By Hanna C. Howard
Like everything else, the nickname Red was my grandmother’s fault. My mother had a similar idea upon first seeing my wild, apple-red hair, but the name she christened me was slightly more distinguished: Ruby Gretel Ridingood. Our surname had originated some hundred years before, when one of my father’s ancestors showed astounding prowess while riding a temperamental mare into the hunt. But thanks to my grandmother, that name was eventually ruined for me as well.
After she began to call me Red, so did my mother. And since my mother used the name, so, eventually, did everyone else in our village. The only two people who persisted in calling me Ruby were my father and my best friend Peter, both of whom were observant enough to notice my grimace every time someone addressed me as Red.
Ironically enough, these two people were also the only ones in the village my grandmother seemed to despise.
When she came in from the woods—once every week, usually on Sundays—Granny’s first task consisted of cornering me and demanding to hear what I had learned to cook in the last seven days. If Peter was with me, she would frown and slap him about the ears three or four times before she began her inquisition, and then again after she finished.
“Meat pasties?” she would suggest in her wheedling, reedy voice. “Spice cake? Boiled potatoes?”
To Granny, there was nothing more important in the world for a young girl than to learn the ancient knowledge of food and how to prepare it. On those Sundays she often summoned me into the kitchen and handed me a recipe, insisting that I complete the dish while she hovered over me to ensure my accuracy. The heavy, moist sound of her breathing behind me made me nervous, and I frequently made mistakes. Once, when I decided to try and substitute sweet basil for the lemon herb listed on the page, Granny slapped me across the face so hard it made me dizzy.
“Always do as it says,” she hissed, her eyes bulging. “Always, Red.”
Trembling, I reached for the lemon basil, not daring to ask what I was thinking: Why was the recipe so important?
“Why?” I asked my mother one day. “Why does Granny care so much about cooking?”
My mother’s eyes flashed with something like fear, and she glared at me. “Don’t ask questions, Red. Do as you’re told and no harm will come to you.”
So, I put the question to my father.
He was in the barn, tending to a stray dog he had found in the glen. She was pregnant, and Father thought the pups would arrive any day.
“I don’t know, Ruby-Rose,” he answered me in his soft, contemplative way, stroking the dog’s long face. “Your grandmother… she has some strange ways. You’d be wise not to upset her.” His eyes flickered up to mine. “But you’d be wiser to keep your wits about you when she’s around.”
This was not altogether helpful, but better advice than my mother had given.
The next Sunday, my birthday, Granny arrived with a parcel for me. While Peter ducked out the back door, shielding his ears with his hands, Granny slouched over the threshold with the package clenched in her hands, baring her yellow teeth at me in a kind of smile.
“For my little Red Ridingood,” she announced, holding out the parcel. “In honor of your fourteenth birthday.”
My mother’s pleasant expression looked strained, as if it were taking most of her energy to keep it in place. My father frowned openly.
Apprehensive, I accepted the gift, pulling open the box and peering inside. Crimson fabric gleamed back at me from within, like silk spun from cherries—or blood. My eyes flicked to my father first, whose face was stony. Granny nodded eagerly. “Take it out, child. Put it on.”
I swallowed, not wanting to, but feeling trapped. The dark fabric rustled and gleamed as I lifted it from the box, unfurling like a rope, a noose. I held it up in front of me and its length rustled to the floor. It was a hooded cloak, softer than goose-down. Holding it felt perilous.
“Put it on,” my grandmother rasped. Her eyes were hungry.
I looked to my father, but his lips were pursed and he was glaring at my mother. Surprised, I turned to her. She was pale, but when I caught her eye she nodded tersely and said, “Do as your grandmother asks.”
The cloak was slippery, and it slithered over my shoulders like snakeskin. Where it touched my skin, a strange, tingling sensation spread, as if grains of sand were being sprinkled over me. I shivered.
“And the hood,” came Granny’s command. “Put on the hood.”
I brought it up over my head where it settled and sighed, like a living thing.
Despite the fact that I hated the way the cloak felt—it even seemed to make my insides prickle—my grandmother and mother insisted I wear it every time I went out. Soon my surname was just as ruined as my Christian name, and calls of “Little Red Riding Hood”—which sounded so like little Red Ridingood—followed me wherever I went. I began to dread my daily trips to the bakery and the butcher, and often tried to leave the cloak behind, though I rarely succeeded. When I told my father how the fabric made my skin feel, however, he growled furiously and stomped away to hurl a tirade at my mother. It was the loudest argument they had ever had. The end result was that I was only required to wear the cloak when Granny was around, since she would be angry to see me without her gift.
Three weeks after my birthday, the stray dog in the barn gave birth to a litter of seven pups. My father woke me before the sun had risen, and I followed him blearily to the lamp-lit stable, stumbling over the hem of my shift.
“Look, Ruby,” he breathed, holding up one of the puppies. “Aren’t they beautiful? The father must have been a wolf.”
I gazed in wonder. Though the mother was obviously some kind of herding dog, her puppies all had the unmistakable look of baby wolves, even so newly born. A few had her coloring, but on the whole…
“Can I keep one?” I heard myself ask. Staring down at these brand new creatures, so recently come into the world, I ached to care for one of them, to teach it how to live.
“Take your pick,” my father beamed.
My knees had barely touched the ground before I made my decision. Kneeling over the litter, my eyes fell on a dark one, smaller than his siblings and lying a little removed from the rest. Whether ostracized by force or by choice I didn’t know, but in an instant I was sure he was the one I wanted; he, the most wolfish of them all. I extended my hand so he would know my scent, and then stroked his tiny, soft head with my fingertips. His golden eyes gleamed at me through the damp air, bits of amber in a misty morning.
I called the wolf-dog Hansel, after a boy in a book I’d read. The first time my grandmother saw him, she spat contemptuously and called me a verräter, aiming a kick at the pup as she passed. And though she continued to act as if she would like nothing more than to strangle the dog with her bare hands, I began to notice flickers of what looked like fear in her eyes when she saw him. She avoided Hansel, I realized gradually, avoided him as though he were a bad omen, or an Angel of Death—or perhaps even the Devil himself. And soon enough, I began to see why.
Hansel watched Granny like she was some kind of prey. When she came into a room, his shoulders tensed and his amber eyes narrowed. Sometimes his lip even curled up. He didn’t look at anyone else that way, and my grandmother knew it. Late one night, following a long visit from Granny, I awoke to a horrible snarling sound coming from across my bedroom. I sat up with a gasp and lit the lamp, only to find Hansel at the door—which was open a crack—with all his hair on end, and his sharp teeth bared. Through the gap, I saw a figure move away, and heard my grandmother’s raspy voice muttering curses. Confused, I went back to sleep. But from that night on Hansel slept by my door, a silent guardian.
As Hansel grew, Granny came to our house less frequently. My mother received regular letters from her still, most of them including some new recipe for me to learn, but by the time the dog was a year old, Granny was only coming to visit once every few months. My father seemed happier than he had ever been; Mother, however, was withdrawn and severe.
“Not basil!” she snapped at me one day during my routine lessons. “Does this say basil? No, it calls for marjoram.”
“Basil would be better,” I muttered mutinously.
“No, it would not. You absolutely must always follow the recipe, do you hear me? Always.”
It was like hearing my grandmother’s voice come from my mother’s mouth.
I tried to do as she said, but the tasks Granny sent were becoming increasingly difficult. When I was three months from being fifteen, she sent a recipe for Lamb-Kidney Pie with the underlined inscription, Red must extract the kidney herself. So my mother sternly sent me out to slaughter our lamb and find the kidney, despite my weeping protests.
When she discovered me knifeless in the stable beside an empty lamb-pen, she whipped me so soundly I couldn’t sit for a week.
“Do not tell your grandmother what happened, under any circumstance,” she hissed, looking almost demented with anger or fear—or both. Her eyes widened manically. “Perhaps,” she murmured, “perhaps…”
I stumbled to my room, frightened, and yet not entirely sure what of.
Every recipe after that one called for some use of blood or an organ, and always I was the one directed to fetch it. But when each time I flatly refused, my mother only muttered more wildly and left to do it herself, undoubtedly to prevent me setting free another of our animals.
“Red,” Mother whispered the night before my birthday, beckoning me close. Her voice was scratchy and her eyes were bloodshot. “Tomorrow you must complete a special task.” She gave a gruesome smile and patted me on the arm. “In honor of your fifteenth birthday. Can you do that for me?”
I studied her, not at all certain that I could. “I suppose,” I answered finally.
The next morning Mother woke me early, even before Father was awake.
“Here,” she whispered, thrusting the crimson cloak into my arms. “You must wear this. And this basket has everything you’ll need. Follow the path in the woods to your granny’s house. She’ll show you what your special task is to be.”
I stared at my mother, reluctant to obey. “But—”
“Don’t ask questions,” she hissed. “Hurry, or she’ll be angry.” And seeing my eyes dart to Hansel, she added, “No, leave that dog here. He doesn’t need to go with you.”
So, grudgingly, I set out. When I was almost to the woods, I heard someone behind me, and turned to find Peter jogging to catch up.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “It’s your birthday.”
I explained as well as I could, considering my own lack of comprehension, and shrugged.
“I’m coming with you,” said Peter. “And I don’t care what your mother says; we’d be stupid not to take Hansel.”
We soon discovered that the forest trail was not as well-marked as my mother thought. My grandmother only walked it every few months now, and much of the path had become overgrown and weedy. To mark our progress, I pulled little loose threads from my red cape and tied them around low tree limbs.
“Will that work?” Peter asked doubtfully.
“We also have Hansel,” I pointed out. “You’ve seen him hunt. He’ll know the way even if we don’t.”
It took us nearly three hours to reach my grandmother’s cottage. When the clearing came into view, we stopped.
“You both have to stay here,” I told Peter and the wolf. “I hate to think what would happen if Granny saw you.”
Trying to ignore the tingling in my skin where the red cape was touching it, I walked anxiously to the door and knocked. Within, I heard an odd keening sound, and I suddenly had a mad desire to run back to the woods. The door swung open, and my grandmother appeared, her hunched figure silhouetted against the dark interior of her cottage.
“Red,” she purred, her voice unusually soft, “I’ve been expecting you. Come in.”
I followed her into the kitchen, where several bowls were waiting, and an enormous cauldron simmered over the fire. She turned to smile at me, but her expression was too twisted to be pleasant.
“I have a task for you,” she told me, stroking my arm with a fingernail. “It is the most important one of all. After this, you will have accomplished the great purpose of your life.”
“At fifteen?” I asked skeptically, but she did not seem to hear me. Instead, she took my basket from me and began to remove its contents, setting the various things out in rows atop the table: a satchel of yarrow, the liver of a rat, three apple cores, a Rowan switch…
“You must make me a dish,” she informed me as she finished. “By following a recipe, like you’ve learned. But I can’t tell you what you’re making until the end, do you understand? It’s a surprise.”
I frowned, disliking the look in her eyes.
“The recipe is right here, on the table,” she said, pointing. “Complete everything you can see within the square.”
I looked at it in surprise. She had nailed four slabs of wood together into a kind of window which covered both the title of the recipe and all the ingredients past Add one switch of Rowan.
All the doubts I had been having up to this point seemed suddenly quite justified.
“I think I’m just going to go on home, actually,” I decided aloud, starting for the door.
“Ah, no,” she cackled. “No, you cannot, my dear. This is your birthday task, and you must complete it.” Though no one was touching it, I saw the bolt on the door slide into place, and heard it thud dully.
“Now, begin,” she ordered.
As if through a thick fog, I remembered what my mother had told me more than a year ago: Do as you’re told and no harm will come to you. I swallowed hard, and nodded.
Carefully, with my grandmother hovering over my shoulder like an old magpie, I began to add and mix ingredients. The instructions were meticulous, and soon I was sweating. It was harder than anything I had cooked before, and far less appetizing.
“You must do everything perfectly,” Granny panted beside me, her pupils dilating as she watched my progress. My stomach squirmed, and I longed to leave, to get away from her. Shakily, I added the last ingredient visible within the wood frame: the Rowan branch. The batter was lumpy and runny, the color of bile, and it smoked thickly when the Rowan hit it.
Carefully, Granny slid the wooden window down so I could read the next step, and the very tops of the letters in the title appeared. I couldn’t tell what it said, but my curiosity flared.
“Get on with it, Girl,” my grandmother snapped, and I jumped.
“Pour batter into sixteen measures of boiling distilled vinegar,” I read aloud.
“The pot, there,” Granny said, gesturing to the cauldron over the fire. Carefully, I tipped the mixture into the roiling, acrid liquid, wincing as the vapor stung my eyes.
“Now what?” I asked.
But before she could answer, something crashed on the other side of the cottage, tinkling like shattered glass. Was it a window? Granny swore and spun to look at me. “Don’t move from that spot.”
I nodded, but even as she hurried from the room, I darted to the recipe on the table and shifted the wooden frame aside.
I stared at it a moment before the words took true form in my brain. And then my stomach began to twist, and hot, poisonous fear rose in my throat.
Soup of Immortality, read the paper in scarlet letters. Below it was an inscription:
Only effective with a female blood-relative bearing naturally red hair. To be cooked by the girl on the day of her fifteenth birthday. Requires a blood-bind (usually worn), with at least a year’s previous repeated exposure. Important: the girl must, without exception, complete the final step herself, else the recipe will fail. If cooked correctly, this soup will render the consumer immortal.
Paralyzed with fear, I glanced down at the remaining steps. There were only three: Add a piece of the blood-bind, Complete the binding incantation, and Add, in order: the hair, blood, and body of the girl. Mix well.
“Snooping where we don’t belong, aren’t we?” snarled my grandmother from the doorway.
My head snapped up.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’re nearly done, anyway.” And, moving faster than I would ever have thought she could, she crossed to the cauldron and held her hand out over it, piercing it swiftly with a kitchen knife. A drop of blood fell into the mixture and hissed.
“A piece of the blood-bind,” she wheezed nastily, pointing at my cloak. I hadn’t understood at first… not until the fabric trembled, wrapped about me, and stiffened, pinning me within it like a prisoner in a tiny, red silk cell. The hood climbed up my neck and slipped tightly around my head. With a rush of horror, I understood: the cape was the blood-bind, and her blood was the blood-bind. They were the same. Somehow, she had made the cape from her own blood. But the instant I realized this, something else pressed into my mind, something that made my impending death seem almost insignificant: my mother knew. She knew about the cloak, she knew about the recipes, she even knew what she was sending me to today. I felt suddenly nauseous. My own mother. The memory of her reassuring words, promising I wouldn’t be harmed if I did as I was told, seemed to mock me with their emptiness.
Granny’s voice pulled me back to the present, from miles away.
“And now, the incantation,” she hissed.
The tingling in my limbs increased and spread violently with a hideous, excruciating electric pulse. And then I felt words on my tongue, pressing against my teeth. I opened my mouth to get rid of them.
“Granny, what large ears you have,” I heard myself blurt, and realized instantly that her ears were indeed overlarge, stretched by age.
Granny seemed unperturbed by this impolite observation. She leered at me and replied, “All the better to hear you with, my dear.”
I frowned, ready to demand that she release me from the cape, but new words were crowding my mouth, pressing to break loose. “And what big eyes you have, Granny,” I said, seeing straightaway that her eyes were in fact enormous with hunger.
“All the better to see you with,” she rasped, licking her lips.
I expected it this time, though I was still surprised to hear the words spring from my lips. “What large hands you have,” my mouth said.
The gnarled, knotted hands rose like claws, and came slowly toward me. “The better to grasp you with,” said my grandmother, shooting out one hand and seizing my shoulder with spiderlike fingers. I shuddered, but could not move. The cloak still bound me.
A final torrent of unspoken words swelled in my throat and tore at my mouth, but this time I clamped my teeth together and held them in. This was the last bit of the incantation. Somehow I knew that by speaking these words, I would begin something too appalling to comprehend. I gagged, struggling to keep my lips shut.
With a horrible grimace, Granny raked one of her talon-like fingernails down the side of my cheek. I opened my mouth to scream, but the words broke loose instead.
“Oh, Granny, what a terrible, big mouth you have!” I yelled.
Her eyes flashed red and she bared her teeth. “The better to eat you with,” she snarled, bringing up her knife.
I squeezed my eyes closed.
But Granny was offering me the knife. “Now you must kill yourself, my little redheaded sacrifice.”
The cape encircled my wrist and forced it up, and Granny pressed the knife into my outstretched hand. I shook violently.
But suddenly a great blow rattled the cottage, and then another, making the walls shudder around us. With a crash and an explosion of splinters, the front door gave way to what appeared to be the head of an axe, chopping an enormous hole through the oak. It was followed by my father’s bearded face, the long, grey snout of a wolf, and the leg of a boy, all clambering through the hole in a frenzy of haste.
Snatching the knife back from me, Granny shrieked with the same horrific keening I had heard from outside the cottage, only louder. Her voice rose until I couldn’t think. Without Granny’s direction, the red cape went limp and slithered to the floor, and I was able to clap my hands over my ears. In the doorway, Peter and my father were bent double, pressing their fingers into their own ears. I could move now—and yet I couldn’t. The sound was as good as petrifying us all. Granny would still succeed.
But I hadn’t noticed Hansel’s reaction. He was not paralyzed by the sound; far from it. With every hair on his body bristling, he ran at Granny. Snarling, he lunged and hit her square in the chest with his front paws. She twisted to get away, her face a mask of terror, but Hansel’s weight had already knocked her off her feet. As she landed, her voice died sharply, as if cut off at the source. She made a sickening gurgling sound, and then at last went still.
Hansel stepped back, blood dripping from his muzzle.
I let out a shaky breath. Feeling weak, I crossed the room to my father and Peter.
“Your mother left,” said my father in a hollow, overwhelmed sort of voice. “She was always afraid of… of…” He gestured in disgust to my dead grandmother. “But she told me the truth in the end; I think she thought it would save you. I met Peter in the woods, on his way to get help.”
We all looked at each other for a long moment. There didn’t seem to be any more words to say.
As we climbed through the ruined doorway, I felt an overwhelming desire to purge my grandmother and all she had worked for from the world. “I think we should burn the cottage,” I said.
We watched the dancing flames swallow Granny’s house and gradually reduce it to ashes. The sun was setting by the time we quenched what was left of the fire. As I watched my father swat out the remaining embers, my heart lifted with a relief I hadn’t known I could feel. My life was going to be different now. There would be no more red cape, no more cooking, no more Little Red Riding Hood. From now on, I would be Ruby. I wouldn’t answer to Red anymore.
We all turned—my father, Peter, Hansel, and me—away from the smoky clearing, and started the long walk to the village through the woods.
“Well, Ruby,” said Peter hoarsely. “I think you managed the task all right… in the end.”
I nodded, inhaling deeply, and took Peter’s and my father’s hands in my own.
The dark forest closed around us, deep, loamy, welcoming.
Hanna Howard lives and writes in Tulsa, OK with her speckled muse-dog (who is often mistaken for an alien from outer-space). She sells flowers to happy gardeners in the daylight hours, but her real passion is for stories; she’s been avidly spinning yarns since the fourth grade. She has a BA in English and Creative Writing, and her stories have been published in “Knowonder!Magazine,” “Spaceports and Spidersilk,” and Sigma Tau Delta’s “The Rectangle.”