“There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.”
-Angela Carter, "The Bloody Chamber"
"Why does the wolf eat Grandma first?"
The question was unexpected and unsolicited. It floated out of Angela‘s mouth before she realized what she was saying and hung in the air, pregnant with possibilities. Nicolas wiped his mouth with a red-checked napkin and raised an eyebrow to indicate she should go on.
"Think about it: The Big Bad Wolf meets Little Red Riding Hood in the forest and wants to eat her. So why not just eat Little Red then? Why bother running ahead and impersonating Grandma and the whole thing? It doesn’t make sense.
The café was crowded and they sat almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the next table. Angela pushed her salad plate away and picked up her almost empty glass of red wine. Nicolas shoveled a bite of meaty lasagna into his mouth, staining his lips tomato-red. He had a way of talking with his mouth full that somehow never showed what he was chewing and never seemed rude. “Some people would tell you it’s because the story is about sex.”
“I’ve heard that. I never picked up on it myself.” She noticed that the people at the next table were listening in.
"Grandma has to die first because if a sexually predatory male like the one the wolf represents wants to take advantage of a girl he has to make sure there are no maternal figures around to warn Little Red about guys like him. That’s one reading, anyway. And of course there’s the red hood. All that blood imagery: menstruation, womanhood.”
“And red is a warning color, and a color of passion, emotion, carnality…”
“Red is the color of sin. That’s why Little Red dies in some of the stories: She’s sinful. A scarlet woman.”
“Wait, Little Red Riding Hood dies?”
Nicolas fumbled in his briefcase and brought up a dog-eared paperback book, handing it to her. She skimmed the back. “You carry around books of fairy tales in your briefcase?” she said.
“What do you think the class I teach is about?”
She read the pages he indicated:
Meanwhile, the wolf arrived at Grandmother’s, killed her, put some of her flesh into the pantry and some of her blood into a bottle, then put on her clothes and climbed into bed. When Little Red Riding Hood arrived the wolf bid her eat and drink some of whatever she found in the pantry. When the little cat who lived in the cottage saw the girl eating the flesh of her own grandmother it screamed and ran away.
Angela made a face. “Charming.”
“If you think that’s bad, you won’t like the ending.”
She kept reading:
“And Grandmother, what big teeth you have!” Little Red Riding Hood said.
“All the better to eat you with!” said the wolf. And with that he grabbed Little Red Riding Hood and ate her one bite at a time. The end.”
Angela put the book down. “I guess I’d have liked that ending better when I was a kid.”
“It wasn't always a kid's story,” said Nicolas, shrugging. “But I guess kids have got to learn to stay away from wolves sometime. Now, if you didn’t like that, you should try this one instead.”
He handed her a different book. She opened its faded red leather cover and paged through. At first it looked like another book of fairy tales, but these were different, and she saw it had only been written 20 years ago. Nicolas had again marked one for her to read, but before she could begin she realized what time it was. “I have to get back to Anna,” she said. “My mother is watching her, but she has night classes.” She tried to give the book back, but Nicolas declined.
“Keep it,” he said. “I have others. You’ll like this one. Trust me.”
She put the book in her purse. He tried to pay for her but they ended up splitting it. He cleaned his glasses on his shirt, and a few seconds passed. “It was really nice seeing you,” he said. “I wish we could more often.” He paused. “Do you think --?”
Angela stood. “I have to go. I’ll miss my bus.”
“I can give you a ride?”
“That’s all right,” she said, faster than she’d wanted to. He watched her leave. Outside it was gray and blustery. She saw the Number 44 retreating from the curb, red taillights blinking at her, and she ran after it, cursing. It was already out of sight by the time she got to the corner. Sighing, she sat on the plastic bench, reading the book Nicolas lent her while she waited for the next one:
The forest is full of dangers, from pernicious goblins who twist off little boy’s toes and gobble them like candy to red-eyed witches who flay the hides off young girls and sew curtains out of them, but wolves are the worst of all, because the wolf is the only creature whose hunger is never satisfied. That’s why, in the truly dark, cold days of winter, nothing is more terrifying than the howling of a wolf. He’ll eat you up, one-two, one-two, and be hungry again before you’re swallowed.
Angela giggled. She realized someone else had come into the bus shelter, sitting on the other end of the bench. He looked her up and down, smirking. She ignored him and kept reading:
The girl was too young to be alone in the forest. Too young to know the difference between men and wolves. But she was not so young as to really be called a girl anymore. She was almost a woman, and that put her in even more danger. She was in full bloom, like the bobbing red blossoms of the burgundy roses that grew along the path. The handsome stranger she met seemed like any common hunter to her. She did not spot the feral gleam in his eyes or detect the telltale rumbling of his ever-hungry stomach. He hid the bloody red stains on his teeth well.
The man in the bus stop was younger than Angela, barely more than a teenager. He sat sunk over in his puffy red jacket and wouldn't stop staring at her legs. He might as well have licked his lips. He coughed and said, "Where you going?"
"Home," she said, without looking up from the book. "To my daughter," she added, putting as much emphasis on the word as she could.
“I’m going to visit my grandmother,” the girl said. The hunter smiled. “What a sweet little girl you are,” he said. “Red-cheeked, and as toothsome a morsel as any.” The girl blushed bright red and looked away. She did not see him lick the saliva off his long teeth.
The young man seemed briefly taken aback at the mention of her daughter. Then said, "Daughter, huh? How old? Maybe I should meet her?"
Angela glared. The young man's grin wilted and he stood up straight, even taking a few steps away. She put the book back in her purse and shoved her hands in her coat pockets to hide their trembling. He stammered something like an apology. Angela took a step toward him and then, thinking better of it, turned and walked away. She followed Crossover Drive south, deciding she would cut through Golden Gate Park on foot. Probably faster than waiting anyway. She would have to hurry though; it was getting dark, and the clouds were threatening rain. Stands of huge trees sprang up around her. The words of Nicolas’ book ran through her mind:
Talking with the young man had made the girl late. She stayed on the path and tried to hurry. The woods were no place for her at night, and she was alone now that she’d left the handsome young man behind. He’d offered to come with her, but she said no.
She hadn't been walking for more than five minutes when the rain started. At first she ran but then she realized she’d be soaked by the time she got home no matter what. She kept to the side of the road, near the treeline, hoping to be spared the worst of it. The park was mostly empty, though every now and then the wind stirred the trees or the underbrush and gave the impression of movement. Only the occasional car passed.
The girl did not realize that the young man was following her. He had slipped off the path and slipped out of his clothes, trading his naked hide for the mangy pelt of a half-starved wolf. He loped on all fours, a red tongue lolling while his tail brushed the bobbing branches of the smallest trees and , beneath him, his long red prick bobbed along with each step.
Angela thought about the kid back at the bus stop and saw red. It was his fault she was stuck walking in this. She should have given him a piece of her mind. No, more than that, she should have torn him a new--
A car pulled up, an old clunker of indeterminate make and model and a faded reddish paintjob. The passenger window had been repaired with duct tape and couldn‘t roll down, so the driver had to open the door and lean over in order to talk to her. "Do you need a lift?" he said.
The girl tapped on the cottage door. The wolf hid the old woman's gnawed bones and the red-stained sheets and then slid under the blanket, hiding his hairy body and enormous prick. He raised his voice into a frail-sounding falsetto and said, “Come in, my lovely!”
Angela hesitated. She was soaked to the bone already and it would take at least another half an hour to get home on foot. But if she really wanted a ride she could just call Nicolas, and she wasn't sure she liked the look of this car...
"No, I'm okay, but thank you," she said. Or at least, that's what she tried to say. Her teeth were chattering too badly to form words, and only then did she realize how cold she really was. The driver pushed the car door open more and she climbed in, holding her pale, shaking hands to heater vents until the numbness to fade.
The girl came into the cottage and set her basket down. The air was thick with a scent she did not know, but it was warm and there was a fire on, red flames licking old blackened logs.
Once Angela was warmed a bit she took a closer look at the driver. He was somewhere in his fifties, his graying hair and beard still touched with ginger. When her teeth finally stopped chattering Angela cleared her throat and said, "Thank you."
"Not a problem," said the driver. They stopped at a red light. "You heading toward Lincoln Avenue?"
"Me too. Name's Charles."
"Pleasure to meet you. Boy, isn't this a day? What's a little lady like you doing out all by herself on a day like this?"
"Going home to my daughter."
"A daughter? Isn't that nice. She a little one? Pretty, like her mother? You know you don‘t look old enough to have kids."
The wolf, still speaking in Grandmother’s voice, said. “Hello my darling. Don’t you look lovely.”
Angela turned toward the window. "She's my youngest," she said, and then, "Do you have anything I can dry off with? I'm dripping all over."
"Water can hardly hurt this old heap now, but there's some napkins in the glove box. Don't mind the mess."
"Thank you," said Angela. She opened the glove box, paused for a moment when she looked inside, then did her best to towel off with the napkins. She realized that her purse was soaked too, and with alarm she saw the wrinkled pages of Nicolas' book. She pulled it out, fretting, trying to dry it on the heater vent.
"What's that?" said Charles.
"Just a book that my--a friend lent me."
The pages riffled open, and her eyes fell across one:
The wolf is hungry forever. The scrawny, gamey flesh of the old woman had not satisfied him. The young, pink, virginal flesh of this girl would fill his belly no better, for a wolf’s hunger is as much a part of him as the yellow eyes in his head or the withered red heart in his sunken chest or the black hairs that sprout from his backside, but his tongue lapped at his jaws anyway as he looked her up and down
"Guess your purse couldn't stand up to the rain," said Charles. "You should get something like my messenger bag. It's waterproof." He indicated the bag in the back seat. “Handy thing to have with a kid around, I'd think. Who's looking after her while you're out?"
"My mother," said Angela. "We moved into her place a while ago."
"I love kids," Charles said. "Never had any. Always wanted some.”
"I’m so hungry, my darling,” said the wolf.
“I’ve brought you food,” said the girl. The wolf eyed her tender young breasts as they glanced against the fabric of her blouse.
“Yes,” he said, “you have.”
"She's all I have in the world," said Angela, still barely paying attention.
"What about your other ones? You said she's the youngest.”
The rain was coming down in sheets now and Charles slowed the car to a crawl, almost blinded as the flimsy wipers failed to fight off the deluge. Angela's vision tunneled down onto a blank spot on the page in front of her, a space between two words. "I had another daughter," she said. "But she died."
Charles started. "I'm sorry!" he said. "I had no idea."
"She was murdered," said Angela. "The man I was dating killed her."
"Jesus Christ!" said Charles. He looked at her, looked away, then looked at her again. "I didn't --"
The wolf is always hungry.
"We'd been going out for a month, and he still hadn‘t tried to sleep with me," Angela said. The words were tumbling out and she couldn’t stop. “I wondered why, but he told he was waiting for the right time. Turns out he was right: A time I wasn‘t home…"
Charles stopped the car and tried to put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry," he said. "That kind of thing...it's so awful I just can't even bear to think about it."
"Yeah, it's hard to think about," said Angela. Then she looked up at him. "But it's easy to do, right? Easy, because you don't think about it when you do it. Not even when you're planning it, like now?"
“Grandmother, what big ears you have!”
Charles looked at her, bewildered. "What the hell are you talking about?"
“You pick up a woman walking alone. You make conversation and find out where she's going, how many people are in the house, how many kids she has. Everything you want to know for the plan.”
“Grandmother, what big eyes you have!”
Charles blinked, disbelieving. "I don't --"
"And then there's these." She took the little red pill bottle out of the glove compartment and shook it. "Tell me, have you had that for more than four hours?" She indicated his lap. "Because if you have you should call a doctor."
Charles shifted in his seat. The car was stark still in the middle of the lane, but there was no traffic now, nothing outside except the wind and the rain and the trees. "Not that it's any of your business, but I was on my way to a date” he said. “At my age, you have to think ahead about these things."
“And the gloves, and the rope, and the folding knife in the glove box, those all for your 'date' too?" Angela smiled, showing all her teeth.
"They're useful things to have around. Look, I understand that with all that you've been through it'd be hard to trust people, but I promise I was just offering you a ride because of the rain, nothing sinister about it. I wouldn't lay a finger on you or your daughter." He paused. "In fact, I'm gay."
“Grandmother, what big hands you have!”
"You have a wedding ring."
“Read the news: That’s legal these days.”
"You're married, but you have a date?"
His face turned red. "I don't have to explain myself to you. Now, if you don't trust me for whatever reason, fine. Here."
He reached out and she shrank away, but all he did was open the door. The wind blew the rain in, soaking her again.
"Go ahead,” he said. “Walk if that's what you want. I won't stop you."
"That's not what I want," Angela said, closing the door.
"Then I'll give you a lift to the edge of the park," said Charles, putting the car in gear again.
"That's not what I want either," said Angela. She put her hand on his knee. He started. "What I want…" She undid her seatbelt, then his. “Is to bite your fucking head off and spit out the bones.”
His jaw dropped. Thunder rolled outside. "Lady," he said, voice quavering, "that's not funny."
"Good thing I‘m not joking," said Angela. "I'm going to kill you."
Charles stuck a finger in her face. "Now you listen here, little miss, I've had just about enough--"
Angela snapped the gear shift off in her hand. The metal and thick red plastic splintered like it was nothing. Then she wrapped one hand around the steering wheel and pulled it off too, throwing it into the back seat. Her hands had become gnarled paws. Her eyes were yellow. She watched his red face go pale, and when she saw the first indications of shock she grabbed him and pulled him in close, growling.
“…TEETH you have!”
“Sit still,” she said, reaching down into his lap. He tried to stop her and she belted him across the mouth. She unzipped his pants and slid a hand inside. The pills were still working. She pulled him out and squeezed while at the same time showing him her teeth, which had become impossibly long. Normally they wouldn’t have fit into her mouth, but the shape of her face and head had changed too, although not completely. She thumbed the head of his prick as he huddled on one side of the car, too scared to move.
“Don’t think that because I’m doing this that I’m not going to kill you,” she said, squeezing him again and then beginning to jack him off. “I am. This is just to give you time to think about it. I want for the last time you ever get your rocks off to be while you think about dying. Remember all those women you hurt just so you could feel this? This will be a little bit like that.”
“I never hurt anyone,” he said. His mouth was bleeding little red drops. She licked them up. She moved over now, sitting on him as much as the confines of the car would allow. His seat leaned back. She kept a death grip on his cock so that he wouldn’t get any smart ideas about running. The marvels of modern pharmaceuticals kept him at attention even while the rest of him shrank away into nothing. It was funny, actually. His swollen red cock was bobbing up and down, like a dog too stupid to know it was about to be put down. She
"Here's how it's going to happen," she said. "As soon as you’re done, I'm going to count to 20. You can stay here in the car and make it easy, or you can try to run. Your choice, but it‘s going to end the same no matter what."
She kept jerking him.
“You think that if you can hold it back that means I won’t be able to go on, but that won’t work. For one thing, most guys can’t hold it no matter what. That’s biology for you; she’s a bitch. Second, even if you did, I’d lose my patience eventually and skip that part. But then I’d be real mad, and it would be even worse for you. So don’t get smart about it.”
She sped up. He was sweating and so was she: His was the sweat of fear, hers arousal. It filled the car. She smiled wider, showing him a red tongue. Maybe she ought to go down on him and speed things up even more? He’d really panic then, when her sharp canines came within grazing distance of his pathetically eager erection. But that was too much trouble: He was almost finished anyway.
“Maybe I’ll start counting even before you’re done. Would that be fair? A little motivation might do you good. Let’s try it: One.”
He cried out. She squeezed harder. His little cock spasmed.
A wet, hot smear dribbled down her fingers. She wiped the hand on his trouser and then held it up so that he could see the claws.
“Three. You’d better start running, Charles.” She opened the door and kicked him out. He landed on the side of the road, half-naked in the rain.
He wasted a few seconds trying to crawl before getting smart enough to stand, redo his pants, and then run. Angela watched him blunder off into the bushes. Had he stayed on the road, there was a small chance someone driving by would have stopped to help. But traipsing through the park, in the storm, he would be alone. No help was coming.
“Seven. Eight. Nine.”
She shed her clothes. The rain felt good on her naked body now. She dropped to all fours when it became more comfortable. Cold droplets decorated her sleek pelt as she loped to the treeline.
“Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen…”
When she reached 20 she took off. Even in the rain Charles’ scent was strong, and he was making enough noise for two. He half-ran, half-stumbled, slipping and skidding in the mud every other step. He kept looking over his shoulder. He was out of shape, and Angela, running on all fours, her tail swatting branches with each step, could have overtaken him immediately, but she waited to see what he would do instead. Soon he came to a place where the rain pooled at the base of a great tree, the exposed roots forming the banks of a puddle so deep it was almost a pond. Charles fell into it, then started wading. On the opposite side, at the top of the hill, two homeless men huddled under a tarp for shelter. Charles began to wave and shout, and they looked at him. Angela waited until he had slogged halfway through the puddle and then threw her head back and howled, louder than the wind, louder than the rain, louder than the thunder. Charles fell to his knees and covered his ears. The men on the hill ran away.
Once they were out of sight she slid down the embankment and into the muddy water, wading over to Charles. They were both soaked, and the mud sucked at their feet, pulling them down. She had to walk upright again to keep above the surface. Charles backed against a hollow formed by tree roots. He gibbered and sobbed and whimpered. She grabbed him by the nape of the neck and dragged him to “dry” land. "I wasn't going to do anything," he said, tears running down his mud-streaked face, mingling with the rain. "I wasn't going to hurt you, I swear."
"Of course," said Angela. She sat down on his chest and ran her fingers through his hair gently, almost lovingly.
"Please don't kill me," said Charles, wincing as one of her claws glanced against his neck.
"When I found my daughter, she was all red."
"What?" said Charles, blinking, bewildered.
"Sarah, my oldest daughter. I came home after work and couldn't find her. I looked all over. I asked my boyfriend where she was, and he wouldn't answer. And that's when I saw that his hands were red." She gripped his shoulders tighter. "I found her in the bathtub. She was red all over. Red inside the tub. Red all in her hair. I couldn't wash the red out no matter how hard I tried. By the time I was done I had red all over my hands and it wouldn’t come off."
Charles closed his eyes "I'm so sorry," he said.
"I am too," said Angela. They were concealed in a copse of bushes at the bottom of a small ravine. It was a good place. Burgundy-red roses sprouted up from between the roots of the trees here.
"I don't deserve this."
Angela hesitated. "Maybe," she said, turning her head a little. "I don't know. I can't know for sure, ever. But…" She grabbed him by the throat. "I do have mouths to feed."
She held him under the water, waiting for the thrashing to stop. The drizzling rain ran in streamers down her pelt and the length of her muzzle. When she felt the body stop moving, she waited, counting to herself. When enough time had passed, she pulled him up again. He flopped around, limp. Satisfied, she dragged him to where the water lapped against the land, and there she bared her claws. Over the rain, there was a ripping sound.
The water turned red.
"I'm home," Angela said, closing the door behind her. She took off her wet coat and shouldered Charles' messenger bag. Her mother looked at her, blinking.
"You're soaked!" she said.
"I got caught in the rain. I'm sorry I'm late. I had to stop and get dinner." She put the bag on the table.
She dried off and looked in on Anna, asleep in bed. Then she showered, taking time to scrub the red crust out from under her nails. After, she dried Nicolas' book by the heater and read the last page of the story she'd started:
"All the better to eat you with!” the wolf said, but the girl was not impressed. She kissed the wolf on his muzzle and made him sit on the floor, and she put a leash and collar around his neck, and that night he slept at the foot of her bed, snoring gently. Because she knew she was no one's meat.
Angela laughed, then called Nicolas. "Did you make it home okay?" he said.
"Yes," she said, "but your book got a little wet. I can buy you a new one."
"Don't bother," he said, "I have lots more. I wrote it, you know."
She looked at the cover. "Your name isn't on it."
"A pen name, from when I was younger." He paused. "Did you like it?"
"Very much," she said, and she was about to say more but then Anna came out. Angela told Nicolas goodbye and then picked her daughter up and set her on her lap. "Did you have a good nap sweetheart?” she said.
Anna nodded and smiled; her little blue eyes glimmered and her red curls bounced. Then she said, "I'm hungry."
"Me too," said Angela, reaching for the messenger bag. She put her hand inside, and when it came out it held something red and dripping to her daughter's mouth.
"Now eat up," Angela said. “While it's still fresh."