I’ll tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a girl. She was probably about twelve or thirteen, but that was an age when children were older than their years and expected to do real work and help with the harvest, so perhaps she was only nine or ten.
Her hood wasn’t red. Red dye is expensive and doesn’t hold well, and nobody who had to dye it themselves would make a red cloak for a child who could be expected to outgrow it by autumn. That was added later because it alliterated. It wasn’t a riding hood, either—the only horse she ever rode was the broad-backed giant that drew her father’s plow.
Still, we make do.
Her name was Turtle. Probably that wasn’t her name, probably she had a perfectly normal name, like other girls, but everyone in the village called her Turtle. There is undoubtedly an amusing story about this, possibly involving a pudgy five-year-old and a suspiciously good-natured snapping turtle, but time is short and dawn comes earlier every year.
Turtle loved to bake. I am sorry to say that she wasn’t very much good at it. Her scones were like rocks and her cinnamon rolls weighed more than the crookback iron stove they were cooked in.
Children are odd creatures. If they are thwarted, they tend to do one of two things—they refuse to ever do whatever-it-is again as long as they live, or they grit their teeth and throw hours and days and weeks at it, like a general throwing soldiers at a wall until they can stand atop their piled dead.
Turtle was one of the piled-dead variety, at least with baking. She brutalized flour and butter, she visited wartime atrocities to milk and yeast. She committed acts of crumpet. She developed the sturdy forearms that come from punching dough, but since all the other children had the muscle that comes from milking cows and wrangling goats and digging potatoes, no one noticed.
One day Turtle had savaged an innocent bowl of batter into something that almost (but not quite) resembled muffins. Her mother, who had a great deal to bear on other fronts which do not enter the scope of this story, except to say that Turtle had three older brothers, each more reprehensible then the last, opened the back door and told Turtle to take herself and her regrettable muffins to her grandmother, and if she had to stay the night, so much the better, as there was going to be a great deal of screaming presently, and Turtle was a bit young to be hearing all the words that Turtle’s mother planned to be using.
Turtle, not being a stupid child, swept her muffins into a basket. They went glop, which is not an appropriate sound for muffins to make upon contacting wicker, but Turtle was pleased by this, because the last batch had gone clonk and glop was progress of a sort.
She set out of the backyard and into the woods. Why did her grandmother live a good half-hour’s walk into the deep dark woods, and not in the village? An excellent question. Very likely it had a lot to do with the aforementioned brothers, and the fact that her grandmother loved her mother very much and would chew her own leg off at the hip before she lived in the same house with her. Families are complicated that way.
Turtle set out on the forest path, with her hood thrown back and her basket swinging and the muffins jostling and sloshing inside.
She had gone only a little way—just far enough for the bustle and frolic of a woodland edge to give way to the deeper quiet of a wood—and a wolf stepped out on the path and said “Where are you going, my child?”
He was not standing on his hind legs, as he may be in some illustrations you have seen. Wolves are more dexterous with their paws and mouths than you would believe, but walking on their hind legs hurts their hips. He was not wearing clothes or jewelry or anything else. He was just a wolf, a big, rangy grey-furred beast with a deep chest and narrow hips, and that meant that he was leaner and taller and longer-legged than Turtle, who was used to dogs, would have imagined.
Also he talked.
Turtle was not as surprised by this as you or I would be. In that part of the world at that time, talking animals were not completely unheard of. The problem was figuring out if they were a wicked fairy or a cursed prince—royalty was very bad about being turned into animals, and there were quite a few noble houses who still kept Great-Grandfather’s hide nailed up over the fireplace for a conversation piece—or just an ordinary talking animal. Fairies and princes tended to get you mixed up in unfortunate doings, but there was nothing wrong with a talking animal, who were usually more polite than most people you would meet.
That it was a wolf was somewhat comforting. Wolves talked occasionally. So did bears. Foxes talked all the time, particularly if you caught them in the hen house, where they would do their best to addle you with fine nonsense until they could slip out the door, and it was generally believed that all cats could talk and simply refused to do so for inscrutable reasons of their own.
Talking stags, on the other hand, were nearly always bespelled royalty, and fairies, who could theoretically choose to look like anything, nearly always picked white cats or black horses. Fairies are very beautiful and very vain and they haven’t got the imagination to fill a thimble. And they never learn from their mistakes.
So Turtle was not terribly frightened of the wolf, but she was wary. She gripped her basket in both hands and bobbed a curtsey to the wolf and said “I am going to my grandmother’s house, Master Wolf.”
The wolf looked at her for a little while. He had big gold eyes and he smelled strong, like a lathered horse or a cat in heat, one of those rough animal smells that humans do not like and cannot drive out with soap or candles.
“Be careful,” said the wolf finally. “There are unkind things in the woods today.”
“Oh,” said Turtle. “Um. I will. Thank you?”
The wolf nodded once, and turned like a cat in a tight space, nose over tail, and trotted into the woods. She saw him slip into a run, and the thick green ferns closed over his trail.
She realized that she was gripping her basket very tightly, and pried her fingers loose. There were red marks in her palm and across the pads of her fingers where the wicker handle had bit into the skin.
Still, she was young, and it did not occur to her to turn around and go home. There might be unkind things in the woods, but there were very definitely brothers and yelling at home.
So Turtle kept walking down the path, and because she was a little nervous, she began to sing to herself. She did not have a very good voice, and she could not remember most of the words, but that didn’t matter, because the point was to make noise and reassure herself that she was not scared, not one little bit.
Eventually she fell back into a lot of “hey fiddle dee and hidey ho,” with the occasional “hey nonny” thrown in. “Hey nonny” is a parasite that attaches itself to folk music, and left unchecked can suck an unsuspecting song completely dry. The infestation of this particular song was not far advanced, but did not bode well for future generations.
So Turtle went on, singing badly and occasionally remembering a line or two about crows in the corn and the wee yowes amongst the heather. (It is worth noting that Turtle had a vague image of a wee yowe as some kind of miniature monster, possibly an elephant.) And in such a state, she arrived at the clearing that held Grandmother’s house.
Her grandmother kept the house tidy, and flowers grew all around the front porch. Hollyhocks rose in great columns against the wattle walls and a climbing rose had invaded the thatched roof. Turtle walked under the thorny archway and tapped the door.
It was slightly ajar and swung open at her touch. She took a step inside, holding her basket in front of her with both hands.
“Grandma?” she asked, in her wavering child’s voice.
There was a wolf in her grandmother’s bed.
Turtle was not a stupid child. The wolf was clearly a wolf, even across the room, not anything else. He lay stretched across the blankets, as long as a human was tall, and he raised his great head and looked at her.
It was the same wolf from earlier. She was almost sure of it.
She did not scream. She did not run away. She most certainly did not say anything foolish about her grandmother having very large teeth, because she was not a sarcastic child by nature, and even if she had been, her heart was pounding very loudly in her ears and making it very hard to think.
“Oh,” she said, in a very small voice, and clutched the basket handle so hard that the wicker cut into her fingers.
“Turtle?” asked her grandmother. “Child, what are you doing here?”
Her grandmother sat up in bed. She had been lying next to the wolf, with her arms wrapped around his neck and her fact buried in his shoulder. Her voice was thick and raw and it did not occur to Turtle until much later that her grandmother had been crying.
“Mother told me to come and stay with you tonight,” said Turtle. “Um.” More explanation seemed to be needed, so she flapped her hand in the direction of the village. “My brothers…”
“Ah,” said her grandmother, with all the comprehension that one can pack into a single syllable. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “It would have to be tonight, wouldn’t it?”
Turtle’s grandmother was not an old woman, not in the sense of being ancient and crooked down by the weight of years. They had children early in that part of the world, early and often. I would say that she was about sixty-five. The oldest part of her was her hands. Her hair had gone the color of iron. She was still handsome in a tall, haggard way, and there was never any problem with living alone. She hired men to chop her firewood, or dragged her grandsons out to do it, but that was her only concession to age, and the broad vegetable garden she weeded herself.
Grandmother swung her feet over the edge of the bed and said “Perhaps it would be better if you went home.”
Turtle fidgeted. She did not want to go home. The woods had frightened her a little, and the best thing she could hope for at the end of the return journey was yelling and brothers.
“If she goes now, she may meet him coming here,” said the wolf.
Grandmother inhaled sharply.
“Who?” asked Turtle.
Her grandmother fidgeted a patch of quilt between her fingers.
“The woodsman,” said the wolf, when it became obvious that the older woman would not answer.
“The woodsman?” asked Turtle, puzzled. “Which one?”
For there were woodsmen all through the land in that time, and none of them were precisely alike. They carried axes and cut down trees for houses, most of them, but they were also hunters and trappers and brought fur and pelts to trade, or wild mushrooms, or strange herbs. There was one woodsman who lived up in the hills—no one knew exactly where—who panned for gold in the streams and brought tiny vials of glittering dust to trade.
They were odd people. They were welcome in town, of course, and if land needed clearing, you sent out word and a half-dozen would show up with their great pitted axes, but they had territories rather than homes, and they wore furs instead of homespun.
“His name isn’t important,” said Grandmother. “I’d rather not…that is…oh, surely she can go home!”
The wolf, who had no name (wolves never do) said “She may do as she wishes, but I would not let a cub of mine go down that path tonight.”
“Perhaps he won’t come,” said Grandmother wretchedly.
“Then he will come tomorrow,” said the wolf, “or the next day. But I believe it will be tonight.” He heaved himself off the bed and paced toward the fire.
Turtle set down her basket, which was growing heavy, and put her hands on her hips, and said, in her very best grown-up voice, “I want to know what is going on!”
“Oh…oh, my dear…” Her grandmother fidgeted again. This was unusual. Her grandmother was not a fidgeter by nature, and she generally had little patience with maundering.
The wolf lay down. He did it all at once, with a great hwwuffff! and he took up a great deal of the cottage doing so.
Grandmother sighed. “Let us have tea. This will be easier with tea.” She got up, stepped around the wolf, and poured herself a very small drink from a small blue bottle on the mantle. She drank it.
Turtle tapped her foot. This did not look very much like tea.
“The woodsman came here earlier in the season,” said Grandmother, coughing a little on the contents of the bottle. She took down the kettle, shook it a little—water sloshed inside—and she set it on the pot-bellied stove to heat. “He offered to cut firewood for me, and I accepted. He would take no payment, but he seemed lonely, so when he stayed to talk to me, and came back sometimes for tea and to talk, I thought it was the least I could do.”
The wolf set his head on his paws. Turtle sat down on a little three-legged stool and hugged her knees.
“He seemed lonely,” Grandmother repeated. She got out two mugs for tea, gazed at the little blue bottle for a moment, then took a slug directly from it. “And odd, but many of the woodsmen are. They live such isolated lives. I thought—perhaps he had simply forgotten some of the social graces. And he said that people had been unkind to him. I felt sorry for him…”
Sarcasm is largely foreign to wolves, and completely unknown in dogs (although coyotes have a well-developed sense of it), but the sound the wolf made was very close.
“Yes, well,” said Grandmother. “I should have listened to you.”
“Yes, you should have,” said the wolf. It was a statement of fact that held no censure in it. “But you did not, and now we are here. Perhaps if you had listened, we would also be here. There is no counting the rabbits you did not catch.”
“He came more and more often,” said Grandmother, as the tea kettle began to wail. “He wanted to talk more and more. It was not so strange, perhaps. But I was tired of listening to him, because he told all the same stories of people being unkind. It was exhausting to listen to. And he would do things around the house—little things, things I do not mind doing or do not want a stranger doing—and then would be angry when I asked him not to.”
“That’s odd,” said Turtle, hugging her knees. Chores were something you did, but getting mad because you didn’t have to do them was completely incomprehensible behavior.
Her grandmother shook her head and ran a hand through her iron gray hair. “He would act hurt. He said he didn’t want to be paid, that he was doing it because I was alone out here, and hadn’t he chopped my wood? And asked for nothing in return? It was all very tiring. It was easier to just let him patch the wall or hoe the vegetables than to listen to him complain about it.”
Turtle accepted her cup of tea and chalked this up to one more example of grown-ups being strange.
Her grandmother shrugged. “It is a long story, and it doesn’t reflect too well on me. I should have told him not to come here then. My friend here told me as much. But I felt sorry for him. And some of the things were so odd, it was hard to know how to react—he would get angry over such odd things—do you remember when you brought me those scones last week, dear?”
“They were cookies,” said Turtle.
“—and they were lovely,” said Grandmother, who was an accomplished liar about the important things. She investigated the blue bottle again, found it nearly empty, and grumbled. The wolf huffed a laugh.
“Well, never mind all that. It was too much. He had been here three days running, and the cucumbers needed pickling and I did not want him in the house again dredging up all those tales of past hurts. I told him to go away, that I was busy and needed time to myself to work. There is something very satisfying about pickling, isn’t there? You get the neat little rows of jars and wax seals and the house smells like dill and vinegar, and I know it’s not supposed to be a nice smell, but I rather like it.”
Turtle nodded vigorously. She loved pickles. Pickles were one of the great unrelenting good things in life, and the highest state that a cucumber, which was otherwise a rather wet and insipid vegetable, could aspire to.
“And he…well, he said a lot of things. Not nice things. I don’t know what he was expecting, but I wouldn’t take that kind of talk from your grandfather, so damned if I was taking it from some crazy woodsman who hung around the place like a puppy waiting for a kick. “ She gave an awkward little laugh into her tea. “I am old enough that I should have known better. If I had driven him off early on—well, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this. But I felt sorry for him. Stupid of me, but there you are.”
“Pity is a poor kin to mercy,” said the wolf.
“And what do wolves know of either?” snapped Grandmother, nudging the wolf with her foot.
“Of pity, very little,” said the wolf agreeably. “But of mercy we know much, particularly when it comes with teeth. That is what we are doing here tonight, is it not?”
Grandmother sighed. “I suppose.”
“What happens tonight?” asked Turtle, leaning forward on the stool.
Grandmother gazed into her tea.
“Tonight,” said the wolf, “I believe the woodsman is going to come to kill her. And we will kill him first, or not, as may be.”
Yes, yes, there will be more. This is just first…err…chunk. There will be a part two at some point, and yes, it’s mostly written, don’t worry. But as I currently have no place to put short stories except to toss ’em up here, enjoy!
Some people sell snippets such as this. Barbara Hambly does. I am inspired; I will paypal you some money, which I had intended to do a long time ago. Just the truth is worth it here. Just the humor is worth it here. Just the wisdome is worth it here.
Oh my gods that was AWESOME. I would honestly, sincerely buy this short story.
Can there be a book of stories like this someday? Pretty please?
Andrew Ragland ,
Absolutely brilliant. I like the somewhat laconic tone of the narration, the matter-of-fact approach to the realities behind the fairy tale. There’s the expected weird touches, like the descriptions of Turtle’s attempts at baking. And the tone just quietly gets a bit darker, a bit more grim, in a sort of quietly determined way, yes, this is not a happy story of jolly times, let’s just get on with it shall we? And that verbal grenade the wolf tosses into the conversation at the end just caps it all off so well. Looking forward to the next installment.
I love this! It’s a nice turn on the old story – I had a very interesting professor who took my class through quite a thorough literary look at the tale of RRH…the oldest versions are the scariest and yet somehow they are so hilarious. This is great!
I’d buy it too 😀
You must finish this, it is really good right from the start.
This is very nice. I would compare the narrative style to something by Terry Pratchett. You should finish it! 🙂
» Saturday Shorts: The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ursula Vernon The (Hopeful) Librarian ,
[…] that comes through in the original. You can read it on Ursula Vernon’s blog in two parts: “The Wolf and the Woodsman” Part One, and Part Two. Share […]
This reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. Put them all together, see if your agent can sell em?