When they told her story they harped on her innocence, her brazen cloak, the dangers of talking to strangers and straying from the path.
Red agreed that those were dangers. After weeks of catching her breath, she did not agree they were wrongs.
This was her wrong: when a wolf swaddled in bedclothes had called itself her grandmother, Red had believed it.
Maybe to girls old women were only the trappings strewn around them, their nightgowns and shaded cottages. Hags and witches, ogres and werewolves, all of the monsters under the bed looked the same. All the things tucked deep in the woods were interchangeable. Sometimes Red wanted to be something tucked deep in the woods, bristly and thorned.
Little Red Riding Hood was not little. Her name was not Red, but they called her that. When she got back to her mother’s house, after the wolf, she hid her red cloak in the back of her closet.
Had a huntsman cut her out of the wolf’s belly? Had she realized the danger and tricked her way to safety? Or had she had a little pocket knife in there with her, and cut her own way to the light? All she told her mother was there was a wolf.
But this was not the story of her first death. This was the story of her life.
Red’s mother had window boxes full of flowers and a garden in the back. The day Red got home, her cloak torn, her hands shaking, she buried her nose in a pot of daisies. The wolf would not steal these things from her. People could tell whatever stories they wanted in the days to come, but trying to find glimpses of her mother’s beloved garden in the darkness of the woods was not a fault.
Red had an attic room, nestled under the thatch. There was a window that opened up just under the peak of the roof. As a child, she had shoved her bed up under the windowsill as soon as she was big enough to shove furniture around. She leaned out her window now and watched the tufted heads of people moving below. She tried to listen to their chatter and watch their work with her mother’s bright warmth; her mother would not have mistaken even the least friendly neighbor for a wolf.
Red wanted to be different than she had been (she was different than she had been). She wanted to pay attention. She wanted to understand.
Red watched her mother trading bread and rosebuds for milk and eggs. Her mother slipped a few cookies into the parcel, as though giving children treats somehow was a blessing given to herself. Red listened to her mother’s warmth, laughing at bad jokes and children’s fumbles. She listened, she learned.
Three days into this exercise, Red grabbed a basket and went storming for the woods, bursting with the effort of trying to cram a person into her bones who was not herself.
She marched between trees. Only some of the shadows looked like wolves. She could live out here forever, maybe, away from the noise, the give and take, the little rules and gestures. She could be Granny, taciturn and content in her little forest cottage with its vacant flowerbeds.
Trying to fit herself into her mother’s figure, Red had discovered more and more of her mother. She was not something you could drape across your shoulders like a cloak to keep yourself warm. She would have offered though, if asked, offered up all her warmth. It astonished Red, who could not understand giving away as much of yourself as her mother did. She wept over other people’s wounds. Red hadn’t even wept over her own.
But Red wanted to see the wolves. She wanted to know her grandmother’s voice. She wanted to understand, and her mother above all seemed to understand something about humans and hearts. But Red could not be her mother. She could not drape her grandmother’s nightgown around her shoulders either.
She stood under the still trees in her trembling skin. She thought, I cannot be them, and I do not know how to be me.
She saw a patch of wild roses off the path. They were startling in the gloom. When she came home, as dusk was falling, her basket was filled.
The next morning, Red gathered up her cloak out of the back of her closet and grabbed a bundle of bread she had made while she was trying to be her mother. She went down to the town carpenter and traded him the bread in exchange for his apprentice teaching her how to build a flower box.
The carpenter tried to explain that they could build it for her. Red thanked him and said, “This is for me.” The apprentice didn’t make a single protest, just chewed on a piece of bread and told her about different kinds of wood.
The next time Red had to take bread and milk to Granny, her mother wrapped her in a thick grey shawl and said, “Stay on the path.”
Red arrived out of breath, the shawl nearly soaked through.
The next time she arrived at Granny’s house, Red stopped, she caught her breath. When her grandmother spoke, she listened to the words. Red watched the way her hands unwrapped the bread with fingers that looked like wizened old twigs and nothing like claws. She had never looked before.
At home, Red did her chores, baked bread under her mother’s watchful eye, and then headed for the carpenter’s. She got bruised thumbs and deep splinters. She built a box for her high windowsill and filled it with seeds and watered earth.
They told the story of the girl in red and the wolf for miles around. In a parlor in the closest big city, a man spun Red’s tale, warning pretty young women away from wolves. What was the greater sin here? Being pretty or wearing red? His story ended at her death. It was the part that mattered. He had no time for her rebirth.
Two wandering brothers found her story next. In theirs, her mother warned her to stay on the path, but their Red dawdled, picking flowers. They invited a savior into the story of her first death, a kind huntsman who cut open the wolf’s belly and then helped them fill it with rocks.
They were inaccurate in many ways, these two storytelling brothers, but the scolding of the grandmother for her unlocked door is what Red found the most incredulous. Granny, an old woman living under dangerous trees, had always had a bolt on her door. Why did they think that could stop a determined wolf?
They told her story, over and over again, wrote it down, sold it, twisted it. They tried to teach her to listen to her elders. (She was trying to listen, these days. That didn’t mean she obeyed). They tried to teach her to stay on the path.
Red told herself her own stories, her own endings. Terrible deaths and majestic futures, victorious rebirths and pensive afterlives. She was still deciding what this was, what she was, after the wolf. Was she reborn? Was she a ghost?
Some nights she felt like Jonah and the whale, like St. Margaret and the dragon. Consumed and reborn, they had been made holy. These were words for herself alone, as she sat in her attic room, as she kept herself company on the walk to Granny’s.
Granny loved her daughter and her granddaughter, but Red’s mother loved the warmth of the village life. Red’s mother had women to talk with as she hung the laundry, had children to run sticky fingers through her flower boxes. She would scold but she loved their bright shrieks of laughter more than she loved her finest bluebells. Red watched. She began to understand.
Red’s mother was a person and not a universal truth. Beautifully, selfishly generous, she liked being the throbbing center of the village.
When Red asked Granny why she lived so very far out in the woods, she huffed. “If I lived closer, I would have to talk to people.”
Grandmothers are wise and kind. Mothers are right. They are the things that they do: bake and embrace, give advice and toil lovingly.
Little girls are innocent. Damaged little girls are lessons.
What else could they be?
Red headed to the market swaddled in her old cloak and listened to the sounds that rippled around her. Red as blood, they said. A coming to maturity, a death.
Red and brazen, hissed others. That’s a bright hue for a modest young woman to wear.
They asked in the market about the wolf. Red told them different answers each time. Her mother would have sat them down, told it all; they would have wept together, neighbor and friend, held hands. Her grandmother would have scoffed, if she had come to market at all, and turned on her heel.
Red gave them different answers, sometimes because they were the answers they wanted or the ones they needed, and sometimes because it was the answer they didn’t want.
Red had escaped. A huntsman had cut him open; or a furious Granny had. She had fled and forded a river; he had drowned. She had had a knife in her basket, for cutting the bread.
“Did you really get gobbled up? How did you survive?”
(She didn’t tell them which question she was answering).
Red found she liked building things. She woke to birdsong and ran her hands over the thick sturdy lines of her flowerbox. She went down to the carpenters’, hands full of loaves and summer vegetables, and said, “What else can you teach me?”
“I’ve never made bread before,” the apprentice said. “Do you think you can teach me?”
She built window boxes at the cottage, to Granny’s audible disdain, but Red caught the old woman burying her face in pansies when she thought Red wasn’t paying attention.
Sometimes Red felt like all she did these days was pay attention. Her grandmother had a hundred stories she had never listened to. The carpenter’s apprentice taught her to make cabinets and she taught him how to knead dough to just the right elasticity. She looked for flowers off the road, and she watched her mother kindly reign.
Granny fed the wild birds the rolls Red had brought for her breakfast. The old woman dropped a disparaging phrase for each villager and their own individual lives. She knew all their names, though, all the better to mock them with.
Granny knew who needed medicine for gout, for colic, for a fever. She would gather wild herbs in the woods and send the medicines back with Red. “Can’t let them all perish,” she said to her granddaughter. “Old lady Bennet makes a fabulous apple cobbler. Be a pity to lose that. Come up early next week and I’ll show you how to make a cough balm.”
What was the point of little girls in red cloaks? To teach us lessons, to perish, to repent.
Red did not teach lessons. She did not tell stories to the children, but she did answer their questions, about red cloaks and red sheets.
She wondered why it was her death on which so many other people liked to hang their morals. Walking to market, past sharp eyes; going to Granny’s and finding blossoms in the shadows; watching whittled splinters fall at her feet; learning the incomprehensible contours of her mother, day by day—these were the difficult things. These were the places she wanted to grow.
When she died, Granny left Red the cottage in the woods. She left her the empty flowerbeds and a heart full of an old woman’s decades of life. Red filled the flowerbeds with daisies and bluebells. She let thorny briars grow up over the garden gate.
Red kept filling herself up, too, with early mornings and new carpentry tricks, with her mother’s hands buried deep in the soil, with finding wild rose thickets in the forest’s shadows. Inside herself, Red gathered up the bright crowd of the market, the questions, the scorn, the way the village girls stared. She brought bouquets of crimson blossoms to the market and the braver ones tucked them in their hair. She brought them medicines made from wild plants she had gathered far off the path. She woke each morning to birdsong in her garden.
Red laid all those moments down beside her grandmother’s hand-me-down memories and felt their roots dig deep.
Red didn’t gather children close or croon over their scraped knees. When they ventured out to her cottage and stepped in her primroses, she scolded them and meant it. But she answered their questions. She tended their wounds and let them rage, safe and heard. She did not weep with them.
She was a crone and a beast, a builder and a saint, a girl in red born to a woman with her heart on her sleeve. Red’s heart was buried out in the garden’s chill earth. It grew, it blossomed, it flourished and it thrived.
Red made up her own endings, endings she hoped for and others she dreaded. The words were for her, which is why she shared them. She told the carpenter’s apprentice her story. She told her mother, told her grandmother before she died, and she told him. This was not a lesson. It was a life. She bared it before the people who she wished to see her scars.
When they spun out their own lives at her feet, she listened with eyes wide open.