Once upon a time, there was a witch, a wolf, and a little girl. A retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, written for Yuletide 2009.
Her spells were effective, and soon the perfect apprentice came. Unfortunately, the girl also brought her useless brother, whom the witch cared nothing for. With nothing else to do with the boy, the witch decided to fatten him so she and her apprentice could eat him. For you see, the deepest secret magic of witches is that they can increase their powers through eating human flesh. A dull, stupid little boy wouldn't provide much magic, of course, but "waste not want not" is a witch's motto.
Time passed. The witch started to tutor her apprentice in the basics of magic, and the boy grew fatter and fatter. Finally, the day came when he could not even poke his fat fingers through the bars of his cage, and the witch knew he was ready to be served. As she stoked the oven and made it hotter, though, her clever apprentice took the opportunity to shove her in! When the witch was well cooked, her apprentice ate her and took all of her magic for herself.
The moral of this story is to listen very carefully to everything you learn, because you may be able to use your knowledge for greater gain than your teachers planned.
Little Red Riding Hood was a very little girl when she first met the wolf, so young that she had not yet worn her famous hood, but was instead known all around the area as Little Bit. She met the wolf while walking to her grandmother's house; to her, he was simply a strange person who she had never seen before.
"Hello there, Little Bit," the stranger said.
Little Bit looked at the stranger's big legs, ears, eyes, and especially his big white teeth, and immediately knew exactly who he was. She wasn't afraid of him at all, though.
"Hello, wolf," she said back. She had, after all, been raised to be polite.
"And where are you headed on this fine day?" the wolf asked her.
"Going to my grandmother's house, of course."
"Of course, of course," the wolf replied. "Is she still in good health, by the way?"
"Yes, she's always been healthy," Little Bit said. "Why do you ask?"
"Just wondering, my dear, just wondering," the wolf said. He noticed Little Bit admiring his fur, which was the same dark color as her own hair. "You can feel my pelt, if you like," he said.
Little Bit started to refuse, but the wolf was very persuasive. By the time they reached the fork between the Path of Pins and the Path of Needles, she was walking alongside the wolf, chattering and stroking his luxurious fur.
"I'm taking the Path of Pins from here," she told her new friend when they reached the fork. "What about you?" Although Little Bit had told the wolf many things about herself, he had told her almost nothing about himself, not even where he was going.
"I'm taking the Path of Needles from here," the wolf said. He grinned at her, his bright red tongue hanging out of his mouth. "I suppose we'll see who gets to your grandmother's house first."
Little Bit only giggled at this--everyone knew the Path of Pins was much shorter than the Path of Needles--and waved goodbye to her erstwhile companion.
When Little Bit reached her grandmother's house, she saw her grandmother out in the garden, steadily pulling weeds. Though grandmother was an old woman, she was still very hearty, just as Little Bit had told the wolf.
"Grandmother!" she said, opening the white gate and rushing through rows of vegetables. "I met someone new today!"
"Is that so?" her grandmother said. Her eyes held Little Bit's, but her steady hands did not pause in their work.
"He was so big!" Little Bit continued. "He had big eyes and long legs and big ears and really big, sharp, white teeth."
"The better to eat you with," grandmother said, chuckling when Little Bit protested.
"No, no, he was very nice to me!" she said. "He let me feel his fur, and he asked me whether I would take the Path of Pins or the Path of Needles--I told him the Path of Pins, of course--and he said he would go the other way and we could see who reached the house first." She shaded her eyes, looking into the woods that surrounded her grandmother's small cottage and garden. "Though I suppose he never did come. Maybe he was joking? Or maybe he doesn't know where you live."
"Oh, he knows, I'm sure," grandmother said. "He wouldn't dare come near this place, not while I'm around."
"Really?" Little Bit asked. "Why not?"
Grandmother did stop at that, which made Little Bit drop her eyes and fidget in embarrassment. "Can you really not recognize a wolf, child?"
"I know that, grandmother. But he was so kind to me."
Grandmother sighed, and stood, dusting off her hands. "You know, I've been putting this off for some time. There are things your mother didn't want me to teach you, even though you have the talent for them. But I think it's time we started, and I think she would agree with me."
"Does it have to do with that piece of red cloth you've been working with?" Little Bit asked eagerly.
Grandmother, opening the door to her cottage, paused to look back at Little Bit. "And then at other times your perception surprises me. It has naught to do with your training, but it is a present for you, my child, a little cloak and hood."
"For me?" Little Bit asked, delighted. She had never received a present like that before.
"And it's not the only thing I'll be giving you, child," grandmother said. "You know, I did not always live here in the woods, poor and lonely old woman. Once upon a time..."
After these things happened and many more years had passed, the apprentice became a witch herself, and a very highly respected one at that. People came from miles around, young and old, poor and rich (though more often rich, as her fame spread), seeking health, advice, lovers, blessings, and curses. The witch granted them all, and soon she became so famous that even the nobility came to her in secret.
At that time, the queen of the country had a great deal of trouble bearing a child. She tried this doctor and that, but no one was able to help her. Finally, in her uttermost despair, she disguised herself as a common woman and went to the witch in secret.
"Give me a baby," she said. "I will give you anything, everything I have, if only you will give me a child."
The witch knew very well who this disguised woman was, and so thought about what was best to ask. It was at this time her fervent wish to be recognized officially in noble society, in recognition of her many talents. "All I ask is that I be named godmother to your child," she said.
The queen agreed to this, so the witch worked her magics, some of which I have taught you, and some of which I have yet to teach you. Her spells were effective, and several months later the queen gave birth to a baby girl.
The witch eagerly awaited her invitation to the baby's christening, but the days went by and there was no summons. Furious, she considered how best to take her revenge.
On the day of the christening, the witch disguised herself as an old woman. She snuck into the ceremony and joined the long line of well-wishers. When she reached the child's cradle, she revealed herself, and instead of blessing the child, she spoke a powerful curse:
"What I have given, I can also take away. When this child turns sixteen, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die."
(This is another spell I have yet to teach you.)
The witch turned and walked out of the palace, and no one dared stand in her way. And she laughed and laughed at what she had done.
The moral of this story is that people cannot always be forced to respect or accept, but they can always be forced to fear.
Little Red Riding Hood did not meet the wolf every time she visited her grandmother, but she saw him often enough that very soon she stopped thinking of him as a wolf at all, and instead started thinking of him as a very dear friend.
"And what are you taking to your grandmother this day, Little Red?" he would ask her, and eagerly she would tell him all about it.
This day it was liniment for her grandmother's bad back. "She's still quite healthy in other ways, of course," Red told her friend. "It's just that back of hers that's giving her trouble."
"I'm sorry to hear it, sorry to hear it," her friend said. "I certainly hope she doesn't get any worse."
"You'll be the first to know how she does, as always," Red reassured him.
They were coming up on the fork in the road. "You'll be taking the Path of Pins yet again, I suppose," her friend said.
"And you the Path of Needles," Red replied. "Really, you should come with me one day and meet my grandmother."
"Only when the time is right," the wolf said, winking, and they waved goodbye to each other as they had become accustomed to doing.
This day, the cottage's garden needed weeding again, but because of grandmother's back, she instead spent the day mending clothes in her old rocking chair and cooking over the kitchen fire.
"You're looking quite happy today," grandmother said, as Red opened the door. She was bending over the hearth, but when Red came in she straightened slowly, with a long moan. "Did you see your friend with the big ears again?"
"His ears aren't that big, grandmother," Red said. "And you really shouldn't talk about him so, he's one of the only friends I've got left." She plucked at her cloak. "It's not as if anyone dislikes me, but it seemed easier to make friends when I was just Little Bit."
"It's part of the magic that's in colors," grandmother said. She tasted from the cauldron using a long wooden ladle, making a small, satisfied sound. " If you wore white, they'd see you as a pure and innocent young maiden. If you wore green, boys who wanted to settle down and raise a family would start paying you visits. If you wore black, well, you'd be treated the same way I am." She laughed a bit, her thin voice cracking. "But red... they never know what to make of a girl wearing red."
"Yes, grandmother, you've told me this before."
"And I'll keep telling you until you stop asking me foolish questions about it." She took the ladle again, but this time rapped it sharply against the side of the cauldron, so that Red jumped in astonishment. "Now, did you work on what I showed you before?"
Grandmother pointed to the rose in the vase on the table. "Then show me."
Red concentrated, and murmured a few words. Under her coaxing, the rose's stem very slowly lengthened and began to curl. Just as a new bud appeared on it, Red broke the spell, panting as if she had just run a far distance. She surveyed her work with disappointment. "I can't do it nearly as well as you can, grandmother," she said.
Grandmother examined the rose herself, and sniffed in approval. "This is perfectly acceptable for an apprentice like you who hasn't eaten anyone yet."
Red wrinkled her nose. "Grandmother, I'm not going to eat anybody."
"We'll see about that. You can start by eating this stew I've prepared."
Red gave the cauldron a wary look. "Grandmother... it's not... is it?"
Grandmother let her hang for a few moments before laughing and breaking the tension. "It's full of venison and potatoes, not a speck of human flesh. Now eat up! And then I'll teach you how to spin gold from straw."
After many more years had passed, and the witch had seen and done many, many things, she found herself getting old. She began looking around for a child to whom she could pass on her skills.
At this time, the witch had a vast garden full of all sorts of wondrous plants. Luck was with her--one day, not long after this, she came upon a woodcutter stealing rampion from her garden. The woodcutter was terrified of her, which was only just, and the witch was easily able to extract a promise for the man's soon-to-be-born daughter.
The witch took the child in, and started teaching her all the ways of magic. But to her great chagrin, the girl had little interest in magic. The witch tried to persuade the girl to learn, and then tried to force her, but despite her many efforts the girl remained a reluctant apprentice.
Finally, the witch conjured up a great tower with no stairs and a room on top to keep her apprentice in. (No, I would never do that to you.) The ladder to the room was the apprentice's own hair, to prevent her from leaving herself. The witch hoped that in such a place, the girl would be forced to focus on her studies; and indeed, this seemed to work well for a time. But after a time, the apprentice seemed to be growing distracted, though the witch could not figure out what was distracting her.
Then the apprentice became pregnant, and the witch knew exactly what was going on. In a fury, she cut off her apprentice's hair, banished the girl to a far-off wasteland, and waited in the tower to confront the man herself.
The man, who called himself a prince, was horrified to meet the witch, and jumped out of the tower rather than face her. The witch was left alone in her tower; in that moment, she put her hands over her face and wept, because she realized what a terrible mistake she'd made.
This story has no moral.
"Mother says she's not doing well," Red told her friend. "That she might not have too much longer to live."
"I'm very sorry."
"I don't understand it. She was perfectly well the last time I saw her."
"Don't worry, Red, it'll be all right." Her friend held out his arms to her, and Red leaned in and let him hug her. She could feel him dropping kisses in her hair.
"So, the Path of Pins yet again, I suppose?"
Red sighed. "I do want to see my grandmother... but I need more time to think. I'll take the Path of Needles this time." She tried to smile. "I suppose this means I can walk with you for once."
But her friend was already going the other way. "I'm actually taking the Path of Pins this time, Little Red," he said. "I suppose yet again we'll see who reaches your grandmother's house first."
The Path of Needles, which Red had never before taken, was shockingly beautiful. Red could see why people might take this path, even though it was much longer than the Path of Pins. But her journey did finally come to an end, and Little Red Riding Hood entered her grandmother's cottage for the last time.
The cottage was very still, when Red pushed open the door, and it smelled like a slaughterhouse. She set her basket down on the kitchen table--on it, she could see what looked like raw meat, probably the source of the smell--and pushed her way into the bedroom.
All the shutters in the bedroom were closed, and the fire was banked very low. In the bed, Red could only see her grandmother's great white sleeping cap bobbing back and forth. She swallowed back tears; surely this frail person in the bed couldn't be her grandmother.
And yet it was. "It's me, grandmother," Red said. "Can I do anything for you?"
"Oh, child, I set out a little meat and drink for you in the other room," grandmother said. Even her voice sounded different. "Eat up, eat up, and then you can come in here to warm these old bones."
"All right," Red said, and went back to the kitchen.
The meat looked disgusting, and whatever drink was in the cup looked even worse, a dull, clotted brown. But Red remembered the way her grandmother had looked in the other room, and somehow managed to choke it all down. Despite the taste, she felt better after she'd eaten it, as if the meal had given her extra energy.
Her grandmother's bedroom was still just as dreadful as it was before. Be wary! a voice seemed to warn, but Red knew she had nothing to fear from her grandmother.
"Close the door behind you, child," grandmother said, and so Red did.
"Now take off all your clothes and climb into bed with me, won't you?" grandmother said. "You can throw them onto that fire for kindling. These old bones need all the warmth they can get."
Red stripped off her shoes and stockings and threw them onto the fire; it started to pep up. "More," said grandmother. She took off her cape and folded it on a chair, shucked off her dress and threw it onto the fire.
"More, more" grandmother said, yet again. "I'm still cold." So Red took off her undergarments and threw those onto the fire as well. By this time the flames were jumping high, and Red could see them reflected on grandmother's great white teeth. They reminded her of something else, but before she could think of it, grandmother started to speak again.
"You haven't yet thrown all of your clothes onto the fire," she said. And as Red started to hesitate, she added, "Is this really more than you would do for your old grandmother?"
And so the red hood and cloak went onto the fire as well, and Red climbed into the bed next to her grandmother, as naked as the day she was born. With the fire burning hot and the many quilts and blankets on the bed, she was sweating in seconds.
Grandmother turned toward her, and in a sudden, wrenching instant, Red realized she was in bed with a wolf. "Well, child?" the wolf said. "What are you thinking about?"
Stall for time! a voice said, and Red did her best to comply. "I was thinking... about what big eyes you have, grandmother."
"The better to see you with, my child," the wolf replied, as its great eyes rolled around and around in its head. Since Red had not been eaten or ravished, she pressed on.
"And grandmother, what big ears you have!"
"Why, the better to hear you with." And the aforenamed ears began to prick up.
"And what big arms you have!" She started to slowly ease away from the wolf on the bed.
"The better to hug you with!" The wolf placed his enormous paws on either side of Red's head. She could feel his breath on her face, and smell the blood on it.
Red was rapidly running out of ideas. "And--and what big teeth you have."
"The better to gobble you up with, my dear!" The wolf lunged forward, quick as a flash, and before she could even react, Red was eaten.
Once upon a time, there was a wolf who ate up a naughty little girl. Served her right for trusting a wolf.
It was dark, inside the wolf's belly. Red could almost pretend she was lying in bed with her grandmother, her real grandmother, with the covers pulled over both their heads, and listening to her grandmother's stories.
What is it, grandmother?
Well, we're certainly in a tight spot now. Red could practically hear her grandmother sigh. But we witches can wriggle out of even the tightest spots. Now, you can stay here and be an example for other children, or hope that someone comes along to save you. Or you can think of all the things I've taught you over the years, and get out of this place yourself.
But grandmother, I can't--
The voice was starting to get rather faint. You've eaten my flesh and drunk my blood, child. All my power has been given to you. Remember the stories, and use it in whatever way you see fit.
And then it was gone. Red wept, there in the wolf's stomach, and while she wept she clenched and unclenched her fist. There had been something in it... She remembered the sharp knife she had used to cut her grandmother's--to cut the meat in the kitchen. She remembered how it glinted and shone, the weight and heft of it in her hand.
She thought about the knife and thought about it hard, and when she could really feel it, she jerked her hand upward, and slashed and slashed at the inside of the wolf's stomach as she felt him scream and roll about, until finally she could see light, and emerged from the wolf's belly, bright flames and black fur all around her, covered in red, gleaming blood.
Her cloak was long burnt up in the fire, of course, along with the rest of her clothes, but the woman used the knife to skin the wolf, and her grandmother's needles and thread to fashion the pelt into a rough garment. The wolf's heart she ate--waste not want not was a witch's motto, after all--but the rest of it she burnt in the fireplace where her clothes had perished. She cleaned her grandmother's cottage, out of respect for her.
And then, taking a few things she thought would be most useful, she left the cottage, carefully closing the door behind her. Without looking back, she set out to make her own way in the world.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Wolfskin.