As if from nowhere, a knife in his grasp. “Tut-tut, Red. You should always be prepared for the worst.”
Image by Charles Christian Nahl via The LACMA
The wolves patrol back and forth and back and forth along the forest periphery and terrify the village children but not the parents—the parents are too busy with their politics and knickknacks to notice much about the wolves. They send the children out each day into the playgrounds and streets and forests with nothing but a hush-hush, and so the children, with their dirt-lodged nails and smudged cheeks, become feral by daylight and try not to lose their holey mittens or stray alone too close to the woods. The wolves do not often succeed in making a catch because the children are street-wise and aggressive and carry pocketknives or pieces of glass or even nunchucks (if someone had bothered to query a wolf, however, he would say that the preferred comestible would be an ungulate or a stoat), though occasionally a score is rumored to be had. Armed or otherwise, no child has been able to kill a wolf. The book was written so that a child is eaten or will occasionally outsmart her lupine stalker, or a child is lifted out from the guts of a wolf by her woodsman-rescuer, but a child never takes her nunchucks and beats the daylights out of the wolf.
Against the wishes of her parents, Red considers herself a pacifist and doesn’t even carry a pocketknife. Once, she strangled a vole but she had been very young and couldn’t provide an explanation for it now. She has not expected to be in peril for her life because she suspects the wolves are just misunderstood, until the day a scrubby boy named Jake removes a small book from his jacket and says, “You might want to read this.” She takes the book from him cautiously; she knows that he recently pulled the whiskers from a cat and she can smell him from where she stands. When she peruses the book, she sees the forest path, the grandmother’s end—and the wolf, how he lies in wait for the hooded girl. There are implications, too, that the girl will undress herself and get into bed with the wolf. There are implications that she is complicit in her own devouring. Jake is patient while Red reads and, when she closes the book, says, “Don’t you have to walk through the forest to get to your grandma’s?”
Because she is a girl of few words, Red says nothing and Jake smirks at her and licks his fingertips, slides away on his skateboard. She looks again at the girl in the ruby cloak and the girl looks very much like Red. (Red doesn’t own anything crimson or vermillion or even brick. Nor does she have auburn hair, or a hot temper, and she is only just awakening to her name’s incongruity.) The drawings inside the book are finely done, but Red is disturbed by the consumptive depiction of the wolf, as if he has been hungry for many years, and the way the girl’s cheeks are flushed. More so with each passing illustration. Grandmother, too, disturbs her because she is rendered in the palest watercolors, as though fading away even before the wolf can disembowel her.
Red’s grandmother lives in an institution on the far side of the forest where all the people go who have started forgetting. She first forgot her house keys in various places, then she forgot the words for presumptuous and katydid, and then the name of her cat. Then she forgot her husband and was taken to the institution in a wagon lined with the silver fur of wolves. Red’s grandfather visits his wife on Sundays and brings her vinyl recordings of songs from their youth, which she appears to occasionally remember. Sometimes she recognizes Red but often she doesn’t, and Red will put the bottle of wine or loaf of bread or custard that she has brought for her on a sidetable and then, settling into a chair beside her grandmother’s bed, and despite being a girl of few words, begin to tell her a story. Sometimes Grandmother looks up and smiles into the space around Red’s brown hair.
The forest is full of snowy hemlocks, and sugar maples, and, in warmer seasons, ferns. The children collect the young fiddleheads in spring, roast them with butter on small fires they build inside old metal drums or pits in the ground. They eat ants dipped in bottled chocolate sauce, periwinkles gathered from the shore and pulled from their shells with straight pins, and sometimes, on a dare, they eat the soil from the forest path. In winter, they smoke tobacco, stolen from their parents and laced with spices, and they make their own moonshine out of plums and nail polish, serving it to each other in tiny paper cups; no one drinks it, however, no one takes the dare. No one, that is, except for Jake. And this explains a good deal.
A wolf sees Red from a distance, sees her riding her scooter along the plowed concrete path at the edge of the hemlocks.
A wolf sees Red from a distance, sees her riding her scooter along the plowed concrete path at the edge of the hemlocks. She is somewhat large compared to his usual deer paté and crackers but she also appears delectable as he has been without a catch for many days. He has tried eating broccoli with balsamic glaze, and potatoes with rosemary, and scrambled eggs with a dusting of wood ashes, and so he has said to his friends that he has tried, really tried, but it is not enough and what he desires most is a girl who smells of meat and bleeds once a month and has small hills of flesh starting to form on her chest. “I need my meat,” he says and his friends nod, without irony.
There is another wolf who overhears this conversation. He nearly chokes on his latté. Wolves like that asshole, he thinks, give wolves a bad name. Wolves like him are the reason that his kind are feared the world over, and for little reason. How many humans can you name who have been killed by a wolf? “Exactly the point!” he says out loud and all the wolves turn and look at him before he skulks away, muttering.
The cloak is missing, and it is missing not because Red has misplaced it or buried it in the clay banks of the river but because it was not given to her in the first place.
The cloak is missing. The cloak of blood or pomegranates or rage, the cloak woven in wool with a small gold clasp and a languid hood. The cloak of cloaks, and not one that hides the wearer but one that marks, like a fawn bleeding out on snow or a thought you don’t want to think. The cloak of no pockets and nothing inside but the child’s small body, the cloak that ripples out at the edges when the wind catches it, the cloak with a cold silk lining. The cloak is missing, and it is missing not because Red has misplaced it or buried it in the clay banks of the river but because it was not given to her in the first place. The grandmother made the cloak of no pockets after she forgot the word for impractical and before the last time she spoke her husband’s name. Thereafter the cloak was one of forgetting and she has no recollection of carefully ironing the seams before she sewed them shut, no memory of choosing and fixing the gold clasp. No memory at all. If a cloak goes missing in a forest and no one remembers it, does the cloak actually exist?
The skin of his frigid hands is broken and bleeding. He grins and Red shivers.
Jake, high on moonshine and mudcakes sprinkled with smoked rabbit feces, follows Red where she scoots along the path. She stops intermittently to admire the winterberries against the snowy banks or the marcescent trees whose leaves hang like bronze ornaments. She mentally composes a song whose notes she picks based on a calculus equation she is working out in school, and reviews what she learned at the library while researching glossolalia in the time of ancient Byblos. Hearing the occasional crunch of Jake’s feet on the snow, she makes sure not to alert him by hurrying and she doesn’t turn around.
After a while, silence coasts in like an enormous dark bird and the crunch on the snow is no more. Red halts her scooter and turns to look behind her. The snowy village lies in the distance and she realizes how far she’s traveled. When she turns around again, Jake is standing in her path with the bottom of his foot pressed against the scooter’s wheel. “Hullo, Red.” The top of his turtleneck sweater is rime-coated where it rests against his salivating mouth. The skin of his frigid hands is broken and bleeding. He grins and Red shivers.
He glances down at his raw hands. “All the better for abducting you.” As if from nowhere, a knife in his grasp. “Tut-tut, Red. You should always be prepared for the worst.”
She produces from her jacket the book he’d given her, almost prompting a slash from him, but he pauses, and there in the moment of his hesitation lies her succour. Tossing the book to the sidewalk, she says, “I have spells, motherfucker,” and pronounces some words she knows, the strange ones from ancient Byblos, until Jake is dazzled. There is a popping sound, then a fizz, and he turns, as tidy as that, into a loaf of bread. Red suppresses the urge to stomp the loaf and picks it up instead, tucks it under her arm where she feels its steaminess.
Hearing the not-so-distant howling of wolves, she pushes off hard on her scooter and heads straight for her grandmother, the pack snorting and huffing somewhere behind her all the way.
The building where Red’s grandmother lives has a lobby with a fireplace, overstuffed chairs with wolf throws, and a coffee maker. Beyond the lobby, the building smells of chemicals and the walls are covered in white tiles. Her grandmother sits in a room at the end of a long corridor and if she remembers that she has forgotten, then she will try to remember, but if she has forgotten forgetting then she stares at the painting of hemlocks that hangs on her wall and is captivated by its mystery.
As the scooter races over the sidewalks, Red can hear the wolves clamoring nearer. Their rasping breath and meaty, musky scent mean they are just about upon her when she hurls the Jake-loaf, still hot, through the twilit air. The first wolf who seizes it is the latté-drinking one—the big faker!—and then the others bite him hard as punishment before they grab the loaf themselves and rip it to shreds. Pronouncing it the most delicious morsel they’ve ever tasted—stinky with sweat and moonshine and essence of rabbit—they resolve to eat bread more often, though they will find it is never quite the same.
Red has long since left her scooter in the lobby and reached the doorway of her grandmother’s room. Grandmother watches the painting of hemlocks from the edge of her bed, her spine in silhouette a spindly arc under her cardigan, her small bony feet inside a pair of wolf slippers.
Red is overcome with love for her. “I’m so sorry, Grandmother. I had a loaf of bread for you, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Grandmother turns her face toward the voice and Red can see: two clear eyes. “I had a cloak for you, my dear… Never mind. Perhaps it never was. Come sit with me and look at the hemlocks.”
Red sits on the bed beside her grandmother as the sound of the wolves’ howls swells and fades into nothing, until the wolves themselves disappear, and the murmurs and wails of the institution, the tile walls and chemicals, dissolve, and nothingness around Red like a terrible and lovely sea until she is left with only the wind nudging the very tips of the forest trees, which are barely there, and Grandmother’s faint breathing.
Maria Mutch’s work has appeared most recently in Fiction Writers Review, Bayou Magazine, Ocean State Review, and Literary Mama. Her debut book, Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster and Knopf Canada in 2014.