Little Red Riding Hood loved the beast so much she sent him running back into the forest. The moon hung like a curled silver claw in the night, slashing constellations into a sky of black wool. Snow and ice silenced the barren treetops, wrapping them in a thick sheet of gauze. The dark unblinking eyes of the birches watched the wolf flee. He crept into the shadows between the trees, cloaking himself in darkness to lick his wounds.
She followed the wolf into the woods across a bridge of moonlight. Her voice cut through the night as she called out his name, but only the creaked in response. The familiar trail through the woods she had traveled for so many springs and summers now twisted and warped before her. The moonlight sharpened the angles of the treetops to spears and the wind hissed through her hair. With each step, her boots sank deeper into the snow and the icicles glinted as she passed. She scanned the ground for wolf tracks pressed in the snow. Placing her hands atop the paw prints, her fingers were just small enough to reach the impression of the claw marks. Although she had lost her way, she wrapped her crimson cloak around her shoulders and swallowed her fear. Shivering in the snow, she ventured onward through the trees into the unknown with sewing scissors in hand. Her heart was wound like a ball of red yarn.
Her grandmother lived alone on the other side of the forest. Little Red knew the way, but had always been warned to never stray from the path for beasts with teeth and claws lived there, too. They darted between the trees as fast and nebulous as shadows, saliva dripping from their canine teeth and were always hungry for the flesh of girls. With each visit, while sitting together at the foot of the quilted bed knitting hoops of yarn into scarves, her grandmother recited countless tales of monsters waiting just beyond her doorstep until Little Red awoke hearing howls in her sleep. Lying awake at midnight, she crept to the window and parted the curtains to see, as though for the first time, the darkened world around her. She listened for the howls. She watched for eyes between the trees. She laced black thread into wolves along the inseam of her dress by moonlight. Come morning, Grandmother would pinch her cheeks until she smiled and braided the length of her dark black curls. They sewed together the torn fabric of her red hood, and never once did she prick her finger. Grandmother cooed, “My, what bright eyes you have and my, what full lips! All the better to tempt something bad.”
“But, I am not afraid of the woods,” she protested. “I am not scared of wolves.” Her grandmother held her face in her wrinkled hands, and replied, “My, what a big heart you have.”
Little Red remembered her grandmother’s words each time she departed and returned along the path through the woods: Be careful, my dear, remember that you must be wary to avoid the wolf each time, for he only needs to be lucky enough to find you once.
But despite the warnings, with each journey to and from grandmother’s house the edges of the woods flourished with wildflowers and little birds chirped in the trees. Sunlight dappled through the green canopies and she counted how many butterflies she saw on the way. The smell of fresh, warm bread and apple jam wafted from the basket slung on her forearm. On one visit while filling her basket with wild daisies and singing to herself, she discovered a bramble overflowing with blackberries, plump and ripe with sunlight. Believing she was alone, she plucked one into her mouth and then another and another, delighted at the taste. She reached her hand deeper into the thicket to grab the berries, leaning in until the dark green leaves pressed against her cheeks. And then out of the silence she heard a twig snap in front of her. Looking up from between the branches of the shrub she saw the large golden eyes of a beast gazing straight back into hers. She felt her blood run cold, and gripped the thorny branches in her fist to steady herself against the fear. The wolf moved closer, gliding between the trees, black paws stepping over the small blue harebells and phlox flowers. The jaw opened, exposing a grin of stained pearly fangs. Tilting his head, he sniffed her arm. He bent forward and licked her wrist. Startled, she recoiled her arm and the hooked black thorns clung to her skin. She let out a cry and stumbled backward. The blackberries burst in her fingers and scratches streaked down her skin. She fell backward, tripping over twigs and thorns clinging to her dress, but as she looked up the eyes had vanished. A stillness fell over the forest and pain jolted up her arm. She exhaled, and touched the marks, stains of red and black. She traced her tongue across her fingertips, and tasted the sweetness of berries and the mineral iron of blood. The sunlight waned in the sky. She hastened to the warmth of home, glancing over her shoulder to see if those golden eyes had followed her.
“I know wolves can be good,” Little Red called out for the wolf again. Her breath hovered silver and ghoulish in the winter air. She would find him wherever he was hiding. She would carry him to grandmother’s house. The distance was not that far. The wind shrieked against the dark and the treetops trembled in the gust of snow. Her red cloak flapped about her shoulders, and she clutched the knot about her neck to fasten it shut. She would keep him warm. She would keep him safe. Her heart pounded against her ribcage, swelling bigger and bigger, all the better to love with.
She stopped and turned to face a towering oak tree. The canopy trembled in the wind, but the trunk stood wide and imposing, moonlight transforming the knotted burls to cruel faces. White snowflakes swirled around her eyes. From between the shadows and low-hanging branches, the wolf shivered and sunk his claws into the snow-covered earth.
Eyes met. Their breath mingled in the space between them. She stepped closer. He favored one leg, the left shoulder matted with blood, and even while limping he stood just below her height. She thought his black fur looked like the night sky. She wanted lay her head down upon the warm expanse of his chest, to feel his enlarged heart against her own. The golden depth of his eyes was so familiar, so enchanting, almost like sunlight. She knelt to face him.
His jaws curled into a growl and he bared his teeth. She removed her hood and extended her hand to him. Shaking, he lifted his bloody paw. He saw her flushed pink cheeks and white neck and remembered the softness of her skin, licking the edges of his teeth. The fear rose up from his stomach through his heart, clattering against his ribcage. His growl was a low rumble in his throat. She unwound the knotted strings of her heart.
“Do monsters get scared, too?”
He snarled, the sound piercing through the night and shimmering down her spine. Heartstrings shuddered open like a web of loosened ribbons. The basket tumbled from her arms and she reached for the sewing scissors on the ground. The blades winked black and silver as they opened. The wolf lunged forward and she felt the heat of his breath against her skin. His claws embraced her. He howled into her hair.
The red fell in tangles upon the white snow.
Kate Dlugosz has a BA in Creative Writing and a minor in History from Hiram College and currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She has previous publication in Dear Damsels literary journal.