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What Big Eyes You Still Have, Grandma

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Painting by Warwick Goble

"Grandmother, I have a question," said Red Riding Hood. She said it with immense gravity.

Two weeks ago something quite extraordinary had happened to her that had led to two things: a new pair of glasses and a carefully thought out pair of questions for her grandmother.

Today was her first opportunity to ask her grandmother said questions. Her parents had been reluctant to let Red out into the woods again after the wolf incident. But when the Woodsman, coming to sell wood, had also brought an invitation from her grandmother promising grandmother-made goodies if Red would come visit, her parents had yielded.

Red had composed her questions, bid her worried parents goodbye ("I'll be fine," she said, "the wolf is in pieces and I won't talk to anything!"), run off down the path, and talked to absolutely no one until she was safely in her grandmother's cottage.

When she'd arrived, her grandmother had fussed over her and led her to the soft and comfortable living room. She had pointed out an array of treats that included biscuits and warm fresh coffee cake. She had not commented on how intensely Red was staring at her.

Red adjusted herself on the overstuffed chair in her grandmother's living room, pushed her new bottle-bottom-thick lens glasses up the bridge of her nose, and sat up straight. It was an important question, her first question, and she was going to ask it with a lot of dignity.

"Yes, Red?" said her grandmother, pouring herself another cup of tea. Her grandmother had coined Red's nickname in the first place, much to the irritation of her parents who had really preferred to call her Priscilla.

"Are you a wolf, grandma?" asked Red.

Red's grandmother blinked very slowly and picked up a biscuit to dunk in her tea. Red made herself focus on her grandmother, with her big eyes, large ears, and long yellow teeth. She didn't let herself look around the room at the little paintings and knick knacks, and little gifts Red had made for her over the years growing up all displayed in places of honour.

"Ah," said her grandmother. "Why do you ask that?"

"Well, it's just that even with my new glasses you do look very much like the wolf," said Red.

"I suppose," said her grandmother.

"And I thought it was strange that mother and father had you live all the way out here in the woods instead of at home with us," she added. "But I don't think you're going to eat me, otherwise they'd never let me come see you."

Red's grandmother sighed and folded her hands with long thick nails, so like wicked claws, in her lap.

"It's time you knew," she said.

Red leaned in closer.

"I'm no wolf," said her grandmother. "Just simply a witch."

"Oh," said Red.

"A wolf witch, if that makes you feel any more astute," said her grandmother.

"It does," said Red.

"I was young once, Red," said her grandmother, looking out the window. "And after your mother was born I felt rather adrift. I fell into strange circles. You know, dancing naked under the moon, painting yourself with blood, swearing by the wolf god. Typical things you do when you're finding your place in the world. Well, with one thing and another I turned into a bit of a werewolf. Your grandfather was naturally put out, but it wasn't like he'd been paying me enough attention so he had to reap what he sowed."

"Men," said Red of her grandfather in the same tone her mother used when her father would forget to put the ponies away and her mother had to go wrangle the ill-tempered things. Red would have liked to have ridden one to her grandmother's that day, her riding hood flapping in the wind, but she could never coax a pony anywhere near her grandmother's cottage.

"Yes, exactly."

"Do you eat people?" asked Red.

"Oh heavens no," said her grandmother. "I know all too well what a human puts in themself."

A long pause.

"And it's wrong," said her grandmother.

"Oh yes," said Red.

The sun pressed into the room through the picture window, a honey yellow. Red felt sleepily comfortable in her grandmother's house.

"What can wolf witches do?" she asked.

"Well, we can't hold off the flu if you're wondering so don't think you're out of coming off and taking care of me when I fall ill," said her grandmother. "Your mother's too busy running your father's estate to care for her poor old mother. I, who carved out the heart of a basilisk to create the powder that helped her find that husband!"

Grandmother angrily sipped her tea, ears vibrating in indignance.

"Mom really is very busy. There's accounts, you know," said Red. Her mother kept trying to teach her accounts. The lessons were making Red seriously considering running out naked under the moon and painting herself with blood and pledging herself to the wolf god, now that she knew it was an option.

"Money. Bartering. That's how it should be done," said grandmother. "I get a good week's labour out of our fancy woodsman when I catch stoats for him. Stoat stew, he'd do anything for it."

"He's quite kind. He asks how I'm doing when he comes by to sell us wood," said Red politely.

"Oh yes. Nice boy. Knows his way around an axe. You know, if he hadn't thought to check on you, my tricks with that wolf's stomach would have been for naught? Good neighbours help each other out, Red. Don't forget that," said grandmother.

"I won't." Red took the last bite of the thick slice of coffee cake her grandmother had served her. Her grandmother must have been very worried about Red's feelings towards her, her coffee cake was her finest and rarest treat. Red swallowed with great satisfaction. She'd fallen off track from her planned questions with these revelations of her grandmother's, but she was ready to ask number two now. It was something she'd been wondering quite a bit since talking with her parents about everything that had happened.

"Do wolves often speak?" she said. "It's just that it didn't seem odd at the time but when I told mother about it she was very concerned."

"Have they spoken to you before, dear?" asked grandmother.

"Well, lots of things talk to me. The apple tree in our garden warns me when an apple is going to be rotten and asks me to shoo off moles, for one. And the moles ask me not to feed them to the cat and the cat asks me to get it some milk if it can't have mole." It all came out in a rush.

"Hm," said grandmother. "I see." And surely she could see a lot with such big eyes. Grandmother's eyes were not as big as the wolf's, but certainly large enough that a young girl with poor eyesight could be forgiven a bit of confusion in certain past events.

"Was it a magic wolf?"

"Well," said grandmother. "It knew how to wear clothing."

Red looked at her patiently.

Grandmother sighed. "Does the tree wear clothing?"

"No. That would be silly. Some of the moles do, and there's a little rabbit in a suit that likes to rob our vegetable patch."

"You know, the world made a great deal more sense when I was younger," said grandmother. "There didn't seem to be quite as much magic around. Animals lived and died as animals. People were people. But the thing is, my darling one, I wasn't alone out there under the blood moon. There were other women out there finding themselves. Some of them, like me, went on to have families and live comfortably. Others took off on dragons for grand adventures. Some became cave hags, taking a rather scientific approach to the world. All of this, I fear, trickles down to moles in small suits asking not to be fed to the cat."

Red was nodding, taking mental notes. The suggestion of riding off on a dragon to parts unknown to make her fortune was particularly of interest to her.

"The world is a strange place, my girl. You can go out there and take your magic for yourself like I did, or you can let it take you. Such as when a talking wolf eats you."

"I think mom would be mad if I became a wolf," said Red.

"She'd be furious. Your mother is amazingly taken with propriety. Red, my darling one, I am your grandmother and I will always do what I can to protect you if you choose to follow my path. Even when I am dead I will be with you: there's ways to do that. I defied death for us with the wolf as best I could, and I will guard you against what other mishaps the world has waiting. Because, as far as I am concerned, you are destined for far more interesting than running an estate and being proper. And any girl who's polite to everything she meets has the right idea in mind."

A pause.

"Even when the object of politeness sometimes attempts to eat her grandmother instead of sending the young girl off on a quest."

"Yes, grandmother."

Grandmother smiled, her big yellow teeth flashing at her little granddaughter. Red smiled back. This had been a very informative discussion and possibilities were opening up in front of her.

"That's a good girl. Now, if you will, please pull off that large locked tome on the bookshelf. It's time I taught you how to send ravens. It will be a practical lesson we can use to tell your mother why you're staying the night…"

Painting by Jessie Wilcox Smith