How completely psyched are we to have the EXCLUSIVE on Cecil Castellucci’s latest short story??!! Yeah, probably just as psyched as you are to read it. So get some strong tea ready to accompany you as you get sucked into this creepy, compulsively readable retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
By Cecil Castellucci
The village was all the world that anyone knew. There was darkness and forest all around except for the strange lights that beamed through the trees casting its eerie glow on certain nights. For as long as anyone could remember the mission of the town was to survive whatever lived out in the woods. Something was out there that had shrunk the known world. To survive it meant every year a girl must go outside of the strong wooden gates that kept the town safe to visit Grandmother.
The girls who have just turned fifteen are lined up in the center of town and the girl who is chosen dons a red cloak and walks out beyond the gates to bring supplies to Grandmother. Sometimes there is only one girl who stands there. If so she is automatically the chosen one. Other times, like this year, there are a few, and so all the girls put their name into a hat and one name is picked. That is how Marie came to be the one.
“But whose Grandmother?” Marie asks.
“Don’t ask questions,” her mother replies.
No one ever asks questions.
Once the girl is chosen, the family of the chosen girl has one week to prepare. The women in the family busily sew as elaborate a red cloak as they can. The richest families cover the cloak in jewels, the poorest make do with brilliant dyes. No matter. The cloak always dazzles in the little bit of sun that shines through as the girl leaves the confines of the town.
Except for the Huntsmen, no one else ever goes beyond the gates. They keep to themselves. The only difference is that the Huntsmen always come back. The girls in red never do. Perhaps it is because they do come back that the Huntsmen always look haunted and tired. They never want to share what they see outside the gates. They never mix with the townsfolk. They live apart in a barrack by the watchtower. And although it is never spoken amongst the townsfolk, it is understood that there is something in the woods that makes the Huntsmen this way. As though there is something to be seen that cannot be unseen.
“What happens to them, mother? Where do the Red girls go?” Marie asks. She is curious and excited about her adventure. It is an honor to be the chosen girl. To do a duty to keep the town safe.
“Hush now, and stand still. I don’t want to stick a pin in you,” mother says. Marie’s cloak is neither too fancy nor too plain.
But Marie wonders about the girls. Mostly she wonders about her friend Franca, who was chosen the year before.
Supplies are readied. The family follows a strict list. Only the things itemized on the list are allowed. Candles are collected. Fruits and meats are dried. Preserves are canned. A quilt is made. They are all packed onto a small red wagon.
It is the Red girl’s family obligation to feed the whole town for a goodbye feast. Marie is lucky. Her brother is one of the Huntsmen. He makes sure to kill a big deer. He delivers it, but although their mother asks him to stay and sit with the family, he refuses. On his way out of the house, in the garden, he catches sight of Marie harvesting the lettuce and his hard look softens.
“Here, take this,” he says. He presses a small hunting knife into the palm of her hand.
“Will I need this?” Marie asks.
“It’s getting harder to hunt in the woods,” he says. “The game is moving further away.”
“Will I have to learn to hunt?” Marie says.
“I don’t know. Perhaps,” her brother says. “Keep it hidden. Keep it with you.”
He turns and walks away. Marie puts the knife in her pocket. She does not tell her mother or anyone else about it. It is her brother’s gift to her and it is not a thing on the list of the things that a girl in red must bring to Grandmother. It is their secret. Marie decides that she can do her duty and keep the knife. She will take the knife with her beyond the gate and into the unknown. It will remind her of her brother who she never sees anymore and sorely misses.
“It will be useful,” she says to herself. “Grandmother will be so glad that I have brought a knife.”
Marie The Red, as she is now called, sits in the house and is visited every day before the Feast of Leaving by all the people in the village, and thanked.
“Thank you,” the mayor says.
“Thank you,” the butcher says.
“Thank you,” Marie’s best friend says.
But what they are really saying is goodbye. Never once has a Red girl come back from beyond the gate.
The girls who are chosen all have their own theory about where they are to go. To a rumored city in the North. To a palace on a mountain beyond the forest. To a hut in a desert a million miles away.
Marie thinks, “To the stars.”
There is much drinking at the feast. The town drinks to forget that Marie will be leaving them in the morning. The only person who remains sober is Marie and one of the Huntsmen, Peter. Marie wishes that it was her brother that stood with her but he has chosen to stay behind in the barrack. He has not even come to say goodbye. Marie feels the knife in her cloak pocket. She presses her gloved thumb against the point until it she feels the prick of it. The pain makes her not cry.
“Why did my brother not come to be the Huntsman to walk me to the gate?” Marie asks.
“He could not bear to see you go,” Peter says.
“Why did my brother not come to the Feast of Leaving?” Marie asks.
“It’s better this way. You must do your duty and we cannot get in the way,” Peter says. But it seems to Marie that he wants to say more. Instead, he pulls her red cloak tighter around her shoulders.
For the rest of the evening Peter stands with her and does not say a word. Together they look over the feast. Sober. Somber.
In the morning, Peter the Huntsman comes to her house to get her. Marie’s family, still asleep, do not stir to say goodbye to her. Peter the Huntsman walks Marie to the edge of the town where the gate that leads to the forest is.
“Do you go outside the gate often?” she asks him.
“Only to hunt,” Peter says.
“Have you ever seen the city?” she asks.
“I’ve never seen anything,” he says.
“What about Grandmother?” Marie asks. “Surely you’ve seen her.”
“I’ve never even seen her house,” Peter says.
“Isn’t it just on the path? You could come and visit me,” Marie says. “I could bake you a cake.”
“I like cake,” he says.
That is when they reach the gate.
Peter takes out the key and unlocks the gate.
“Never take it off,” Peter the Huntsman reminds her, touching the beads on her red cloak. “Never, until you are at Grandmother’s house.”
Marie steps through and onto the path in the woods. Peter the Huntsman locks up behind her. Marie hesitates and turns to talk to him through the gate. She thinks that perhaps she should have kissed him.
“Wait!” she says. “Wait!”
Peter comes to the gate.
“What is it?” he asks. “You should get moving.”
“What do you think is out there?” Marie asks. “Wolves?”
“If you like,” he says.
Impulsively Marie kisses her fingers and puts them through the gate to Peter’s lips. He blushes and then winces and steels himself.
“Go on now,” Peter says. “Go!”
Marie pulls on the wagon overloaded with all the supplies. It is heavy but she manages and pulls it down the path. She wonders if she’ll know where to stop. She only knows that she is to go to Grandmother’s house. She only knows that it is on the path.
She walks for hours.
She feels as though there are eyes watching her from behind the trees. She hears noises. She thinks she hears voices on the wind.
“Where are you going, Girl?” the wind asks.
“To grandmother’s house,” Marie says out loud. “To grandmother’s house I go!”
She pulls on the wagon harder. Her red cloak is heavy and too warm for the spring weather. But she knows that the one thing she must do is keep wearing it. She wonders why the red of it will keep her safe while on the path to Grandmother’s. She wants to take it off but her need to follow the rules is stronger. She must never deviate. It is her duty.
On the path, there are the skeletons of animals that she does not recognize. She wonders if these unknown beasts are what haunt the Huntsmen. It is getting dark and there are the strange lights in the sky. Marie begins to despair that she will never find Grandmother’s house and then she finally she sees it. It is a small cottage with a gate and a garden that rests just a bit off the path.
“This must be it,” she thinks.
She wonders what Grandmother looks like. She wonders if Grandmother will like her. She wonders if she has brought the right things. Marie knocks on the door.
“Grandmother?” Marie says. “Grandmother?”
Slowly, the door opens and from behind it peers an old woman. She is silver haired and wrinkled. Her hands are gnarled.
“Oh, Marie it’s you!” the old woman says. “Oh, why did it have to be you?”
The old woman looks at Marie as though she is looking at an old friend. It makes Marie uncomfortable. Marie looks closely at the old woman and except for something around the eyes, she is certain that she does not know her.
It makes Marie wonder whose Grandmother this is. But Marie knows her duty is to pretend that this Grandmother is her Grandmother.
“Hello, Grandmother,” Marie says.
The old woman sighs and opens the door all the way and lets Marie in. There is a small fire roaring. There is a small table with cheese and apples. There is a large bed with a heavy quilt. There is a wall lined with pegs upon which hang many red cloaks. Marie knows to hang her cloak with the others.
“Do you have enough supplies?” Grandmother asks.
“Yes, I have everything on the list,” Marie says. She does not mention the knife.
“Good,” Grandmother says.
The preserves are placed in the cupboard. The dried meat hung in the window. The quilt is folded at the foot of the bed. The old woman sets the tea on table and they both sit.
“These are the rules,” Grandmother says. “You must never open the shutters during the day. You must never go outside except at night to take things from the garden. You must never leave the yard or wander upon the path. There, I’ve told you the rules.”
“They are simple enough to follow,” Marie says.
“Nothing is simple any more,” Grandmother says. “One last thing. I want to be buried by the sunflowers.”
Marie takes Grandmother’s hands into hers. “You will live a long time,” Marie says. “I am here to take care of you.”
But Marie’s eyes wander to all of the red cloaks hanging on the peg and she wonders about the other girls who have been sent to Grandmother’s house. Where are they? Why is Grandmother all alone? Weren’t they supposed to take care of Grandmother? She looks back at Grandmother who is looking intensely at Marie again. So intensely that Marie almost thinks she looks like her friend Franca, the girl in red from last year.
“Do you recognize me, Marie?” Grandmother asks.
She wants to say Franca. But Franca would only be 16. Marie can’t help but notice that the quilt on the bed is the quilt that Franca made. Marie helped Franca to collect the squares.
“No,” says Marie. Marie does not know who this old woman is.
And then Grandmother begins to cry. Grandmother begins to cough and cough until finally she stumbles from the table to the bed.
Marie goes over to the bed and tries to make Grandmother comfortable. After a bit, Grandmother finally falls asleep. Marie is tired from her day of travel. She looks around and notices that there is only one bed, so she settles in the chair in front of the fire and falls asleep.
In the night Marie dreams that there are bright lights enveloping her. She hears sounds. She feels that someone is touching her. Marie opens her eyes and finds she cannot move. She is trapped in the light. In the room with her and Grandmother is a small gray man. He turns to look at her. His eyes become enormous. He has hair all over his body. He looks like a man wolf. Marie is terrified and tries to remember where she hid the knife. He comes to her and the hair that covers him pricks her with the sting of a million needles and in an instant all of the fear leaves her body. After a while, the gray man turns from being monstrous to being beautiful.
Marie watches blissfully as the gray man goes to the bed and kisses Grandmother until it looks as though he has swallowed her. Grandmother does not struggle. Marie wonders what it would be like to kiss the gray man. And then her thoughts turn to Peter. Marie watches as the gray man lays Grandmother gently back onto the bed. Then he turns and blows Marie a kiss. Her heart flutters. But he does not come to her. He is lifted into a bright light until he disappears.
In the morning, when Marie wakes up everything seems right with the world. The sun streams gently through the window. The birds chirp outside. Grandmother is still sleeping in the bed.
Marie stops to admire the day and then remembers with a start that she is supposed to shutter the windows. Sadly she does and the room plunges into darkness.
Marie puts on a kettle and makes the porridge. She loads the breakfast onto a tray and brings it to Grandmother.
There is a body in the bed, but it is not moving. The body is cold. It is Grandmother and she is dead.
Marie cries. She waits until nighttime and then she takes the shovel that stands next to the door and she digs a grave by the sunflowers. She hears sounds in the night. She hears the whistle of the Huntsmen hunting. She goes to the path, hoping to catch sight of Peter, or her brother. She wants to ask them to help her bring the body to the grave. She is certain she sees a flash of a cloak and hears the crack of a gun in the forest just down the path. She is about to step out of the garden but then remembers the rules. She stands in place for a while, hoping that if someone emerges from the woods, she will be noticed. But no one does and she is not. After a while she goes back to the house and wraps Grandmother up in her bedding and drags her to the grave.
Exhausted, she takes the quilt and the bedding that she brought with her and puts it on the bed and crawls in and goes to sleep. In the night, she dreams that someone is in the bed with her.
“Grandmother!” she asks. “I dreamt that you were dead.”
But the body in the bed next to her looks so different.
It takes the girl’s hand into its own.
“Grandmother,” Marie says. “Why are your fingers so long?”
“So that I may better grasp your hand with love,” the voice says.
“Grandmother,” Marie asks. “Why are your eyes so large and black?”
“So that I may better see your beauty,” the voice says.
“Grandmother,” Marie asks. “Why is your mouth getting so large?”
“So that I may better take on your life force,” the voice says.
And then Grandmother, who is not Grandmother at all, but the gray man, leans towards Marie. He is a monster until she feels the prick of his fur. Then he is beautiful. Marie lets him place his now large mouth over Marie’s nose and mouth. Marie cannot breathe. Everything turns black.
Marie awakens in the morning and lays on the bed feeling drained. Soon Marie realizes that she is alone and that Grandmother is really dead and buried in the garden. The house is quiet. Marie goes about fixing herself some supper. There is nothing to do but make a fire and read a book. She cannot go back home. They will think that since Grandmother is dead that she has failed to do her duty.
A week later, Marie has the dream again. The gray man comes back and kisses her and holds her. It almost feels like love. But then Marie remembers Peter and the way that his hands looked on the fence when she pressed her fingers to his lips. She is warm when she thinks of his hands. She is cold when she is in the gray man’s arms.
The gray man appears once a week like clockwork. After a few weeks, Marie knows that it is no nightmare. The only thing that keeps the nights warm is the thought of Peter and his hands.
One night, on the night she knows that the gray man will come, Marie goes to wash her face.
She hears the crack of a gun from outside. A Huntsman must be in the forest near the house. She grabs one of the cloaks and goes outside. She approaches the path. She is too scared to step out. She is too afraid to break the rules.
“Hello!” she yells. “Hello!”
A figure emerges. It is Peter. He stands at the edge of the woods, gun in hand. Deer carcass on the wagon.
“Who’s there?” Peter asks.
“It’s Marie,” she says and lets her hood down to show her face. Her voice cracks. She hasn’t used it in so long.
“Marie is a girl,” Peter says.
“I am a girl,” she says.
“You are a woman,” he says.
He steps closer, leaving the deer on the path. He comes up to the garden and eyes the house but does not cross the entry. He looks at her face.
“I did not realize I’d come so far,” he says. “It is getting harder to find game by the village. If something isn’t done soon we may starve. I’ve taken a terrible chance coming here.”
“Would you like some supper?” Marie asks. “I even have cake, like I promised.”
“It is you,” he says.
“Who else would I be?”
“Grandmother,” he says.
Then in the sky there is a light and a sound. Marie knows that sound means the gray man is coming and that she must go to bed to greet him. But the sound makes Peter jump and run back to the road and hurry away.
“Come back,” Marie says. “Come back tomorrow.”
Every night for weeks Marie goes outside and calls to the trees hoping that Peter will return. Every night she is disappointed, until one night. He is there in the center of the path.
“I have something to show you,” Peter says.
He shows her a mirror.
She notices her face in the mirror looks older. She is no longer a girl, but a woman. She is older than Peter.
“Where is Grandmother?” Peter asks. “Is she inside?”
“She died the night I arrived,” Marie says.
“It’s as I suspected,” he says.
He puts his hands on the post. She cannot help but take his hands and kiss his knuckles. Her heart is filled with joy at touching him. He leans over and kisses her on her lips and she knows that this is what a kiss is supposed to feel like. Not like the frenzy of the gray man.
“Does a gray man come to you?” Peter asks.
“Yes,” she says. She blushes ashamed of kissing the gray man.
“Do not keep me in your thoughts when you are with him,” he says.
And then he leaves. She sees him once more. She already knows by the way that he blanches when he sees her next that she is quite a bit older than the last time.
“I am formulating a plan,” Peter says. “We all are. But you are the key.”
“What are we planning for?”
“Freedom,” Peter says. Then he shakes his fist at the sky. “Your brother said he gave you a knife, do you still have it?”
“Yes,” Marie says.
“You must plunge it into his mouth when I tell you,” he says.
“I couldn’t,” she says. “I’m not supposed to have it. I keep the knife hidden.”
“Do you trust me?” Peter says.
“There is something about the gray man that makes me afraid and then not,” Marie says.
“You must try to keep your mind clear,” Peter says.
“When will you come?”
“Soon,” Peter says.
This time he kisses her hands. He does not kiss her lips and she knows that it is because she is too old for him.
“Will you show me the mirror?” Marie asks.
“You wouldn’t want to see yourself,” he says.
“I do,” she says.
Peter gives Marie the mirror. She is much older than her mother.
“I will sleep with my knife. I will always be ready for the signal,” she says.
She watches as Peter walks away. She wishes she could run after him and go home. But her path is set.
Marie now knows how this goes. She and the other girls have been kissed by the gray man until they are no longer girls, but young women, and then no longer women but crones. There is no Grandmother. Marie weeps that she had been excited about the adventure of being the girl in red. She weeps at the cruelty of her fate. She weeps as she sews herself a nightgown with thick fabric and a pocket for the knife. She weeps at the thought of never feeling the fear and then the calm that the gray man’s fur brings. And just when she thinks she cannot weep anymore, there is a knock on the door.
It is a young girl in a red cloak.
“Run,” says Marie. She wants to save the girl from the gray man. She does not want anyone to do the duty anymore. She is too tired to run herself. She is too old. She knows that tonight she will die.
But the girl puts her fingers to Marie’s lips and pulls back her hood. It is Peter. Peter goes to the chair and Marie dons her new thick long sleeved nightgown and goes to the bed with the knife hidden in a secret pocket. After a while, the lights come and the gray man descends. The gray man holds Marie and his fur bristles, but this time it does not prick her skin through the layers of fabric. As he leans in to kiss her, she can see him clearly for what he is: a monster. Her heart beats wildly and Marie thinks she might die from fright. It is then as the gray mans lips touch hers that Peter jumps up from the chair and runs to the bed.
“Now, when he is weakest and taking his last sips of your life!” Peter shouts. He holds the gray man’s arms down.
Marie plunges the knife into the gray man’s mouth. Her old hands tremble. But when she strikes, light comes out of his mouth and without knowing why, she kisses the gray man on his closing eyes with all the tenderness in her heart. When she does, she feels the years coming back to her. He slumps into her arms. Shriveled and old, still leaking light.
Peter looks at Marie and smiles.
“There you are,” he says. “Just like the day you left.”
She takes his hand. It is too late for the other girls, but everything is just beginning for Marie.
Cecil Castellucci‘s novels for young adults include “First Day on Earth,” “Rose Sees Red,” “Beige,” “The Queen of Cool,” and “Boy Proof” and a picture book, “Grandma’s Gloves,” which won the California Book Award gold medal. She also wrote the graphic novels “The PLAIN Janes” and “Janes in Love” for the DC Comics Minx line. She has had short stories published in “Strange Horizons,” “Teeth,” “The Eternal Kiss,” “Geektastic” (which she co-edited) and “Interfictions 2.” Her upcoming half prose / half graphic novel is called “The Year of the Beasts” will be out in May. In addition to writing books, she writes plays, opera librettos, does performance pieces and occasionally rocks out. For more information go to www.misscecil.com