WINNER OF THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE
Strange things are happening on the remote and snowbound archipelago of St. Hauda's Land. Magical winged creatures flit around the icy bogland, albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods, and Ida Maclaird is slowly turning into glass. Ida is an outsider in these parts who has only visited the islands once before. Yet during that one fateful visit the glass transformation began to take hold, and now she has returned in search of a cure.
The Girl with Glass Feet is a love story to treasure, "crafted with elegance and swept by passionate magic and the yearning for connection. A rare pleasure" (Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love).
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Ali Shaw graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English literature and has since worked as a bookseller and at Oxford's Bodleian Library. The Girl with Glass Feet is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
· ONE ·
That winter there were reports in the newspaper of an iceberg the shape of a galleon floating in creaking majesty past St. Hauda’s Land’s cliffs, of a snuffling hog leading lost hill walkers out of the crags beneath Lomdendol Tor, of a dumbfounded ornithologist counting five albino crows in a flock of two hundred. But Midas Crook did not read the newspaper; he only looked at the photographs.
That winter Midas had seen photos everywhere. They haunted the woods and lurked at the ends of deserted streets. They were of such multitude that while lining up a shot at one, a second would cross his aim and, tracking that, he’d catch a third in his sights.
One day in mid-December he chased the photos to a part of the woods near Ettinsford. It was a darkening afternoon whose final shafts of light passed between trees, swung across the earth like searchlights. He left the path to follow such a beam. Twigs crunched beneath his shoes. A bleating bird skipped away over leaves. Branches swayed and clacked against each other overhead, snipping through the roving beam. He kept up his close pursuit, treading through its trail of shadows.
His father had once told him a legend: lone travelers on overgrown paths would glimpse a humanoid glow that ghosted between trees or swam in a still lake. And something, some impulse from the guts, would make the traveler lurch off the path in pursuit, into the mazy trees or deep water. When they pinned it down it would take shape. Sometimes it would form a flower of phosphorescent petals. Sometimes it drew a bird of sparks whose tail feathers fizzed embers. Sometimes it became like a person and they’d think they saw, under a nimbus like a veil, the features of a loved one long lost. Always the light grew steadily brighter until—in a fl ash—they’d be blinded. Midas’s father hadn’t needed to elaborate on what happened to them after that. Lost and alone in the cold of the woods.
It was nonsense, of course, like everything his father had said. But light was magic, making the dull earth vivid. A shaft of it hung against a tree trunk, bleaching the cracked bark yellow. Enticed, Midas crept towards it and captured it on camera before it sank back into the loam. A quick glance at his display screen promised a fine picture, but he was greedy for more. Another shaft lit briars and holly ahead. It made the berries sharply red, the leaves poisonously green. He shot it, and harried another that drifted ahead through the undergrowth. It gathered pace while Midas tripped on roots and snagged his ankles on strands of thorns. He chased it all the way to the fringe of the wood, and followed it into the open, where the scrubland sloped down and away from him towards a river. Crows wheeled in a sky of oily rags. Hidden water gurgled nearby, welling into a dark pool at the bottom of the slope. Above the pool, the ray of light dangled like a golden ribbon. He charged down the slope to catch it, feet skidding on mushy soil and sharp air driving into his lungs as he stumbled the last distance down to the banks. A sheet of lacy ice covered the water and prevented reflections, so all he could see in the pool was darkness. The ray had vanished. The clouds had coalesced too fast. He was panting, hanging his head and resting with hands on knees. His breath hung in the air.
“Are you okay?”
He spun around and felt his foot skid on a clot of soil. He fell forward and stumbled up again with filthy hands and cold muddy patches on his knees. A girl sat neatly on a fl at rock. Somehow he’d not seen her. She looked like she’d stepped through the screen of a 1950s movie. Her skin and blond hair were such pale shades they looked monochrome. Her long coat was tied at the waist by a fabric belt. She was probably a few years younger than him, in her early twenties, wearing a white hat with matching gloves.
“Sorry,“ she said, “if I surprised you.”
Her irises were titanium gray, her most striking feature. Her lips were an afterthought and her cheekbones flat. But her eyes... He realized he was staring into them and quickly looked away.
He turned to the pond in hope of the light. On the other side of the water was a field marked out by a stringy barbed- wire fence. A shaggy gray ram stood there, horns like ammonites, staring into space. Past that the woods began again, with no sign of a farmhouse attached to the ram’s field. Nor was there any sign of the light.
“Are you sure you’re okay? Have you lost something?”
He turned back to her, wondering if she might have seen it. It was on the rock beside her, beamed through a hole in the clouds.
“Shh!” He spent half a second aiming, then took the shot.
“What are you doing?”
He scrutinized the image on the camera’s screen. A fine photo, all told. The girl’s half of the stone steeped in a tree’s forked shadow, the other half turned to a hunk of glowing amber. But wait... On closer examination he had made a mess of the composition, cropping the ends of her boots. He bent closer to the screen. No wonder he had made the mistake, for the girl’s feet sat neatly together in a pair of large boots many sizes too big for her. They were covered in laces and buckles like straightjackets. A walking stick lay across her lap.
“I’m still here, you know.”
He looked up, startled.
“And I asked you what you were doing.”
“Are you a photographer?”
“You’re a professional?”
“You’re an unemployed photographer?”
He waved his hands in vague directions. This complicated question often worried him. What other people could not realize was that photography wasn’t a job, a hobby or an obsession, it was simply as fundamental to his interpretation of the world as the effect of light diving in his retinas.
“I cope,“ he mumbled, “with photography.”
She raised an eyebrow. “It’s rude to photograph people without their consent. Not everyone enjoys the experience.”
The ram grunted in its field.
She carried on. “Anyway, may I see it? The photograph you took of me.”
Midas timidly held out the camera, tilting it slightly towards her.
“Actually,“ he explained, “um, it’s not a photo of you. If it were I’d have framed it differently. I wouldn’t have cropped the tip of your, erm, boot. And I’d have asked permission.”
“Then what’s it a photograph of?”
He shrugged. “You could say it was the light.”
“Can I take a closer look?”
Before he’d had a chance to figure out how to word a sentence to say no, not really, not quite, he wasn’t that comfortable with other people handling his camera, she reached up and took it. The carry strap, still slung around his neck, forced him to step unbearably close to her. He winced and waited, leaning backwards uncomfortably, to keep as much of himself as far as he could from her. His eyes drifted back to her boots.
They weren’t just big. They were enormous on a girl so thin. They reached almost up to her knees.
“God, I look awful. So shadowy.” She sighed and let the camera go. Midas straightened up and took a relieved step backwards, still staring at her boots.
“They were my dad’s. He was a policeman. They’re made for plodding.”
“Here.” She opened her handbag and took out her wallet, finding inside a dog-eared piece of photograph showing her in denim shorts, yellow T-shirt and sunglasses. She stood on a beach Midas recognized.
“That’s Shalhem Bay,“ he said, “near Gurmton.”
“Last summer. The last time I came to St. Hauda’s Land.”
She offered him the photo to take a closer look. In it, her skin was tanned and her hair a roasted blond. She wore a pair of flip-flops on small, untoward feet.
A snort behind him made Midas jump. The ram had made a steamy halo for his horned head.
“You’re quite a jumpy guy. Are you sure you’re all right? What’s your name?”
“Not so unusual if it’s your own name, I suppose. Mine’s Ida.”
She smiled, showing slightly yellowed teeth. He didn’t know why that should surprise him. Perhaps because the rest of her was so gray.
“Ida,“ he said.
“Yes.” She gestured to the speckled surface of the rock. “Do you want to sit down?”
He sat a few feet away from her.
“Is it just me,“ she asked, “or is this an ugly winter?”
The clouds were now as thick and drab as concrete. The ram rubbed a hind leg against the fence, tearing his gray wool on the barbed wire.
“I don’t know,“ Midas said.
“There’ve been so few of those crisp days when the sky’s that brilliant blue. Outdoor days I like. And the dead leaves aren’t coppery, they’re gray.”
He examined the mush of leaves at their feet. She was right. “Pleasing,“ he said.
She laughed. She had a watery cackle he wasn’t sure he enjoyed.
“But you,“ he said, “are wearing gray.” And she looked good. He’d like to photograph her among monochrome pines. She’d wear a black dress and white makeup. He’d use color film and capture the muted flush in her cheeks.
“I used to dress in bright col...
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