It’s a kind offer, darling, but never mind moving the rocking chair—our legs are weary and we’d much rather lie here to chat. Come closer, let us get a look at you, my how you’ve grown! Big enough to bake those muffins by yourself, we gather, and strong enough to walk through the woods all on your lonesome, we suppose, and were you not terrified, was it not sinister and so dark, for someone as young as yourself? Come closer, we said, let us see you; my, how you’ve grown. Give Granny a muffin. We don’t mind that it’s cold. Our heart isn’t, so how could we refuse you after you’ve journeyed this far?
You’re shivering. Wear that cloak—the red one, yes. Much better.
And darling dearest? We’ve told you once, and we will repeat ourselves because apparently little pitchers do not have big ears and we want you to understand that we’re saying we are perfectly comfortable here. We do not want to get up. Are you listening to us? Then give us another muffin. Goodness gracious, why so few? Did you bother big bad brutes in those woods, darling, snarling things with jaws that bite and claws that catch?
Come closer. Stop struggling. That red is lovely on you, though I must admit it was far lovelier on your Grandmother Marie, and truly how could you confuse us with her, can’t you see our eyes, our nose, our teeth—the better to eat you with, my dear. Couldn’t you see them?
No matter. Down you go. Mind the muffins, while you’re in there.
All right. Onward.
Darling dearest, the things that seek to silence us are not wolves, in fact couldn’t be wolves. Some of us in this body know this better than the rest. May we tell you a story? Here goes: in the happily ever aftermath of many fairy tales comes a hunt, for wolf flesh and justice (these are, in many fairy tales, synonyms).
After the boy who cried wolf, lupine populations were halved. After Peter’s story, those remnants were decimated, and the stragglers became capes and rugs, trophies to don and deride. And so on and so forth until here we are, you in our belly for protection from the beasts in wolves’ clothing.
May we tell another story? The shadows have shadows here, and we are just a little afraid. So, here it is: we lied about the boy who cried wolf being responsible for halving the population. He cried once, twice, thrice. Each time begat massacres as pre-emptive measures; he destroyed far more than half of us. We lied before because, well, he’d lied after everything about how big his portion of responsibility was, and that lie took so strongly. Even knowing the truth as we do, we forgot. We’ll try not to again.
Another story to consider. A girl who cried wolf—or a boy not like the one mentioned, or a person who was neither girl nor boy but both, between, beyond—would accomplish nothing of that magnitude, not ever. Who would believe her? She’d be an attention-seeking/shrill-voiced weakling/limelight-eating/crazed-’cause-bleeding bitch, at best. This girl, this hypothetical girl crying wolf (or in our cases, crying ‘beware the Ides’, ‘beware the wooden horse’, ‘beware the queen you entrust with my safety and her hand the woodsman, for they aren’t—’) wouldn’t be believed. We weren’t believed.
No one believed me.
That’s not what’s important. The beasts in wolves’ clothing must have realized nobody’s at your grandmother’s house and will be hot on our heels by now, equipped with gags and garrottes and scissors for our disobedient, damning tongue. I do not know where your Grandmother Marie is, but I didn’t hurt her, I would never, could never hurt Marie, I—stop kicking us, ungrateful, cease your sobbing, quit your clawing. If you don’t stop we will digest you, we are hungry enough, which—
Nothing. It’s nothing, darling dearest, it’s … how well do you know these woods? We are some five kilometres from your Grandmother Marie`s, and there is a fork in the road before us that we do not recognize, and if we’re all to escape we need to know the best path to take.
Our options are right and left. Both lead to more forest. Backward is another choice, if you’re interested in dying quicker, but we don’t suppose you are.
All right, let’s think about this. Let’s …
(… did you hear that? did you hear that: a susurration like the scraping of desiccated leaves as wind chases them down pavement, but in this wood the leaves have been rain-soaked silent, and there’s no pavement besides. a shiver in the air. you’re shivering too, and it tickles, we are near giggles. please stop.
but you hear it, don’t you? the sound of them. their breathing. we need to leave. the left path is sinister and the right is ominous and backwards is definite death. right or left? left or right? why don’t you know this? how can you not know this?
oh stepmother mine, let’s just go left, we’ll die either way. except—the left path is covered with dry twigs that will snap as we tread, an audible footprint. so, rightward and onward. will you tell us a story while we run? you owe us, and it will take our mind off the weariness of our legs. say it softly, darling dearest. whisper it to our heart.)
Once upon a time, when my Grandmother Marie was a little older than me, a woodsman caught her in the garden outside her cottage.
“I seek a warm hearth, and a meal to put me to sleep,” said the woodsman. My grandmother’s grandmother had taught her not to speak to strangers. She didn’t answer, and for her disrespect the woodsman killed her with his axe. But she was wearing her red cape and it disguised the bloody slice such that the gods didn’t realize she’d been so grievously wounded. She survived her death.
The next night the woodsman came back, saying, “I seek a meal to put me to sleep, and a soft bed upon which I may lay my body.” My grandmother’s grandmother had taught her not to speak to strangers, but this man had killed her yesterday. He wasn’t strange to her anymore, only horrifying. So she said, with a voice sweet as lemon, “No, you may not come in.”
He murdered her again, and the red cape disguised the red wounds as it had before. The gods didn’t notice. She outlived her slaughter.
The next day the woodsman came back, and he had a girl by the arm, a chubby girl with hair black as ebony, teeth white as snow, and lips red as blood, an angel (Grandmother Marie’s words, not mine) whose brown eyes darted to and fro.
The woodsman nodded at my grandmother, since they were far from strangers at this point. The girl, catching this acknowledgement, mistook Grandmother Marie for an accomplice and said quietly, “Fuck you for helping him.”
And with that my grandmother fell in love at first slight. Her love curdled into pity when the woodsman said, “I seek a soft bed upon which I may lay my body, and nothing more. I have what else I need.”
“Fuck you,” the girl said again, and the woodsman covered her mouth, smiling.
Because of her love and pity for the girl, Grandmother Marie opened the creaking door. She put a fire in the hearth. She made pepper soup thick with basa fish and chewy, spice-drenched goat meat, and cakes of smooth pounded yam besides. The woodsman ate three helpings, which was three more than anyone else. My grandmother gave up her comfortable bed, telling the woodsman she’d sleep on the floor.
To the girl she said not a word except to ask her name—Bianca—but she spoke with her eyes, and Bianca grew to trust her. By eventide Bianca was helping my grandmother serve the woodsman peppermint tea.
“To ease along your digestion,” my grandmother explained. And indeed pounded yam with meaty soup sits heavy in the stomach, especially if you’ve had three helpings, especially if those helpings have been laced with valerian-chamomile sleeping powder and your tea with hemlock.
The woodsman toppled like a tree and slept like a log. The girls watched him breathe until he didn’t, talking through plans because Grandmother Marie knew this wasn’t to last—the hemlock she’d given him could kill wolves, but not things worse. The solution was to trap him and fool what could fell him.
She dressed him in white.
“Let’s go,” she said to Bianca. Bianca nodded, pulled out the pair of apples her stepmother had given her, and chopped them to bits with the woodsman’s axe. She trailed these little toothsome things behind herself, axe in hand, as she and my grandmother walked away from the cottage. The woodsman woke up in a few hours, and he followed their trail, eating it as he went and crunching whole the birds that were also swallowing his path. When he came upon a clearing, interrupting the soft conversation of my grandmother and Bianca her love, he said, “A delectable dinner, that, but now’s for dessert.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said my grandmother. She blew him a kiss, lowered her lashes, and beckoned, “A taste?”
The woodsman in white approached, and Bianca and Grandmother Marie held their ground, and when he reached them they held him too in a tight, tight embrace, until Bianca managed by dint of stolen axe to slice into his side. On the white garments the cut, small though it was, bloomed like an explosion.
The gods are drawn to contrast and drama. The woodsman’s clothes and wound gave them the former, and Bianca’s words the latter:
“Oh stepmother mine,” screamed Bianca, “look at that blood—there is too much for him to still live—look at that blood!”
And the gods did. They saw what they saw and heard what they heard and assumed both were true, and gods’ assumptions tend to be binding. So the woodsman died warm and full and rested and unsatisfied.
My Grandmother Marie and Grandmother Bianca lived.
Happily ever after.
Some years later a village woman stopped by with a baby she wasn’t supposed to have had, and that baby became my mother. When my mother grew up she journeyed out of the forest, and because she was leaving she took the left route.
I wish I’d told this story before, because it’s helped me remember the right path, and I know who you are now. But Bianca, oh grandmother mine, it is good to meet you, even ravenous and multiple as you are, even though your form and current state confuse me. But how could you have forgotten the right way out? How could you?
How could I? There are so many of us in this body, darling dearest, our cup runneth over, we positively brim. Maybe the true path was to the left but experience has taught many of us that ‘true’ does not mean ‘safe’ or ‘helpful’ or ‘you will be listened to, this time’. It was easy for me to forget, for you not to remember instantly. This entrapment is neither of our faults. And as for the rest of us, the actual wolves whom this body resembles—we’ve tried speaking with them, but they haven’t the head for truths and lies and the difference between them. They don’t even know that lies spelled their murders, and therefore they had no reason to avoid the untrue path.
I’m sorry. I wish you hadn’t come here. Why did you come here? What could you possibly have been looking for?
… Oh. I hadn’t realized it was her birthday. Time is tricky in here.
Did you know that some of the beasts in wolves’ clothing who stalk us now are descended from the crying boy? Not all, of course, no; women like my stepmother are among the throng, too, proud and pernicious in adornments made from their victims. But you can barely tell them and descendants apart because the whole brood shares his piercing cry, his roving eyes, his lies, his lies. Through his teachings and his bloodstream, through darkened wood and churning stream, everything he was and seemed—
is closer than we’d dreamed. Too close for you and I to escape together, darling dearest. They’re so fast, and our legs have been so weary. You’ll have to go on alone.
What’s that? Oh, of course, darling dearest, I promise I won’t let them get your riding hood. I will not see them protect themselves and their lies from bloody murder, and anyway the same coat kept your grandmother my love alive and alive and alive, and through her, me; this is why I ate you, because I knew for you devourance wouldn’t mean destruction. It is nice to meet you, finally. You’ve grown into such an intelligent, frightening, delicious child, if you don’t mind us saying so.
It’s almost time, isn’t it.
We think maybe, aside from the obvious reasons, everyone we loved and hated refused to believe us because we used words, and words, well—words make winners of the trusted yet mendacious, and we are neither. I’ve realized that was why Marie used her gaze more often, though it didn’t hurt that she had beautiful eyes.
So this time we shan’t use words, because actions speak louder. No, we will tear and rip and shred and ravage these hunters until they know for certain and forever that wolves remain, that we remain, that I remain. We will release you soon in the hopes that you remain, as well. Thank you for listening. Please hit the ground running.