“Are you a wolf or a girl?”
When she heard that, Little Red knew that she would never go home again. She’d never see mamma, aging and ailing in their small two bedroom condo at the edge of the forest. Poor angry mamma who ground her teeth all night, angry from repressed road rage and letting bearded men cut her off without even honking her horn.
Mamma’s mouth was more gum than bone, something she inherited from her own mother whose mouth was a soft, red hole, raw and steaming from a constant outpouring of smoke. Grandmother had ground her teeth so much they sparked and crumbled and kindled a fire in her stomach that had yet to go out.
All she could do with that growling forge in her stomach was lay about in bed, heavy and tired, waiting for Little Red to deliver food.
The only food dear Grandma could tolerate between her sensitive, fleshy mouth and her boiling, volcanic stomach was cubed tofu-bacon.
Little Red’s stomach growled too sometimes, though, for different reasons.
Every two weeks mamma sent Little Red through the forest to grandma’s house. She was to keep small, and stay out of everyone’s way. If there was conflict, she was to apologize and politely excuse herself until it was defeated, and she was absolutely to make it home before nightfall.
Already, Little Red had begun to accept her family birthright. She was called Little Red because she let unsaid words and admonishments crawl about under skin and make her turn bright red with anger. Sometimes she trembled and had steaming tears bubble into her eyes and boil away.
One day her trembling would stop and her teeth would crumble and the tears would dry and she would stop craving meat and her face would stay a bland, dark mask and she would truly be her mother’s daughter.
Until then, she had to answer:
“Are you a girl or a wolf?”
The small creature in the middle of the forest path was huddled over a split ribcage, its smooth face sodden with blood. It was smacking its teeth with relish. Mama would insist that the smell was terrible.
“I’m sorry,” Little Red said. “Please excuse me.”
She kept her face to the ground and stepped over the desiccated corpse. The creature watched her.
“There are only two types that walk through this forest. Which one are you?” It asked, following Little Red.
“Please excuse me,” Little Red said, her pace quickening. “I’m sorry.”
“Since there are two of us,” the creature said. “It stands to reason that one must be a girl and one must be a wolf.”
A cloud veiled the sun. The forest grew dark.
“And if I’m a girl…”
Little Red ran quickly down the wood path and way from that smelly thing.
By the time she got to Grandma’s house her face was blood beet fire red, but whether from exertion or rage she couldn’t tell. She was sweating under her thick sweater and wool skirt.
The ceiling of the little cottage was smothered in black smoke, as usual. Soot hung in the air as if caught on invisible spider webs. The one bed, lying in the middle of the room, was heavy with ash.
Grandmother lay in the middle, burnt, thin, gnarled, and black as coal, her orange glowing mouth and white eyes the only color. She was wasting away from the inside. Once, Little Red’s mother only visited every few months. Now Little Red had to come by every two weeks.
“Good afternoon, grandma, how are you, I’m fine thanks, she’s good, we’re good, that’s good, I’m glad.” Little Red stuck her fingers in the basket and pulled out chunks of bacon and dropped them down Grandmother’s gullet. There was the rumble of metal as the food was processed, and heat belched forth from her mouth.
Mama assured her that that was not what a growl sounded like. It was definitely a rumble.
Little Red wondered if grandma was ever truly satisfied.
If the tofu really did start to taste good after a while.
If she was happy to reach such an old age.
Sometimes, Little Red didn’t know if she was strong enough to even make it to the next day.
She sat on the straw and wood chair by the bedside, her palms up her legs crossed. Soot tickled her cheeks and stained her dress hem, but she didn’t brush them away because that would be rude to Grandmother.
She was to stay forty-five minutes. That was a polite visiting time constraint. Any less and you chanced troubling your host, any more and you risked overstaying your welcome.
After grandma was fed, Little Red pulled out the razor. She bared her leg and began shaving. Grandma was lucky. Her hair follicles had burned away long ago. She no longer had to shave. Her skin stayed smooth and goosepimpled like a hank of fresh-
Little Red stared at the far ash-stained wall, the window clogged and filthy. White light filtered through the grime, but nothing else did. Grandmother hummed on the bed.
Forty-four minutes had passed. It didn’t matter if Little Red had one arm left unshaved. Little Red would leave. She had to get home before the sun was gone.
She had to go to market and be overcharged on cartons of tofurkey and cans of soda. Then she would be overlooked by the teller at the bank, and be skipped in line at a cafe where she would spend her last few dollars on a lukewarm coffee white with milk when she asked for it black.
At the end of the evening she would go home and drop pieces of raw tofurkey into mama’s gullet, shave mama’s face, and then go to bed.
Something moved across the other side of the grimy window.
Little Red averted her eyes to the dark, underused nursery. Staring was rude. The nursery was nearly empty by then, save for the bassinet and a broken shelf. Little Red had secretly taken all the toys home, one by one under her skirt. She had been too scared to play with them though. Instead she buried them in a forgotten spot in the woods.
Grandmother sputtered and stopped.
“Goodbye grandma no thank you you’re such a dear it was a pleasure no I couldn’t take any cookies home yes of course I’ll visit again yes I have everything it’s really no trouble I love seeing you.”
Outside, the sun was waning through the tall fir trees. Light pierced through the needles and made a shadow theater of her and the side of Grandmother’s house.
She decided to go the long way, to avoid the nasty creature that she had met earlier. It would take much longer to get to market, but if she was late, mamma would not mention it.
“You’re a wolf.”
Little Red sliced around, her sneakers slipping in the damp leaves. The creature was crouched behind on her on stumpy, muddy legs.
“What are you doing here?” the creature asked, pink strings of spittle stretching to the ground. “Are you going to eat me?”
Little Red blinked and looked anywhere but at the crass thing. “Excuse me.”
“What were you doing in that house? Did you eat the people who lived inside it? There used to be a mother and father and a baby who lived there. Now the windows are fogged from the inside and I haven’t seen them for years. You ate them?”
Little Red snapped her mouth shut, the peaks of her teeth shattering onto her tongue.
She began walking, evenly, as if she hadn’t heard anything. It was alright to ignore dirty things. They wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
The creature followed her. “What long ears you have. Girls don’t have ears like that. Look at mine.”
Little Red pushed her hat tighter on her head and turned left around huge pine that had been struck by lightning earlier in the year.
“What big eyes you have. Are they to see in the dark with? Do you hunt at night?”
What a stupid question. It wasn’t night. Not yet.
Little Red made a sharp left, then repeated it twice more. The creature, stupidly, began to jog, looking over its shoulder. Its stumpy legs weren’t taking it very far.
“Look how red your face is. You must be very hot!”
Little Red began to run. The basket shattered to the ground in a mess of leftover tofu, shaving cream, and orajel.
The creature’s feet drummed rapidly against the dirt. “What sharp teeth you have! All the better to rip little girls into pieces! Oh, help, help!”
The creature ran, but Little Red ran faster.
“Help! Wolf! Help me, help me!”
Little Red ran as fast as she could, her legs flying over logs and pits, defter than she ever moved before. The creature began to stumble across the soggy peat of the ground, it’s horrible red-stained mouth open and its face wrinkled into a grimace.
Little Red could not bring herself to scream, her voice was stuck somewhere deep in her chest, rattling around her ribcage like pinecones and creeping vines, where it rumbled out of her throat sounding worse than grandma ever did.
“Help, help, oh help!”
And suddenly Little Red was upon it. They stumbled down the slick leaf matted side of a hill. Leg tangled with haunch tangled with muzzle tangled with hair tangled with long, sharp teeth.
Warmth dripped down Little Red’s chest into the thick black wool sweater that mama made her promise to wear, even in the dead of summer. She sunk her hand into the creature’s thigh and it wailed, sounding almost like a howl, something that Little Red couldn’t even recognize. The creature beat its soft fists onto Little Red’s head.
“What happens?” Another, deeper voice shouted from the forest. Heavy footsteps pounded towards them.
“A wolf, a wolf! It’s eating me!”
Little Red’s insides went cold. A heavy, meaty hand grabbed her by the throat, pulled, and sent her wrapping around a tree stump. Her head spun, the top of it gave way to something sharp and blood slid down her forehead. “N…no…”
She looked at the creature who was cowering in fear behind someone too tall to make out. Its leg had a red mouth, toothless and wide.
“There, nasty wolf!” the voice boomed. “You’ll not harm another little girl under my watch!”
He grabbed his axe from his belt.
“N-no. No! Please, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! It was an accident!” Little Red cried. “I won’t do it again! I’m sorry!”
But he hefted his terrible axe into the air and brought it down on Little Red’s neck with immense force. Her head rolled across the leaves, teeth cracked but still sharp as ever, and her dark red blood soaked into the dirt, and the forest was peaceful forever more.
– Val Rigodon
Val Rigodon is Brooklyn occultist who can write a spell for anything. She can be found at @valdritch on Twitter.