by Alizée Chesnoy
She is taught Beware of the woods, Little Red, and so one day she walks herself into them. She is all flimsy colour and clenched teeth, fluttering heart, a frightened bird, eyes open and wild. The forest is quiet and wet, light swallowed up by the trees. When a leaf falls it makes the most deafening sound.
She makes her way deeper into the sludge-covered pathways, watches her feet sink into the mud. The ground is covered in leaves and in the careless footsteps of men who have not been told to be afraid of the woods.
She walks until the gunshot sound of a branch snapped in two has her running her way back, and when she stumbles into the field she is disappointed to realise she hasn’t been very far into the forest at all.
Her mother braids her hair into weavings that fall apart before noon, and when she asks Why are the woods forbidden? her hands still. You mustn’t ask questions, and her voice is weary like lessons taught a hundred times. Then she is quiet again, until she is done, and she frames her daughter’s face, her dark defiant eyes. It is a place full of wolves, she whispers.
She never forgets to pluck the stray leaves from her hair and the twigs that get stranded in her hood before walking out of the forest.
The air around her changes and draws tight, and when she turns around there is a man watching her. There is a rifle, slung across his back, and he leans against a tree, and he is quiet, eyes steady and dangerous. She knows him, she thinks. He is the butcher’s son. Hello, Little Red, he says, and the wet silk of his voice has her thinking wolf.
I am not afraid of you, she says, and he laughs like he can hear the lie in her voice. He straightens, then, his boots heavy in the soil. Run, Little Red, he tells her. And she does.
“She knows him, she thinks. He is the butcher’s son. Hello, Little Red, he says, and the wet silk of his voice has her thinking wolf.”
Nobody says anything about the swollen bruise on her bottom lip, about the mud caked under her fingernails, about the blood.
She takes a jagged kitchen knife from her mother’s counter and hides it in the rope-weaved basket, buys a mouthguard. She goes into the woods again.
It isn’t the wolves that you must fear in the forest, she learns.
The Grandmother is quiet; a steel face and hands like earthquake because she is old. Little Red doesn’t know how old, or whose grandmother she is; she knows that the men spit on the ground she walks on, but never to her face, because when her eyes dark like a crow’s feather fall on them their skin tightens with sweat and fear. Witch, they say, and they look away.
From her seat by the window she watches the girl; the girl with bird bones and un-weaved hair, the girl who brought honey and a mouthguard, the girl with dark eyes and a red hood. Teach me, she asks again, how not to be prey.
And the Grandmother laughs: a peal of sound that is both warm and cutting. Red, she says. If you wanted I could teach you to be predator.
This is how you cut, she shows. This is how you heal. Again. She repeats the movements until they are set deep into her bones and she is bone-deep weary; learns the names of the plants in the forest and how to mix them with honey until they turn into poison like a lover’s kiss. Run faster, the Grandmother tells her, and so she does.
I heard you coming from the fallen oak, she tells her. Again, quieter this time. She closes her eyes and imagines she is the mist wrapping itself around the arms of the forest.
Are you really a witch? she asks, and the Grandmother looks at her. The men call witch all that they do not know how to make yield, she replies. Now. Again.
She sits quiet in the forest, breath slow. The first time the wolves show themselves to her, she feels like her heart will tear its way right out of her chest.
She watches the men, their careless footsteps and gunshot laughs that tear through the trees. She marvels that they cannot hear her.
They will never belong to the woods, the Grandmother tells her. She watches the girl who has grown now, all bird bones still but sharpened edges, and to herself she adds, The woods could be your kingdom.
Little Red, her mother tells her, and she pauses. That is not my name, she tells her mother quietly. That was never my name.
The Grandmother gifts her a knife that is nothing like the one she once stole from the kitchen: cutting like wolf’s teeth and bright like honey. She walks herself into the forest and she is no longer afraid; when the men chase her their hands only close on the dying wisps of her laughter. Come morning the blood spilt on the earth and moss is no longer her own.
The men start calling her witch. They start spitting on the ground where she walks but only after she has been, and when she holds their gaze their eyes drop. It is a name she is proud to carry.
She whispers to the little girls and the little boys the secret names of plants and shows them how to walk quieter than the mist wrapped around the forest branches; holds them close to her chest, their feather-light bodies quivering with excitement as she points to the wild hares in between the trees; she teaches them how to avoid the men when they are in the forest. You do not have to beware of the woods, she tells them.
She finds a dying wolf, starved and afraid, eyes wild with fever, the bullet wound to its shoulder messy and seeping pus. She holds its head heavy on her lap, lets it muzzle into her hand, and once she has killed it she is still, and sad.
I could help you skin it, if you wish to keep the pelt. She looks up to the man whose footsteps she did not recognise, to his dark hair and his soft stance. It is a long time before she looks back to the dead wolf and nods. I am the Hunter, the man offers, and something in her skin prickles, warm and foreign. I am Red, she tells him.
There are other ways to make men yield, the Grandmother had told her. You will learn in time, and she learns now, and what a strange, fascinating thing it is, this power that her hands and mouth can hold.
Demanding, he whispers into her skin, and her laugh is underlined with sharpness. A warning. No more than you are, she tells him.
The Hunter watches her from the edge of the bed as she dresses. You aren’t staying, are you, and it isn’t a question. I am a wolf in wolf’s clothing, she replies.
She leaves him with a taste of stickiness and sweet on his mouth, like covered in honey; a slight pain in his breastbone; a wisp of mist that doesn’t look back. She pulls the wolf-lined red hood over her head and walks into her kingdom.
Alizée is a poet in Paris. When she isn’t writing, you’ll probably find her photographing street art, practicing sarcasm, and drinking unhealthy amounts of tea.