Red Hood: A Tale in 19 Parts
by Barton Perkins
She walks into the forest wearing a hood red as blood, with skin white as virgin snow. You would know her, I am certain.
Away to grandmother’s house, the girl goes carrying a picnic basket filled with all kinds of treats. Honey cakes, cranberry scones, apple tarts, and lavender oil for old joints. Her name is Rosaline because her mother liked the way the name felt on one’s tongue. But no one calls her that. She is simply “Rosie,” or “Little Red” for her grandmother. The girl does not mind, because the name “Rosaline” feels too large, too ornate, too heavy for her to wear. It feels like the name of a fine lady or princess.
It is far easier to simply be Rosie, The Village Girl”.
But girl may not be the best way to describe her, because she stands at the cusp of womanhood. Sixteen going on seventeen and already the village lads have started to come calling to court.
She will be married by this time next year. She is certain of this.
She is as certain of this with the same coiled and twisted feeling of a mouse being compressed in on itself by the leathery coils of a snake.
He stands alone in the forest, wearing a coat of fur blacker than coal and watching the world from behind golden eyes.
You would know him, I am certain.
The wolf stands alone in the forest, as if he is waiting for someone to happen upon him. He is a larger specimen of canine, almost the size of a small pony. There is a part of him—gnawing and chewing from the inside of his gut—that wonders why he is alone.
Ponders, “Who am I waiting for?”
Wolves are meant to run in packs, family units that hunt together. Wolves are not meant to stand alone, silent and still as a gravestone.
The wolf ponders these truths, these thoughts and ideas. He lets them roll around in his head: cogs and springs turning lazily in an old clock. Not for a moment does he wonder about the metaphysical implications of a wolf with philosophical or intellectual queries.
If he did, it would surely drive him mad.
She stands in her garden, adorned in a simple homespun dress with a crop of white hair crowning her head.
You would know her, I am certain.
Her granddaughter calls her Granny. She calls herself Esme, even though no one else does. To the village that stretches past the edge of the forest, and even to her own daughter, she is simply “The Madwoman in The Woods” or “The Old Witch.”
She does not think herself mad. To her, living tucked away alone in the forest is the most sensible thing she has ever chosen to do. She wakes to birdsong every morning. She never has to worry about annoying neighbors or her daughter’s threats to make her move in with her. It is a simple life among the trees, and for the longest time it was a content one.
Her grandmother used to live in town, in the village, in a small house with rose-patterned curtains, thin and faded to pink. The girl, Little Red, used to love running her fingers across the fabric, worn and used to dust.
The girl’s grandmother would bake her cookies, cinnamon, sugar, and chocolate. The smell filled up the small house, overpowering the noise of the girl’s grandfather as he grunted outside, shaping wood panels and iron rings into barrels.
Then her grandmother moved into the forest.
It was such a sudden thing, the girl had thought.
One moment they were laying the girl’s grandfather, a spindly beardless man, into the ground. The next, her grandmother was packing all of her things into a large sack and walking into the woods.
They all called her mad: the villagers, the girl’s father, the girl’s mother. The Madwoman in the Woods. The Old Witch.
It still embarrasses the girl’s mother. “She should just come and live with us,” the girl’s mother says, again and again. “Doesn’t she know that people talk?"
"Wolves live in the forest the villagers whisper, wolves and witches.”
Rosie listens to their words, and they simmer within her as she walks through the woods. The branches creak and crack beneath her shoes. The shadows seem to bend and twist around her as she journeys through the woods.
The wolf observes the shadows cast by the overhead trees and the noonday sun.
He watches as an invisible brush paints the nooks and crannies of the forest with black streak and shadowed edges. Hiding from sight: the subtle details of bark, root, and leaf. The dark deafens the chitters of squirrel and rabbit in sublime stillness.
The wolf tries to sink into it. The obscuring shadows of the trees, the soothing silence of the woods. He tries to let it wash over him.
Tries to quiet his worries and queries. But he cannot.
He thinks, thoughts, “Why am I here? And who am I waiting for?” These musings tick away in the wolf’s skull like a clock’s mechanical rhythm. His visage appears confused. His canine features are ponderous.
Standing there, unable to escape his own ponderings, he hears the crack of a branch. He looks up, and he sees her. A girl clad in a red hood.
The old woman, Esme, is, in fact, not a witch. Though there are times when she is up to knobby elbows in black soil, or cannot get the fire started in winter, when she wishes she was.
There is something fanciful, romantic even, about being able to snap one’s fingers and make a broom clean your house. Or making all the trees in your orchard bear fruit in the middle of winter with the wave of a hand.
But then again, she thinks—pulling orange carrots like wrinkled fingers from the ground—witches rarely age with grace. When they are young, they hold an unearthly beauty, and power swims in their veins. With a smile, they enchant noble knights to go astray or turn rowdy sailors into pigs. But as they age, they begin the downward and rapid slump from sensual seductress to wretched crone. Witches often find their minds wandering off without them. They build ill-advised homes from gingerbread which mice and birds gnaw great holes into. Or they dye their skin green and attempt to breed flying monkeys from vampire bats and rhesus macaques. In both cases, these eccentricities end with someone, usually a concerned relative or the milkman, stumbling across an old woman frozen to death in a half-eaten gingerbread house, or mauled by a troop of primates she was sizing for matching tweed vests.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to be shoved into an oven by children or melted with a bucket of water.
Now, planting potatoes in her garden, Esme ponders these thoughts: truths learned from watching her own mother and grandmother—both witches of some renown—succumb to the perils of old age. Finding her mother, curled in on herself in a house made from confection, made Esme decide not to pursue witchcraft.
Witchery is study as much as it’s blood. Magic is both scholarship and birthright.. It’s something that can be forgotten, repressed, and ignored. So, Esme chose to not follow that path.
Instead, she had chosen to marry a cooper’s son. Her husband inherited the family business. They had a daughter who married the blacksmith’s son. Now she had a daughter of her own.
Then the cooper’s son, now a cooper himself, died. It was a sudden thing, a fever in the night as she sat by his bedside and held his weathered callused hand in hers. She stared into his bearded face; his forehead slick with sweat as he wheezed and breathed.
She could still feel his cold fingers laced with hers.
She could still feel the moment, time frozen in amber, when her husband stopped breathing.
After the hustle and bustle of funerals and grieving relatives, after she began to move her things into the small forest cottage, Esme sat alone with her thoughts: sharp, pointed, squirming around her skull.
The Madwoman In The Woods remembers everything. The bends and twists of her life. Each sorrow and joy, every sight and sound, is available to her with crystalline clarity.
More often than not, it is more than Esme can bear.
The girl—Rosalie, Rosie, Red—happens upon the wolf, lost in his ponderings.
She is confused, and a bit bemused, at the sight of the massive furred creature as it stares off into the distance, thinking, like it is working out a problem.
There is a hint of fear, a trickle of white-hot terror, that brushes across her spine as she observes his large hooked claws and glittering moon-white teeth.
She takes a step back and trods upon a dead branch. It cracks beneath her feet. The wolf glances her way, and, for a moment, she can imagine him pouncing on her and gobbling her up whole.
Then the wolf opens his mouth and speaks to her.
“Hello,” says the wolf with a precise cultured voice, “Lovely day we are having isn’t it?” Wolves, Rosie knows (on an intellectual level), are not meant to speak the language of humans. There are outliers of course, princes or princesses cursed with bestial form by wicked witches or vile sorcerers. Or saints who disguise themselves in the shapes of animals.
Wolves are not meant to talk, yet Rosie cannot help herself from responding, “Yes,” she says, “A fine day indeed.”
The Wolf cocks his head at her, a great motion of his sooty mass. “Where are you off to today?” he asks, in a manner that is not unneighborly. He knows, with some bizarre and primal level of certainty, that he is meant to be polite to young women. He is meant to be cordial and inquisitive, but also cultivate a degree of detached boredom.
He must be polite, yet the Wolf cannot escape the growing feeling of hunger; it rises in his chest and caresses his watering mouth with silken soft fingers.
“I am off to my grandmother’s house,” Rosie tells the Wolf. She holds her basket close to her chest, feels the wicker dig into her hands. “To deliver a basket of honey cakes for her belly, and lavender oil for her aching joints.”
Rosie stops. She is unsure what to say next. After all, what do you say to a wolf watching you with golden eyes and a drooling mouth?
“Your grandmother?” the Wolf asks. He cannot help it: A gurgle passes through his stomach and trails up his throat. He cannot help the way his eyes trace the girl’s figure again and again.
“Yes,” Rosie says, forcing herself to look prim and composed. “She is quite old and lives alone in these woods. I come out at least once a week to bring her food.”
She hears the growl of hunger in the wolf’s belly. She is uncertain whether or not she should mention it. Acknowledge the Wolf’s hunger and remind him that a tasty young girl stands before him? Or say nothing and hope that he will just leave her alone?
She feels the Wolf’s eyes upon her, curving her shape into his mind. It is an odd sensation but, much to her surprise, it is not one she wholly detests.
“What a good granddaughter you must be.” The Wolf says, uncertain how else to respond. He hungers, yes, with greater and greater gnawing need. But he cannot help but continue to watch the girl. See how the red cloak clings to the subtle curves of her form.
“I suppose,” says Rosie. She does not tell him her mother forces her to venture out into the forest. She does not tell him part of her wishes to find her grandmother dead in her garden so she’d never have to go in again.
Instead, she reaches into the wicker basket and withdraws a piece of honey cake. Sticky gems of honey cling to her fingers. “Would you like a piece?” she asks the Wolf, heart hammering in her chest.
The Wolf pauses, and approaches the girl in a red hood.
He opens his mouth and offers her his tongue. With gentle fingers, the girl lays the piece of cake on top. Reaching past rows of teeth, sharp as kitchen knives.
The cake tastes sweet on the wolf’s tongue as he swallows it. “Thank you,” says the Wolf, “That was quite delicious.”
The girl feels the remaining honey and crumbs on her fingers. She rubs them together, feeling oddly giddy.
“Would you like another piece?” she asks the Wolf.
Since she moved to the woods, Esme has seen her daughter but once.
She, Esme’s daughter, came to the cabin one afternoon with her brow wrinkled. Esme looked at her daughter. She couldn’t help cataloging the small wrinkles tracing her eyes, the fringes of gray intruding at her scalp.
Esme and her daughter sat at the small wooden table in the cottage. Sipping on brown, stagnant tea.
“Mother,” Esme’s daughter said without much preamble. “Mother, you must come home.”
Esme watched her daughter, and then turned her gaze to the cracked mug wrapped between her own bony fingers.
“I am home.” Esme said.
“You’re all alone out here!” Esme’s Daughter went on, ignoring her mother. “What if something happened to you out here where no one could help you?”
“Whatever happens is what is meant to,” Esme muttered into her cup.
“What would the neighbors think?” her daughter cried. Then in a softer voice, “What would Rosie think?”
Esme paused then, tracing the cracks of her mug with spidery fingers.
“She’ll think what she will,” Esme finally said
There was a long silence then, before Esme’s daughter stood up and stared down at her. “Why are you doing this to us? To her?” Esme’s Daughter scrunched her hands together in her rough woolen dress. “Don’t you see I want to help you? Don’t you know I want what’s best for you?”
“Staying out here is what’s best for me,” Esme said, “Staying out here, I can forget.”
The wolf lopes through the forest. He has left the girl in the red hood, the girl who smelled like honey and rose petals. His mouth waters thinking of her and her basket of cakes. Headless, he crashes through bushes and snaps tree branches underfoot. Honey cake fills his belly, but he is still hungry, a nagging itch drags across his stomach in gurgles and growls. Wolves need meat. It is a fact everyone knows. He imagines the tender feeling of rabbit flesh across his tongue. Flavored with linden berries and acorns in a thick purple sauce.
The thought (or is it a memory?) tugs at a corner of the wolf’s mind. A small room quartered off from the rest.
Then he thinks of the girl in the red cloak. How would she taste?
Rosie sits among a field of wildflowers. The Wolf has left her, running off suddenly, deeper into the woods.
She picks marigold and daisy. Violet and foxglove, weaving them into a wreath. Beside her is her wicker basket, now only half filled with honey cakes and lavender oil. She sits and weaves in a pattern she only dimly remembers from the reaches of girlhood. Her hand guided by her grandmother’s crooked fingers.
Over and under and back again.
Her hands tremble.
Esme looks up from her gardening, and she finds a wolf before her. His pelt black as night, and his eyes more golden than a king's hoard.
He walks toward her, slow and deliberate. His mouth opens, and Esme can see the rose pink of his tongue.
Rosie finishes her wreath of wildflowers and lays it atop her basket. She stands, slowly and deliberately, wholly unsure what to do with it. Perhaps her grandmother would enjoy it? Her grandmother. The Madwoman. The Old Witch. She hates her. Or she hates the way people whisper about her in the village.
She hates her; why else would she have told the wolf where her grandmother’s house was when he asked?
Her feet drag across the forest floor in a memorized manner as she resumes her walk to her grandmother’s house.
“What will she find there?” she wonders.
The Wolf approaches the old woman. His ears are pinned back, and the hints of a snarl touch his lupine lips. His mouth swells, wetly, as he smells her old flesh. His belly growls loudly and audibly.
The old woman rises to her feet. Her back is hunched, and her face is wrinkled like an old napkin. She watches the wolf’s slow, crawling approach.
The wolf licks his lips as he nears. “Meat,” he thinks, “Sweet and tender meat.” There is a part of him, a large part, really, that considers that the old woman will likely be stringy and tough, possibly to the point of being inedible. The young girl, her granddaughter, would have made for a far better meal. The thought of the girl with the red hood and her honey cakes makes the wolf’s mouth water and his stomach moan with longing.
He pushes away the thought of the girl, and oh how she must taste.
The wolf approaches the old woman, and she stares him down with eyes blacker than sunflower seeds.
“Hello,” the old woman says to the hungry Wolf.
She starts to run.
Past clutches of trees with branches hooked like old fingers. Over gnarled roots that pop from the ground like sickly veins. Through bunches of brambles that snag and tear at her skin, at her red cloak.
She—Rosie, Little Red—runs. Her breath comes in and out in desperate gasps as she races towards the cottage. To the Madwoman’s house—to the Witch In The Wood’s house, to her grandmother’s house—the girl runs.
Tears, like drops of silver, splash on her face.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He takes off his coat, for that is what one does when they enter another’s house. He sits at the old woman’s table.
He is confused and a bit bemused as he finds himself waiting once again. Though this time, he knows that he is waiting for the girl in the red hood.
Before him is a cup of tea, brown and bitter, with steam rising from the mug. He drinks it in little sips and tiny licks. He is thankful for the warmth that it provides. Since he stepped into the old woman’s house, he has felt rather cold.
He is eating an apple, wrinkled and browning, that the old woman offered him. It is polite, important even, to accept food whenever it is offered to you. He knows this the same way he knows how to breathe: a natural reflex that requires no forethought or afterthought.
He shivers, still feeling the nip of cold air passing across his skin. It is odd, though…while his flesh feels cold—chilled and breaking out into goose flesh—his mind feels clear, clean, and sharp. For the first time ever, he does not feel confused or ponderous. There is not a philosophical or introspective thought in his skull, and there is something oddly peaceful and pleasing about his new state of being.
“Perhaps I should put my coat back on,” he thinks to himself, shuddering against the cold again.
But when he turns to look for his coat, he finds it gone.
So is the old woman.
When she let the Wolf into her house, Esme helped him take off his coat. She is not a witch—not truly—because that takes years of practice and study. To learn the ways of magic takes reading and writing, dancing under the stars at night, and giving blood and tears to eldritch-horned gods.
Esme is no witch.
But Esme knows a few small things. A scant handful of tricks and traps. Learned on her mother and grandmother’s knees.
And she knows an opportunity when she sees one.
Esme helped the Wolf take off his coat—silken to the touch—and sat him down at her table. She gave him an apple because he had seemed hungry. Then, as the Wolf was staring at the apple—a bemused and curious look on his face—Esme tiptoed past him. She ran her hands over the fur coat, soft and cool to the touch. Without a backward glance at the Wolf, now chewing noisily on his fruit, Esme slipped out the backdoor. Now, Esme runs through the woods.
Gray hair spilling behind her, laughing wildly, Esme runs and runs.
As she runs, Esme pulls on the fur coat: blacker than night, finer than silk. The old woman runs on two legs, and then she runs on four legs. Nose and mouth extending into a snout. Teeth pointing and filing down into fangs. Esme runs and runs. Her mind, sharp and clear, dulls and chips away, and then, fades into streaks and sparks of light in an ocean of predatory gray fog.
In this fog, she forgets.
She forgets the past: her regrets, her dead husband, her mother’s frozen body. She forgets the future: her granddaughter who is surely coming to visit, the endless hours of remembering the past.
There is only now.
And now, she is running
The girl, Rosie, walks into her grandmother’s house and finds him sitting at her grandmother’s table.
Black hai and baffled golden eyes…he flexed his fingers experimentally. He is dressed oddly, Rosie notes when she first sees him. Ill fitting trousers and an oversized white shirt. The clothing he found after growing tired, and being cold, and searching around the small cabin for something to wear.
Beside him lies an old axe.
She does not know him.
But you would, I am certain.
He is the Woodcutter.
The woodcutter looks at Rosie, and she looks back at him in confusion. For a moment, Rosie cannot help but wonder if she has found herself in the wrong cabin in the woods. But no, there is her grandmother’s loom, her prized plate, and her apron in a tidy corner. The two stare at each other, and neither of them is sure what to do next.
The two, Rosie and the Woodcutter, eventually return to the village together. She, with her red hood, and he, with his hair black as night.
There is disorder and confusion. Brief and sporadic—the story of a missing grandmother and the arrival of a mysterious man with an axe. There is no mention of talking wolves or wolves spontaneously becoming human for such stories provide more questions than answers.
In the case of the missing grandmother, it is generally agreed—by Rosie’s mother andby the people of the village—that the old witch, The Madwoman in The Woods, is dead. Eaten by wolves, or the like.
In the case of the mysterious man with an axe, he is allowed to move into the village. He has no name—or not one that he recalls—but takes to being called “Wolf,”. It is the only name that seems to fit him. They—Rosie’s mother and the villagers—assume him to be a deserter from an army or a vagabond down on his luck. There are whispers and the odd glance: nothing overtly hostile.
People find their own answers and seem quite satisfied with them.
The two, Rosie and the Woodcutter, often find themselves walking together in the woods. The Woodcutter, out of newfound professional need. Rosie, out of idle habit. There is talk that the two will likely be married this time next year.
Sometimes, as she walks through the woods, Rosie will see a black shadow darting around the corner of her vision. She will turn and see an old wolf watching her from behind a bush or around the side of a tree.
The wolf is ancient, with a muzzle once blacker than coal—now turning white as snow.
The wolf watches the girl in the red hood through a pair of hungry feral eyes. You would know her, I am certain.