slipped out of my hand, and the fire leapt up to burn the food the moment my back was turned. Was that my fault? Matron said that it was; I still have the scar over my ear from where she struck me with a wooden spoon that day the shoemaker came to the orphanage to get a girl to help his wife.

She was delicate, the shoemaker’s wife, a pale, thin woman with eyes as colorless as the sky on a parched summer’s day. She had just lost another babe—a boy, it would have been, just like the two before him—and her heart was broken. Again and again she had broken her heart; then she had got with child again, and lost that one as well. Babe after babe she carried and lost, and each one took another piece of her vitality with her, until she was too weak to do her work herself.

Truth be told, they could not afford to keep me. The shoemaker had no money to even buy his wife the meat and nourishing food she ought to have had to build up her strength; wages for a maid were out of the question.

But they kept me, nonetheless; they shared with me their meagre food, let me have a bed in the garret. I felt wretched that I could do no better work than I did, that I kept breaking the dishes and scorching the porridge. The last time that happened had been because in was in my master’s workshop, watching him at his work. I loved the smell of the leather, its supple feel under my fingers. I was enchanted by the neat, small stitches he set along the seams, in and out with the needle, so even and straight—my fingers itched to try it for myself. But then the master said, “Polly, is that burning I smell?” I raced to the kitchen, and the mistress came from her chamber, where she had been resting, her quilt wrapped about her, and I was ever so sorry.

“At least you’re company for me, Polly,” the mistress said a time or two with that sad smile in her pale eyes. She should have had children, as sweet and kind as she was, and the master should have had boys, apprentices to work the leather for him, to help him make those beautiful shoes he fashioned. But they could barely afford the food they gave me, even with as little as I tried to eat; they could never have afforded to feed a strapping young apprentice who would want wages, too. So the master did the work alone, late into the night—the cutting and stitching and hammering, and the haggling and bargaining with the buyers who came for the shoes, as well.

The longer it went, the less the master needed an apprentice, anyhow. There was no money for food, and then there was no more money for the business. Not even money to buy leather for more shoes.

“One more pair, my sweet,” the master said one day to the mistress, “that’s all I have the leather for. Just one more pair. I pray to God that he send us a buyer, or we shall surely starve.” Then he went back to his workshop to cut out the leather for this last pair of shoes so he could stitch them up in the morning. His shoulders slumped, and his feet dragged on the flagstones, he was so very, very tired.

And even then they did not send me away.

That was when I resolved that I had to do something. There was so little I was able to do, but perhaps I could help him with his work. I finished the washing up—for a wonder, not one plate broke in the sink that day—and I lay on my straw pallet in the garret, listening for the sound of the master coming up the stairs from his workshop. The third step from the turning creaks, if you don’t know exactly where to step, or if you are too tired to care, as the master was that night. I heard the rattle of the curtain rings as he joined the mistress in their bed, the creak of the ropes that held up the mattress, and shortly afterwards his snores as he fell into a sleep of exhaustion.

Out of the garret I crept, stealing down the steps—I knew where to put my foot to avoid the creaking—and into the master’s workshop. There they lay, on the work bench, the leather pieces for the shoes. There was the last, the awl, the needle and thread, clear as clear can be in the light of the full moon shining through the window. I had watched the master often enough, I knew how it was done. I reached for the awl and went to work.

And unlike the crockery, the porridge or the ironing, the leather bent to my will under my fingers. The needle flew in and out of the thick brown material, stitch after stitch, seam after seam lying down in smooth, even rows. The moon shone through the window, the watchman cried the hours—midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock. My needle went in and out of the leather; piece by piece the shoes came together as if by magic.

The cock crew when I set the last stitch, and the first light of dawn was creeping over the roof of the neighbor’s house. My eyes burned and my head ached, but my heart was singing. I laid aside the needle, swept the little snippets of thread into my apron, and put them on the banked fire. They flared up like the tiniest of coals, and were gone.

I heard my master’s tread on the creaking stair, and in the blinking of an eye, I hid behind the mistress’s mantle, which hung on the hook in the corner.

The master lit the candle and carried it to the work bench, ready to begin his day’s work, when his eye fell on the shoes, ready and waiting on the bench. He gasped. The candle shook in his hand and he set it down, rubbing a trembling hand over his eyes. Then he picked up the shoes, one after the other, turning them over in his hands, running his fingers over the seams I had stitched with such care, a look of wonder in his eyes.

“My love!” he called out, “my love, come and see!”

My mistress padded down the stairs in her nightgown, her fair hair falling in a long braid over her shoulder.

“What is it, my dear?”

Behind their backs, I crept from the workshop, stole up the stairs, then walked back down with a heavy step, careful to tread on the third stair to make it creak. Walking into the workshop I rubbed my eyes, as if I had only woken that instant.

“Polly!” cried my mistress, and her voice sounded stronger than I had ever heard it before, “look what happened in the night! Some spirit has come to bless us, to do us good!”

I did not have to feign my joy, but though my astonishment was less than true, my master and mistress were too wrapped in their own wonder to pay me any heed.

Our joy was even greater when one of the aldermen, a fat man with exquisite taste in clothing, set foot into the shop an hour afterwards and paid my master nearly twice the usual price for the shoes—so well did he like it, that first pair of shoes I ever made, which the shoemaker said were done as well as if they were a journeyman’s masterpiece.

My master sent me out to buy food—three eggs for the mistress he told me to fetch, and a small tumbler of wine. The mistress scolded him for spending the money on delicacies for her, but he only laughed and said there was enough left to buy leather for two pairs of shoes.

That night, there was a spring in his step when he walked up the stairs to his bed, leaving the leather for the shoes cut out on the bench.

And again, the magic of the leather and the thread took hold of my fingers. By the time the cock’s crow sounded, four shining shoes stood on the work bench, their toes pointed and their heels squared.

I silently crept to bed to catch a little sleep before my mistress woke me with the joyous news that the helpful spirits had once again been to visit in the night. I struggled to stifle my yawns that day, and my fingers, which were so nimble in the night with needle and thread, were clumsier than ever with the cups and bowls. But my mistress only smiled.

With the money he got for the second and third pair of shoes the master told me to fetch a piece of beef to make a strengthening beef tea for his wife, and then he purchased the finest red leather for a pair of ladies’ slippers, as well as a big piece of stout brown stuff to make three more pairs of shoes for the alderman’s friends, who had asked to have a pair of shoes just like his.

“Polly,” my mistress asked the next day, when my eyes were so heavy I could barely keep them open, “are you sickening for something?” Her own eyes were much brighter, and she sat up in the kitchen shelling the fresh peas we had been able to fetch with the earnings from the shoes.

“No,” I said, biting back a yawn, “it’s only that the moon kept me awake, shining through my window.”

“Then lie down and rest, child,” she said, and gratefully I obeyed.

The next morning—I had made eight pairs of shoes that night, my fingers flying faster than I had imagined possible—my mistress let me be a slug-a-bed. But when I rose at noon, she took me aside.

“Polly, child,” she said, and her look was kind, “there is a secret in your eyes. Will you not tell me what it is?”

“I—I cannot,” I stammered. “Please forgive me.” I could not let her know that it was I who made the shoes—girls do not belong in a workman’s shop; my presumption would have me sent away.

“Is it to do with what happens in the night?” the mistress asked.

“Yes.” My eyes were on the floor; I could not meet her gaze. “But more than that I cannot say.”

“Very well,” she said. “I trust it is not wickedness.”

“No!” I cried. “No indeed!”

She let me be then.

Every night I made more shoes, until it was a dozen pairs a night, and I slept most of the day, my mistress being so much stronger with the good food the master bought for her she had barely any need of my help.

They prospered, and their wealth grew.

Then, a fortnight before Christmas, over a fine dinner of mutton and stewed cabbage, my master and mistress fell to talking of the good fortune that had been visited on them.

“But I do wish we knew,” the mistress said, “what those spirits are that have blessed us so. Oh, my dear, let us stay awake tonight after you cut the leather for the shoes, and hide ourselves behind the cloaks on the pegs—and we will watch for the spirits to see what like they are!”

I dropped my cup of ale, and it shattered on the table. “No!”

My master and mistress gazed at me in astonishment

“Polly, child,” my mistress said, “what is it?”

“You—you mustn’t!” I said, desperate to prevent their knowing. “Spirits do not wish to be seen! You will drive them away with such spying!”

“Is that so?” The mistress said no more then, but when the washing up was done and the shoemaker in his shop, preparing the leather for that night’s shoes, she took me to task.

“Child,” she said, “I know you know what these spirits are. Is there ought of wickedness, ought that you must tell?”

I hung my head. “I am sorry, Mistress. It is not wickedness, but…” I burst out with the first thought that came into my mind. “They are small men,” I said, “two of them, no taller than my hand—but they are mother-naked!”

Her eyes opened wide at that. “Mother-naked, you say?”

I nodded eagerly, relieved that she believed me. “Utterly naked. Not one stitch of clothing on them, nor hats, nor shoes. They dance and caper about, singing while they make the shoes, and at break of day, they vanish. I heard their singing the very first night, and cannot find sleep now for listening for them.”

“Is that so,” she said. Then she turned back to her knitting.

I believed myself safe then, and as I turned to my work that night, I lost myself in the joys of fashioning shoe after shoe, knowing that in the morning they would fetch great prices to grow my master and mistress’s wealth. But when I laid down the awl and put the last thread snippets on the fire, I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. I turned, and there was my mistress, gazing at me from behind the cloaks in the corner.

I turned and fled back to my garret.

“My dear,” my mistress said to my master in the morning, “my dear, I rose in the night, and I have seen the spirits who have aided us so.”

My heart felt like a stone in my breast.

But a little smile played around my mistress’s mouth. “They are little elves,” she said, “no bigger than your hand.”

“Is that so?” the master said, amazement in his voice.

“Yes, indeed,” the mistress said. “And I have been thinking. Those little elves are mother-naked—not one stitch of clothes, let alone shoes. They have brought us such prosperity, and here they are, naked and freezing in this cold winter. What do you say, my dear, to us giving them something to wear? I will make them little hose and shirts and coats, and you make each a pair of shoes.”

My master readily agreed.

And so that night, when I crept down into the shop, there on the bench in place of tomorrow’s shoe leather lay two tiny, dainty suits for the smallest of gentlemen. The shoes my master had fashioned of the finest wash-leather, stitched with colored silks across the saddle; the vests my mistress had embroidered with flowers, into the tiny stockings she had knit a pattern of braids. I ran my hand over them—such lovingly fashioned suits for sprites who never were.

I heard a sound behind me, and when I turned, there was my mistress, a smile on her kind face.

“When the elves saw the suits,” she said, “they were so overjoyed, they danced around the table, singing ‘Such fine gentlemen are we! No longer cobblers we need to be!’ Then they donned their new breeches and shirts,”—she picked up the little suits—“and they danced out the window, never to come back.” She took a small wooden box, opened it and laid the little outfits inside. “Even elves need to sleep in the night from now on.”

That was the story she told the shoemaker. He took her word for it, as he took her word in everything.

And so, when she told him to take me to work with him in the shoemaker’s shop—she could no longer bear to have me break the crockery, she said with a smile—he took her word on that, too.

My fingers no longer flew over the stitching--the magic had gone when the little elves' suits went into the box. Like every apprentice must, I had to learn and stitch slowly to begin with. But my master soon came to praise me.

"Almost as good as the elves," he said with a twinkle in his eyes, "almost as good!"

My mistress smiled at me over his shoulder, and her hand rested on her womb, growing big with child.

"Yes, the elves have been very good to us," she said, "very good indeed."

Angelika M. Offenwanger has loved books ever since she was six years old and first picked up a copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Some decades later, she discovered that she could write stories herself. Her favorite tales are those set in other worlds - whether they are fantastical worlds full of magic, or long-gone times and places. In her off-screen life, she lives in Western Canada with her family, two cats, numerous dust bunnies, and a small stuffed bear named Steve.
Check out her blog:,
and follow her on Twitter @AMOffenwanger

STORY Art by Amanda Bergloff


Victoria Dixon said...

This is beautiful. A tale of love conquering poverty instead of clobbering another human. I teared up. Well done.

Kelly Jarvis said...

The perfect story for The Christmas season ❤️

HulderMN said...

Beautiful retelling of this tale. And I love that there was still magic in the night to help sweet Polly!