Cora lifted the white paper wrapping. It made a crinkling sound as she pinched it between her fingers.
She gasped. There they were. Her new shoes. Stiff red leather with thick brown soles and light brown laces. She smiled up at her mother, who stood wiping her hands on her apron.
“Want to try them on?” Mama asked.
Cora nodded and slipped out of her old gray tennis shoes. She loosened the laces, adjusted her socks, and slid her feet into the red shoes. They were wonderfully stiff, and the red leather shone.
“Can I wear them outside?” Cora asked.
“Oh, honey,” Mama said, “are you sure?” There was a line between her eyebrows, and her lips were pressed together. “You don’t want to save them for the party?”
Cora shook her head. Janie’s birthday party was three whole days away. She couldn’t wait.
Mama sighed, giving one of those smiles where her bottom lip came up a bit too high. “Alright, love,” she said. “Try ‘em out.”
Cora rose up on her toes and bounced, feeling the stiff leather give at the tops of her feet. Then she ran for the door, pulled it closed behind her, and headed out into the yard.
I’ll just walk down the path a bit, Cora thought. She took several steps, wiggling her toes inside the shoes as she went. Then she walked in a straight line, touching the heel of her right shoe to the toe of her left, then the heel of her left shoe to the toe of her right, and so on. After that she skipped a while.
Then she spotted the Climbing Tree. The Climbing Tree was a hundred-year-old oak that grew just down the hill from the path. It had knobbly, protruding roots and a nice, low branch to scramble onto, and just about halfway up, there was a thick branch just the right size for Cora to straddle and a smooth spot on the trunk just perfect for leaning against.
Cora looked down at her red shoes. They gleamed in the morning sun. Not one scratch. Not one scuff. One slip on the Climbing Tree could be the end of that.
But I’m a good climber, Cora reasoned. She shot a quick glance back toward the house before dashing down the hill to the oak. She got up just fine. She stepped onto the knobbly root, grabbed the low branch, scrambled up three, then four more branches, threw her leg over, and settled against the trunk in her usual spot. She let her feet swing back and forth, one on either side of the branch, admiring the flashes of red that popped in and out of sight.
It was the going down that got her. She lost her balance two branches from the bottom, grabbed at the trunk, and scuffed the red clean off the toe of her right shoe. She scraped her knee, too, and winced as she shimmied back to the ground to survey the damage.
Ugh. Cora groaned. Now that her right shoe bore a broad white scuff across the toe, the shoes didn’t even match. But she couldn’t help it. She hadn’t meant to slip on the Climbing Tree.
She ran back to the path and tried to put the damaged shoe out of her mind. It wasn’t hard. The sky was so blue and the sun so bright. It floated over the world, casting a warm greeting down to the creek, which took the sunlight and flashed it back in answer.
The creek. Cora couldn’t resist. She ran down from the path toward the ribbon of water. On a day like this, the water would be so clear that she could see straight to the bottom. She could watch the little minnows dart in and out of the light. She could skip rocks.
Cora paused at the edge of the grass. The bank of the creek was lined with mud. It lolled in the warm sun, careless of Cora and her new shoes. Cora thought a moment. If the mud wasn’t deep, she could step through it lightly, then slide her feet through the grass on her way back up to the path. Not a speck of mud would linger on the soles of her shoes. Of course, if the mud was deep…
It was the rock that decided it. It was resting near the bank, half submerged in the mud. But it was thin and smooth and wide. Perfect for skipping. Cora lunged for it, leaping off the dry grass and squelching her way to the bank. When the skipping rock was safe in her palm, she grinned, eyed the creek, squatted down, squinted at the flashing water, lifted the stone, and tossed it with a neat flick of her wrist. It sliced the air, bounced off the surface of the water, and cut the air again. Five times it bounced, and Cora threw back her head and cheered, waving her arms and stomping her feet in a glorious victory dance.
When the initial glory had passed, she looked down at her shoes. They were no longer red. Dark brown mud caked the soles and crept up the sides and toes. What wasn’t brown was spattered with flecks of brown. Even the laces were soggy.
Cora sighed. Well, maybe it wasn’t so bad. If she wandered through the tall grasses in the meadow, some of the mud was sure to fall off.
She sprang into a run, leaving the creek behind her and racing toward the meadow. She ran with all her might, letting the wind whip her hair into knots, letting the heat rise in her face, letting the blood pound in her ears. It felt good. In fact, cartwheels would feel even better. She turned a few, laughing when she toppled over in the grass. She picked herself up and tried a few more.
Finally, she laid back in the grass and considered her shoes. Her run through the meadow hadn’t done a thing to improve them. Now, the mud collected in odd, irregular clumps at the base of the laces and above the soles. And bits of dry grass clung to the filthy once-red leather.
Cora looked away from the shoes, turning instead to watch the clouds that gathered overhead. They were piling up, growing dark. A drop of cold rain splashed against her cheek, and she jumped to her feet, racing back up to the path.
The rain didn’t wait for Cora. The clouds broke, and water fell in big, heavy drops. Before she reached the path, her dress was soaked through, her hair flattened against her face and neck. Then she saw it. There was a little dip in the path just before it rounded the corner and led up to her door. Already, the rain had filled it up, and new droplets pounded the surface, sending little ripples out to spill onto the rest of the pathway. The perfect puddle.
If Cora had stopped to think, she might have reasoned that the puddle was just the thing she needed. She could make one last effort to clean her party shoes before Mama saw them. But Cora didn’t have time to think. And truth be told, she’d have sacrificed those shoes any day of the week if it meant she’d have the pleasure of jumping into the perfect puddle. In a rainstorm, no less.
Cora squealed with delight as her feet left the ground. She soared through the air, feeling for a moment as if the rain had stopped, as if the world had stopped.
Then she landed, smack dab in the center of that puddle. And water flew up, out, all over the place. It jumped to meet the falling raindrops. It bounced up to stain the hem of her dress. It leapt and splashed, and Cora laughed.
Mama was waiting at the door when Cora came in. Her brows were drawn together, her mouth set in a frown. Cora followed her gaze down to the party shoes. The scuffed up, mud-splattered, grass clumped, soaking wet red leather party shoes. Cora made a feeble effort to wipe them on the mat.
Mother knelt down and Cora stared at her feet, the tears starting in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mama. I meant to keep them nice and clean. It’s just…”
“Just what?” Mama said.
“Well,” Cora began. She wasn’t sure just what it was. It was everything. And nothing.
“Was it the Climbing Tree?” Mama asked.
Cora looked up. How did Mama know?
“Or the creek, perhaps? Or the meadow?” Mama reached down and dislodged a stubborn clod of mud with her finger. “I don’t suppose a puddle played any part in this.”
When Mama looked up from the shoes, Cora smiled. She’d thought she was in for a scolding, but, somehow, Mama seemed to understand.
“So what do you think?” Mama asked.
Cora was stumped. “Think about what?”
“About the shoes, silly!” Mama said. “Any good for climbing?”
“Very good,” Cora replied.
“How about puddles?” Mama asked, eyes twinkling.
Cora bounced up onto her toes, remembering the leap and the splash. “Perfect,” she said.
Mama untied the party shoes, slipped them off of Cora’s feet, and set them by the door. Then, while Cora put on a pair of dry socks, she gave the sodden shoes a little pat.
“Well done,” she said.