My niece was looking at all the things on my shelves. Not the books – although she liked to run her hands along the shelves and push any that were pulled out to the front back as far as they would go – but the assorted other ephemera that had accumulated there: dinosaurs, badges, watches, postcards, rocks, a moomin, two bags of go stones, all those little creatures we’d made out of plasticine the last time she was here and which were now all fuzzed with dust.
Six months ago is a long time when you’re 3 (not so much when you’re 41 and it feels like last week sometime), and by now she had forgotten she had even made them. Today on their re-discovery she had given them all new names, one by one – Berri, Captain Cat, Baby Jack, The Dragon Who Is On My Side, The Cyclops, David, Berri 2.
On the top shelf there was a framed print from a book of fairy tale illustrations. It was so high up she couldn’t see it properly, and so she asked me to take it down and show it to her.
“Who’s that, David?” she asked, pointing to the girl in the picture.
“It’s Little Red Riding Hood.”
“And what’s that?” she said.
“It’s the wolf.”
“He looks so grumpy!” she said, picking the picture up in both hands so she could get a closer look at him.
“Well, he is a bit,” I said. “You must have heard of Red Riding Hood before?”
She shook her head firmly.
“Is she one of your friends?”
“Well, no,” I said. “It’s an old fairy tale. Like, I don’t know, Snow White or something. Have you seen Snow White?”
She nodded her head.
“The prince had such a silly voice,” she said. “We couldn’t stop laughing when he started singing!”
She paused for a moment, her eyes fixed on the picture in her hands.
“I want to hear about Red Hiding Hood,” she said. “Can you tell me the story, David? Can you tell me all about her?”
“Okay,” I said. “But it’s a bit gruesome, you might not like it.”
“Grooosome,” she repeated, with her perfect child’s mimicry of the new and unheard. “What’s grooosome?”
“It means it’s… It means it isn’t very nice.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well make it nice, David. I want a nice story. Not a grooosome one.”
“Alright,” I said. “So, it goes like this…”
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, right out in the woods somewhere, there lived a little girl, who was just the sweetest, kindest child in the world. Wherever she went, she always wore her bright red coat, because it was her favourite coat (and her only coat), and she always pulled the hood up, even when it wasn’t raining, so her ears wouldn’t get cold.
She really hated getting cold ears.
Every Sunday morning, when she woke up, she’d bake a whole tray of cupcakes and cookies, and then after lunch, when they’d cooled down enough to touch, she’d pack them into her little picnic basket and take them round to her grandmother’s for afternoon tea.
Now, like I said, Little Red Riding Hood (which was what everyone called her), lived out in the woods, but her granny lived in the forest. Right out there in the deepest, darkest, furthest away place she could. It was the middle of winter, and there was snow on the ground, and the air felt like it was ice, and the sun was so low in the sky it might as well not have risen at all. It was so bleak
Not that this deterred Little Red Riding Hood, of course. She went out to her grandmother’s house with her cakes, just like she did every weekend, because she wasn’t merely the sweetest girl in the world, she was the bravest, too.
With every step up the path, the air got colder, and the snow got deeper. The trees grew taller, and thicker, and so close together that it slowly became darker, and darker, and darker, until at last it was so dark you’d have thought it was the dead of night. And then there would be a little red glow on the path ahead, and then another, as a series of little lanterns laid out especially for Little Red Riding Hood lit up the path all the way to granny’s front door.
She knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She knocked, and knocked again, and there was still no answer. But then the door swung open with a creak and Little Red Riding Hood stepped inside.
Now, she was such a good girl she remembered to take off her snowy, muddy, little red boots off by the door, and while she did she called out into the cold gloominess of granny’s house, “Oh Granny, oh Granny, I’m here, I’m here.”
There was no answer, so Little Red Riding Hood crept down the hall, and she pushed open the door to the living room, and said,” Granny, oh Granny, where are you?” but the room was dark as dusk, and just as cold, and there was no answer from there.
Then she pushed open the door to the kitchen, which was dark as night, and twice as cold, and called out,” Granny, oh Granny, where are you?” but there was no answer there, either.
Finally, she pushed open the door to granny’s bedroom. It was blacker than space, and three times as cold, but when she called out, “Granny, oh Granny, where are you?” a voice growled back, “I’m in here, my dear, waiting for you.”
“What are you doing in there, Granny?” Little Red Riding Hood asked, as she stepped over to the bedside and into the shadows. “It might be dark and cold, but it’s not yet time for bed.”
“I’m just resting, my dear,” growled out the voice. “While I waited for you.”
Little Red Riding Hood reached out in the dark, and put her hand on granny’s shoulder, and kissed her on the cheek, or where she thought her cheek would be, there in the dark, where she couldn’t see a thing.
“Oh Granny, you’re so furry!” Little Red Riding Hood laughed. “Why are you wearing your big winter coat and that nice thick scarf when you’re in bed?”
“I’m just keeping warm, my dear,” growled out the voice. “While I waited for you.”
Granny rolled over, and looked up at Little Red Riding Hood, her eyes as big and bright and red as lanterns.
“Oh, Granny, what big eyes you have!” Little Red Riding Hood, with a sly little smile.
“All the better for seeing you with, my dear,” growled out the voice.
“And Granny, what a big wet nose you’ve got!”
“All the better for smelling my dinner with!” growled out the voice with a lick of its lips.
“And oh Granny, what a big wide mouth you’ve got,” Little Red Riding Hood said. “with such big long sharp snapping teeth!”
“All the better,” growled the voice, as the wolf leapt up out of the bed and revealed himself. “For eating all your cupcakes with!”
“Oh Mr Wolf, what a waggly tail you’ve got,” she laughed, as he pushed his snout into the picnic basket and snaffled up all the treats with his long hungry tongue.
Well, not quite all the treats. Little Red Riding Hood made sure she kept one safe for when Granny came back in from the shops.
“Cupcakes!?” my niece snorted derisively. “Wolfs don’t eat cupcakes, David.”
“They might,” I said.
“Wolfs eat meat, David,” she said. She looked at the picture again, then back at me. “Was that the real story, David?”
“Well, it’s a story,” I said.
“Did you make it up?”
“Well, yeah,” I laughed. “Bits of it anyway. You told me to, remember.”
“But I don’t want a made up story, David. I want the real story.”
“You told me to make it nice. So I made it nice.”
“Well I want you to tell me the real story now,” she said, looking not at me but at the picture in her hands. She traced her fingers across the glass, letting them slide along the lines of her body, the contours of his mouth.
Then she turned and looked up at me. Looked straight into my eyes.
“I want you to make it as gruesome as can be.”
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