On the edge of a brooding forest, there stood a little village, and in the village, there lived a little girl. She spent her days running through the flowery meadows that skirted the village and skipping from stone to stone in the stream that trickled along the dark wall of trees. In that dark wall was a darker mouth where the meadows ended and a dirt path fringed with ferns snaked beneath the towering trees. The little girl often peered down that path, wondering what lay around the curve where the mossy trunks swallowed it, but she had been told never to wander the forest alone. So she sat and watched and wondered, and when the sun began to set, she ran home to the village, to the small house where she lived with her family.
On a day near the end of summer, when reds and yellows were just beginning to stain the leaves, she met her father as he strode along the road toward home, and he swept her up onto his hip. “Hallo, Little Red,” he said, tugging the scarlet cloak she always wore down over her eyes. “Have you been good today?”
“I caught a frog!” she exclaimed and pulled the wriggling thing out of her pocket to hold up to his face.
With a chuckle and a kiss on the head, he set her down by the gate outside their little house. “For your mother’s sake, let’s leave the frog outside, eh? Or there’ll be no dinner for either of us.”
So Little Red hurried along the fence to where the grass grew thick and green and the frog would be safe from trampling feet. She left it there with a kiss on its lumpy head. “Be good. Don’t wander off or there’ll be no dinner.”
Inside the little house, her mother flitted between the fussing baby and the pots steaming on the hearth. She shooed Little Red to the washbasin and shook the little scarlet cloak free of dirt and grass with quick hands. They ate together as the sun sank below the horizon. Only the fire lit the room now, and the village outside was dark.
Little Red filled her pocket with crumbs and scraps for the frog, but when she tried to go back out, her father shut the door and locked it tight.
“The door stays shut after dark,” he said, bending down to look intently at Little Red.
So she was left to wrestle stubborn peas from their pods by firelight as her mother cleared the table and her father shushed the crying baby.
“The village blacksmith was by today,” her mother said, stacking up the dirty dishes. “Asking after your mother’s house. His son found a wife, and they need a place to live. I told them they’d just have to keep looking, that she would need it when she came back.”
“She won’t be back,” her father said quietly.
The dishes clattered onto the table.
“She can’t intend to stay in the forest forever! What—”
“She’s taken ill. She won’t be back,” her father said with the same stern tone he used when he told Little Red to stop knocking her feet against the legs of her chair.
Little Red, who had been listening intently, accepted this answer, but her mother stood still, dismayed, wiping her forehead with a thin wrist. “But the harvest, and winter, and a third one on the way.”
Her father took her hand in his. “We’ll make do.”
Little Red had never questioned why her grandmother lived in the forest instead of in the clattering village. She often thought that she would like to live at the end of a winding path herself someday, so it all seemed perfectly logical. But she was concerned to hear that her grandmother had taken ill. The next day, she begged her mother to let her go visit. Her mother, who all morning had been trying to spin a basket full of wool into yarn and weed the neat garden rows while shooing the chickens out, all with a fussing baby on her hip, finally, tiredly, agreed.
“Stay on the path,” her mother said, her hand tightening on Little Red’s as they walked together to the edge of the meadow. “Go straight to your grandmother’s and straight home. And don’t speak to any strangers.”
Little Red bounced excitedly, swinging the basket of biscuits and jam her mother had packed. She stopped once inside the dark mouth of trees to wave before skipping down the path. The clatter of the village faded. The leaves whispered above her, the trees creaked around her, and everywhere birds chattered.
At first, she rounded each curve in the path eagerly, but finding only more trees, she started paying less attention to the world around her and much more attention to the one in her head. She was so engrossed that when she saw a wolf loping along the path behind her, she didn’t pause to consider whether it was a real wolf or an imaginary one but instead greeted it cheerfully.
“Hallo!” Fancying the wolf asked where she was going, as she guessed all polite travelers did, she said, “I’m going to visit my grandmother. She lives in a cottage right down this path. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Why, I bet you have, and—oh!”
Little Red drew up short. Through the trees, she had caught a glimpse of sunshine on golden flowers and butterflies flitting from blossom to blossom. Her mother had told her not to leave the path, but only a few trunks stood between her and the clearing. Certain that a bunch of fresh flowers would cure whatever ailed her grandmother, she waited only a moment before darting into the sunshine and gathering up as many blossoms as she could hold. Once, she looked up to see the wolf sitting at the edge of the clearing, just beyond the circle of sunlight, but when she looked again, it was gone and was soon forgotten.
Only the brightest, most fragrant, most perfect blossoms would do, and the sun had passed its peak in the sky by the time Little Red continued down the path, downy stems clutched in her hands and the basket on her arm. Her stomach was beginning to grumble, and she hurried now, eager for the biscuits and jam carefully wrapped up in their basket. Around the last curve, the cottage came into view, and Little Red stopped and stared.
The trees grew tall and close, lacing their green hands together over what looked more like a worn barn than a cottage. Rotting leaves blanketed the uneven roof, and furry, green moss crept up the water-stained wood. Little Red struggled through tacky mud, past a dilapidated well, to the door, stopping for a moment to examine the tracks next to her muddy shoes. A line of shallow paw prints ran from the door into the trees. Wondering if her grandmother had seen the wolf too, she hurried inside.
Quilts hung over the windows, and the hearth was cold. Little Red stood a moment in the dark doorway before she noticed a figure in the cot against the wall. “Grandmother?” she whispered, timidly drawing closer.
The figure stirred, turning, and the drawn face of her grandmother gazed up at her. “Red?” she murmured hoarsely. “You… you shouldn’t be—” A ragged cough shook her body.
Little Red anxiously smoothed back the tangled hair streaked with gray. “I brought flowers,” she said, laying her small hand on the flushed cheek.
Her grandmother clutched it, pulling it to her lips. “So… hungry…” she moaned, drawing a rasping breath.
Little Red yanked away from the tightening grip, horrified to find both her and her grandmother’s hand coated in drying mud. “You need to wash up,” she said, pursing her lips. “Then we can eat. I’ve brought biscuits and jam.”
Leaving the basket and the flowers heaped on the table, she hurried to the well, the empty water pitcher in her hands. The rope was rotting, blackened and stiff, and it bit into her palms, but she held on tight, her feet sliding in the mud as she struggled to heave the water up from the blackness. She had watched her father pull water from the well in the village. He had crouched down to look her in the eye, telling her never to use a well alone or to lean over the edge to look down, and she had solemnly promised she wouldn’t. But now there was no one to help her, and her grandmother was very sick. As carefully as she could, she leaned over the crumbling wall to dip the pitcher into the bucket before jumping back as the rope buzzed against the stones and the bucket landed with a splash.
Water in hand, she turned back to the cottage, but she stopped in the doorway. The figure in bed was moving. The blankets shifted against the darkness, writhing, thrashing, contorting, growing larger and bulkier until the cot buckled.
Little Red’s voice shook. “Grandmother?”
Two glowing eyes blinked back at her. White teeth glistened through the shadows, and the wolf, the same wolf that had followed her on the path only seeming much larger now in the small room, leapt from the bed. A white nightgown tangled around its legs, and it crashed to the floor. Thrashing and snarling, it clawed at the fabric, sending the table flying and scattering the flowers, then it was back on its feet, advancing on Little Red, bared teeth dripping. The pitcher of water crashed to the floor.
With a shriek, she ran, slipping and stumbling in the mud, and the wolf bounded after her. With a snap, its jaws closed on her cloak. She tried to scream, but the world pitched, and the air was driven from her lungs, as the wolf shook her. The fabric in its jaws gave way, and she tumbled into the leaves. Her head slammed into rough bark. The wolf advanced, claws raking furrows in the dirt, fur bristling, fangs dripping. With a snarl, it leapt.
Little Red clenched her eyes shut, clamping her muddy hands over her face, but the bite never came. There was a dull thud and a sharp yelp, and when she looked up, a familiar figure stood over her, axe in hand.
He dropped to one knee, pulling her into his arms. The wolf struggled to its feet, but its legs shook and it crumpled back into the leaves with a shallow whine. Little Red’s father carried her into the cottage, setting her on the bed and anxiously checking her over, folding his handkerchief to press against the gash on the back of her head.
“Stay here,” he told her, moving her hand to hold the handkerchief.
He strode out the door, a quilt in one hand and an axe in the other. When he came back, her grandmother was beside him, huddled under the quilt, her face pale and bloodied. Little Red ran to her with a sob of relief, but her father snatched her up.
“It’s gone,” her grandmother said, her voice thin.
“For now!” He gripped the axe tightly, backing toward the door. “How long until it comes back? Until it’s brave enough to leave the forest?”
She sagged onto the edge of the bed. “It’s… so hungry. I’ll leave. I’ll go further away.”
“What good will that do?” he yelled. “This has to stop.” He pulled Little Red closer, leaning his forehead on her hair. “I can’t let this continue.”
Her grandmother stared at him, eyes wide, before she sighed, shoulders sagging. “I know. But please…” She held out her arms. “Let me see her.”
Her father left the cottage, striding down the path, Little Red still clutched in his arms. Behind them, her grandmother stood in the doorway, the quilt around her shoulders, a hand over her mouth, watching, until the forest swallowed her up. Down the winding path and back through the dark mouth, they went, to where Little Red’s mother stood waiting, the baby in her arms. Her face paled when she saw the tattered and muddy cloak.
“What happened?” she cried, stroking Little Red’s bloody hair.
“A wolf ate grandmother,” Little Red sobbed. “Father had to cut her out.”
Her mother turned to him with questioning eyes, but he said nothing, guiding them away from the forest.
The next day the meadow stood empty and the stream that ran along the dark wall of trees murmured to itself. Little Red sat next to her father on the bench outside their tiny house as he sharpened his axe, the whetstone grinding against the blade. Leaving a kiss on her head, he set the axe on his shoulder and strode down the road toward the forest.
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“Where is your father going?” her mother asked, stroking Little Red’s hair as she sat on the bench next to her.
Little Red gazed out at the dark wall of trees, to the darker mouth and the path that wound through it. “To kill the wolf.”