“Looks like you’ve been having fun,” said La Loba to her mate as he nudged three unruly cubs aside and flopped onto the forest floor beside her. Traces of congealed blood adhered to his brindled ruff just beyond his reach.
“Here, let me,” she said and reached over to lick his fur clean. “We don’t want El Lobo looking like a hobo.”
“Fun?” said El Lobo, grimacing with pleasure as La Loba’s tongue wormed through his fur and teased his skin. “I wouldn’t exactly call it fun. Exhausting, more like.”
“Really,” breathed La Loba as she nibbled his ear. “Tiring, eh?”
“Taxing,” said El Lobo. “That’s very nice, by the way. You can go on doing that for as long as you like. In fact, we could always, you know…?”
“Pas devant les enfants,” said La Loba. “And certainly not before my bad boy tells me what he’s been up to.” She nipped his ear hard and sat back amongst the cubs. “Come on, ‘fess up and don’t try to fob us off with some old fairy story.”
At the mention of the word story, the cubs pricked up their ears and turned their heads toward El Lobo who stood up, eased his long spine, shook out his coat, and dropped back down on the ground.
“Well,” he said. “It was like this. I was up early this morning, before you little ones and your mother were awake. The sun was not long up and I thought I would stretch my legs and do a little foraging; scout round a bit; see who else might be stirring in the woods.”
El Lobo paused to look into the four pairs of bright amber eyes staring back at him. “But which way to go? Lakeside smelt of goose shit; Oak Tree Ridge was still smoking; Loggers’ Camp might have some food lying around; but I had a hunch that Crone Cabin was the place to go.”
“Why is it called Crone Cabin?” interrupted the youngest of the litter.
“Because it’s where the Old Women live,” said El Lobo. “Whenever there’s an Old Woman in the story, that’s where she lives. Anyway, as I was saying, I had a hunch that was the place to go this morning, so I followed Pine Needle Trail up towards Crone Cabin for a while, hoping to find a morsel or two on the way, when what should I see but a female Person coming towards me on the path? So I stopped and I howled and I growled but the female Person kept on coming. I could see she wasn’t an Old Woman but she wasn’t a Little Girl either.”
“Well, what was she then?” said La Loba.
” I suppose you might call her a Young Woman.”
“Pretty, was she, this Young Woman? said La Loba.
“Pretty?” replied her mate. “It depends on what you mean by pretty. Not as pretty as you, my love. Snub nose, bald face, tiny teeth, no ears to speak of, like the rest of them. Anyway, she was wearing a red hooded-top and carrying a large bag under one arm. She walked right up to me, put the bag down and said: ‘You must be Mr. Wolf. I’ve heard lots about you.’
“So, I said ‘Some people call me Mr. Wolf. What have you heard about me?’
“‘I’ve heard that you like to eat People,’ she said. ‘Especially female People’.”
“‘That’s a lie,’ I told her. ‘An unwarranted exaggeration. I’ve had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with Old Women, but Little Girls wouldn’t be much of a mouthful and I don’t believe I’ve ever met a Young Woman like you.’
“‘That’s a relief,’ she said. ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance Mr. Wolf.’
“And who are you, pray tell?'”
“Pray tell?” said La Loba. “When do you ever say pray tell?”
“I know,” said El Lobo. “Strange isn’t it? The words just came out of my mouth. Anyway, she said ‘My friends call me Red because I always wear this red hoodie.’
“‘That’s a nice name,’ I said. ‘Where are you going, Red?’
“‘I’m going to visit my Grandma,’ she said. ‘She lives in Crone Cabin.’
“‘You’re going the wrong way,’ I said. ‘Turn around and carry on up the path, it’s not very far. Can I help you with your bag? It looks very heavy. What have you got in it?’
“‘A bottle of gin for Grandma plus my toothbrush and stuff for the weekend: fresh pyjamas, clean underwear, that sort of thing and some books that Grandma lent me. I’m fine with the bag, I can carry it myself thank you. Which way did you say to go?’
“She looked confused, so I said that I’d show her the way and walked ahead of her until we reached the Cabin. The door was open and – surprise, surprise – there was no sign of Grandma.”
“Red looked at me ‘You didn’t eat her, did you?'”
El Lobo winked at the cubs. “‘Me?’ I said. ‘Of course not’
“‘Well come in,’ she said. ‘I’m going to light the fire and make a cup of tea.’
“So, I followed her in and sat by the hearth and looked round as she boiled some water and poured it into a teapot. The place was spotless: furniture polished; bed made up with crisp clean sheets and coverlet turned down; flowery curtains drawn back to let in the light; cupboards full of bottles and jars; apples and pears in the fruit bowl. ‘Grandma can’t have been gone long,’ she said. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
“‘I don’t drink tea,’ I said. ‘You’re forgetting who I am.’
“‘Silly me,’ she said. She poured herself a mug of tea, put it on the table, opened her bag, took out a handful of books and piled them beside the steaming mug. ‘Perrault,’ she said. ‘Brothers Grimm. Angela Carter. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Jack Zipes. I’ve read them all. I should know who you are, shouldn’t I?’
“‘Those names mean nothing to me,’ I said.”
“‘That’s a pity,’ she said. ‘Because our fates might depend on who wrote the story we’re in. Shall we find out?’
“I didn’t really understand what she meant by fate so I decided to go along with her for a while. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Let’s.’
“‘O.K.,’ she said. ‘Jump up on the bed. Make yourself comfortable and I’ll explain. But first, let’s put Grandma’s nightshirt and nightcap on you. I don’t want you making the sheets dirty.’
“Before I could think what to say, she’d slipped the nightshirt round my shoulders and covered my head with the night cap. It was quite humiliating, I can tell you. Then she climbed into bed beside me.”
“Then what happened?” blurted the youngest cub, yawning. “I’m bored.”
“Don’t be rude,” said La Loba. “All the same, I’d like to know too. What does happen next, pray tell?”
“‘Exactly what I asked Red , my love. She said it was traditional for her to ask me some questions and I told her to go ahead.’
“‘Why do you have such big ears?’ she said.
“‘So I can hear well,’ I said.
“‘No, she said. ‘You’re supposed to say ‘the better to hear you with, my dear.’ Now, why do you have such big eyes?’
“‘The better to see you with, my dear.’
“‘Why do you have such big hands?’
“‘Doesn’t matter. Why do you have such big hands?’
“‘The better to grab you with, my dear.’
“‘Why do you have such big teeth?’
“‘The better to eat you with, my dear.’
“‘Good,’ she said. ‘See how it works?’
“‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think I’m getting the hang of this. Now what?’
“‘Well, in the oral tradition, I take off all my clothes then I tell you I need to pee and escape out of the window.’
“‘Why would you want to do that?’ I said.
“‘Escape out of the window?’ she asked.
“‘No.’ I said. ‘I meant why would you want to take off all your clothes?
“‘It’s an erotic male fantasy,’ she said. ‘You tell me to take my clothes off one by one and burn them on the fire because I won’t need them.’
“‘Really,’ I said. ‘And you fall for that?’
“‘I told you it was an erotic male fantasy,’ she said.
The bigger cubs giggled. “What does ‘erotic’ mean?” asked the youngest.
“Well. Er.” El Lobo mumbled. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“Nonsense. I think it’s good for us all to know what you get up to,” said La Loba. “You saw me nibble your dad’s ear when I groomed him earlier? It made him frisky. That’s what erotic means. Frisky.”
“Oh,” said the youngest cub, pretending to understand.
“Sometimes I nibble and sometimes I nip.” She glared at El Lobo, “And sometimes I bite.”
“A male Person’s erotic fantasy,” continued El Lobo. “So I said to her: ‘Let’s just take that as a given, shall we? People taking their clothes off willy-nilly is all very well in an oral culture but I’m sure those books have more to say.’
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Perrault says that you gobble me up. Apparently I deserve it for being wayward and curious.’
“‘That seems a bit cruel,’ I told her.
“‘Cruel, unusual and unconstitutional, I’d say,’ Red replied. ‘But Brothers Grimm send in a woodcutter to rescue me because I’m a weak and feeble woman who can’t look after herself. I don’t know which is worse, to be as dead as a doornail or to be saved from my womanly folly by some burly prat.’
“‘I see your point,’ I said. ‘But surely this woodcutter can’t be such a bad fellow if he risks the wrath of a mighty beast like me to save you?’
“‘Risks the wrath? Risks the wrath!’ she said. ‘He waits until you are asleep, cuts open your belly, releases me and fills you with stones so you fall into a pool and drown.’
“Burly prat. What about the other books?’
“‘Well, there’s Zipes,’ she said. ‘He’s got dozens of versions and according to him they’re mostly allegories for rape.’
“Rape,’ I said. ‘Gods above and gods below, I’ve never raped anyone in my life. I even ask the missus nicely and even then she – you know – decides.’
“What’s rape?” asked the youngest cub.
“Time you were asleep,” said his mother, catching him by the scruff of the neck and pulling him towards a teat where he suckled for a few minutes before nodding off.
El Lobo continued sotto voce. “Red said that Zipes has even got one version where she pulls out a gun and shoots me herself.”
“”You’re not going to do that, are you?’ I said.
“‘Why would I do that?’ she said. “No, I’m not going to shoot you.”
“‘That’s a relief,’ I said. ‘What’s your favourite version?’
“‘Angela Carter,’ she said. ‘The Company of Wolves.’
“‘What happens in that one?’ I said. ‘I don’t get killed do I?’
“‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I’ll show you what happens.’ She reached over, took the night cap off my head, pulled my night shirt to one side and tugged hard at my chest fur.
“‘Ouch, that hurts,” I said.
“‘Let me pull harder, it’s supposed to come off,’ she said.
“‘What do you mean, come off?’
“‘I know you are a man under all that fur,’ she said. “Angela Carter says you are really a wolf-man; I like the idea of a wolf-man; I think I could love a wolf-man.’
“‘Well, my fur doesn’t come off and I’m not a wolf-man,’ I told her. ‘I’m a wolf. The real thing; Lupo; Le Loup; El Lobo; Canis Lupus.’
“‘Damn and blast,’ she said. ‘That’s Plan A out of the window.’
“‘Do you have a Plan B?’ I asked.
“‘Could I join your pack?’ she said. ‘Clarissa Pinkola Estés says that every woman should run with the wolves.’
“‘Listen Red ,’ I said. ‘Or whatever your name is. I don’t care what Clarissa Pinkola Estés says, you’re not coming near our pack. You’ve just dressed me up in woman’s clothing, strongly implied that you’d have me killed, and then propositioned me. My life wouldn’t be worth living if I took you home. You’re not going to run anywhere with this wolf. In fact, I know exactly what to do with you… my dear.’
“And what did you do?” asked La Loba.
“You ate her, didn’t you dad?” said the oldest cub. “I saw the blood on your neck when you got back.”
“Ate her? Good gracious no. I took her to the nearest railway station and put her on the first train home. You don’t think I’d eat a Person, do you?”
“Then where did the blood come from, dad?”
“Jack Rabbits,” said El Lobo. “I got lucky on the way back from the station and caught a couple of Jack Rabbits. Your mother will tell you; she tasted it. That was Jack Rabbit blood wasn’t it?”
“If you say so, my love,” said La Loba. “If you say so.”
This is one of a growing collection of sideways looks at traditional stories that I am currently writing under the overall title of The Untold Tales © Geoff Mead 2014