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The Funeral Dress

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Once upon a time, there was a girl whose parents lied to her, but it was for her own good, and this is the story of every child in the world.

This was a simple lie. They said there was a wolf, even though there wasn't. This was done so that the girl wouldn't run into the forest and get lost in the midst of her games of make-believe, so that she would always be careful and aware of her surroundings. It was all for her own good.

They dressed her in red so that she could never slip away from their watchful eye. Her name was Lupa, but everyone called her Red, instead.

Red lived in a little village surrounded by a thick forest which was both scary and alluring, but Red was an obedient girl and stayed away from those dark trees, beneath which black wolves ran, their cruel mouths full of sharp fangs, preying on little girls such as Red. Sometimes Red lay awake in her bed at night, trembling with the idea of such beasts roaming so near. (When she tried to picture them, she could only imagine teeth and darkness, darkness gathering at a lost child's heels.) Soon, however, she would remember that as long as she stayed in magic circle of her village, she would be safe. She quietly promised that she'd always be a good girl and felt at ease.

But that's not how it goes, of course.

There has been restless talk in the village for some time, and one day it is announced that the whole village will take a trip to the woods, to go meet the old lady who lives alone in her hut deep in the woods, and take her some food and other necessities. She is a foreigner and a strange one at that, but she has helped the villagers whenever they have asked. It has been long since they've checked on her, because for a certain period of time, none of the villagers has entered the woods. The hunters hunt rabbits and deer that come to the forest's edge in search for food and a small stream runs through the village, providing them with fish. But now the elders decide it is time to go, and everyone gathers up whatever little they can. The adults seem solemn and quiet, but the children are restless, frightened and exhilarated at the same time, Red perhaps more than anyone because it is she who has most been warned about the forest and its beasts.

The morning of their departure, Red wakes up before dawn, unable to contain her excitement. She dresses herself in clothes of deepest red, and runs restlessly around while the adults make final preparations. Finally they set off.

And Red is a good girl no more. The adults are too slow and the other children too frightened, lingering in their mothers' hems or pretending to help their fathers, and Red thinks it can't hurt if she goes ahead just a little bit, just to see a bit more of the forest.

She can't believe her eyes. The old trees glow brilliant green in the daylight that scatters down through their leaves, illuminating the long grass and the wild flowers. The trees are full of birdsong and Red forgets why she's ever been afraid.

She wants to see more, greedily, and it's not until much later when she realises that she can't hear the other villagers anymore. Red stops. The light is still as brilliant and the trees as beautiful as before, but suddenly she feels cold and her little heart flutters in her chest. She has to admit to herself that she can't quite remember the way back. Red looks back, turns around again, and tears burn behind her eyelids. She has never strayed from the path, but there have been many twists and turns along the way. Alone in the woods, Red weeps.

She's wiping away her tears when she hears it. A sound behind her. She turns to look, hoping to see her mother and father's worried faces. But there's no one there. And that's when Red remembers the wolf.

The sound is growing louder, steps nearing her. Red stands there, frozen. Nearer. Finally she breaks into a run. Darkness nipping at her heels, getting nearer.

So Red runs and loses every chance of finding her way back.

She wants to give in, but fear keeps pushing her. And suddenly she sees someone on the path in front of her and stops dead in her tracks. At first Red thinks it's the wolf that has outwitted her, but then she gets a better look, and laughs in relief.

Instead of a wolf, it is a girl about her age, dressed in black.

"What's wrong?" the girl asks, and it makes Red so happy she could cry.

"There's something following me. I think it's a wolf," she says breathlessly, clutching onto the other girl's arm.

"I can't see anything," the girl says, peering into the woods, "I think it lost you."

They wait for a while longer, but the sounds have ceased and Red is safe once more, even though still lost. Finally catching her breath, she notices the colour of the other girl's dress.

"Are you coming from a funeral?" Red asks, for in her village, black is only worn in funerals.

The girl nods softly, "Yes."

"I'm sorry."

"It's alright," and the girl in black smiles softly, a little sad, "Where are you coming from?"

"From a village over--" Red points in one direction, but hesitates. "I think I'm a bit lost. I haven't been in this forest before and I came here with my family and the others from our village, and... Could you maybe help me find them?"

Red blushes slightly because this isn't a very good way of making new friends and she knows it but can't help herself. Luckily, the other girl doesn't seem to mind.

"Of course I will. And while we walk, I can tell you my story, so that your walk back will be nicer."

Red is more than happy to agree to this, and so they start on their way.

The girl's voice is clear and pleasant and Red grasps her hand to feel safer. "They called me Red or Little Red because my parents always dressed me in red clothes, so that I wouldn't be able to slip from their watchful eye. They called me Red, but my real name was Ylva."

Red is amazed and opens her mouth to say that she, too, is called Red because of her clothes, but the other girl is absorbed in her story and Red doesn't want to interrupt. (It doesn't occur to her that Ylva is speaking in the past tense.)

"There was an old lady living in the woods who'd often helped my village, and one time we got a message that she was feeling very poorly. It was decided that the villagers should send her food and other necessities, to speed up her recovery. They needed someone to take the gifts to the old woman's hut deep in the woods, and I volunteered because I liked the forest and wasn't too afraid, even though I'd heard all the rumours about a wolf roaming nearby."

Red finds the similarities unsettling and lets go of Ylva's cold hand. They're nothing but a coincidence, of course, but that doesn't stop the chills trickling down Red's spine.

"Before I left, my mother dressed me in my brightest red clothes and told me firmly to never step off the path, or else a wolf would find me. I promised her, and did as she had told. But that didn't keep me from being startled by the shadows as I walked deeper into the woods, didn't keep me from imagining the hungry wolf at my heels. Sometimes it felt like something was following me, but I held my red cloak tightly around myself and never strayed from the path. And finally I saw the hut in the distance."

(Without realising it, Red is holding her breath.)

"I knocked on the door of the hut, even though I was afraid because I was very deep in the woods, and I had never met the old woman before and I couldn't stop thinking about the wolf. 'Who is there?' called a creaky voice from inside, like someone who barely remembered how to speak to humans anymore. I was horrified, all I wanted to do was to turn on my heels and run run run back home. But I was brave. 'Ylva,' I replied. I tried to smile, even though she couldn't see me through the door. I would give her the villagers' gifts, and soon I would be home once more. Nothing prepared me for the shriek that old which made, 'Du jäkla varg, försvinn! Begone, wolf, you Satan's beast, begone, leave this old hag alone, I am a bag of skin and bones, you don't want to eat me!' I should have understood it was just because she was a senile hermit and my name happened to mean 'wolf' in her native tongue. But I was so scared of the wolf, I was so scared of this woman, and having her shriek at me like that, the pure horror in her voice--"

Ylva has clenched her hands into fists, and Red shifts because there is something odd about her expression, something savage and mad.

Ylva takes a deep breath and smiles, although there's something off about that smile. She continues, "I wasn't the wolf the woman feared. Not just yet, not when she heard my name. The wolf was a hungry, roaming creature, and someone spotted it near the village that day. But I opened the door although she begged me not to, and then it didn't matter that I wasn't the wolf she was so afraid of. I was a wolf when I stepped in, when a growl made its way up my throat, when my child hands seemed to grow claws. I suppose they didn't. It makes no difference. What I did to her could just as well been done by a wolf. By any wild beast. Had I gone back to the village, I'm sure everyone would have believed that. When they saw the blood that had seeped into my red clothes, I'm sure they thought of an attack by a ruthless beast. And that's true. It was a wolf. When they found me, there was a note saying just that pinned to my redred dress: 'The wolf killed her.' But wolves don't hang people on tree branches. Not the kind the old woman was afraid of, anyway."

Red is shivering. Ylva looks up from the ground and notices Red's quivering lips, her shaky hands.

"Don't look at your sister like that, Lupa," Ylva admonishes softly. "I am the reason your parents took such good care of you, after all. They never wanted to dress their child in black ever again, to lay their daughter in a coffin. You should feel sorry for your sister's sad fate, Lupa, that someone crying out her name made her into a wolf. I never strayed off the path, after all, I was supposed to be safe."

Ylva touches her cheek with a cold hand and Red stumbles back.

"It was all a sorry misunderstanding," Ylva sighs. But then her eyes grow sharp and a horrible, beast-like smiles curls on her lips, "But you, Lupa, yours is a different story. There is no wolf. It's just a cautionary tale, to keep you out of the woods. And yet... yet they named you 'wolf'. Why might that be? Did they dress you in red so that you would be safe, or so that they would? Didn't you say someone was chasing after you? There is no wolf, remember. Why do you think, no one's caught up with you yet, even if they've always been so awfully worried about you?"

Red tries to smile but her mouth won't move. Why didn't anyone call after her when she wandered off? It's not like she was running.

"I think he is here now."

And Red turns, because she needs to break the spell of this creepy tale told by the weird girl in a black dress. She knows it can't be true, but that won't keep her heart from pounding.

So she turns and behind her, there is a man with an axe.

The sweet red roses disappear from Red's cheeks, all the colour drains from her face, and in horror, she turns to the girl in the black dress. The girl smiles from the corner of her mouth and nods slightly.

The man with the axe is approaching. His steps are heavy, they leave prints on the moss.

"Lupa," he says, and all Red can hear is 'wolf'.

Why are they going to the old woman's hut, anyway, if the girl in the black dress ripped her apart like a wild beast before Red was even born?

The man raises his axe. His feet are heavy and there's a stench of sweat, of sawdust, woodsmoke and blood.

Red feels dizzy, she shivers in her black dress.

"Aren't you afraid of the wolf?" she finds herself asking. "Didn't your parents ever warn you?"

The man with the axe says 'wolf', or maybe 'red'.

--

First they find the woodcutter's corpse that looks like it has been mauled by a wild animal.

Then they find their little girl.

Her hands are all red.

"The wolf killed me," she says.

But wolves don't feed people foxglove.

They bury her in a black dress, and no name is carved on her headstone.

The End