My grandmother is slowly dying and not of sound mind, her tongue spry even as her body lies weak. She speaks always of dangers, as if they crouch at her door. “Wolves everywhere,” she mutters. “Stay away.” Our land has few wolves. I have long wanted to see one.
“Grandmother,” I once asked. “Why red for my hood?”
“As it is written,” she said. “The wolves write the books!”
One morning, my mother sent me to Grandmother’s with cakes. She implored me to stay on the path through the woods and listed a set of precepts that I already well knew. As usual, I nodded and set off, instantly wandering into the thicket of trees.
There, I encountered, for the first time, a wolf. He crept over on lean, strong legs. “Where are you going?” he asked. He was beautiful, his fur a swirl of gray, his eyes yellow ice.
My heart swelled and thumped.
“Whatever’s wrong?” he said. His gums glistened black. “Are you afraid?”
“No.” It was important that he believed it, that I believed it, that he saw I wasn’t a scared little girl. I told him my destination. His face showed such pleasure that I felt it too.
“I’ll race you there,” he said, and dashed off. A child’s game. Hurt, I took the long way to Grandmother’s. If he awaited me, I thought, let him wait longer still.
But as I neared Grandmother’s cottage, he was nowhere in sight. Saddened, I rapped on the door.
The voice inviting me in was loud and hoarse, full of artifice. Only then did I understand what he’d done.
I opened the door. He was nestled beneath the bedcovers in my grandmother’s cap. My grandmother kept a knife under the bed. For what good it did her.
“Put your basket on the stool,” he said. “Come here.”
Letting him think me a lamb, I took off my clothes. I climbed beside him and felt his warmth, his fur, the sinews beneath. ‘Tis a pity, I thought, what the knife would do.
“Grandmother,” I said. “What big arms you have.”
“All the better to hug you, dear.”
He embraced me. I stifled a gasp.
“What big legs you have,” I managed to say.
He wrapped them around me. “All the better to run with, child.”
His fur was lush, his breath moist. I told myself to grab the knife. He inhaled. His ribs meshed with mine. I told myself: Not yet.
“Grandmother,” I uttered, “what big ears you have.”
“All the better to hear you,” he whispered at my neck.
“What big eyes you have,” I whispered back.
“All the better to see you.” The ice in his eyes melted. I felt I might drown.
“Grandmother,” I murmured, “what big teeth you have.”
“All the better to eat you!” He lunged. I reached for the knife, too late. My bones crushed tight. The world went dark and small.
Is it an act of love that he swallowed me whole?
Beside me, my grandmother chatters about wolves, as if the worst is not past but yet to come.
Sometimes I imagine a man will save us. He’s red-cheeked and hearty, good with an ax.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” I’ll tell him.
Gently, he’ll lead me down to the river. Gently, his hands will wipe my flesh clean. I’ll lay my head on his chest and sigh. I’ll gaze up at him with my sweetest face.
“What big eyes you have,” he’ll say, and I’ll lick my lips.
Jennifer Wortman’s fiction and essays appear or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Hobart, DIAGRAM, Confrontation, Okey-Panky, Massachusetts Review, Columbia Journal online, PANK, Southeast Review, Passages North online, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.