On a cool, yet windless night, a little red cape and the one who bore it bobbed along down a winding dirt path. Around the handle of a wicker basket were five thin white fingers that belonged to a girl. She was afraid of no thing.
“You’ve given me a riding hood...but I’m not allowed to ride with you?” the girl had asked, indignant—shuffling her feet across the cottage floor—as though she expected her mother to reconsider. Some rite of passage this was turning out to be. It wasn’t as if she was asking for a pony of her own.
Her mother had only handed her the basket—which had been woven by similar long—longer—white fingers. The basket was to be ferried to a certain ailing old woman in need.
Why did adults do these things in reverse? wondered the little girl in red.
It’s true, ask them for a bicycle, but you’ll get it only after they’ve fitted you for a good helmet.
The girl herself had never seen a bike or a velocipede, though she knew what they were from some of the many books that filled their cottage’s shelves.
Coming up on the path now were the Great Ruins. Not ruins of any human civilization, but a graveyard of trees. It was called the Eburnine Wood. The petrified branches cast twisted shapes as they bathed in the moonlight. It nourished their color in a way the sun had long ceased to do.
“When the time comes,” her mother had said, “I will let you ride my steed, but bear this in mind: Once you take the reins from me, you cannot give them back. You will ride the pale mare day and night, until your work is done—and our work is never done. Now, off with you, or you will be late for your first appointment.”
Soon her mother had put on her own long—longer—riding hood and made her way to the stable. The girl was left to lock up herself. The waning sickle moon was high in the sky when she set out.
Should a traveler in the other direction pay the little girl any less than even a passing glance, they would have been hard-pressed not to find something unsettling. For one thing, she never ceased to smile. A smile one might have considered unsettling for someone her age. It was not something she had about her, rather, it was something she did not.
Have you ever noticed the way a skull peers out at you in a smile? While each and every flash of the teeth is a glance, the smile is a true salutation from the bones. When all is said and all is done, without the meat—the gum that holds things together—the individual pieces may be rearranged and scattered. Only a careful observer could put them back into a single frame.
Perhaps it is undesirable to think of smiles this way. This is undeniably true, though. Smiles speak something without words: they tell us to remember. This seems inherent. The question is: What has been forgotten?
Perhaps you’ve heard this story before, perhaps you have not, and maybe you only think you’ve heard it. I thought I’d heard this fairy story too, but stories are like smiles. They are the fickle works of fabulists and subject to change. They serve the needs of our decaying culture. They’re successful in deceiving, if only for a short while.
A pair of cobalt eyes—all the better to see—cut through the night. The paws pad—all the better to pursue—soundlessly, though not without effort, through what remains of the sedge and brushwood. All the while, the patient stomach watched and waited—it had been waiting a long time.
A wolf waits. Waits for the moment its prey in the little hood will be completely in his power. A sanguine hood. Like the hemorrhage mixed with saliva that would soon trickle from his long teeth rending flesh—all the better. A moist, glazed, cold nose wriggles—wants to chase her—waddling—back to the cottage she calls home. That was where there would be other brothers and sisters—plump as lambs, on whom, this wolf imagined he would live, contentedly, for the foreseeable future.
There came a savage bark.
“Oh!” the girl gave a start and stopped, she had not expected to meet anyone else on her path.
“Don’t run,” the wolf snarled, “I will catch you.”
“And if I outrun you?” said the little girl.
“I will catch you, no matter how fast you go. This is certain. And if I do not catch you at once, I will tear strips from you as I pursue.”
“I wasn’t planning to run,” countered the little girl, with her back still to the wolf, “but it is not because I am afraid, nor would it be the case if I did choose to. What manner of beast are you anyway?”
“I’m a wolf,” said the wolf. Forced to describe himself he felt ill at ease, and he added, “I’m very...fearsome.”
“Well, I fear no thing.”
The wolf scoffed, “You think you’re brave to laugh at death? If that’s so, turn around and face me.”
“First, you are not my death,” said the little girl, “to me, you are just a wolf. Second, I’m going this way.” She pointed forward down the long, pebbly path. “Why should I expend unnecessary energy to turn around now? Why don’t you walk around and face me?”
The wolf was fierce with anger and knew she was trying to forestall the inevitable. He wanted to dispense with this decorum, lunge forward, and snatch her in his jaws, but he was also determined not to lose at a chance to match wits. Wolves had a reputation for being clever. He could not allow himself to be patronized this way.
He let out a low growl, “Before I eat you then, I wish to know why you would so foolishly wander through this froward forest—let alone at night. Do you have a mother?"
“I do have a mother, but she knows I’m more than capable by myself,” the girl said and then added, “She wouldn’t be afraid of you either.”
“She should have warned you. You’re both a pair of fools. And when she comes looking for you, she will meet the same fate. Like mother like daughter," the wolf said, licking his chops. “It’s a pity she did not accompany you here now. She would have been the main course.”
“I’m afraid we wouldn’t be very tasty going down—my mother and I—we’re all bones.”
She wasn’t wrong, the wolf had been mentally divvying up the girl into bite-sizes, but after taking a look at the meager hand peeking out from around her cloak, the hand curled around the basket, he was more than a little disappointed. She seemed to him much less than a morsel.
“I’ve heard every excuse. If you’ve ever been hungry, truly hungry, with a wolf’s hunger, you’d eat anything.”
The girl still hadn’t moved. She’d stayed rigid. Though she still seemed to have her wits about, he knew she must be frozen with fear. Otherwise, she would have run by now.
“Now, face me, child. Don’t you know that you should never turn your back on a wolf?”
“Okay. But you’re in for a shock.”
“I don’t care what you look like—a meal is a meal!”
The girl turned around. Her cape whirled about her then. She never got tired of the look on living people’s faces. The wolf began to whimper.
Staring back at him was a face without eyes, without a nose, without ears, without meat. There were only three holes and a mouth of teeth. She greeted him with a grin.
“Oh! Oh, Mercy!” yowled the wolf. He jumped back, lay down right there on the dirt path, and covered his eyes with both paws. “P-pray tell,” he said after a long while, “W-what is h-holding you t-together?”
“That’s a good question. I've looked in my anatomy book. I couldn’t find an answer. My mom says what holds us together can’t be found in books like that. She says it’s called the Will. She knows secrets that are older than all the things written and bound in books, but I’m not allowed to know them yet. She says she’ll tell them to me one day—when it is time for me to ride the—”
She was interrupted by another growl in the dark. It belonged to the wolf, but this was a tiny, thwarted, pitiful thing. The wolf stood up suddenly then, pretending as though he hadn't heard the noise. He looked down, sheepishly, at some pebbles beneath his paws. He feigned spotting something and professed to pounce upon it. The little girl knew he was faking and that this rooting around was all for show. Her eyes were naturally accustomed to telling what was alive—even when hiding or lying still—apart from what would always remain merely cold, inanimate matter. Her eyes "saw" without meat. There were no other animals in the immediate area, not save for the wolf.
“Was that you? Or your belly?” she asked.
The wolf said that he would prefer not to say.
“I’ve read about those—that sound was a borgymous. It came from a contraction in your stomach. I’ve never actually heard one before because...” The creature looked up and watched as she made a circular gesture inside the gap between her ribs and pelvis, where her entrails ought to have been. Then she tickled and danced her fingers betwixt the bars of her thoracic cage.
In that moment, all the wolf’s hunger turned to nausea and he regurgitated whatever was still digesting within him. Hardly anything came up of it and, because of this, he was even more careful than usual to lap every last bit. This time, the girl looked away. It was a disgusting habit—one she wondered if he might be cured of.
As the wolf lapped at his sick, he took comfort in another one of his fantasies. He imagined the little girl was not made of bones, but was a hapless fatted calf. In this vision, he'd leapt upon her back and torn into raw beef. All he was asking was for something he could tear into. Something he could pry apart. In times before, the world had been a plentiful place. In this age, survival had made of him a fool—for there was little now to survive upon.
He uprooted a few of the sparse wasteland’s grasses, chewed and swallowed.
The wolf wasn’t quite finished yet, though. He wasn't going back to his den without a trophy to show for it. He eyed the girl's free arm—the one unhindered by the basket.
“Perhaps something of a compromise can be reached?”
“Well, you can follow me. Maybe you will find something where I am going, but I have to leave now. I don’t want to be late.”
“So there’s not a single niblet left on your bones that I can lick or gnaw?”
“These bones were worm-licked clean aeons ago. If that’s what you came for, you can just be on your way.”
“Aeons you say? Just how old are you?”
“In human or dog years?” The little girl asked.
“Nevermind,” murmured the wolf, “so, one day, your bones will grow to be the same size as your mother’s?”
“I expect so,” the girl replied. She certainly hoped so. Otherwise, it was going to prove difficult to mount her mother’s horse.
“If your bones can grow, they must contain a source of nourishment. I might be able to get some marrow out of you, yet. You only need one arm to carry your basket, after all.”
“I need all my bones and I will keep them, thank you very much.”
But even as she said this, the wolf’s jaws were already closed around her radius and ulna.
“Perhaps you don’t have a choice,” said the wolf through clamped teeth, “I’ll take your bones and break them open and the marrow will tide over until I can find something real to eat.”
He was pulling hard and would not let go no matter how she shook. She even started to feel the bones of her arm—not the bones themselves, but what was holding her together—beginning to give.
The little girl leaned over, set her basket down, and closed her hand—making a fist. The wolf growled, trying to frighten her. She brought it down on the wolf’s soft snout. He let go.
“OW! I—oh, that smarts! Ow!” the wolf yelped, “I think you’ve broken my nose.”
“My bones have bleached in the desert of the eternal sun. They have long since lost their nutritional value, and I’m sure they’re hard as an ostrich egg, but I’ve never put that to the test before,” the girl replied, pleased.
“Aren’t you going to apologize?” whimpered the wolf. He’d been exaggerating a little about his injury, but it continued to throb. There would no doubt be a bruise.
“Just because I’m not alive and don’t feel things, it doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings. You can still hurt those.”
Whining, the wolf apologized to her, and seemingly truly beside himself, he turned to go. This had gone on long enough. A wolf could die, not only of hunger, but humiliation, too. While the first death would relieve him of his mortal coil, He considered the second one almost as bad. It would mean he had been tamed.
The girl picked her basket up, but as she saw the wolf go, she began to feel sorry for him—at least for the painful contractions that were urging him so. She thought it must hurt to be so very hungry. She herself had never and could never have any idea of that. It was a sad sight to see a once proud canine so emaciated that his own ribs were visible through the mange of his fur.
It was this that gave her an idea of sorts.
“Listen, there’s a very old lady and she’s sick. Mom said she doesn’t have much longer. I’m supposed to bring her this basket. There’s something inside it for her and I’m going to ‘cause, if I don’t mom will be mad, and it’s my 'rite of passage'—so it’s important. But...she probably won’t need her—you know—after that and maybe there will be some canned food in her house or something in the larder. You can have anything I find.”
Scheming anew, the wolf conceived of a fallback plan.
“Is she any relation of yours?”
"The old woman you're bringing the basket to?"
The little girl shook her head, “I don’t think anyone related to me can die.”
“Will your mother be around forever then?”
The little girl hadn’t thought much about that.
“I suppose she’ll go wherever her own mother went—back to the desert. She says that’s where I come from too. I don’t think it's death—that’s the privilege of living things.”
“So, what does your mother do—as in, for a living?”
“Well—she’s the hun...” and then she thought better of it. She was starting to enjoy the wolf’s company and didn’t want to scare him away.
“Her official title is the Prime Gatherer.”
“Ah...a gatherer. What a curious trade for a skellington. So. She’s an antiquarian.”
“I don’t know what that word means. I’ll look it up when I get home, though.”
“I’ll save you the trouble. An antiquarian is a person who gathers old things. Detritus. Obsolete things.”
“Well, I’m still going to look it up and write the definition in my journal. It is a good habit after all. And…I suppose that’s a good word for what my mother does. Sometimes.”
“Does she own a pawn shop?”
“No, she doesn’t sell things she gathers. That would be against the Rules of Collection.”
“Rules? So she’s a collector?”
The girl's head nodded. It bobbed on her segmented neck. Again, just from seeing this, the wolf felt ill and the compulsion to retch, but managed to contain himself—out of necessity. If he were to, he knew there wouldn't be anything left this time.
“What does she collect?” the wolf asked, after some time.
“Things that are lost. Sometimes those things are old. Sometimes those things are weary. Sometimes those things are all of those things and sometimes none—she gathers all sorts of things…anyway…someday, I will be a gatherer too, as was my mother and her mother’s mother...”
The wolf’s stomach growled again. Wincing from the spasm’s pain, he was no longer paying attention to the girl’s words. Besides, he felt that collectors were really very silly people. Deep down, they were inherent show offs—narcissists. When wolves collected things, they hid them, buried them where they would not be found.
“I've never had a pet before,” the girl said, “you could come back with me to my cottage. Live with me and my mom. I’ll bet you’d like it.”
“I’m not about to become a vegetarian. Nor have I any desire to belong to anyone.”
“It won’t be so bad,” the girl said. There was something about the warmth of her words that almost made him believe what she was saying. That frightened him.
“No.” The wolf shuddered, “The very thought! What would I be then? Hardly a wolf. Hardly a wolf at all!”
Being a wolf, for the wolf, was having a Wolf’s Hunger. Right now that hunger was gnawing at his innards. He had, in his opinion, already given up far too much at this point. Among these compromises, of late, he'd been forced to hunt rats in a manner most unwolf-like. Though he would never admit this to the girl, he’d been subsisting off them almost entirely. Hunting rodents was surprisingly hard. It took skill and patience. He could see how cats had made a cruel fun game of torture—coaxing them out and then, battering the creatures around until their little hearts’ gave out. For a feline’s sick mind, making a mouse into a confessor was the reward for their patience. Treating one’s prey this way, the wolf felt, was beneath his far more noble kind's nature.
"What are you bringing this old woman then?" the wolf asked. "Medicine?"
"Something that will ease the pain."
Finally, in another corner of that Eburnine Wood that had long ceased to be enchanted, they came upon a hovel-like brick cabin with a tall silver chimney pipe like a locomotive’s smokestack.
The wolf remembered this place now. He'd once scoped it out himself. A gardener lived here and grew miracles from ground—lovely anise and other aromas the wolf had thought lost forever—to time.
How convenient it was that this old woman had chosen a life all by herself. A life far from the Remnants—a circle of dappled dwellings that passed for a township. A life far from the superstitious and scriptural people folk. It was likely she had chosen to live this way because she'd kept something she was not supposed to. Something not permitted. What was this something not allowed in the boundaries of the borough? She was what humans called a witch—a deviant among their kind. This one has been turned away from the pack—disowned, as the wolf understood it. Yet, he knew not for what purpose. Besides tending to her garden and herbs, he'd seen her cultivating mandrakes—the tiny homunculi. Come to think of it, that could very well have been it...
He'd once mistaken one, seeing it spinning around and around, heedless of the nearby Eburnine Wood, for a human child and tried to gobble it up. The old woman had run out of her house shouting a slew of curses and imprecations at his kind and vowing retaliation. For his part, he'd let the creature go just as soon as discovering its bulb-like body did not taste like flesh.
Either way, there was reason to be wary of such a wayward woman. Anyone banished from human society was wisely and equally feared by wolves as well. He would bide his time, until the girl had concluded her business—whatever that was. The wolf could tell the girl had grown fond of him and knew she would want him around for awhile. She wouldn't keep him waiting long.
The girl in the red hood knocked upon the door.
There came the shuffle of feet across a floor inside. You could hear each slow painful, scrape of slippers. Schpp. Schpp. Schpp. There was a pause, then a rustle of keys, a Click. and a terrible cough.
The old woman appeared, her brows furrowed, lips tight and creased. She wore a florid patterned mumu, her spinny, thinning hair tied up in a head rag, and a pair of reading glasses resting low on her nose. Her veiny, purple splotched arms brandished something long that ended in a tube of metal, and it was with this that she welcomed them. It was dark inside. Not the house, from which there was dim candlelight, but the barrel pointed straight at the two of them. It more than spoke for itself—a blunderbuss, to be exact—the little girl noted.
The wolf yelped and vanished. He knew that long stick meant and what it could do. In days when wolf-kind were more plentiful, he’d heard of how such human-contraptions had claimed the lives of his brethren. The girl remained, standing in that exact spot, for she was afraid of no thing.
“So you’ve come...” the old woman said, looking into the little girl’s tunnel-sockets, “I thought you’d be taller.”
They stood there staring at each other.
“Well,” the old woman sighed, “I suppose its time. Come on in, I just put the kettle on—making some tea. The dog stays outside.”
The old woman withdrew her rifle, produced a rag just in time to let out another terrible cough, then shuffled indoors. Schpp. Schpp. Schpp.
"I have green, black, rose hip, lavender, echinacea, tarragon, and aniseed. What would you like?"
"Black," said the girl, humoring her.
"Of course," the old woman said, touching her fingers to her wrinkled forehead as though she'd forgotten something, then she said, "Would you be a dear and close that door? I don't want a chill to get in. Or anything else."
Now the girl regretted the joke. She very much hoped that it—whatever was going to happen—would come soon. She didn't want to explain why she wouldn't be able to drink something the old woman had made for her.
As the girl walked to the door—taking hold of the handle—the sound of whimpers and whines could be heard. She peered out in the direction of the sounds and saw the wolf poke his head out of a bramble bush beside the house. There were superficial cuts in his grey coat and scratches on his muzzle. The thorns he'd dived into headlong had made their marks.
“Is she still pointing the gun?” whispered the wolf.
“Not at me,” said the girl, “you’d better stay out here.”
“Please find me something inside,” the wolf whimpered after her as she slowly sealed off the threshold. “A nice big steak perhaps,” he suggested. "I have heard great tales told of human steaks."
“I’ll see what I can do,” the girl said.
She closed the door behind her and peered around the humble dwelling. She noticed the generous space that had been given to shelves. In the kitchen there was a cast iron wood stove with a chimney pipe rising up like a great dark column. Atop the stove sat a ceramic kettle.
“You take your tea black. What about your cape? I thought you preferred a different color,” said the old woman. She seemed troubled by these informalities.
“Shows what you know. When blood is first spilled it's red. When it dries, it turns black. That is the way of things. One day, I'll graduate to a different color.”
“That’s okay, sweetie, I learn something every day. I’m a hundred and two. And let me tell you something: the day you stop learning is the day you die.”
“I’m still learning things,” said the girl in the little red hood, “I like learning things. Do you have a dictionary? I’d like to look up the word ‘antiquarian.’”
“It’s over there on the shelf.”
Those shelves. So full of tomes—a lifetime of collecting. The girl felt strange to think of them. She felt…guilty from how much she wanted them and knowing that they would soon be abandoned by their caretaker. It was especially rare to find books—or anything in print—in such good condition. Many had perished in the fires of the Great Disillusionment. Few were uneaten by silverfish.
The little girl walked over and stretched her fingers, but could not manage to reach it.
Schpp. Schpp. She heard the scraping across the floor as the old woman hobbled over behind her.
“Sorry to make you get up,” the girl apologized, receiving the book, as the old woman lowered it into her outstretched hands.
“It’s quite alright. These old things move with a little coaxing,” the woman said. She put the rifle down—resting it against a wall in the room's corner. Then she eased herself into a very comfortable chair and invited the girl to take a seat on the ottoman before here.
“So, where’s your big ol’ chopper?”
The old woman made a sign with her index finger, slashing it across her throat, and then a sound with her closed teeth—a few of them remained.
“You know, your guillotine.”
“This is my first assignment. I haven’t earned it yet.”
The woman sniffed, then she paused, but seemed to have something more to say.
“I saw you looking at my shelves when you came in,” the old woman said. “You know, it’s a cruel thing to be sent you in the form of a little girl.”
“And why is that?”
“If you’d been a bit taller, and carrying your big stick—well, I’d have fought you tooth and nail. Instead, I feel so sweet. So sweet it makes me ill. I never wanted children, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. Maybe though…just maybe I can understand wanting to have someone to leave things to.
The girl did not reply to that. Had the old woman decided to fight, she doubted it would have made a difference. Judging by the looks of her, she didn’t have very long.
"I suppose I'll be abandoning my babies out back, too—my mandrakes. They come out singing when they're plucked so one would reason that they could speak, too. I've taught them to walk in my time, even how to dance, but they simply can't be learned to read. And, just like anything, once you separate it from the roots, their lives are so terribly short. It's just the way.”
The girl looked over and eyed the tea kettle. The fire looked hot, but it was still taking it's time. Then she noticed some diced odds and ends on the kitchen countertop. They lay in a pile next to a mortar and pestle. The old woman must have noticed the girl staring, because she immediately said, "That's just some raw ginger root and chard."
Ephemerality was such a relative thing, the girl realized. She thought of her mother again, as she had while walking with the wolf, and wondered about the coming inevitable day. The day she herself would take up the mantle of the blade and harvest. Would her mother simply go back to the desert then? Lie down and let the sands cover her—like a blanket?
“Let’s cut to the chase, girl. What’s with the basket? How are you going to do it? Well?”
“Sure. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it? You’re not going to disappoint me, are you?”
They were briefly interrupted by some sounds from outside—a few light scrapings on the old woman’s door. A sniffing nose then peeked through the small gap beneath the heavy wooden portal. These attempts to remind the girl he was still there, waiting for her to let him inside, were accompanied by a maudlin keening. The old woman glowered then—shooting a look in the door's direction.
"That wasn't one of the mandrakes," the old woman said, wryly. Then she turned back to fix her gaze on the girl, "I’m beginning to doubt you are indeed who you appear to be."
“Oh…” the little girl said, “...only my mother has permission to do that. I mean—I’m sure if you want to hurry it along—it's probable there’s poison under the sink, and there’s that very hungry wolf outside, or you could slip and fall down.”
“It’s true,” the old woman groaned into her rocking chair, “even a little fall could break a hip at my age.”
“I’ve just come to collect you when all is said and done.”
They sat in silence for a long time waiting for the tea.
“That blasted stove. Always took so long to bring water to a boil.”
For a while longer, they watched each other. Then the little girl got up from her seat, to go into the kitchen because the ceramic kettle was whistling. When she turned around the old woman was sleeping.
The little girl walked over and placed her spidery hand against the old woman’s saggy breast, touching the rising and falling where the heart was. Now the chest moved no more. The little girl withdrew the cupped hand and looked into her palm.
In it, she held something warm with a perceptible glow. The girl had literally no nerves to speak of, but if she could feel warmth, the old woman would have felt very cold now.
She held it close, bringing it inside her own chest, where her heart would have been, wondering what it would be like to have one of her own. Though she had no ears—she heard by some other means—she knew what that warmth sounded like—an orchestra warming up.
What she held in her hand could be as big or small as it needed to be, but would always fit, without a doubt, in her basket—which is where she let it go.
There was one last thing to take care of, a few candles burning inside the cottage and the fire in the cast iron wood stove. The girl, having no breath of her own to blow them out, picked up the tea kettle and lightly doused each flame, then opened up the cast iron wood stove and began spreading and flattening the embers into an even molehill of ash. She turned and set the kettle atop the stove again and looked at the twisted thing on the countertop. She could not decide then if the old woman had been telling the truth or not. She herself had not tasted ginger nor chard, but had heard from her mother that mandrake root was used by humans for rheumatism and ulcers. Had the old woman been ashamed? To reap what she had sewn? That she might make a salve to cure her aches? Whatever it was, a hairy, nubby thing lay there, upon the kitchen surface. It hardly looked like a little man now. Just as the breath had gone out of the old woman, the magic had also gone out of this gnarled root.
The wolf was peering through the window again.
He had seen the two of them talking at one point, but could not make out what they were saying. The second time he climbed up to the windowsill, the old woman and the little girl had been sitting close each other. A third time, he saw the little girl standing before the old woman. Just standing there as the old woman slept—her hand against the thrum of a then-beating heart. Now the old woman's heart was still. He knew this because he could no longer hear it and had heard it gradually fade. The only heart he heard beating now was his own. It was dark inside the house and he could no longer see the old woman. He only saw the little girl, walking around and putting out the candlelights. Each one went up in a tiny puff of smoke.
There was violent scratching this time, accompanied by whimpers.
The girl walked to the door and pushed it open. She was holding the basket. She was carrying no food. Something told him, well, all the evidence told him he’d been deceived.
“I couldn’t find a can opener,” she said, “and anyway, I need to be getting home.”
“Let me inside then,” the wolf implored. “Alive or dead, that old woman will still make a satisfactory meal.”
“I don’t think I will,” the girl said. In one swift motion, she stepped through the archway, pulled the door shut behind her, then started back the way she’d come, “I want to keep things tidy for my first day on the job.”
"What does it matter if I eat her?" pleaded the wolf.
"It doesn't," the girl said, shuffling her feet, "but I still won't let you."
“You tricked me! I trusted you!” the wolf growled after her, and then he said, “You've got to let me in that house. You can't let me starve!”
“Fair warning, wolf—the hunter will be here any moment.”
“A huntsman!? Now?” The wolf was shocked by this ludicrous assertion. His cobalt eyes widened at that hiss of a word. The one that was bane to his kind.
“You can run, but the hunter will catch you. You’re a brave wolf, but like I said, you are not my death—I don’t have one—you do. The hunter is coming wolf. And she is Death to you and many.”
For a moment the wolf was scared witless, but he smelled no whiff of a hunter on the air. Not their estranged assortment of camouflage, nor the telltale human-stink that they could never quite entirely cover with animal musks, skins, and furs, nor could he detect that blood-curdling cordite—the smell of gunpowder. He couldn't work it out. Woman or man, this detail did not matter, but how, indeed was it true that she had summoned a huntsman? The girl had to be lying.
“Just how could a hunter know I was here?” the wolf snapped his jaws at her, suspecting she was only bluffing. He raised his jowls then, his mouth made an “O," and he howled at the sky. "There. I have told this hunter exactly where we are. Let them come find me then. Now, let me into that house or I'll make short work of you. You said that you are held together by Will? Well, right now, I am near starving and my will to live is very strong. I felt your arm start to give earlier when I pulled. I know I could take you apart, scatter your bones, and bury them across the far corners of the land if I wanted to...”
There was a whinny like lightning then. A horse stamped a hoof from behind the wolf, where there had not been one moments before. All this was familiar to the girl in the little red hood. A voice like milk and honey poured forth. It belonged to a tall figure, who wore her own long hood—a black one...
“It seems I’ve found the one I was hunting, funny how things work out,” said her mother, climbing down from the pale mare. “I didn’t expect it to lead me to you,” she said, playfully ruffling her daughter’s hood.
Suddenly, the faces of the two figures that stood before him appeared changed. Each skull peeking out from beneath their respective hoods was longer and pointed. Their eye sockets were more jagged and narrow. Their mouths were full of long white teeth—sleek fangs. This was all the better to tear meat, rend cartilage, and break bones. The wolf knew this well. Their bodies were different, too. They were standing on their hind legs, looming over him. From their appearance it seemed they were both here to collect a soul, but not a human one this time. Not anymore. That job was done, but their work wasn't finished.
The wolf had realized by now, who the girl’s mother was, the gravity of that, and what that meant about this little girl. He had been alpha-predator, but presence of the mother put the food chain in perspective. That’s when the wolf knew what it meant to be frozen with fear. How could he have not put two and two together before now?
“Please,” the wolf begged, “have mercy.”
“I will,” said the hunter, antiquarian, collector, and Prime Gatherer, “For you, this is kindness. I will take away your pain. I take away your suffering in the moribund land of this dying world. I will take it all away. I will take your lust for food, your wolfness, too.”
“Please don’t take that away. What would I be without it?”
“My hand cannot be stayed, Soon-To-Be-Wolf-No-Longer...”
The skellington in the long, black, riding hood raised the flashing blade high.
“...and you will know something you’ve never known...”
“Wait! Mama!” shouted the little girl. “I wanna do it.”
Her mother quickly handed over the scythe. The little girl in the red riding hood took it with her hands with great relish and swung it back.
The wolf began to run, but it was too late. The staff had a long reach. She cleaved through his life like wheat and he was felled.
His body lay in the dirt of the path. Just before the old woman's doorstep. His heaving chest slowed. Then it was still.
“I am proud of you,” her mother said, “Such a neat cut. You must have been practicing.” By this, the girl knew her mother would have another house call to make soon and that she would be sending the girl to pay it.
The little girl knelt down, then lifted something from the wolf’s body in her hands as though she was cupping water. She spoke something to it, “Remember me. Don’t forget, and maybe we’ll see each other again someday.” Then she let it go into her mother’s basket. It was sunrise.
Together then, they climbed on the pale horse and rode through the Ruins at a gallop. They left the house not empty, but cold—colder than when they came. This was their way. They took only what they'd brought with them, but when the girl ran out of things to read, she would be back. There was, of course, a necessary waiting period before the woman’s possessions would be fair game and not considered loot plundered from a sacrosanct site. As for the mandrakes, she would leave them in the ground—for someone else to pull up or for no one to. Whether they lived only to be diced on a kitchen cutting board, or their rosette stalks grew nice, full, and tall until they dropped their seeds and withered away, that was business of a different nature. Life wasn't their jurisdiction—only what followed was.
"One year ago, I took the life of a messenger boy in the forest. I was riding through that part of these hinterlands tonight, just before I arrived here," the girl's mother said as the wind rushed around them.
"As I suspected, his English Racer still where he left it—leaned against a tree. By his abandoned clothes and the Abysmal Creek into which he dove headfirst—thinking he beheld in it his only equal in beauty. A youth wasted, but I took it nonetheless."
The girl waited. She had an idea of what her mother was getting at, but didn't want to seem too eager.
"We'll need to see about getting you some transport." There was a beat and then, "Something with two wheels perhaps?"
“Oh, Mother—may I really have a bicycle!?"
"The first rule is that our work is never done," her mother said. "The second is that we are not permitted to take from the one we are tasked with taking ourselves. Now tell me, what is the third and last rule?"
"We are not to discriminate or refuse our service to anyone," the girl said. "And we are never delayed—we come to claim those in bloom or dotage alike—the time itself is inconsequential."
"You’ll make a fine hunter someday," her mother smiled. "And am I correcting in assuming there is no aforementioned law that states that you may not travel in whatsoever manner you wish?"
The girl would have smiled at this, too, but there was no need as she was already smiling—as was the setting moon.
The two of them returned to the cottage from whence they came. It was an ossuary where their bones would rest until they were needed again—it wouldn't be long. Their work is never done. For some time afterward, the mare, mother, the daughter, and her bicycle reaped together through the night itself—the coming day at their cloaked backs.
The girl was now permitted to ask for a parting gift. It was an unwritten rule that the role's previous tenant must provide what was asked of them, whatever it may be. It was important then, to always choose a successor that would only have a reasonable request.
"Mother, I would gladly accept your mare for my own. She is more than sufficient and has many years left in her," the girl had said, as her mother turned over the black cowl she herself had long worn. It wouldn't be necessary for the return to the Wilds. That place of accumulated dust and sun where the mysterious processes would unknit her and she would know peace again—emptiness. This is why the girl and her mother said they were afraid of 'no thing' and had not said ‘nothing.’ Even if nothing lay beyond, they did not fear it.
The girl would miss her mother and promised to take good care of her mare. She had not yet had occasion to replace the slashed tires of her bicycle. This had happened some time ago when a thief she'd been chasing had thought it possible to outrun death—to cheat her. He'd imagined himself too crafty to die, but his futile actions had only filled her with quiet wrath. She'd wheeled the Racer home, all the while knowing exactly how she would overtake him. When she'd finally caught up with him, it was on horseback—the shock on his face made the swish of her blade all the more satisfying.
"Instead, there is another favor I have in mind. A request for another companion that I hope you will not deny me. Especially being that you were the one that did his collecting.”
The girl’s mother granted her permission. The two embraced each other and then the hunched form set out for the desert. A crone beneath a long black cloak.
The pain was gone now. There was just the memory of it. Then that was gone too. All that remained was a little girl. And her smile.
Time was working on him.
Quite a lot of it had passed. He wasn’t sure how much, but he was worried—worried she might have forgotten him. He'd forgotten himself—until now.
The land here was parched. An arid wind uncovered the lupine bones that lay beneath that barren place. He realized these bones had once belonged to him.
After basking in a desert of unyielding sun, the bones grew strong. From those ossified fragments, a wolf came to be. This is how.
He felt his first involuntary twitch and discovered the baked bones had inexplicably been interlinked by an invisible latticework of connective tissue. With more time, practical movement was possible. Just as a marionette is woven together by a string threaded within a series of hewn blocks of wood, so too, was he now held together by a Will.
By now, he knew himself again, but had no idea of his shape or likeness. He searched, but divined no water in this land, no oasis pool in which to perceive his reflection. It was no matter though, he realized, for he had no thirst—and likely, never would again. The wolf discovered this when he looked down at the sand and saw his shadow. It was spindly contour now, but at least of a recognizable shape. He would come upon a black pool a little later, in his travels to come. There he would finally gaze into the abyss and feel content.
To his surprise, he had not lost his wolfness, even though he’d let it go. He accepted this turn of events the way such fairy tale characters always go to their fates, or a dreamer simply trusts a dream. For now, he proceeded to wander the sands searching—following something less like scent, more like intuition.
The wolf, having no need of the faculties he no longer possessed, followed his Will through the desert. It was a sense of smell far more powerful than the one he’d once used in seeking the more helpless fauna in the forest undergrowth’s confusion of spoors. Instead, the Will told him exactly where to find the one he sought.
The terrain of the wasteland changed as he traveled through the bones of trees, then to a clearing of meadow, through a gate, past a stable in which a strange beast whinnied, to the great wooden door of a very nice cottage, on which he put one paw and scratched.
That door was opened and the wolf was greeted by a familiar smile, to which he replied with his own smile—a similar one.
Time had repaired the offense, too. The wolf was not angry at what she had done. It had been mercy. It had been kind. By the strange, re-animating puppetry they now shared, his tail bones could waggle as he greeted her.
She was very tall now. She also wore her mother’s absence of color, but he knew it was still she. She came out, knelt down, patted his ivory head, and did not ask why he was here.