About two or three years ago now I wrote six or so of these revisited fairy tales and this story, a version of Red Ridinghood, came to me then and I wrote down a few paragraphs, hated them, and dropped the idea. For whatever reason it’s come back to me now and I think – I hope – this time it’s worked out. This one isn’t so straight forward as a concept so I would be curious to know what people think, if it worked, etc.
Red, Grey, Wolf
She was in the woods. The path before her curved to the left and was lost from sight. The trees were just putting out new leaves and their green was almost luminous, at once delicate and startling. They hung in the air like clouds of tropical butterflies; between them the grey trees rose up crooked, like the clawing fingers of an old man, too arthritic to catch anything. The green was so bright she could still see the glow of it when she closed her eyes. She savoured it. It had been a long time since she’d seen colour.
Underneath the colour she could see the words running: Once upon a time, a very long time ago, in a land far, far away. They flowed under her feet, forming the road she walked on; they rose, twisting themselves into the reaching branches above her. They were all there, all the words that had ever been used to describe her, to give her life. The story had only just begun and already they were moving, flowing on towards the end – her end; until the next time. She held her hands out to admire the colour of the words that formed her body, her basket of wine and cakes, her blood red cape. She ran the fabric of her cape through her fingers just to see the red against the white.
“Feeling meditative are we?”
She smiled. “Hello,” she said, without turning around.
The wolf came out of the woods and joined her on the path. He was enormous, nothing but a long, lean shadow, and so black he seemed to have been cut from the newest, coldest, farthest corner of the universe, where no light had yet penetrated. His yellow eyes were on a level with hers. Moving closer, he rested his massive snout on her delicate shoulder.
“What’s it going to be this time, Red? A traditional? Or one of those sexy, new ones where you wear a lot of leather and work in a strip club to make ends meet? I hope it’s the latter. I love it when you take your clothes off for me.”
“Oh, shut up.” She pushed his head off her shoulder. “And what do you think? Does this look like a strip club to you?”
The wolf sighed. “What can I say? Hope springs eternal.” He lowered his head, nuzzling his cold wet nose into the palm of her hand. It tickled and she chuckled, raising her arm to drape it over his neck. Giant white teeth, gobble you up, the size of a horse, the words that made him were thick and dense, it was almost impossible to separate one from the other. She pressed her face into his fur and closed her eyes.
It was always the same story: a girl, a wolf, a grandmother. Sometimes there was a hunter. Sometimes a forest, sometimes a bar, sometimes a car park. Variations on a theme, until even they couldn’t keep track. But there were things that got left out. Things that happened behind the scenes. Because what the words didn’t say was that Grandma drank a little too much these days, that the hunter was a bit of an asshole, and that, somewhere along the line, the girl and the wolf had forgotten how to live without each other. They were wound so tightly together that, like the words in the wolf’s fur, it was impossible to separate the pieces. You never got one without the other.
“I had this thought, while I was in The Grey…” She raised her head slightly so he could hear her.
The Grey had a million letters, but no words. There were no sentences, no imagery, no allusion, no allegory, no point. The Grey was where words waited to be used and, sooner or later, there came a time in every word’s life when they were no longer needed. And then The Grey would take them.
This is what made The Grey so terrifying. Whole languages had disappeared into it: words that had once overcome whole nations, sentences that had moved their readers to tears, stories that had created worlds, all cracked and shattered like broken plates, leaving behind nothing but incoherent pieces. And, once you gave in and became part of The Grey, you too had nothing, were nothing, and meant nothing. The Grey had a million letters but it had no reason, held no beauty, and revealed no truth.
That was what really scared Red. Of course she knew that, if she were torn apart by ravenous, feral letters, she would no longer remember having memories so it wouldn’t matter. But something – her mind, her heart, both – rebelled against this. She refused to believe that she wouldn’t know something was missing. She refused to believe that her scattered, orphaned letters wouldn’t still, somehow, remember being whole.
“That sounds ominous,” said the Wolf. “What was this thought?”
“Just that what if…what if people stopped telling our story? What if we got stuck in The Grey? Forever?”
In The Grey the wordless letters travelled in packs, like clouds of billowing smoke, forever roaming, forever hungry. They were disjointed, senseless, scrabbling violently at anything that came within reach, looking for some hole, some weakness they could exploit. Their pointlessness was what ate away at you, prying your sentences apart until they too were nothing but nonsense. You had to fight to keep yourself together, to keep your words from breaking up like a weak radio signal and becoming part of that infinite, anonymous horde. It was exhausting.
It was the Wolf, the unalterable blackness of him, who was her defense against this dismemberment. His was a clean, sharp shape that cut through the cankerous gangs of roaming letters. He gave her purpose, which is the only way to overcome pointlessness.
“People won’t stop telling this story. We’re a classic, darling.”
“Yes, but what if they did?” She shivered at the thought of The Grey sucking up her letters one by one, the way a child slurped alphabet soup or dementia ate minds, memory by memory.
“Well,” he laid his head on her shoulder again, his dark cheek warm against her pale one: his voice was matter-of-fact, “then I would miss you. I would hang there, waiting for that bloody grey nothingness to finally get its claws into me, and I would miss you. Right up until my very last word was pulled apart.”
The story-teller was moving on. They had been hiding in a descriptive paragraph, waiting as the woods, the weather, the cloudy sky were described. But that was done and the words were tugging at her, pulling her down the path through the trees.
“Wolf, I—I have to go.” She took a step forward, turning to look at him before the story took hold of her completely.
“Don’t look so sad, Red. They’ll be making movies about us for another hundred thousand years. And who knows,” he shrugged, “when they finally forget about us and The Grey gobbles us up, maybe some of the letters from my words and some of the letters from your words will get together and make new words. We could take all that nothing and turn it into something.” He grinned, his long red tongue lolling between his white teeth. “Can’t think of a better way to spend eternity than that, Red.”
She smiled at him. It was an enormous smile, wide and bright and loving. It was a world unto itself. It was what he thought about to keep The Grey at bay. “I have to go!” she cried, but she laughed as she said it.
The story was insisting. Time to move on. She had places to be, wolves to meet. “See you in a bit,” he answered as, unwillingly, she began to walk. “Just around the corner, I should think.”
“Yes,” she waved to him. Her red cape flapped around her, like a fire in the trees. They were always so busy talking about her cape, he thought, that they missed out on the best part. “See you soon,” she called and her smile held all the reason, and all the beauty, and all the truth, the Wolf could have ever imagined.
Edited by P. Thorpe