Now featured in StoryFest 2020

Mother had told her not to talk to strangers. It was what she told Red Riding Hood every time she sent her into the woods. The creature looked so very hurt, though. It could barely move, using what little energy it had to clutch at its wounded side. Red crept closer. “Are you all right?”

The wolf turned its head, panting at even this small effort. “What does it look like?” Whatever sarcasm it intended had been sapped by the pain.

Red knelt beside it and felt in her basket for the medicines. “Drink this,” she said. “It helps the pain go away.” She tore off strips from her red cloak and began to bind up the wound. The wolf shifted its paws to make room and guzzled the medicine greedily.

“What happened?” Red asked.

“Hunters, poachers, I don’t know. Humans. All the same.”

“I’m human,” said Red.

“You are a child. You have not yet learnt cruelty.”

“I hope I never do.”

With an effort, the wolf pushed itself up onto its feet. “I hope so too, child. Why are you wandering the forest all alone?”

“My grandmother lives deep in the woods. I’m visiting.”

“And your mother let you go on your own?”

“My mother needs to work. Without the coin she brings in, none of us would eat.”

“A pity. Well, the least I can do is walk you to your grandmother’s. There are dangerous beasts in these woods, you know.”

Red did not mention that the wolf could be considered such a beast. “It is a long way. Are you sure you can walk?” 

“I am well enough. Lead on.”

As they walked, Red told the wolf of herself and her family. They were descended from the great witch Wilhelmina, and though the days of curses were long gone, the stigma remained. When odd things began happening around town, they had looked to her grandmother, and sent her away. 

“She was lucky,” Red said. “She says, when she was a child, the villagers stoned her grandmother to death.”

“Nobody stood up for her? Not even your father?”

“My father claims he was bewitched by my mother, that he was with her against his will. I still see him in town sometimes.”

“And you do no magic?”

“We make medicines and we talk to animals. Small things, things the villagers wouldn’t notice. We can’t bewitch people. And we wouldn’t, anyway.” Red stopped at a small, rundown cottage. “This is my grandmother’s.”

“Then I will leave you. Unless you are afraid to walk back?”

“No, I’ve been this way many times before. But thank you.”

Red’s grandmother was still healthy enough, in her own words. But she had no energy to keep things clean. Red tidied the place and told her what had happened.

“I had to give the wolf my medicine,” she said. “I am sorry. I will come as soon as I can with more.”

“I have not yet run out,” said grandmother, “and I do think I can live with pain, child.”

Red walked home alone, and heard no howls or men on the hunt.

The following week, her mother had brewed more medicine, so she took it along to her grandmother’s. This time, there were no strangers to talk to, but her grandmother had news for her.

“Someone has been leaving fresh meat on my doorstep, every couple of nights or so,” she said. “You might need to bring more salt, and bring some of this back with you. It is more than I can eat.”

Red looked at the meat piled on the ground, and asked, “Have you ever learnt cruelty, grandmother?”

“I have felt it. Learnt to use it? I suppose I could. But I never learnt that it was a useful tool to reach for in times of need.”

“Do you think other humans learn the same lesson?”

“Many don’t. It depends on their teachers. But you cannot help that. You can only do what you can, and perhaps in time they will learn that there is more than cruelty.“

“I see,” said Red, and took the meat back home for dinner.