Little Red Riding Hood(s)
content warning: sexual assault
Little Red Riding Hood isn’t really named Little Red Riding Hood. Her name is Elizabeth, or Mary, or some other good English name. Regardless of whether her name is Mary or Elizabeth she always loves the smell of her mother’s baking, the way she can wake up as dawn wipes gray out of the sky, and even though she has to go milk the cows, gather eggs and pull water from the well, she’s happy. She’s happy because the smell of bread fills her nostrils and makes her feel loved and cared for. Everyone acknowledges her mother as the best baker in the village. Every day her mother sends her down the path to the edge of the forest to her grandmother’s cottage with a loaf of bread in a basket, because her mother says that a daughter’s duty (she looks pointedly at Mary/Elizabeth as she says this) is to take care of an aging mother. So, Mary/Elizabeth walks down the path every day and brings a loaf of bread.
But one day she gets a riding hood of bright scarlet from the church charity bin, and the story starts to swallow her name. If you watch carefully you might be able to see the story lurking in the dusty corners of that church waiting to envelope her. The hood is red and soft and warm and looks like nothing her family could ever afford. Red dye is expensive, red dye belongs to the rich, red dye screams for attention. A grown woman might have one red kirtle for feast days, but only a rich person would make a red riding hood for a little girl. But Mary/Elizabeth gets the hood and then wears it on the walk to her grandmother’s. Wolves can’t see the color red (lacking the appropriate cones to do so), but that doesn’t stop the wolf from seeing the girl and smelling her blood in her veins—hot-alive, and also red. That doesn’t stop the story from going on, doesn’t stop Mary/Elizabeth from getting eaten. It doesn’t save her grandmother, and it doesn’t stop that beautiful bread from going to waste because the wolf is sated on so much red bloody-person-meat. Sometimes a wood cutter saves them, cutting open the wolf, and the grandmother and the girl emerge, probably covered in nasty smelling stomach acid, and hug the wood cutter and everything turns out okay. Sometimes they both get eaten. Sometimes just Mary/Elizabeth. Sometimes the wolf is clever, sometimes the wolf is not. But always Mary/Elizabeth ends up as Little Red Riding Hood and always a wolf eats someone. The versions where no one gets eaten aren’t real, and everyone knows it.
A little girl walks from school to her grandmother’s every day because her mother works all day waiting tables trying to save enough money so maybe the little girl can go to college and not wait tables like her mother. Her mother carries heavy trays loaded down with plates of hash- browns, omelets, burgers, fries, and milkshakes. She gets carpal-tunnel and plans for her daughter’s bright future as a doctor or a lawyer or even a secretary, or, rather, politically correctly, an administrative assistant. She doesn’t really care what her daughter does as long as she doesn’t constantly smell of someone else’s cooking, as long as she doesn’t have to keep smiling when people order a million things (and sometimes re-order them) and then only tip five percent.
So the little girl with the loving mother stays at her grandmother’s after school. The walk mostly consists of neighborhoods full of blue, white, or green houses, all painted and landscaped to the requirements of a neighborhood association. As she walks past those houses, she imagines the people inside them live pastel-colored lives and have mothers who are home when the kids get off school and the kids don’t have to wear hand-me-down red raincoats that have started to fade to orange and are too big anyway. Those kids probably don’t get made fun of at school for wearing sneakers that aren’t white anymore, or for always having a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch rather than Lunchables©.
The little girl doesn’t yet understand sacrifice; she doesn’t yet understand why she has to go to her grandmother’s. She only knows that she hates having to walk over a mile and she hates the fact that her grandmother’s house smells like cat pee. After the walk through the green/white/blue-house-neighborhood, the little girl must cross a busy street and walk past a Target, a Walmart, and a Red Robin. The smells make her hungry. One day, in her reddish raincoat, she fails to notice the blue sedan that follows her. She doesn’t understand that she needs to notice these things. When a man with dark hair and a mustache hops out of the car and says that she looks hungry, and asks if she wants some French fries, she stops and says yes. Nothing in her worldview says that men who look like TV dads mean anything bad by offering French fries. As far as she is concerned, the universe is looking up. He leads her into the Red Robin and watches her eat French fries with tons of ketchup and ranch sauce. He wipes the sauce off her chin. He tells her she’s a beautiful child. She thinks, yes, I am a beautiful child. He offers to drive her home. She hears her mother’s voice in her head telling her to never get in a car with a stranger. But she thinks that maybe people aren’t strangers any longer if they buy you food. So she gets in the car. She tells him how to drive to her grandmother’s, but he turns the opposite direction. She keeps telling him but he tells her to shush. She starts to cry quietly. She knows something has gone horribly wrong, but she doesn’t know what to do. He pulls into a garage and it’s dark and he smiles and she can see his teeth glowing white in light of the car-clock. He tells her not to worry as he pulls her red coat off her shoulders.
Perhaps Little Red Riding Hood isn’t so little. Perhaps she’s a rebellious young lady who’s sick of taking bread to her ancient grandmother. She wants to go to village dances. She wants to be noticed by young men, and she gazes at her reflection in the still corners of the stream and thinks about the bloom of her cheeks and the way her golden hair falls over her forehead. She’s too good for this village.
So, one day she takes the beautiful scarlet riding cape from the cedar chest that her mother says contains her trousseau from which nothing can possibly be used until she gets married. She hides the red cape under her plain old brown one until she’s out of sight of the house and then she switches them. She takes the main road instead of the little short-cut through the woods, hoping to be seen. She gets what she wants when a young merchant’s son sees her walking and thinks she’s so beautiful in her red cape that he simply must speak to her. He pulls his horse up next to her and tells her that she looks like a poppy blossom set loose to walk around. She smiles beneath her hood and constructs a story in her mind about how he’s going to ask her to marry him, how they are going to have many beautiful babies and she’s going to be the wife of a respected merchant and never have to milk a cow again. She’ll send servants to bring bread to her grandmother. The story doesn’t work quite the way she imagines. Actually, he’s already engaged to another rich merchant’s daughter (his father sells wool and her father sells dye and together they’re going to branch out into weaving and selling beautifully dyed cloth)—the rich marrying the rich, as these things go.
But despite everything, they start to meet in the woods at least once a week when she takes food to her grandmother and in the grass in the woods he lays her down on her cape and kisses her breasts. When those breasts start to swell and her grandmother says that she always knew she’d go to ruin, she runs to the young man and begs him to marry her. He can’t marry her, given that his own wedding to the dye merchant’s daughter is just weeks away, but he’s genuinely fond of her so he takes her away to a nearby city and puts her up in a house and visits her often and kisses their daughter when she’s born. They do in fact have many beautiful children together and he never abandons her even as her body thickens, and he clothes her well, always in red, his family having become known for the brilliance of their scarlet cloth. Even if the townsfolk look at her sideways because she’s a mistress and not a wife, and even though she never gets to see her family again, things could have been worse. He probably would have married her in a different life.
Sometimes there’s no hood, but rather a girl with red hair going to college for journalism. She’s self-conscious about her freckles and thinks she has rather large calves but she forgets such things when she writes the humor column for the school paper, or when she interviews a professor about his latest research and he tells her all about how 3D printers are changing the world of science, how soon they’ll be able to print internal organs. She doesn’t quite understand but she feels as though she’s about to, so she takes notes and loves the way he gestures with his hands, not because he’s handsome (he’s actually old and plump with a really ugly green bow tie; who even wears bow-ties anymore?) but because she’s falling in love with the way she’ll describe this interview.
When she writes or when she reads she forgets about feeling shy and awkward, how her roommate has legs like a gazelle and blonde hair and blue eyes. She forgets about all the other girls who flit around campus in gauzy skirts, laughing with wide mouths, their lips red, their eyes flashing. All the young men look at those girls, at her roommate, as though they’ve just found the fountain of youth. She knows that those girls probably don’t think about the fountain of youth, or any of the other things she thinks about, like what exactly Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave” was about. She forgets these girls and how she knows she’ll never be one of them as she reads about heroic correspondents in World War II telling the truth about Hitler even as London got shelled. They probably don’t read old fairy tales for fun. One of her hobbies is tracking different versions of the same story. She collects different versions of Little Red Riding Hood.
Then one day she meets a nice young man in the library. He’s deep in the stacks surrounded by books about the Trojan War. At first, she’s irritated because he’s in her favorite part of the library, the part where no one goes, the part that usually has no sounds but the sound of her own breath and the turning of pages. There’s an old, overstuffed, ugly, paisley print chair in the corner that everyone but her has forgotten. But he’s there, and now her sanctuary has been stolen. But he looks up and sees her, and he smiles. He’s got one chipped eye tooth and dimples. He has red hair like her. She smiles back. She says hello. She sees what he’s researching and suddenly isn’t angry that he’s invaded the corner of the library she thought of as her sanctum. She asks him what class he’s doing the work for. He blushes and shuffles some notes around. He admits that it’s not for a class, it’s just that he’s curious. He’s majoring in the Classics and everyone tells him he’ll never get a job but he doesn’t care, he loves learning Latin, he loves reading the old stories, and he loves knowing that he’s learning basically the same curriculum as Isaac Newton and his ilk. She falls a little in love with his impracticality. She sits on the floor with him and they talk. She likes that they both have freckles.
He takes her to coffee and they talk about books. They eat together at the cafeteria. They become each other’s best study-buddies. One day, he brushes her hair out of her face and she feels like she’s stopped breathing because no one has ever touched her that way before. Not with tenderness. She doesn’t care when she hears people murmur about the ginger-nerd-convention happening in the corner. She wants to stand up and shout that yes, they are gingers, they are nerds, and they are beautiful!
One day, eyes on the ground, he asks her to come out for a drink with him. They go to a nice wine bar and spend more money than they can afford. They are both flushed, and the ground spins a little as she walks, but he steadies her and she’s happy. They go back to his room and he asks if she wants to watch Star Wars. She says yes and they lie down on his bed and he spoons her. Her head keeps spinning and he kisses her and she smiles against his lips, and then he undoes the top button of her shirt and cups her breasts. She gasps but she lets him. He reaches for the zipper of her pants. Now that she’s not ready for. She tells him to stop; she tries to squirm but her head is spinning and she doesn’t know which way is up. She regrets the wine; she feels as if she’s going to vomit. He doesn’t seem to hear her. She says “stop” louder. He covers her mouth and says shush. She doesn’t understand where the nice boy from the wine bar with went. She wants to go back to the library. He bites her shoulder. His teeth are sharp. In her haze of fear and alcohol, she thinks of all of her books about Little Red Riding Hood. She thinks, what big teeth you have. She wishes for a woodcutter.
After, she leaves, holding her blouse closed because the buttons are ripped. He’s passed out. She goes back to her room and there’s blood in her underwear and she throws it in the trash. She cries softly in her bed and wonders how the nice boy who read Latin became a wolf. She won’t look him in the eye and avoids him. She doesn’t go to the doctor; she doesn’t tell anyone. She starts to wear a lot of red and dyes her hair blonde. She goes to the gym and works herself into having abs and thinner calves. She wants people to look at her clothes and her hair and her body. She wants to be able to see hunger in the eyes of the young men on campus so she knows who’s a wolf and who’s not. Her roommate thinks she’s finally come out of her shell. She laughs with the gazelle girls and knows that no one else can tell her laugh is brittle and fake. But this way she can see a predator when one is coming.
A young girl in a village falls in love with a woodcutter. Her grandmother smiles permissively and lets them use her cottage as a meeting place. The woodcutter isn’t as young as the girl; she’s in her teens and he’s a grown man. He used to have a wife but she died and now he cuts wood morosely. But she loves the dimples in the corner of his cheeks, and she loves that he sits and eats bread with her and her grandmother. He always brings fresh butter and they slather it on the loaf without a care for wasting it. It drips down their chins and they all lick it off, laughing.
Her grandmother likes him; she says he’s serious, and she likes serious men. She doesn’t want her granddaughter to marry a boy who cares more about making babies than loving his wife. She says she can tell when tenderness and seriousness mix. She knows that this woodcutter’s lost one wife and doesn’t want to lose another. The girl laughs at her grandmother’s knowledgeable pronouncements. She says that no one can tell that much about a man just by looking at him. Her grandmother snorts and doesn’t bother to retort. The girl hopes her grandmother is right, because she loves sitting and talking to him. She loves the way he takes her out in the woods and shows her the secret haunts of buttercups and roe deer.
He doesn’t really want to cut trees; he says he understands why the pagans used to call an oak tree a kind of god. It’s just that he admires the woods and wants to spend his days in the shade of great trees listening to the wind winding around branches and twigs. He treasures the shady streams full of small silvery trout. He teaches her how to tickle them into her fingers. He never tries to take her to a grassy hollow and reach up her skirt like the boys her age do. One day, sitting by a stream with her bare feet in the water while he cuts up a fallen tree, she asks him why. He stops and wipes sweat off his face, and looks at her. He says he won’t build her a cage by doing something like that. She doesn’t know what he means but she can tell by the way he said it that it means he loves her.
Eventually he asks her to marry him and at her grandmother’s urging her mother allows it, even though she doesn’t approve of her daughter marrying the woodcutter who everyone knows is a little wild and odd, more fond of the creatures of the forest than normal human company. For a wedding gift, he gives her a beautiful red cape. He says it was his mother’s. He takes her to his little house in the middle of the woods and lays her down on his bed in the cape. She runs her fingers through the hair on his chest and the curly hair on his head, fingering the threads of gray in the black. He kisses her lips and her neck and each breast. She laughs because she’s a little nervous, and says that the others call him a wild man. He smiles and asks if she agrees. She runs her hands over his scalp, digging deep into his hair, which she’s decided is her favorite thing about him. She says no, he’s not a wild man, he’s a wolf. She says this because she saw a wolf once, one that hadn’t been hunted or driven away, and it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She saw it lapping water from a stream. It looked up at her with yellow eyes, its mouth open, its teeth white and its coat a silvery gray. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe, knowing she should be afraid but wasn’t. Then the creature bounded away. Her woodcutter raises an eyebrow. A wolf? She tells the story, feeling awkward. But his eyes look soft. I can be a wolf, he says. Grrr. She pulls his head down for a kiss.
There’s a woman who had some bad things happen to her, had too many young men in college grab her breasts when she didn’t want them to. Sometimes they didn’t grab her or bite her lip, sometimes they were kind and she wanted them to undo her top, but then after dates and dinner with her parents and many long nights talking and laughing, they left her for girls they thought were more beautiful, more interesting, more something. Men have done it too, not just boys, taking her to dinner and pouring her expensive wine and getting angry when she doesn’t want to ask them into her apartment. She’s a lawyer now, and she sees far too many cases of women with bruised eyes defending the men who gave them those bruises. They might bring charges, but they always look as though they think maybe it’s their fault. She also sees the divorces, hears all about how he didn’t do the dishes, he didn’t do this, he didn’t do that. At this point, she sees wolves everywhere. They’re all predators as far as she’s concerned.
Then she meets this man, a librarian, and he always saves books for her and sends her emails when old movies come in. One day, he asks if she’d like to come over and watch Casablanca with him. She says yes but doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s because he always looks her in the eye and knows exactly her taste in books and movies. He knows that she reads both Faulkner and Harlequin romances, depending upon the day. He knows that she likes John Wayne films and hospital dramas. He always checks out her books and movies and never judges her. He seems uninterested in her body; he only asks about what she reads, and what she thinks of that fat robin nesting outside. He isn’t even handsome, sort of small and plump with glasses. But she likes his smile.
They watch Casablanca together and talk into the night. Turns out he has a daughter in another state. He misses her. Says she was the product of sixteen year old ignorance and abstinence only education. He shows her pictures of the time he took his daughter to Rome. She tells him, and she can’t believe she’s doing it even as she talks, about how she got pregnant once in college, and was so relieved when she miscarried on her own. She was so happy to be freed from having to make some hard choices. He listens and nods, and then, never trying to touch her, walks her to the door and asks if next week, she’d like to pick the movie? She says yes.
After a month, he kisses her. After a year, they make love. She finds out that he wasn’t uninterested in her body, merely polite. After two years, they get married. The whole time she keeps watching for the wolf in his eyes, for the predatory gleam. But she never sees it. He’s not an angel, and neither is she. Sometimes he doesn’t wash dishes, and she passively aggressively doesn’t scoop out the cat’s litter box in revenge. Sometimes he gets angry when her work keeps her late and slams lids down on pots, putting away the food that got cold as she took too long to come home. She keeps waiting for things to get worse, for him to grow long teeth and sprout cruelty. But he stays a librarian and not a wolf.
She starts to wonder about her own fear, about how she used to go on dates with one eye on a future betrayal, why didn’t she behave more proactively? One night in bed, covers pulled up to her nose, she voices her thoughts. Her husband rolls toward her and nuzzles her ear, says, what was she going to do, start carrying a knife around with the theme to Kill Bill playing in her head? She laughs, because on some level, he’s right, being more defensive wasn’t an answer at all. But she keeps thinking long after he’s asleep, his breath wheezing in and out.
The next morning she tells him she’s going to become an activist. He nods sleepily (he gets up an hour before her to read) and flips a fried egg onto her plate. At work she tells the head of her firm that she wants to do some pro-bono work for women in abusive relationships. He raises an eyebrow, but her face brooks no discussion, she stands across from his desk, her legs firmly planted, ready for battle. She takes cases for women trying to avoid imprisonment through battered woman’s syndrome laws. She interviews a local college girl raped by a football player, takes the girl’s cold hand, and says she’ll take on every coach and every university lawyer in the state if she has to. She means it. She sees years of litigation ahead, and smiles, baring her teeth.
At home, her husband listens to her talk about her cases, hands her books on legal precedent, and cooks her lasagna for dinner. She’s thankful he can cook. He’s the head librarian now; he creates a special display section for books on gender and feminism. Through all of their work, they find time to have a baby boy. She watches the boy as he grows, knows that as a parent she’s in a position of power, that she can guide this little person-to-be toward gentleness. She tells him stories about The Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, and tells him that he should never ever be the wolf, but always be the woodcutter. She hopes he understands.
Jennifer Pullen received her BA from Whitworth University, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her PhD from Ohio University. Her fiction, poetry, and non-fiction has appeared in journals and anthologies including Lunch Ticket, Phantom Drift Limited, Behind the Mask (Meerkat Press), F(r)iction, and Assay. “Little Red Riding Hood(s)” first appeared in Clockhouse. Her chapbook A Bead of Amber on Her Tongue won the Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction award. She has a textbook, Writing Fantasy Fiction, upcoming from Bloomsbury Academic. She grew up running wild in the forests of Washington State but is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio Northern University.
“Little Red Riding Hood[s]” was originally published in Clockhouse, 2015.