Little Red – Part 2

If you missed Part 1, find it here.

               Only the brightest, most fragrant, most perfect blossoms would do, and the sun had passed its peak in the sky by the time Little Red continued down the path, downy stems clutched in her hands and the basket on her arm. Her stomach was beginning to grumble, and she hurried now, eager for the biscuits and jam carefully wrapped up in their basket. Around the last curve, the cottage came into view, and Little Red stopped and stared.

               The trees grew tall and close, lacing their green hands together over what looked more like a worn barn than a cottage. Rotting leaves blanketed the uneven roof, and furry, green moss crept up the water-stained wood. Little Red struggled through tacky mud, past a dilapidated well, to the door, stopping for a moment to examine the tracks next to her muddy shoes. A line of shallow paw prints ran from the door into the trees. Wondering if her grandmother had seen the wolf too, she hurried inside.

               Quilts hung over the windows, and the hearth was cold. Little Red stood a moment in the dark doorway before she noticed a figure in the cot against the wall. “Grandmother?” she whispered, timidly drawing closer.

               The figure stirred, turning, and the drawn face of her grandmother gazed up at her. “Red?” she murmured hoarsely. “You… you shouldn’t be—” A ragged cough shook her body.

               Little Red anxiously smoothed back the tangled hair streaked with gray. “I brought flowers,” she said, laying her small hand on the flushed cheek.

               Her grandmother clutched it, pulling it to her lips. “So… hungry…” she moaned, drawing a rasping breath.

               Little Red yanked away from the tightening grip, horrified to find both her and her grandmother’s hand coated in drying mud. “You need to wash up,” she said, pursing her lips. “Then we can eat. I’ve brought biscuits and jam.”

               Leaving the basket and the flowers heaped on the table, she hurried to the well, the empty water pitcher in her hands. The rope was rotting, blackened and stiff, and it bit into her hands, but she held on tight, her feet sliding in the mud as she struggled to heave the water up from the blackness. She had watched her father pull water from the well in the village. He had crouched down to look her in the eye, telling her never to use a well alone or to lean over the edge to look down, and she had solemnly promised she wouldn’t. But now there was no one to help her, and her grandmother was very sick. As carefully as she could, she leaned over the crumbling wall to dip the pitcher into the bucket before jumping back as the rope buzzed against the stones and the bucket landed with a splash.

               Water in hand, she turned back to the cottage, but she stopped in the doorway. The figure in bed was moving. The blankets shifted against the darkness, writhing, thrashing, contorting, growing larger and bulkier until the cot buckled beneath it.

                Little Red’s voice shook. “Grandmother?”

               Two glowing eyes blinked back at her. White teeth glistened through the shadows, and the wolf, the same wolf that had followed her on the path only seeming much larger now in the small room, leapt from the bed. A white nightgown tangled around its legs, and it crashed to the floor. Thrashing and snarling, it clawed at the fabric, sending the table flying and scattering the flowers, then it was back on its feet, advancing on Little Red, bared teeth dripping. The pitcher of water crashed to the floor.

               With a shriek, she ran, slipping and stumbling in the mud, and the wolf bounded after her. With a snap, its jaws closed on her cloak. She tried to scream, but the world pitched, the air driven from her lungs, as the wolf shook her. The fabric in its jaws gave way, and she tumbled into the leaves. Her head slammed into rough bark. The wolf advanced, claws raking furrows in the dirt, fur bristling, fangs dripping. With a snarl, it leapt.

               Little Red clenched her eyes shut, clamping her muddy hands over her eyes, but the bite never came. There was a dull thud and a sharp yelp, and when she looked up, a familiar figure stood over her, axe in hand.


               He dropped to one knee, pulling her into his arms. The wolf struggled to its feet, but its legs shook and it crumpled back into the leaves with a shallow whine. Little Red’s father carried her into the cottage, setting her on the bed and anxiously checking her over, folding his handkerchief to press against the gash on the back of her head.

               “Stay here,” he told her, moving her hand to hold the handkerchief.

               He strode out the door, a quilt in one hand and an axe in the other. When he came back, her grandmother was beside him, huddled under the quilt, her face pale and bloodied. Little Red ran to her with a sob of relief, but her father snatched her up.

               “It’s gone,” her grandmother said, her voice thin.

               “For now!” He gripped the axe tightly, backing toward the door. “How long until it comes back? Until it’s brave enough to leave the forest?”

               She sagged onto the edge of the bed. “It’s… so hungry. I’ll leave. I’ll go further away.”

               “What good will that do?” he yelled. “This has to stop.” He pulled Little Red closer, leaning his forehead on her hair. “I can’t let this continue.”

               Her grandmother stared at him, eyes wide, before she sighed, shoulders sagging. “I know. But please…” She held out her arms. “Let me see her.”


               Her father left the cottage, striding down the path, Little Red still clutched in his arms. Behind them, her grandmother stood in the doorway, the quilt around her shoulders, hand over her mouth, watching, until the forest swallowed her up. Down the winding path and back through the dark mouth, they went, to where Little Red’s mother stood waiting, baby in her arms. Her face paled when she saw the tattered and muddy cloak.

               “What happened?” she cried, stroking Little Red’s bloody hair.

               “A wolf ate grandmother,” Little Red sobbed. “Father had to cut her out.”

               Her mother turned to him with questioning eyes, but he said nothing, guiding them away from the forest.

               The next day the meadow stood empty and the stream that ran along the dark wall of trees murmured to itself. Little Red sat next to her father on the bench outside their tiny house as he sharpened his axe, the whetstone grinding against the blade. Leaving a kiss on her head, he set the axe on his shoulder and strode down the road toward the forest.

               “Where is your father going?” her mother asked, stroking Little Red’s hair as she sat on the bench next to her.

               Red gazed out at the dark wall of trees, to the darker mouth and the path that wound through it. “To kill the wolf.”

Photo Credit: Painting by Fleury François Richard (

Little Red – Part 1

I didn’t intend to make this a two-part post, but life happens. This is the portion I was able to edit in time for today’s post. The conclusion will be posted soon.

This story is an altered re-telling of the classic fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” In his MasterClass, Neil Gaiman encouraged writers to take a fairy tale, dissect it, ask what parts didn’t make sense, and write a version with those questions answered.

                On the edge of a brooding forest, there stood a little village, and in the village, there lived a little girl. She spent her days running through the flowery meadows that skirted the village and skipping from stone to stone in the stream that trickled along the dark wall of trees. In that dark wall was a darker mouth where the meadows ended and a dirt path fringed with ferns snaked beneath the towering trees. The little girl often peered down that path, wondering what lay around the curve where the mossy trunks swallowed it, but she had been told never to wander the forest alone. So she sat and watched and wondered, and when the sun began to set, she ran home to the village, to the small house where she lived with her family.

                On a day near the end of summer, when reds and yellows were just beginning to stain the leaves, she met her father as he strode along the road toward home, and he swept her up onto his hip. “Hallo, Little Red,” he said, tugging the scarlet cloak she always wore down over her eyes. “Have you been good today?”

                “I caught a frog!” she exclaimed and pulled the wriggling thing out of her pocket to hold up to his face.

                With a chuckle and a kiss on the head, he set her down by the gate outside their little house. “For your mother’s sake, let’s leave the frog outside, eh? Or there’ll be no dinner for either of us.”

                Little Red hurried along the fence to where the grass grew thick and green and the frog would be safe from trampling feet. She left it there with a kiss on its lumpy head. “Be good. Don’t wander off or there’ll be no dinner.”

                Inside the little house, her mother flitted between the fussing baby and the pots steaming on the hearth. She shooed Little Red to the washbasin and shook the little scarlet cloak free of dirt and grass with quick hands. They ate together as the sun sank below the horizon. Only the fire lit the room now, and the village outside was dark. Little Red filled her pocket with crumbs and scraps for the frog, but when she tried to go back out, her father shut the door and locked it tight.

               “The door stays shut after dark,” he said, bending down to look intently at Little Red.

               She knew there would be no arguing, and so she was left to wrestle stubborn peas from their pods by firelight as her mother cleared the table and her father paced the room, a crying baby on his shoulder.

               “The village blacksmith was by today,” her mother said to him, stacking up the dirty dishes. “Asking after your mother’s house. His son found a wife, and they need a place to live. I told them they’d just have to keep looking, that she would need it when she came back.”

               “She won’t be back,” her father said quietly.

               The dishes clattered back onto the table. “She can’t intend to stay in the forest forever! What—”

               “She’s taken ill. She won’t be back,” her father said with the same stern tone he used when he told Little Red to stop knocking her feet against the legs of her chair.

               Little Red, who had been listening intently, accepted this answer, but her mother stood still, dismayed, wiping her forehead with a thin wrist. “But the harvest, and winter, and then third one on the way.”

               Her father took her hand in his. “We’ll make do.”

               Little Red had never questioned why her grandmother lived in the forest instead of in the clattering village. She often thought that she would like to live at the end of a winding path herself someday, so it all seemed perfectly logical. But she was concerned to hear her grandmother had taken ill. The next day, she begged her mother to let her go visit. Her mother, who had been all morning trying to spin a basket full of wool into yarn and weed the neat garden rows while shooing the chickens out, all with a fussing baby on her hip, finally, tiredly, agreed.

               “Stay on the path,” her mother said, her hand tightening on Little Red’s as they walked together to the edge of the meadow. “Go straight to your grandmother’s and straight home. And don’t speak to any strangers.”

               Little Red bounced excitedly, swinging the basket of biscuits and jam her mother had packed. She stopped once inside the dark mouth of trees to wave before skipping down the path. The clatter of the village faded. The leaves whispered above her, the trees creaked around her, and everywhere birds chattered.

               At first, she rounded each curve in the path eagerly, but finding only more trees, she started paying less attention to the world around her and much more attention to the one in her head. She was so engrossed that when she saw a wolf loping along the path behind her, she didn’t pause to consider whether it was a real wolf or an imaginary one but instead greeted it cheerfully.

               “Hallo!” Fancying the wolf asked where she was going, as she guessed all polite travelers did, she said, “I’m going to visit my grandmother. She lives in a cottage right down this path. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Why, I bet you have, and—oh!”

               Little Red drew up short. Through the trees, she had caught a glimpse of sunshine on golden flowers and butterflies flitting from blossom to blossom. Her mother had told her not to leave the path, but only a few trunks stood between her and the clearing. Certain that a bunch of fresh flowers would cure whatever ailed her grandmother, she waited only a moment before darting into the sunshine and gathering up as many blossoms as she could hold. Once, she looked up to see the wolf sitting at the edge of the clearing, just beyond the circle of sunlight, but when she looked again, it was gone and was soon forgotten.

(Part 2)

Photo Credit: Painting by Carl Olof Larsson (

32. The Fruits of One’s Labor

The writing prompt for today’s story was: “All good myths begin with a red apple.”

Once upon a time in a small kingdom, there lived a prince. The kingdom possessed neither wealth nor great knowledge, and its people were not known for their beauty or skill. So, when the daughter of the wealthiest king in the land was offered in marriage to the prince of her choosing, the prince’s father sent him to ask for her hand so they might improve their standing in the world.

The prince set out, pondering as he traveled what he might offer to the woman he hoped to make his bride. They had nothing of value to give, and he knew that princes would be coming from near and far with gifts of splendid riches. As he walked, he chanced upon an old woman resting next to a stream and stopped to join her, enjoying a drink of the clear waters and a moment away from the hot sun and dusty road.

“Where are you headed, young man?” she asked.

“To win the hand of the princess… Though I have nothing to offer her except myself, and I am afraid that is precious little.”

The woman looked him over then leaned closer.

“There is a legend of an apple, beautiful beyond compare, that grows within the mountain beyond this forest. It is said that retrieving the apple gives its eater true enlightenment.”

“Within the mountain?” he asked doubtfully. “How could an apple grow inside a mountain?”

“Those who have seen it know, no one else.”

The prince pondered this for a moment, gazing thoughtfully into the stream. When he turned to ask the old woman how she knew this, she had vanished. Refusing to step before the princess empty-handed, the prince set off toward the distant mountain. When he reached its foot, he could see far above him a cave cut into the mountainside but saw no way up the sheer cliff. Still, he refused to turn back and slowly began to climb.

The rock crumbled and broke beneath his fingers and he bloodied his hands on the sharp stone, but every time he considered turning back, he looked up to find the cave slightly closer and pressed on. The sun fell in the sky, darkness came over the land, and the moon was high above when his bruised and calloused hands finally grasped the ledge at the mouth of the cave. Exhausted, he fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke, the sun was rising, spilling its red light over the misty forest.

“I have never seen a view more breathtaking,” he marveled, the pain in his hands forgotten. “If not for the princess, this would be reward enough.”

But he could not forget his errand, and he plunged into the darkness of the cave. The light of the sun was soon left behind as the mountain swallowed him up, and he wandered, lost, guided only by his sore hands on the slick walls. The air became dense and musty, and his eyes ached from the blackness. He considered turning back, but each time, he could only wonder if the tree would be around the next curve and struggled onward instead.

At last, he came to a wall of broken stone where the ceiling of the cave had fallen, sealing the passage. He sagged to the floor, exhausted and wondering if he should finally give up. Days could have passed while he wandered in darkness, and he didn’t want to miss his opportunity to ask for the princess’s hand.

“But it could be there,” he said. “Right on the other side of this pile of stone.”

Determined not to go to her with no gift, he set to work moving aside the rocks, carrying each one away to clear the passage. They were heavy, and his back ached from the work, but as the stones moved aside, a ray of light shone through, and he rejoiced at the sight.

“I forgot how beautiful light was,” he wondered. “And the joy of clean air.”

With renewed vigor, he hauled away the stones until he was able to squeeze through and found himself in a cavern. At its center, bathed in light streaming down from cracks within the mountainside, stood an ancient tree. From its gnarled branches hung a single red apple, and at its base flowed a stream. The prince eagerly drank from it, washing the blood and dirt from himself before carefully picking the apple.

Certain that the princess would be pleased with his gift after all he had endured to retrieve it, he hurried back through the dark caves, down the cliff, and onward to the kingdom.

When he arrived, the castle was overflowing with princes there to present their tributes to the princess and ply for her hand. They presented her with gifts of gold and song and knowledge. One gave her a beautiful poem written by the finest writers in his kingdom, another an intricate gold statue shaped by the most talented craftsmen, and still another a treatise on wisdom written by the wisest philosophers. When it was his turn, he reverently placed the apple at her feet.

“My lady, I have traveled through hardship and suffering to bring you this.”

He told her the tale of his journey, of the beauty of a sunrise, and the joy of light.

“This is all you brought?” she asked when he had finished. “One apple?”

She kicked it away in disgust, seeing only fruit where he saw his toils, and instead chose to marry the man who had brought her dresses fashioned by the finest weavers. The prince took up the apple, carefully wiping the dust from it, and returned to his father’s kingdom. When he arrived, his father asked if he was successful in winning the princess’s hand.

“No, Father, but I brought something better.” He held forth the apple. “I climbed a cliff, wandered through darkness, and with the sweat of my brow retrieved this apple of enlightenment. Take it.”

His father sighed, patting his son’s shoulder with a shake of his head. The prince, dismayed by the poor reception of the gift he had toiled so hard for, decided to eat the apple himself so he might gain its enlightenment and see his foolishness as others did. But when it was gone and only the core remained, he felt no different.

“Perhaps the old woman was mistaken,” he sighed. “But I feel no poorer for having retrieved it.”

He planted the seeds, and from them grew a tall tree that produced many beautiful apples. Its children were cultivated into large orchards providing sustenance and shade to the kingdom. In the years that followed, whenever the prince looked at the tree, he remembered his journey and smiled.