Once upon a time there was a girl called Red. She lived in a cottage in the forest, on a bend where the water slowed lazily against the riverbank. The villagers adored her and her grandmother doted on her. The birds in the trees above her home circled in anticipation of her waking each morning, ‘Red, Red, the forest awaits’ they’d call in harmony. Where Red walked the sun carved a path, and the trees bent their branches to buffer the wind. The birds packed their nests tightly against one another to protect her from the rain. In Red’s short life there was only one thing that threatened to blight her otherwise perfect world.
Her mother, Christabelle.
Christabelle hated her. This was not the sort of hate that could be swept aside with a sweet offering, nor the type that abates with time. This hate planted itself firmly deep inside of Christabelle’s body the moment that her too eager egg embraced the sperm. A hate that unfurled itself as the egg became a beating heartbeat. Christabelle knew that having a child would change the world as she knew it, and she did not want it changed. By the time that Red was the size of a plum, Christabelle could not bear to incubate her any longer and embarked on a course of abortifacient herbs, which failed to elicit any reaction other than a minor rash across her leaking breasts. She fasted and gorged, massaged her stomach with a hot brick and operated upon herself with home made forceps, but nothing succeeded in excavating the child from her womb. By the time that Red was the size of a grapefruit, Christabelle had been forced to accept the fate that had clamped upon her body like a menstrual cramp.
Red was born in a month when the forest swarmed with locusts. Larvae cloaked the ground and the rain had turned everything to rot. Christabelle was nine months swollen and pacing outside her cottage, when her leaking cervix opened up like a watery cave, forcing the foetus out from its hiding place.
Sinking to the ground she slumped against the wood hut, and there she pushed and heaved Red’s wretched body from her loins. She slithered out like a butcher’s steak.
Christabelle’s only thought was to get away as fast as possible, and cutting the cord with her carving knife she left Red there beside the tree. She stumbled back into her cottage and her bed, and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
In the morning Christabelle awoke to the steely morning light and gave a start to find Red beside her upon her pillow, scrubbed and squawking as if it were her right. The huntsman had found her beneath the tree on his way back from hunting.
At first the huntsman thought her dead, but as he brushed away the ladybirds feasting on the white film that crusted her skin like waxy cheese, he saw her chest rise.
‘You rancid old trout,’ he said to the mother of his child when her eyes found his, ‘What kind of mother are you to abandon our child to the woods?’ This was not the reunion that Christabelle had been waiting for, free as she was of the tiresome bump that had so long gotten between them.
‘I thought she were stillborn,’ she whispered, feigning relief, ‘Thank you my huntsman for saving her.’
From that day on Red became a parasite, leaching her mother of everything she had, including her beloved huntsman. As Red suckled at the breast, Christabelle’s body flinched against the jolting pain of her cracked nipples. Red would wail and latch on harder, grinding her hard baby gums against her mother’s torn areola.
The huntsman’s hours were now given to teaching Red the ways of the forest, as only a father could. Christabelle watched them from the door of the cottage through the changing seasons, her heart growing colder. He no longer shared her bed, choosing instead to sleep in the corner of the room with Red curled into his arms like a question mark. Year by year she watched Red’s body stretch and grow. In watching her she felt her own youth fading.
Then one day she hatched a plan, for everybody around knew of the big bad wolf and his penchant for plump little girls. Her own mother would need to be sacrificed, but about this she had no qualms. Her mother had never loved her anyway, had never understood her.
Week by week she taught Red not to fear the wolf, telling her that his reputation was only village talk.
‘Underneath his crusty fur his heart is made of gold,’ she whispered to Red, ‘Do not judge others because they are different.’ And Red listened and learned.
As Red grew more independent, the forest became her playground. It was easy to persuade Red to visit her grandmother who lived on the other side. As her grandmother became increasingly weak, Red visited her more, taking wine and cake each time.
‘Poor grandmother,’ she would cry after her visits, ‘It seems that the more I go the worse she gets.’
‘Hush child, what grandmother would not draw strength from a granddaughter like you?’ Christabelle would say, as she slipped more poison into the wine.
Finally the day came. When Red went off with the cake and wine, her mother knew that the wolf would find her, knew too that Red would not be afraid. All went perfectly to plan to start off with. Shortly after Red departed, having said her last goodbye, the huntsman welcomed the feast of bread and wine that Christabelle had prepared, and did not question her amorous mood. After they had exhausted themselves her mother turned her thoughts briefly to Red, and what a gullible and foolish child she had become.
In time, she left the cottage for a moment to relieve herself. Whilst she was gone the huntsman, sticking his nose where none belonged, discovered the truth of her plans in her diary. He flew out of the cottage in a frenzied rage and caring not about the piss that still streamed from her body, hit her so hard that she fell against the steaming sodden earth.
When she awoke some hours later, her body crawled with the creeping insects of the night. Turning her face towards the sound of footsteps and forcing open her itching pus filled eyes, she laid them upon the daughter she thought she would never see again.
‘Your ma is dead,’ the huntsman shouted at her, ‘Just as you intended, a mulch of flesh and bone is all that remains.’ She tried to disguise the tremor of pleasure that ran through her body at this news.
‘Poor grandmother,’ Red sobbed, ‘You are a wicked mother.’
‘And the wolf?’ Christabelle asked.
‘The wolf fled as I approached, I am taking Red with me for safekeeping’ the huntsman cried. With that he turned, and cradling Red in his arms, disappeared into the forest. Christabelle could feel the love between them scoring tracks into her heart.
Months passed and Christabelle’s days grew long and lonely as her body dried up like clay. The forest was a small place and it seemed that at every twisting trunk and leaf strewn clearing she stumbled across the huntsman and Red.
‘Mother!’ her daughter would cry in terror. The desire to reunite with her huntsman was so strong that Christabelle’s body ached.
‘Murderer,’ the huntsman would shout, and Christabelle would run back into the cover of the trees.
With time the woods closed quietly around Christabelle’s cottage, and wild grasses wove their way between the stones. Trees fell gently against the rooftop and it was not long before the tiny cottage seemed as if it was never there in the first place. Christabelle forced herself to rise from her chilly bed each morning and pushed her way through the brambles that had grown over the door. She set a seat beneath the Oak tree by the path, hidden from view. From here she could see the huntsman and Red on their way to fetch water. One morning, she noticed a dark shape hovering against the bracken. It was just behind the pair on the path, but each time they paused for Red to pick a flower, it slipped out of sight. As Christabelle watched Red’s light feet dancing through the milky dawn, she saw too the heavy silent paws of the wolf following, just behind.
The love that the huntsman had for Red was of a depth that Christabelle could not fathom. But if she could save Red’s life, perhaps the huntsman might be willing to share his love with her. Just a little. A little would be enough. And so she waited for the day that the wolf edged closer.
The day came quickly. Red skipped along. The wolf was so close behind them that his whiskers brushed the cloak that Red was wearing. When Christabelle jumped out, all three startled at the same time. The huntsman leaped in front of Red to protect her.
‘You?’ the huntsman exclaimed, but his next words were lost as he turned and saw the wolf rearing up behind him, salivating. He dragged his daughter to the edge of the path. Christabelle found herself placed firmly at the feet of the wolf. She recognised the error of her plan too late. Before she was able to have one last thought the wolf bent down and snapped her head between its great jaws.
The wolf chewed slowly, crunching bone the only sound in the now silent forest. The wolf devoured the rest of Christabelle as if he had not eaten such a feast in a long time. The huntsman and Red were transfixed by the sight. As the wolf set upon eating Christabelle’s final foot, he let out a strangled cry. With her big toe lodged sideways in his throat, his eyes bulged and his cheeks billowed outwards. And then he fell forward onto the ground and exhaled his last meaty breath.
The huntsman and Red went joyously home and nothing ever bothered them again.