At the end of the path are the woods, which, of course, are necessary. The dirt path smells of cedar, pencil shavings, tired beginnings. When the red-hooded girl-child begins her journey she walks in halting steps, fearful of scuffing her church shoes. Mama said be careful, mama said keep tidy. One step, pause, bend at waist, swat at patent leather, unbend, step again.
What might it say about us if we wish she’d just hurry it along?
Inside it is muggy, kitchen-fog lazy-tonguing the paint-chipped baseboards, filling up their cottage with weight, pause. The girl unclasps her cape at her neck, fat folds of red collapse in the doorway. Bursting into the kitchen she tugs at her mother’s skirt. Mama stirs at the stove. Clockwise, clockwise, tap tap. The girl-child opens her mouth and her tongue, wouldn’t you believe it, falls right out on the floor, the wet helpless thing.
The dirt path is lined with bellflowers, murderously purple tipped-cups. It leads to the woods or away from the woods, just barely wide enough for the girl-child’s two careful feet, a balance beam. This path, it belongs to her. Step, pause, bend, swat, unbend, step. At the end of the path are the woods. At the end of the path are the trees that do not look like shimmering teeth, no, not like teeth, at least, not at first glance.
Or, perhaps, instead, before she’d left for grandmother’s that morning the girl-child opened every window to let the musty spring-smell in, so that, now, it is not damp with stew-sweat when she detaches her hood in a red cascade, that decapitation, it is not dog-breath humid when she bursts into the kitchen. Perhaps, instead, her mother is slicing carrots. She tugs on Mama’s sleeve. She tells: what large eyes, what large hands, what large teeth. The whole bit. Mama raises a finger to her lips. Hush, now.
How many sets of spotless shoes have one-stepped all the way to grandmother’s? Trees are old enough to know, know better. Wouldn’t you like to believe it?
Or, perhaps, instead, the girl-child returns from her journey and finds herself on her hurried way face to face with patchy baby teeth, a ketchup-stained chin, another red-hooded archetype, another same-not-same girl-child. The whole bit. She says to this other version of herself, don’t go into the woods. Her shadow-self, future-self, past-self replies: she must. So she says with an urgent tug on the rim of her other hood: if you go into the woods you will find a stranger in your grandmother’s clothes. If you go into the woods you will find a wolf. The pair waddle around each other. Careful, the shoes. One goes toward the woods, one rushes away.
In the kitchen, Mama sifts the flour.
All right, all right, we get it: cape in doorway, bursting in, clutching skirt folds, the admission, the eyes, the hands, the teeth. The whole bit.
Perhaps Mama says, oh. Oh dear, oh my. Perhaps Mama takes her little red girl’s clammy hand and they march, step step step, into their village and Mama bangs their joined fists against one door, then the next, then the next. She cries, wolf! Wolf! In the woods! With the eyes, and the hands, and the teeth!
What does it say about us if we know, already, no one will believe her?
And what of villagers who turn her away, who say what’s to be done about wolves? Say, just doing his job. He’s not a show-offy wolf, our wolf, they say. He has the decency, after all, to hide in grandmother’s clothes.
We will not see the wolf, no. Enough to know him second-hand. We do not need to follow that dirt path, its lazy loops, to grandmother’s house, walk over that threshold. We will not. We will not smell his dog-hot breath, will not call and respond, will not zero our eyes on the straining bone buttons on grandmother’s bloodstained dressing gown. Enough to know the worst violations happened there in that place that tastes like apple blossom petals and dirt and artificial strawberry. A place that tastes like ice cream made from front-yard snow, the sweetness of safety. Enough.
When the girl-child is grown she will think, yes, just doing his job. Fuzzy memory, that’s all, child misunderstanding. She will smile while shopping for eggs. She will tell her daughter not to follow dirt paths into the woods. When she puts her groceries away the wind will rattle her shutters. She will think the trees are whispering. She will clutch her daughter close.
Not all monsters have the too-large eyes and the hands and the teeth. There’s room, yes, for other considerations.
When the girl-child is a woman she will have a name we will not give her. Her names are not gifts we can give; her names are not make-believe. She has hundreds of names, already. They are not ours. When she is a woman she will cup her fallen tongue in her palms, a hot kiss. She will stitch that pinkness back into her own mouth, behind her crooked teeth.
Not all monsters have the too-large eyes, the hands, the teeth. There are those whose roots snake beyond the woods, whose limbs curl, heavy with age, and behind their weathered skin winds ring upon ring upon ring, paths unto themselves, little labyrinths each.
Where are the wiling wielding their axes? Imagine a weapon raised, brought down, the tentative tracing of rings, countless. Imagine a sightline cleared at last, years of tracks caked in the mud, shielded no more by leaves or shadow.
At the end of the path are the woods. Follow closely. Breathe in the fine dust, follow the path to where it meets the trees, twists through them. See there, in the distance, its disappearing ribbon swallowed up by dark, just barely wide enough for a girl-child’s two careful feet.
Aliceanna Stopher is the winner of the 2018 Crazyhorse CrazyShorts! prize, received honorable mention for Gulf Coast's 2018 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, and is a 2019 nominee for The Best Small Fictions anthology. Her short fiction may be found, or is forthcoming, in Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, New South, and elsewhere. She is an MFA fiction candidate at Colorado State University where she teaches undergraduate creative writing and works as an Associate Editor for the Colorado Review. Find her online at aliceannastopher.com or on Twitter at @_itwillbeloud.
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