Falco was a shoemaker in Orosa—the master shoemaker. He was the master, not because he made the best shoes, but because he was the only shoemaker in the town and its neighboring cities. He made ordinary, everyday shoes that were both sturdy and reliable, which was all that the people needed.
He hammered away in his workshop for years, unchallenged in his expertise, until a small group of nomad shoemakers, the L’apictuans, arrived in town. They came in horse-drawn caravans, accompanied by hundreds of blue-bottomed fireflies. They had been travelling endlessly—apart from the other L’apictuans—since the ruin of their coastal city, L’apictu. The arrival of the nomad shoemakers did not excite the people of Orosa one bit. So what if gypsies had come to their town to sell shoes? They already had Falco to make shoes for them.
When the nomad shoe shop finally opened, it became a different story. One by one, Orosans entered the shop, touching the shoes on display, and then looking at each other with furrowed brows.
“Didn’t you say you’d be selling shoes?” asked an Orosan man.
“Well, yes, we are selling shoes,” said the L’apictuan woman on duty.
“Oh, yes, yes, shoes, but I thought shoes for the feet, not as decorative pieces,” he said.
The L’apictuan woman smiled and said, “But these are shoes for your feet.”
“For my feet, you say,” said the man, trying to stifle his laughter. “That’s a good one. We have a joker here.”
The room erupted with laughter from the Orosans. The L’apictuan woman walked towards one of the racks, took a pair of pink shoes with satin ribbons, and invited one of the Orosan women to try it on. The Orosans stopped laughing, and watched as the chosen woman sat reluctantly on a chair, took off her clunky clogs and then slid her callused feet slowly onto the soft insoles of the pink shoes. She stood up and took a few careful steps, expecting the shoes to break. The Orosans held their breath and watched her every step. When the shoes did not break, she beamed at everyone, and then started twirling and laughing like a young girl.
After that, everybody wanted to try on a pair.
Not surprisingly, it affected Falco’s livelihood. He lost his patrons, save for a few faithful ones.
“Don’t worry Falco. I shall never buy shoes from those vagabonds. Those kinds of shoes are for harlots, not for decent women like me,” said one of his female patrons.
“For harlots?” said Falco.
“Yes, for harlots, but don’t worry about it, my dear. You’re doing a marvelous job in here,” said the female patron, limping as she walked out of the shop in her new pair of Falco shoes.
After the woman left, Falco closed his shop, put on his coat and tied a scarf around his neck. It was time to visit the competition.
As he turned the corner to the street where the nomad shoe shop was, Falco tried to prepare himself for what he might see. He had never seen shoes for harlots, but he remembered a technique his father had shown him when he was still alive: leather coloring. Yes, he could use leaves, berries, and roots to color the leather. If that was the L’apictuan trick, then he could surely do that too. It was simple. So simple that he wondered why he had not thought of doing that with his shoes. He grinned and skipped the rest of the way. When he finally reached the nomad shop and saw that the sign was ordinary, much like his own, he relaxed even more.
Once he stepped into the shop, the confidence he had mustered just moments ago turned into sheer confusion.
“Welcome,” said one of the L’apictuan women on duty.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I think I’m in the wrong place,” he said, looking at the array of shoes on display. “Those, those are not shoes, are they?” he said pointing at the shoes, “No, they can’t be shoes.”
“Yes, they are. We have new pairs of oxfords on the rack to your left that you might want to try on. If you find something you like, just tell me so I can measure your feet and get you a proper size.”
Falco swallowed hard and managed to smile and nod his head. He was not lost. He was in the nomad shoe shop, and those were shoes in front of him. He walked towards the rack to his left, looked down at the boots he was wearing, and then up at the shoes on display. A pair of brown oxfords caught his fancy. He stared at them, admiring their elegance. It was no wonder his customers stopped coming to him.
He picked up the pair, closed his eyes, and brushed his fingers along the vamp. The smoothness was sensational. He imagined himself wearing them, impressing women, traveling through the four continents of the world. He felt that he could do anything with those shoes on. Of course, he would have to buy nicer clothes to go with them. He laughed aloud, forgetting where he was and why he was there, and then sat down to try on the shoes.
He took off his boots and slipped his right foot into the nomad shoe. It cradled his foot in warmth and comfort that he felt was only reserved for royalty. He slipped the other shoe on, laced them up, stood up, and took a few steps inside the shop. He felt so light. His shoulders arched back, and his chest pushed out. Best of all, the tension on his lower back had miraculously eased.
He almost did not want to take the oxfords off and thought that maybe he should buy the pair, but pride got the best of him. He was not there to buy shoes. They were his competition. They were the reason why he was losing his livelihood. He should be mad at them, but he was not. What he wanted was to make shoes this beautiful too. Somehow, he felt it was more than skills and exotic materials. There was something magical about the L’apictu shoes. He took off the oxfords and slipped his feet back into his heavy, chunky boots. He dragged his feet out of the shop with his head bowed down.
Falco went back to his shop and surveyed his materials: thick, black synthetic leather, heavy soles, and ugly nails. He could not find anything that would enable him to make shoes as beautiful as the L’apictu shoes. And the magic that he felt when he tried on the shoes, he certainly didn’t know how to make magic.
Demand for the L’apictu shoes increased even more as people from farther towns came to Orosa to get them as well. One day, the Patriarch of the L’apictuans (the title given to the wisest, and usually the eldest), accompanied by another L’apictuan named Philippe, visited Falco. They had come to ask his assistance in running their daily operations. It was highly unusual for them to be asking a non-L’apictuan for help in their trade, but they needed someone. They had never had this many orders before. Falco was also a shoemaker, so he was the best they could find in a desperate situation.
Falco went to work for the L’apictuans, but not to make shoes. What they made him do was help the L’apictuan women get sizes or take orders from patrons. He offered them his shoemaking skills, but they denied him the opportunity. He asked if he could at least watch them make shoes during his personal time, but they kept the workshop off-limits to him. That was until the grandson of the Patriarch fell ill and died. Despite the misfortune, the business had to go on, but the Patriarch only allowed two L’apictuan men to continue working, while the rest helped in the rituals.
That night, Philippe surprised Falco by leading him inside the workshop. As they stepped into the room, blue-bottomed fireflies surrounded Falco and embraced him in warmth before flying out the door. While in the midst of the dazzling blue brilliance, he felt welcomed, very welcomed, not just into the room that he was once barred from entering, but also into a different realm of artisanship.
The room looked like a typical workshop, although much larger than Falco’s shop. There were five tall racks in the middle of the room, all filled with shoes. Two armoires lined the left side of the room from the door. Several tables filled the right side of the room.
The shoes on the racks, Falco noticed, were finished–-every part stitched and attached–yet not ready. They lacked life and vigor as if they were dead, although it was unusual to think of shoes that way.
“Falco, we are offering you a rare chance to make shoes with us. We need your help from cutting the leather, to stitching, polishing, and,” Philippe cleared his throat. “Feeding the shoes,” he said.
“F-feeding the shoes?” said Falco.
Philippe smiled and continued.
“The leather we use was once part of a living animal. It received nutrients while the animal was alive, but after having been stripped off the dead animal, it doesn’t mean that the leather has no more need of nutrients. As it provided protection for the animal, so it will provide protection for our feet. Hence, it needs sustenance in order to fulfill that role.”
Falco remained quiet, uncomprehending.
“Time will come when those shoes that we’ve sold will break, at which point the owner could dispose of them and get new ones, like they do with any other pair of shoes,” said Philippe.
“Huh,” Falco said.
“Falco, this is something we have never shared with anybody, and I am asking you, as one shoemaker to another, not to spread this secret that I am imparting with you.”
Philippe walked towards one of the armoires, opened the door just enough for his hand to reach inside, took out a small jar, and then handed the jar to Falco.
“Put one small scoop onto the insole of each shoe. That’s enough to sustain them for about a couple of years,” said Philippe.
Falco took the jar, speechless from what he had learned. He lifted the jar against the light, and a prism of blue radiance emanated from it. Inside were tiny, luminescent, blue beads, shifting continuously as if they were alive.
“W-what is this?” asked Falco.
“The feeds,” said Philippe.
“I’ve never… how did you… w-where did you get this?”
Philippe, ignoring Falco’s question, fished out a small silver spoon from his apron for Falco to use.
“You may feed the shoes on the first two racks, while I do the next three.”
Philippe moved to feed the shoes while Falco watched him, fixated and unable to move. Philippe glanced at him and pointed to the racks that he had assigned Falco to work on. Falco walked slowly to his assigned racks, opened the jar, scooped some beads, and breathed in their lack of odor. He then placed the beads on his palm where they moved around tickling his skin. He smiled and guided the beads up his forearms, where the beads moved in all directions.
After playing with the beads, he noticed the shoes on his assigned racks. Up close, they seemed to be in a more rueful state, dried-up and pale. He walked slowly to the third rack and saw that the shoes that Philippe had fed were slowly looking acceptable. He hurried back to his racks and started feeding the shoes, regretful that he had wasted so much time.
The following morning, Philippe led him back to the workshop, enumerating the day’s tasks. First thing was to inspect and to pack the shoes that they had fed the previous day. Philippe went straight to the racks and inspected each shoe, while Falco just stood there, stupefied. The transformation of the shoes was impressive. He was right about it in the beginning-–there was magic involved. He was finally in on it, making beautiful, magnificent L’apictu shoes. He figured he could probably do the same thing in his own shop, if only he knew where to find those feeds.
“It is truly amazing, you know, the process of shoemaking,” Falco paused, “the feeds,” he said, swallowing hard.
“Yes, of course,” said Philippe from behind one of the racks.
“Those blue beads… where did they… where did they come from?”
Philippe came out from behind the rack and gave Falco a stern look.
“It is not necessary for you to know where they come from. I am sorry, but you already know too much of our craft. We cannot risk giving you any more information,” said Philippe. “Now, come along, let’s pack these shoes.”
That same night, the Patriarch, after surrendering his grandson to the sea, spoke to his people.
“I saw a terrible vision. My grandson was the first, but many will follow if we stay here. We must leave immediately, and head to the place where our guardians, the blue-bottomed fireflies, will lead us. We must shake off the dust of this town from our feet as we leave.”
The L’apictuans obliged, packed hurriedly, and left quietly in the dead of the night, with the fireflies leading the way, informing no one of their departure, not even Falco.
When Falco realized that the L’apictuans had left Orosa, he broke down in tears. They had left him. Betrayed him. He thought he was one of them, accepted as a fellow shoemaker. He was already part of it, making magic, creating beautiful shoes, but they took it away from him.
As he calmed down, he remembered that if he could find out where to get the feeds, then he could make the same kind of shoes in his own shop. Now that the L’apictuans had gone, he could be the master shoemaker once more.
Falco set out in search of the magical shoe feeds. He ventured far from Orosa, until he reached the city of Ubian, by the Sulawesi Sea. When he first arrived, he looked at the shoes the people were wearing. Seeing that the shoes were unremarkable, he wanted to keep moving, but then he realized that he had already used up all his wealth. He needed to find work. In asking around, he found a fabric weaver who was happy to take him as an apprentice. He learned how to create jusi fabric from banana plants that he later made into clothing for dignitaries in the east. After saving enough wealth, he bade farewell and left Ubian.
He travelled further, doing all sorts of jobs along the way to sustain him. He became a glass blower, and made magnificent glass sculptures that sold to the affluent. He became a winemaker, and made wine from mango, coconut, and rice. He became a musician, played the kulintang in the royal court of the Datu of Annipay, and received many a favor from the monarch. He became a painter, a storyteller, and a multitude of things. He became all these, not by choice, but by chance. He chanced upon these professions while searching for the magical shoe feeds. He was successful in doing all these things and was proud of them, but still felt unfulfilled for he was never able to make shoes again.
After five decades, Falco had amassed riches that could last anyone several lifetimes. He wanted to keep going, but to where? Once, he had ventured to the same place twice, forgetting he had already been there. His stiff, creaking joints had been restricting his travel as well. He wanted to go back to Orosa, his hometown, the birthplace of his dream, but what dream? Although most of the time he remembered vividly what sparked his lifelong quest, there were a few times that he wondered why an old, brittle-looking pair of oxfords were in a glass case in his bedroom.
Tucked in his bed one summer night, moonlight brushed his brow and gave him his final dream. He dreamed that he was back in Orosa, thirty years young, working in his shoe shop with hundreds of blue-bottomed fireflies glowing all around him. They were the life force, the energy, the machinery that moved his hands to create beautiful shoes. He felt warm, happy, and satisfied. He was home, at last. He never woke from that dream again.
Outside, a group of shoemakers had arrived in horse-drawn caravans. They were merchants, nomads, children of the sea. It was in the dead of night that they traveled; no moon to offer light, but their paths illuminated, nonetheless, by hundreds of blue-bottomed fireflies.
Katya Oliva-Llego lives in Daly City, California. Her speculative poems and stories have appeared in Scifaikuest, Moon Drenched Fables, Static Movement, and Expanded Horizons.