She didn't know who she was, where she was, how she got there. A brush with a branch, a shadow flitting by, goose bumps on her arms, a memory. They were all the same to her; vague, abstract things that she couldn't fit into a complete picture. She was dream-walking. Or maybe this endless trek was real and she'd only dreamt that she had a past, a present… a future.
Her past was contained in an hour previous, at a lonesome cottage hunched over between snow banks like an old woman in the middle of the forest. Or was it truly the middle? The forest was all there was apart from the cottage—an eternity of hard-packed white, swallowing the limbs of trees and shrubs, feeble in the sleeping winter—and therefore it had no middle or end. She'd stumbled inside the soulless house, devoid of feeling; numb, fingers trembling cold against the wooden latch she closed behind her. Why her hands trembled, she was unaware of. If, in the time before the cottage… but before had no meaning. Her feet had taken her there and her hands seemed willing to comply. She moved as on strings, letting an invisible force do with her whatever it would.
A glint. A shimmer. Pale light reflected off a shiny surface and drew her eye. The face staring at her from the glass on the wall was a stranger. Was it old, was it young? Time was nothing in her half-mind. To her the face was only naked and lacking. Something vital was missing from its head, missing from the neck it sat on, missing from its shoulders and its back. Something irreplaceable was lost. Red. Where was Red? The face offered no answers to the gnawing questions that poisoned her belly—pricked her head like a spindle to a finger. The face held her story; carried it in the lines of her forehead and dip of the nose that came from… a thing not of the forest. But it refused to tell. Kept the secret locked behind cool amber eyes. Mocked her with the knowing she couldn't possess. And so she'd covered it with a mask of obscurity that let her be everything she knew—a blank.
It said nothing. It said no one.
She'd found it on the shelf below a murky colored jar. The dress pulled from a cupboard was white lace, too large for her even with the simple woolen clothes underneath, but it made her sister to the snow. The gloves were hers. She took them up from the kitchen table and weighed them in her hands. They were hers.
Her present was the forest. Pressing on and on within it; purposeless, yet driven. A slash, cold and wet. Pointed bark tearing into her milky skin. Red. Seeping, flowing, running toward the ground like a cloak string. Red brought the sickening feeling that something was meant to be grasped, but it floated just out of reach, taunting her with its nearness. A phantom presence drifted around her shoulders making her warm, swishing behind. But when she turned to look, nothing was there. Nothing but the vast, vast snow blanketing her forest.
Her future was the wolf. He was not currently present in a visible way; most likely trailing behind just out of sight to keep watch over his…
She had no words to express what she was to him.
Her sole traveling companion, her one constant, was the key to her future, she knew. She knew in the same way that she was sure her heartbeat meant life. It was beyond thinking, beyond even instinct. To breathe was a thing that required more effort than clinging to this awareness. Somehow the furry beast now and then trotting diligently beside her held the remedy for her wandering mind. How he could help her she did not know, but when he made his way to her side as he was wont to do in intervals, she clutched at his fur as a man underwater clutches at his throat.
Drowning. That word she could place—could put images to. A frantic dash across a frozen pond where much more than a stretch of fabric was lost. She fingered the lines at her throat where something had been caught and pulled. She felt nothing with the gloves on, but she knew the lines were there. Red. Harsh and Red.
He was back. Her hands abandoned their place at her neck to be closer to his warmth, never minding that it unbalanced her, causing her walk to be awkward. Shouts rang out in her forest. Angry men clamored over a kill. She stiffened in fear, every nerve strung tight as she waited for discovery and death. The wolf bounded ahead, persistently mindful of her protection.
She was alone. A crow flew overhead to light on a branch. Silence overtook the forest except for the thump of her heart and the crow's pesky flittering. Thumping. Snarling. Something was eerie about the distant sounds. He should have been back before now to lead her by a different way. The gloves couldn't warm the coldness suddenly spreading through her limbs. She brought her hands down from her face and forced herself to walk. Walk on. Find him. Walk on.
Two men with heavy boots and hunting gear, kicking her wolf. He had fought well. The sheen of a dagger reflected pale light several feet away in the snow and one of the men had a dark wound spitting Red from his wrist. But now her wolf lay nearly defeated, Red staining his shoulder and making him weak.
Immobile, she stared. Dared her mind to wake and find some means of help. One of the men—the one without a bite—turned to see her standing straight, silent, and still masked. He stopped kicking. He told his friend in a hush. Startled by her, they mumbled, stumbled over their own feet, fled outright. Fled like cowards at the presence of a girl. Ran terrified from spirits of the woods. It was nothing to her. He was all that mattered.
Red. There was too much of it escaping his body, draining onto the cold ground. She flung herself at him, sobbing without constraint and feeling a cruel desperation. He was slipping away, taking with him her past, present, and future. She didn't know what she missed, but she needed it. She needed it like she needed him. She knew nothing except that it was everything.
"Who am I??" she cried with a force that would have frightened a savage. "Who am I??"
The wolf whined, licked her masked cheek, squirmed his head away and wheezed up blood.
"Don't die," she whispered, brokenhearted. He nuzzled the lace skirt heaping around her knees in a fluff of white. Understanding, she pulled off the crude overdress and covered as much of him as she could. Then she removed the mask and lay down beside him, intent to remain exactly so until otherwise prompted by his direction. She took off the gloves, burying her hands into his soft fur where his breathing could be felt, rising and falling. If he died, she was certain she would follow.
Sunlight poured out from between the wisps of leafless branches. There was no wind and she was growing warm against his coat. The afternoon was singing. It was blue. Blue like lips without oxygen. Blue like the stillness of a tame winter sky.
She must have fallen asleep. Her mind at rest was dreamless and lonely, but within her unconscious state she had grasped the meaning of three fantastic words, strung together in a phrase of reclamation. When she awoke, the wolf was gone. A pit like a great, splitting chasm rose up in her gut and she prepared to scream with every breath left in her. Until she saw that she was not alone. Her palms that once were wrapped in fur lay flat against a smooth chest. Rather than a long nose, the end of a strong chin rested on the top of her head, and hands that were nothing like paws held fast to her waist. She wriggled back to look into the face of the shivering man, bare except for the lace thrown over him.
The wounds inflicted by crazed hunters were gone. His shoulder sloped upwards into his neck without a hint of ruination. She looked into his eyes and saw a wolfish gleam in them.
"Who am I?"
"You're Red." His shaking fingers traced away the tears that were spilling down her cheeks. "Do you remember?"
She nodded, leaned into him, and took a kiss. She was Red.
A/N: Entered as a contest for Mara's Weekly Writing Challenge at maranwetelrunya (dot) wordpress (dot) com (slash) tag (slash) weekly-writing-challenge for the picture Blank Canvas by Miss Aniela on flickr. Whew! That's a mouthful! I have a lot on my plate right now, but I couldn't resist doing something for this week's picture and suggested fairy tale theme. I admit, I chose to do a Little Red Riding Hood story partially because a "Mr. Wolfy" was mentioned in the credits for the image, and partially because I always thought the wolf should be the good guy and wanted to try my hand at making him so. (I'm only talking about Little Red here, not any other book spin-off, if ya get my drift.)
Blame the title on... itself. It stuck to the story and wouldn't detach. I had little to do with it. ;)
This might just be a very short summary of that full length novel I intend to write on Little Red Riding Hood. Why I thought that worth mentioning, I don't know. Maybe to remind myself to come back in ten years and do it.
This has proven to me that I can write with a deadline if I'm inspired and I make myself focus. Darnit. I guess I'm out of excuses, now. Hum.