Thursday, 24 December 2015

Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

...Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas - abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken - and what could be more frail than that?
But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.

~ Neil Gaiman

This story was begun in a little park in Manchester in late October - a space swirling with ochre leaves and tumbling gold and amber crispness.  
The idea began to take form as I later sat in the soft purple glow of the Royal Exchange Theatre, and scribbled down snatches of phrases and characters.
And it was completed during an evening in early December, as slumbering cats melted by the fire beside me, sighing in their sleep and sending feline dreams spiralling like smoke into the air.

It is dedicated to my brother Tom: a lover of wolves, an eloquent wordsmith, extraordinary soul - and one of the brightest sparks in the darkness.  
With all my love.

Every story ever told really happened. 

Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.

~ Doctor Who



Autumnal – nothing to do with leaves. It is to do with a certain brownness at the edges of the day… Brown is creeping up on us, take my word for it… Russets and tangerine shades of old gold flushing the very outside edge of the senses… deep shining ochres, burnt umber and parchments of baked earth — reflecting on itself and through itself, filtering the light. At such times, perhaps, coincidentally, the leaves might fall, somewhere, by repute. Yesterday was blue, like smoke.

~ Tom Stoppard

When the leaves began to curl their copper faces, and the world was tinted in amber and scarlet, the children would await the arrival of the storyteller. 

He appeared without fail every Autumn, when the wind whipped cool and the nights grew long. He arrived at the beginning of the Fall and slipped away sometime after the thaw, as the Spring drew close. He emerged unannounced from the depths of the nearby forest and appeared at their door, exchanging manual labour for food and boarding. 

He possessed a louche grin and unruly untamed black hair so shot with skeins of white that it appeared grey. Blue-grey ocean-eyes with an unflinchingly direct and astute gaze.

He became a valued and essential part of their world, and yet the family never knew where he resided during the warmer months.
They had never known an Autumn or Winter without him, and yet they never learned his real name.
He was accepted and trusted, loyal and dependable - and slipped with effortless ease into the clockwork rhythm of their lives.

The parents enjoyed his comfortable warmth, his friendship and his earthy humour, his willingness to help with the physical daily work, and the news he brought from his travels - a bright splash of colour in their otherwise pleasant yet predictably humdrum lives. 

He enveloped the children in hearty embraces on his arrival, gifted them with unconditional patience and affection, and astonished them with ragged illusions and seamless sleight of hand vanishes. He taught them to read the bright midnight constellations and the tracks left by forest creatures in the snowfalls, and sung them tattered fragments of ancient ballads in long-forgotten tongues. 
The children delighted in his company, this familiar yet ever-intriguing figure - in his tricks and his snatches of foreign phrases, his depthless knowledge of nature, and the fascinating contents of his greatcoat pockets, full of tiny joys and treasures - beads, berries, polished stones and bright shells.

And they delighted in his stories.  
 After the days work was done, the children would plead for a tale before bed - and most nights, while their parents watched from afar - they were granted one.



And sometimes they turn the lights off in this ballroom.
But we’ll dance anyway, you and I. 
Even in the dark. 
Especially in the dark.
May I have the pleasure?

~Stephen King.

   For years the children had participated in this bedtime ritual - gathering by the tangle-haired figure in his creaking chair, his eyes alight and ablaze, his hands molding shadow sculptures in the air. 
They gathered at his feet, studying his long-recognised features. Their storyspinner with his worn solid visage and deep gravelled tones. His wide shoulders and lean limbs.  The faint warm scent of salt and sweat and soil.  
An ancient pelt was habitually tossed down from the top of the chair and draped over his shoulders, capturing warmth as the night crept in. It was soft and dense and carried the fragrance of dusk and snowfall and rich pine.

There would often be found a child squirmed up next to him, tight and cosy under his arm and against the side of his chest. There they would find the protective solidity of a familiar arm, circling round them in a comforting arc. The rich rumble of the man's voice vibrated and thrummed deep inside the curled child as he spun his tale. 

The storyteller's sonorous speech twines through the contours of his body, twisting in worn silken tones before it is released in rich plumes - spiralling up, out and into the air, curling back down, and into the heads and hearts of the listeners.
The tale-teller sends his words and images dancing and alight through the children's imaginations - tickling inside their minds and sparking flashes of vivid colour, texture and sound. 
A benign Frankenstein, coaxing his characters to twitching life with the crackling lightening charge of metaphor and verb.

His stories are riveting, thrilling, tender and labyrinthine. And they are often dark, sometimes wild and sometimes unpredictable, taking frightening turns and ricocheting off in unforeseen twists. 
But that sense of unpredictability is part of the charm for his listeners. 
It is an elegant waltz in the pitch black. 
A figure who takes you by the hand and leads you down a knotted, unmapped route in the forest at dusk. The smile that glistens in the falling light, as he turns to look back, encouraging you on. As you hesitate and let the grip fall for a moment, faltering - but a warm sturdy hand is held out for you to take once more. 

(Come on. What are you afraid of?) 
(Nothing. Really.)

But both the smile and the story have bright teeth. 
And they are sharp.



My protagonists seem determined to head off into darkness and danger with me at their side with strings of words, wondering if I’ll be able to bring them safely back.

~ David Almond

Shush now, and I'll tell you a story before you sleep.

There was once a girl.... he begins.... who lived with her family in a cottage near the edge of a deep, dark wood...  a girl with tangled hair, who wore a cloak of deep, vivid red......

A couple of the children shift and grin and turn their heads to their older sister, who is sitting in the corner of the room, wrapped tight in her thoughts. She stirs under the sudden warmth of their gaze, refocuses and acknowledges them with a rare silver-swift smile. The children gesture to her, from their positions at the man's feet and side.

He's telling us the story that you're in. It's you. 
No, he's not – she's just a girl –

But the youngest holds his gaze, steadfast in his convictions.
It's the story about YOU.

She raises her hand and waves the boy's attention back to their yarnspinner in his broad armchair.

Man and girl exchange a nod across the room, and almost-imperceptible smiles. Sparks alight in those bright eyes. 
Hazel meets blue. 
Forest and sea.

And then he clears his throat and continues.

… And there was also a wolf. A wolf with luminous eyes and loping limbs and teeth of ice. He was all sharpness and watchful cunning. The wolf was eternally hungry, endlessly hunting, heart pounding against the cage of his ribs and his belly forever hollow.
But the girl was also cunning, and she was wise. She knew what lay amidst the shadows of the forest, and she knew of the desperation of the wild.
The girl watched the forest and the wolf watched the house, and both waited. 

And the rapt listeners find that the girl takes vivid form in their mind's eye. 
They can see her with pinpoint clarity - a child with curled and tangled hair that her despairing mother has given up trying to brush free of snarls and knots. Long, weathered, wind-tousled hair. With hazel-hued almond eyes. A sharp long nose that lends her an almost-feline air. 

The girl possesses a dreamy, half-awake air, in spite of her keen gaze, as if she is always half-attentive to some other pulsebeat or rhythm, to some strange and unique resonance in her bloodstream. She is a watchful guardian to her younger siblings, ever-present and quietly protective. She bears a smile of considerable warmth, which (on the rare occasions that it is bestowed), leaves the recipient feeling they have been handed a precious gift.

She is nimble-fingered with both needle and thread - and cuts cloth, gathers hems and sews seams in order to create sturdy yet respectably elegant clothes for her family - garments that are hardy enough to weather their outdoor lives, but that hang lightly in their cascading folds. By habit she is clothed in browns and greys - as are her siblings - and in solid, durable earthtones. Until the day when her mother brings home a rare gift. A bolt of scarlet fabric. A fold of cloth as rich red as sunsets, berries and blood.
She shyly presents it to her daughter with a touching reverence. The child takes it with a softly whispered thanks, and disappears away to her quiet room. 
After a time, she begins to pin and fold and cut. She works through the hours of the night, weaving stitches and cutting fabric and thread -  until a long hooded cloak is formed. It flows and streams behind her in billows, cloaking her body and containing warmth. It will protect against the dark, banish the cold from her skin. 
And, as her father finds as he looks from his door - waiting for the return of his daughter on winter nights - it provides a pinpoint of red against the white, illuminating her journey home.



You can look at a gray wolf standing in the snow in winter twilight and not see him at all. You may think I'm pulling your leg - I'm not. Sometimes, even the Eskimos can't see them, which causes the Eskimos to smile.

~ Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

Months and seasons passed.  And the girl with the red cloak grew slowly towards womanhood. 

She taught herself the ways of the forest, and as uncharted territory slowly became commonplace, found that she could enter it without fear. She grew acquainted with its paths, with its tangled weaving roots and brambled-choked tracks.  She knew wren and raven, rook and jay, was at home with berry and bough. She spent hours alone exploring, familiarising and understanding, until she was able to identify subtle changes in the air, to anticipate the sudden flutter of bird wings and changes in the shafts of falling sunlight.

One day, at the turn of winter, the girl announced her intention to take one of her regular visits through the forest, in order to visit her Grandmother. 

Granny was an elderly woman, but a capable one – and stubbornly determined to live out her remaining years as she saw fit. After her husband had died, she had stayed rooted in their small-yet-sturdy cottage in the centre of the woods, self-sufficient and fiercely independent. A slight yet wiry old crone, her skin had been etched deep by years of living, her body scarred and sun-browned, creased and crisped. A map of life and experience engraved upon it, in all its beauty. She occupied her time with self-taught herbalism and botany - and had found in her oldest granddaughter an eager student and an unofficial apprentice, willing to learn the science of herbs and of wildflowers - and the remedies that could be distilled from them. 

Before the day ended, the girl took up a basket - and threw her beloved and well-worn scarlet cloak over her shoulders - for the air was turning colder and the snow beginning to fall in sporadic flurries.  She kissed goodbye her parents and waved to her distracted and unruly siblings, who were sprawled by the fire in a rough pile - spilled out across each other in an unselfconscious mess.

The walk from one house to the next was long, but pleasing to her - as it allowed her peace to order her thoughts away from the clutter and clamour of her small home (so often filled with the amiable chaos of young children.) She moved with ease along snarled routes and beneath sweeping branches, quietly observing the fine details that others so often overlooked. She found a deep satisfaction in small subtleties - shafts of light, the mesh of bare branches, the brightness of winterberries.

Deeper she went, into the heart of the forest's maze, where the trees grow closer, and the sun thinned, unable to penetrate the thick roof of leaves. 
Midway along her journey, she stopped to gather the last of the season's wildflowers, thinking to take a small bouquet to her Grandmother. There she sat for a time, absorbed in examining tiny details – the threads of veins, almost-translucent petals - and half-listening to the chorus of the wind and flutter-flap of distant bird wings.

A sudden startled scatter of noise alerted her, and three ravens took wing behind her, gusting over her head.

She was suddenly aware of the clean scent of dusk and snowfall and pine. And the tiny hairs on the back of her neck that began to raise a split second before she looked up. 

The wolf.

She processed it on a visceral level before her brain could fully absorb the raw shock. And she saw it all with startling clarity. The mane of fur which gathered in a nimbus cloud around his shoulders, the long muzzle and glimpses of the glistening white teeth below. And the gaze – that uncommon blue stare, with unblinking eyes.

(Illustration by Cate Simmons. Click on image for larger version.)

Good afternoon.

He greeted her with a voice that reverberated and swirled through her bloodstream.

It was the sound of low thunder, with an underlying coarse rumble that was almost palpable. It was mesmerising and hypnotic, oddly comforting and yet also curiously exotic.

He smiled, and rows of neatly pointed teeth gleamed. 

How strange that we have never met before. And how auspicious that our paths should cross today. You are travelling to visit your Grandmother, are you not?

Her heart slammed and thudded and she fought the maddening instinct to bolt - but a bold stubbornness flared up inside her. She was not a foolish or reckless child, but she would not bow to fear or to intimidation, even when it was wrapped in a mesmerising smile. 

Predators can smell fear, Granny once told her. Some even relish it. Do not become his easy prey. 
She raised her chin defiantly, and returned the smile.
I am. 
She clambered down from her seat with an easy fluidity and began to hum - a old and dusty tune her that her Father had sung to her in her younger years - a simple music-box melody, but a reassuring one. 
(don't let him see that you're scared)
And she continued to gather the last of her flowers. 

I go to talk with her - to learn of herbs and to protect her flowers from the frost and to bring in logs for the fire. Necessary work, but dull. Nothing of interest to you, I'm afraid.

The smile that bore so very many teeth widened considerably. 

Aaaaah, but where are my manners? I could not permit you to walk alone, particularly during such an inclement season...

She looked up proudly and defiantly - and directly into those eyes of sea. 

I am more than capable of finding my way - I could walk these woods at nightfall and not stumble - and I can find my route by moonlight alone. Go about your business, sir - and I shall go about mine.
The girl got to her feet, mounted the basket on her arm, and turned to leave. 
Good day.

She had gone only three steps before the voice rumbled once more, tingling softly across the back her neck and lingering there, like gossamer.

I shall pay my respects to your Grandmother, bold little child-in-scarlet. 
You will go your way, and I shall go mine - and we shall see who reaches her first. 

The girl turned sharply at this, but there was nothing behind her. All that remained was a fleeting glimpse of a swirl of grey fur, that melted instantly into the forest shadows.



- Your only sister, all alone in the wood, and nobody there to save her. Poor little lamb.

- Why couldn't she save herself?

~ Granny and Rosaleen,

The Company of Wolves

The wolf was fleet of foot and the forest paths were well known to him, the curls and twists well-trodden. He cut a smooth route amongst the trees, melting into shadows on silent paws and re-emerging moments later.

If he could reach the house before the child, perhaps he would secure himself not one meal, but two.

The child also hurried on through the falling dusk, her mind racing, not for a moment trusting the sleek words and bright-toothed intentions of the wolf. 


And there was the house, beckoning in the distance - a beacon of solidity and security. An amber glow radiating from the windows, bringing with it the promise of welcome and warmth.

The wolf reached the house, and knocked upon the door. 

Unsuspecting, Grandmother called aloud. 
Let yourself in, my dear.

The door swung open, and she scurried across the room, eager to envelop her Granddaughter in their customary embrace. 

See her there, as the door swings open. 

An apron enfolded her waist, bright rings adorned her fingers (amber and turquoise, flame and tide.) A lock or two of her hair had pulled loose and flopped in a silver strand across her glasses. She held a coarse bunch of sage and lavender in one hand, the other held wide open, offering up comfort and wisdom and boundless joy. 

The smile fell from her face like a snowdrift - slowly, slowly.... and then gathering momentum, eyes widening in understanding, cold recognition dawning.

The scent of wildness - of snowfall and pine - filled the small dwelling. 
And the wolf padded in, all sharpness and fur and cunning, bearing before him his desperate  hunger, wrapped in his many-toothed smile.
 His shadow fell across the old woman, blanketing her, enveloping her in its dusky eclipse. 

(Let the right one in, my dear. Keep the devil from the door.)

There was barely a moments pause.  

There were teeth of ice and the faintest shriek from the old lady. 
And an abrupt silence.

Minutes later, the girl appeared at the house. 

All appeared calm - amber glowed softly from the windows as ever, and all was still - nothing seemed amiss.  The door was firmly shut, sealed against cold and the keen night air.
But she stepped cautiously, her nerves jangling and heart thudding.

The door swung open at her push, revealing its familiar surroundings - a stout chair, brass kettle, drying herbs, sturdy table, modest bed.... 

But of Grandmother, there was no sign. And the lamps had been snuffed - the only light thrown by the flickering fire, shadows tossed and flung dancing onto the walls.

She looked again and called aloud - but received no answer. 

There stood the pots and pans, the crockery and books, the small table by the bed, nestled in the corner.
The bed. 
The bed covered in its customary embroidered eiderdown. 
And something beneath it. 
Something too large for the quilt to properly cover, something that made the modest bed creak and protest. A figure that spilled out from under the lid of the blankets in a shock of thick grey fur and lithe limbs. 
Bright eyes watched her from the shadows. Eyes that were somewhat absurd beneath the paltry disguise of the eiderdown - but also terrifying in their astute watchfulness.

The child registered what had taken place with swift and cold clarity. Beneath the covers, the wolf's midsection was bulging and distended. The old woman had been consumed whole - in one swift gulp.

Her mind began to race as she peeled off her hood and placed down her basket of winterflowers.
(don't let him know you've seen)
(think fast, but don't let on)
(distract him, keep him talking)
(send him to sleep)
(send him to SLEEP)

Hallo, Granddaughter, squeaked a rough voice from the bed. I'm so glad you came.... 

The girl rolled up her sleeves, while making a quick dart for the kitchen and towards the racks of drying herbs.

Let me make you a good tonic to warm you, Granny - you must have been taken ill. Your voice sounds so hoarse...

She reached for juices fresh from the press, her alarmed mind throwing out lightening-bright sporadic bolts of inspiration.
(keep him distracted)

I've never noticed what big eyes you have, Grandmother, the child remarked brightly - in what she hoped was a breezy tone - as she reached for jars of dried herbs and mixed them frantically with juices, blending and thinking and talking in one swift blur.

All the better to see you with, my darling... 

And such big arms you have.... she chirped, as the herbs swirled in a mini alchemy, blending, transforming....
All the better to hold you with, my dear....

Out of the corner of her eye she observed the sheets beginning to shift and tumble, as the wolf attempted to rise from the bed, encumbered by the weight of his swollen stomach.

And such big teeth you have! - she added, as the concoction finally reached completion, and was poured with trembling hands into a sturdy mug.

All the better to ea-
 She interjected sharply, darting over to the bed and lunging forward swiftly with the brimming cup - with such determined speed that the wolf was startled into silence. 
With matronly I'll-stand-for-no-nonsense efficiency, she tipped the entire brew down the wolf's throat, trying not to flinch at the sight of the keen-edged teeth, the iron jaw, the depth of jagged fur. 
He spluttered slightly - but the tonic was gone in a flash. 
There. She beamed, swiftly leaping back from the bed. That'll have you better in no time.

But the wolf rose from the bed, shaking the sour indignity of the ambush and the sharp tang of the juices from his lips - hackles raised and a snarl forming. 

The unfamiliar herbs shimmied and swirled in his head, clouding his eyes and blurring his cognition. He pushed himself up onto four paws, finding himself suddenly unsettled - this wasn't how the story was meant to unfold...

The girl backed towards the door, counting down the moments (it should have worked by now) and probing her brains for a last audacious spark of inspiration - as the wolf crashed in an ungainly thud from the bed, and loped closer and closer towards her.....

But as the child resigned herself to the final desperation of the chase, and had braced herself to bolt - the herbs finally had their intended effect. The wolf's distended abdomen betrayed him, tipping his weight - just as his head finally fogged and sleep descended - and he fell in a crumple to the floor with an almighty crash.



wolves and girls, girls and wolves

oh, so the stories go
what all these poets dare not say
is that every girl has wolves
pacing rhythms in her heart

~ m.j. pearl 

She allowed herself a moment only - to take a fraction of a breath, steady her thudding heart - and to establish that the wolf was entirely unconscious. With the instinct to hunt briefly relieved, she was able to observe his innate nobility - this creature of speed, determination and immense beauty. She raised a hand and placed it softly on his chest, observing the steady rise and fall of mighty lungs, feeling the drumbeat of his heart buried deep below. 

For fleeting seconds, child and wolf sat side by side in an enforced truce, the stillness of the air broken only by the steady rise and fall of their breath.

But then the reverie was broken. 


She took her scissors - bright silver steel flashing - and began to cut. Fur was mown away and tendon and skin sprung open and released with elastic ease between those small tight blades. Layers unpeeled and brilliant red blood spilled and stained her hands. 

 This was a most curious caesarian - and it was crone, not youth, who was sought amongst the dark layers of tissue, and brought blinking into the light.

When she was finished - Granny gasping and breathless and sodden but alive - the child took needle and thread and sewed shut what was opened, with deft hands and sure stitches. 

For she was maddened and blazing in cold fury at this horror - but was not without compassion. She had witnessed both the ferocity and the tenderness of wolves. 
She comprehended with stark reality the teeth, the claws, the hunt, the savagery of the kill - and the rage and terror at finding one of her own taken. But she also recalled the prominent ribs, the gnawing cold, the desperate eye of the starved animals in the peak of a harsh winter, the sheer number of the hungry pack, the need to feed whining cubs. 

She would not abandon Granny to a death by slow digestion - but neither would her conscience allow her to leave the wolf to wake to the raw horror of a body split open. 

And so she took a fine thread and a bright needle, and she began to sew.
She had an unwitting surgeons hands, and some element of medical genius or magic about her, so that her stitches melted into re-formed tendon, muscles pulled and knotted together, and fine threads of fur began to sprout back beneath her fingers, leaving only a stark white line along the length of the stomach, where the cut had run.

The wolf would awake, whole once more. 

But also empty.
And hungry.

Run, child. 



And I run from wolves

Breathing heavily
At my feet
And I run from wolves
Tearing into me
Without teeth

I can see through you

We are the same
It's perfectly strange
You run in my veins
How can I keep you
Inside my lungs
I breathe what is yours
You breathe what is mine

~ Of Monsters and Men

And then they were running - the girl in the lead, leading the way, with her grandmother's hand grasped tightly in her own - urging her along, faster, faster. 

Granny's legs were locked and her knees were tight and she was sodden, shocked and stunned from her ordeal.  She stumbled, gasped and tripped - but her granddaughter pulled her on stubbornly, perhaps even harshly. But the girl knew that behind them - tearing over the ground in great loping strides - followed the wolf. She heard him in the distance, almost imperceptibly at first, feet thrumming but barely audible - but the low growl between gasps of air, the sound of snapping branches, the scuff and toss of snow and leaves - grew increasingly close.

The river.

There in the distance, a silver ribbon cutting through the dense forest. And on the far side of the river lay home and safety. 
Come on. 
She tugged Granny's hand sharply, not daring to spare a moment to glance over her shoulder. 
Just keep running.

There were women down by the riverbanks, welcome figures from home - dependable individuals, with their reassuring hands and work-worn faces. They were washing the last of the days sheets and linens as the light fell - billowing clouds of coarse white that were spun and rinsed in the rapid tug of the river's tides. They bantered and gossiped and laughed, exchanging salty tales and bawdy songs to distract from the rough work and the freezing water. 

The girl caught snatches of their chatter as she pelted down through the thickets and towards the river bank. 

She yelled aloud - as boldly as her burning lungs would allow.
The high-pitched cry immediately raised the women to alert.  Gossip and voices were stilled,  and heads raised upwards, sharp eyes scanned the horizon, ears pricked and skin sensing the changes in the air. 

The child and the old woman came bursting through the trees a moment later, a blaze and a blur of red, all wide eyes, wind-torn hair and pounding feet. 

And behind them followed the wolf, enormous and ravenous, hackles raised and teeth bared, covering the ground at an impossible speed, closing in, closing in....

It happened without hesitation and without discussion or debate. The women standing on opposite sides of the river's banks locked gazes - and by some unspoken instinct, understood what had to be be done.

A bridge.

And so as child and crone raced and stumbled their way down the rough bank, the women grasped a sheet that whirled in the river's grasp - and flung it high in a bright arc across the water's width. It was caught, pulled taut and held tight and firm on either side of the river by determined hands, a white dripping platform, and a beacon across the swollen heaving waves. A bridge across the torrents. A way home.

Granny faltered as she reached the water's edge - she had never mastered the art of swimming, and could not fathom the thought of braving such deep rapids. But the girl understood what had been done, and with a breathless word of gratitude flung at the woman crouched on her side of the bank, she leapt down and onto the linen gangplank, tugging her  Grandmother behind her. Their combined weight bowed the makeshift bridge, and pulled the fabric sharply from the women's hands, buckling and dipping. But the women were accustomed to wrestling with the roaring currents of the river, and the cloth was firmly yanked back and pulled taut and strong once more. 

Just as the wolf arrived at the waters edge.

It all happened in moments. 

As the pair began an unsteady pelt along the bridge of white cloth, the wolf sprung over the heads of the washerwomen, and down onto the fabric behind them, snapping and reaching, the hem of the girl's streaming cloak almost within reach of his muzzle and razor teeth.
Granny winced at the thunder of great paws behind her, and the burning gasp of breath in her throat - as he gained on them...

But with a final leap - one last frenzied push of strength - Grandmother and Grandaughter reached the bank, and flung themselves onto the cold mud, lungs burning and muscles screaming... but safe.

At the very same moment (watched with pinpoint precision by the guardians on the banks), the sheet was released from their hands, dropped in a sudden billow of flowing white - and was allowed to tumble without hesitation into the raging waters below. 

The wolf fell with it. 

There was an explosion of water, and a burst of spray - and a brief flash of grey as limb and claw broke through the foam. But the water raced, and white horses charged and thundered - and the river did not pause its roaring torrents, swallowing both sheet and wolf, and pulling both down into its depths. 

And then there was nothing.

The waters, it seems, had claimed him.

The women whooped and cheered, Granny almost swooned - but the child stood for a moment or two longer, gasping and hitching her breath, and staring down into the swirl and the spray. 
A whirlwind of emotion crossed her face - relief and disbelief, anger and wonder... And perhaps regret. Or even sorrow.

Then she took Granny's hand once more, and they began to run the final distance. 




October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page,

of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale.

~ G. K. Chesterton / Library of Dreams.

The Man Who Was October.

Their pace slowed a little as exhaustion dragged at their limbs, making them leaden and weighty - but the pair did not stop their pelting run till they spied the girl's house in the distance, a final beacon of steadfast and assured safety amidst the madness. 
Dusk had now long fallen and lights illuminated the windows. As they approached, the amiable chaos and cacophony of family life - snatches of minor quarrels, indomitable laughter and the occasional door slam - could be heard from inside. The safe, sane day-to-day noises of their beautifully mundane lives.

The pair burst through the entranceway - the door pounded open by the girl's outstretched hands -  before it was slammed firmly shut behind them. She leant her weight against its comforting solidity, as her legs finally collapsed from under her. Her cloak - embedded with leaves and coated in river mud splashes - pooled at her feet.

The parents and startled siblings looked on with wide eyes at the windswept and breathless pair - hair flying, eyes crazed, Granny still streaked with red.

Explanations were given, and shaky tight hugs exchanged. The word was sent round the community in minutes, and the village put on high alert - patrols and teams sent to trawl the river and the forest boundaries, flares lit and children held tightly in the arms of protective parents. Doors were barred, windows latched. 

 Of the wolf, there was no sign - but the family did not settle until the early hours of the morning, the children restless, wary and exhilarated, pressing their exhausted sister to tell the story again and again, just one more time.

Their Mother watched the windows as the night turned, listening hard for any unwelcome visitors.
Gradually and slowly the panic died away, running off them in streams before dissolving like ice into the floor, relief and warmth and reassurance returning. 
The wolf was gone. 

Bedtime came. 
Granny was bundled into a hot bath and blankets, then shown to bed - miraculously unharmed after her extraordinary ordeal.
And as the rest of the family finally retired, the girl went in search of her own rest.
But as she stumbled to her bed, feet heavy and her body bone-weary, she turned suddenly, sharp instinct kicking in. 
From the farthest corner of her eye, she thought saw something shift - a large body moving gracefully on silent paws past her window and melting seamlessly into the shadows of the trees. A sudden glitter and spark of feral ocean eyes. And a low rumble of breath from mighty lungs.
But perhaps it was simply the work of her ragged-raw nerves and weary brain - as nothing more was revealed. And silence and stillness surrounded her once more.

Yet as sleep finally took her that night, secure under soft folds of blanket - and as she slipped into dream - she heard something that echoed and rebounded deep within her slumbering mind. Somewhere from within the depths of the forest beyond the house. 

A faraway howl.



Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

~ Jeanette Winterson

The tale draws to its conclusion. 
The storyteller draws the final threads of the narrative neatly together.

He smiles tenderly at the gathered children, and peers down at the boy still curled tight at his side - who is somewhat unsettled, troubled clouds crowding his eyes. 
He hugs the boy in a rough one-armed embrace. 
Hey.... don't be afraid. They got away safely - and the wolf has gone. 
The boy looks up to him, innately trusting in the power of the rules of story, and its teller to spin a reassuring ending.
Yes... Really. It's all right now.

The heroine has escaped and won the day, the monster is bested.  
(At least for tonight.)
Any lingering story shadows are swept away and the world set back to rights. 

(...Although the wolf and the girl will later dart through their dreams. 
A scarlet sweep, a depth of grey fur, silver-bright scissors, a roaring rushing river. )

The wind whips and swirls outside the window, rattling the hatches briefly, before abandoning it for other games.  The children are sated with the story, contented and already slipping into dream. With heavy feet they stumble to bed, after receiving fond goodnights and gentle embraces, and are followed up the stairs by their parents.

The fire burns on fiercely in the almost-abandoned room, casting capering shadows across the walls, momentarily gigantic and looming - flickering, distorting - before leaping sporadically away. 

For a moment the storyteller's face is partially enveloped in the fire-flung shadows, revealing only a long broad nose, the jagged scruff of the ancient pelt draped around his shoulders, the sudden flash of incisors when he smiles goodnight, and blue eyes scorched pale by the firelight, luminous and reflective. 
In a rare alchemy of light and shadow, what was familiar is transmuted and transformed
(into something rich and strange.)
Then the logs abruptly spit and tumble in a flurry of hissing sparks. The shadows retreat, and there is the man once more - the subversive storyteller, but also the fearless protector and the banisher of nightmares, with his kind hands and solid oak limbs.

The oldest child is allowed the privilege of a later bedtime, and has taken a position by the fire at the storyteller's feet. She curls to lean her chin on her knee, hands clasped around, and sits silently, absorbed in the intricate labyrinth of her own thoughts. 
She is wrapped in red folds, a cardinal-hued blanket draped around her shoulders, spilling and pooling down to her bare feet, a woollen warmth and a soft comfort.

Two figures by the firelight. 
Two figures who remain when the story ends, and the young ones have found their sleep-addled way to bed.  Wrapped together in the stillness of evening and in the drifting mellow haze of the children's blossoming dreams.
Two silhouettes by the fire, expressions deep and unreadable, gazing into the restless leaping flames. 

Man and child.
Grey and scarlet. 

They sit together in silence, watching the sparks dart and dance as the logs slowly dim and the embers glow. And as the night blankets the world outside in its deep velvet folds.



Sometimes wolves ran beside them, pounding dust and leaves up from the forest floor, although the passage of the wolves did not disturb the huge cobwebs that hung like veils across the path. Also, sometimes the wolves ran through the trunks of trees and off into the darkness.

The queen liked the wolves and was sad when one of the dwarfs began shouting, saying that the spiders were bigger than pigs, and the wolves vanished from her head and from the world.

~ Neil Gaiman, 

The Sleeper and the Spindle

My re-telling of this very old tale came about when I began to wonder how it would be if the Wolf - or Huntsman (or as Angela Carter has him - both) were telling the Red Riding Hood tale. 

I thought of all the re-claimings of the story that I have found - from Grimm to Perrault to Carter to Neil Jordan and more recently Emily Carroll.  
How Angela Carter melded both Huntsman and Wolf into one being, and wrote of the child who was more than  a match for both.
Of repeated images and characters found in each telling.... the sharp glistening scissors or axe  used to free Granny, who is devoured again and again (and sometimes partly devoured not only by Wolf, but also her Granddaughter - tricked into consuming both her Grandmother's blood and meat. But in doing so the Elder or Crone symbolically passes on the wisdom of countless generations of women before her, and the Granddaughter comes of age... The wheel turns, the thread is spun.) 
The washerwomen at the river bank who form a bridge of white sheets for Red to cross, the Wolf in hot pursuit. 
Stitches in a bright red cloak, snow and silent gnarled trees, a treacherous path, a canny astute child, the inevitable hunt. 
The story curls and winds itself in on itself over and again until it loops into a tangled ball, untameable and wild, the ending and the origins never fully clear.

I kept certain recurring elements of the story - the main characters, the journey and encounter in the forest, the sleeping Wolf and the washerwomen's trap at the river, with their bridge of linen - and changed and added others. 
Such is the artistic licence granted to each new storyteller. Each generation re-tells the tale, and makes it their own.

And of course there are always the two distinct and renowned characters - Red and Wolf - matched in wit and cunning, and each gifted with an indomitable will to survive. 
I wonder if perhaps a truce (of a kind) may one day be called, a parley that would allow each to co-exist. 
And perhaps share their story by firelight.



- C'mon, I'm not a wolf...

- You will be soon, though...

~ Gavin Friday and Andrew Boland (?)

 The Making of Peter and the Wolf

Many, many people and snatches of ideas fed into my Storyteller and Red - so they became a interlaced mix of deep loves and influences.

I found elements of my Storyteller in all the men I know and care for, in my close circle of family and friends (and particularly in my most beloved Taid) - all those who have read or wove stories to their children, banished shadows, and protected against the night. 

And in John Hurt - who was my first great on-screen storyteller, and is still my most treasured - and the yardstick by which all others are measured. 
In tangle-haired Neil Gaiman, who has long been one of my most loved written-and-spoken-word storytellers, and whose seemingly depthless imagination never fails to astound me. 
Also haunting the back of my mind was Micha Bergese's elegant and otherworldly amber-eyed Huntsman, from Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves.
And distinct essences of both Gavin Friday and Paul Schneider - particularly the former's beautiful lyricism and mesmerising stage prescence - and his alternately gravelled and velvet-smooth narrations of Peter and the Wolf, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, and The Fortune Teller - and the latter's dangerous predatory charm in The Assassination of Jesse James.

My Red is drawn from all the bold, bright, extraordinary, impassioned and artistic women who I am deeply privileged to know and love and be taught by. 
 And from Angela Carter's bold and subversive re-working of the character - transforming her from helpless heroine into something much more challenging and surprising.
From this young woman and her companion, captured so strikingly in Marta Bevacqua's photograph.
And each of these vivid reinterpretations.
From Franka Potente's flame-haired Lola - with her single-minded determination and her thundering pace.
The mesmerising Guðrún Bjarnadóttir in Of Monsters and Men's Empire lyric video.
And their steel-willed Lionheart, blazing across a land of dead monotone in a whirl of red.
From Of Monsters and Men's lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir - an accomplished fable-spinner in her own right.

And from every heroine I read of, and wanted to be as a child.


Things need not have happened to be true.

Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

~ Neil Gaiman