My red cloak is made of softest wool and is bright as berries, bright as blood. Wearing it as I cross the barren field, I glow against the snow and leafless twigs, the tangles of sticks poking up from the ground. Sparrows and thrushes dive at me, as though to peck at a bush of winter berries.
“The cloak will protect you,” my mother says. “Keep it fastened tight. Keep it on even inside Grandma’s house.” Mother’s made me mittens to go with my cloak, just as warm and soft and red.
The birds swoop toward me, but do not touch. They veer off and away.
I clutch my basket tight. It’s heavy with food.
I walk on, and now the forest is before me, the narrow path unwinding beneath dark pines. I leave the field behind—and behind me the town, my home, the open sky. Thick pines close all around. It feels like entering some great maw, like being squeezed down some vast animal’s throat, into darkness.
“You’re a good girl,” my mother often tells me.
A good girl does what her mother says. A good girl cares for her elderly grandmother who lives all alone.
A good girl will make the walk through dark woods to bring her grandmother food. A good girl will stay on the path, walking fast, her eyes straight ahead even as her heart beats like a trapped bird. She will not look at the shadows flitting between trees. She will not listen to the whispers in the wind or cold snatches of fairy song. She will not dance to the music of an unseen pipe, or chase after those glinting fairy lights in the distance, bobbing silver and white through the pines.
She will not falter when she thinks she hears growls. The snap of a twig, a crash, something falling. Something heavy dragged along the ground. A thin scream. She won’t shake. Her red cloak—red as blood, red as fire, flaring like a torch–protects her. She’s strong and brave.
I’m strong and brave. Just like my mother says.
I keep going. One foot after the other, again and again.
My mouth is so dry.
My mother stayed up all night, cooking and baking. Dumplings stuffed with potatoes and cheese. A stew of braised pork and prunes. Roast chicken. Two loaves of bread, golden and crusty. She packed it all in the basket, along with honey and butter and jars of peach preserves bright as the sun.
I can smell that roast chicken. My belly rumbles.
But it’s for Grandma. Poor Grandma. Grandma all alone in the woods. Grandma who makes my mother cry. My mother pleads on the phone, sitting slumped on the floor against the kitchen wall. Nothing but growls on the other end. My mother silent, winding a curl of her hair around her index finger as she listens. She twists that curl tighter and tighter, until her finger goes white.
My mother slamming doors and drawers. My mother with red eyes. My mother shouting. Disappearing out the door, into the snow.
My mother coming back with wool for a red cloak.
Each night we hear the wolf outside our door, howling. It can’t get in.
But I feel its breath on my neck, hot and hungry. Smelling of blood and dirt and things that rot underground. Heaving. That breath expands though the house, filling each room. The walls bow inward in time with its great inhalations. A dull roar fills my head. My own breath and heart shrink tiny and cold.
The air is tense for days, after my grandmother calls.
And so, my mother sends me out in the cloak that she stitched with love, with offerings of meat and bread and sweetness. I’m the only one who can do this. I can follow the path, I can bring the food, I can survive the forest and the wolf. I can come back home.
There are other children in the woods. I see a girl and boy, hand-in-hand, weeping. First, they followed a trail of pebbles. Then they dropped a trail of crumbs. But the birds stole their crumbs and the world turned to winter. Snow falls, and they can find no footsteps to follow back.
There is a girl with hair as black as night and lips as red as love. Beautiful as the snow. She is running and running, clumsily, slipping. She leaves footprints stark in her wake, on the snow. A huntsman tracks her easily, a long knife in his belt.
There are more children, wandering, lost.
Twelve ravens soar overhead.
There are witches, beckoning. Shadows, dancing.
A hungry wind howls.
I stumble to my grandmother’s house. I knock at the door with a frozen hand.
“Come in!” she calls.
She sits upright in her bed, smiling. Her face a mass of soft wrinkles. She spreads out her arms.
Her eyes so keen and bright. So large.
Her teeth so sharp.
“Grandma,” I say. My grandmother would never hurt me.
I go to her and she pulls me close. I feel the soft warmth of her body, enfolding me. I feel her hot breath, and the prick of her claws.
My grandmother makes my mother cry.
My grandmother was a wolf, eating my mother’s heart. She chewed it for years.
My mother escaped. She fled this house.
She never truly left.
There are pieces of her heart still here, in my grandmother’s teeth. Thin shreds of meat and blood.
“Why won’t she see me?” my grandmother cries. And she rails at the awfulness of my selfish, selfish mother; such a terrible, ungrateful daughter. To send only this basket of disgusting scraps. To keep her own mother hungry. To never treat her as well as she deserves.
To never visit, never come home.
“She can’t come back,” I whisper. My mother has never told me this aloud, yet I know it’s true.
Grandma’s claws dig into my arm. “Why not?”
I twist away.
And then I’m running, running around and around the room as the wolf gives chase, as the wolf growls and pants and pleads and sobs. The wolf snatches at my cloak. The wolf wants to eat me, too.
I run until my breath is gone. Until it feels that my heart will explode.
The last times I saw my mother and grandmother together:
Grandma sitting at our kitchen table, her wolf-form hidden. Smiling and patting me on the head. Hugging me. Sweetness on her lips, falling from her mouth.
Grandma with her claws pricking. Her teeth glinting. A sharpness to her words when she speaks to her daughter, small knives dropped into conversation. He’ll never stay, she says of a man my mother met. You’re a fool if you think they care about you, she says of my mother’s friends. Why do you think you would get that, she says of a job my mother wants, and then, I guess not many people applied, when my mother gets the job after all.
The wolf fully awake, red-eyed, howling. Screaming at how stupid my mother is. What a failure she is. What a miserable daughter. What a disappointment, this stupid, miserable daughter who ran off, who thought she could build a life on her own.
My mother cowering. The wolf howling at me, as well.
My mother banished the wolf and then let her back in, banished her and let her back.
My mother changed the locks. But sometimes she still answers the phone. Over the line, Grandma sobs that she’s alone and hungry. When my mother feels too guilty, she sends me off with a basket of food.
The wolf’s teeth are at my heels. I’m staggering. The room seems to reel. But my mother’s cloak protects me. The berry-red cloak that she made with love. Grandma Wolf’s teeth may snap and tear, but the fabric is strong. The fabric holds. This morning, my mother kissed me goodbye. She pulled the red hood up over my head. She tenderly cupped my cheek.
It’s late by the time I finally head home. I’m so tired, even before the long walk back. Darkness is filling the sky overhead.
Other children are leaving the woods, too. I see Snow White on a white horse with her prince, smirking. Hansel and Gretel walking from the witch’s house, their arms filled with treasure. The woods are quiet. No monsters or wild hunts, no glint of fairy lights.
My basket is empty. The wolf is asleep, worn out from the chase, in a cottage behind me.
And I realize that I hate my mother. My mother who sends me to the woods again and again. Who sends me alone, to confront what she cannot. All these children sent off to the woods.
There are fairy tales you haven’t heard of. There are tales you know, but you learned them all wrong.
Gretel and Hansel pass by me, on their own path. I wave to them, and they nod. Their faces are solemn. They’re returning to the parents who abandoned them, who took them to the forest to die. They’re returning with armfuls of gold and silver and jewels to share.
Snow White rides past, and my gut tightens at the fierce light in her eyes. In a few weeks, she’ll send her mother a deadly invitation. She’ll gift her mother a pair of hot iron shoes.
And as I reach the forest’s edge, twelve ravens soar overhead. Twelve boys who fled the father who would hurt them. They are never going back. They’ll find a new home in a kingdom far away.
There is a story where I don’t go home, either. A story where I truly escape, and maybe my mother does, too.
But for now, I take my usual path. I leave the woods; I cross the field. Lights shine in all the windows of my house. I walk in, and my mother’s stirring a pot on the stove. “Red.” She says my name quietly. She tells me to go ahead and set the table. As I pass, she brushes a bit of fur off my cloak. She doesn’t meet my eyes. But I know that after dinner, she’ll take my cloak and inspect it carefully, finding and repairing each tiny rip and hole, most of them nearly too small to see.
A complete bibliography can be found at her website www.vanessafogg.com. Vanessa is fueled by green tea.
Vanessa Fogg says:
I always had questions about the plot of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Why does Grandma, seemingly old and frail, live alone in the woods away from her daughter and family? How often has Little Red made this journey? Are wolf encounters common? And I’ve always been struck by that recurring element of old Grimms’ fairy tales—that children are forever being sent or deliberately abandoned in the woods. So I wrote this story to explain how one fairy tale heroine ends up in her situation. I’m afraid it’s not exactly an uncommon situation—but then, fairy tales are known for reflecting and drawing upon real life.