A long time ago when Red was a girl --
A long time ago when Red was very young, she asked her grandmother why it was fair for girls to hurt and boys to laugh at them. She had just turned thirteen not half a year ago, and her mother had taken her to the stream behind the shed, given her a dark set of linens and a bitter cup of tea to go with them. Once a month was much too often (in Red's opinion) for a stomach to cramp up and rags to be worn, wrung out in streams so they could stain the riverwater pink.
There's power in the pain, her grandmother explained, there's strength in that blood. That's why we dye your cape that color, it's a warning to those who might harm you.
Boys don't bleed, Red complained, curled into a tiny ball on the stones of the fireplace. The logs popped sparks at her legs, tiny fireflies that bloomed and died on the stones. And boys get to be strong anyway.
Her grandmother had been a long time speaking after that. Red had watched the fire burn down until it was a sultry glimmer buried in the logs, smoldering orange in grey. You're still too young to see what boys can do to gain their strength, poppet. A sigh. Then the crone added, so quietly that it was almost lost beneath the embers, May you never be that old.
Since then, Red has been through certain experiences, gone places where being alive and quite, quite dead are rather blurred. Ever since coming out, she has learned that straight lines are bent, that there are more ways to get hurt than you expect, that you can walk roads that are not at all connected to the safe path. And in doing so, how to discover many kinds of beautiful (broken) things that were true all along about the world, (all along they were this wrong.)
Insanity, really, is only a form of sanity that has gone so far around the bend that it has met its own origins. (No.) It's the other way around.
Red knows what they say about her -- indeed, she can't escape it, and has no intentions of doing so. Running away is the first step to fear. And when fear catches you, it sinks its nasty needle-claws inside until it drags you down and you can't turn and free yourself, you can't sever its limbs, so the best way is to never flee in the first place. She's mad? Loopy as a cow in the moon, fiddling to see such sport, dishes and spoons? So be it.
She's still the one holding the axe.
"Red," says November one afternoon when it has just finished raining and Perrault is grooming brambles out of his coat, "why do you cut your hair like that? I mean," (and the princess blushes, so prettily, so innocent,) "I first thought you were a boy when I saw you. Just for the first time. Before you opened your mouth."
"A boy in a hood?" The image amuses Red, and she lets it. Boys in cloaks. Hahh.
"Is there any... particular reason you cut your hair like boys do?" By now November is blithely ignoring all the hisses and sharp looks from Perrault, the warnings that maybe a crazy person would not appreciate being challenged on their fashion sense. "All short, even in back."
The question is awkward, so Red mouths it over a few times to soften it up, like gumming porridge for a grandsire. "My mother used to say," she drawls, ignoring Perrault who appears to be rolling his eyes to the heavens in hopes of being rescued from slow-witted company, "that boys are made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails. Girls are made of candy, to be eaten up." With that, Red holds her hand in the air like a duck-bill and makes small clapping bites in the princess's direction.
November, predictably, gives a little shudder and blanches at the imagined violence.
Red's hair is not stunted. It's just as long as Perrault's sulky pony-tuft, but then again, Red is no princess, Red has no indulgence of flowing locks. (Not since the wolf. The bed. The wolf.) November shows her ignorance by this assumption: short hair is for boys, short hair does not reach the waist. Short hair is anything not like her own.
If Red had to think of a word for November, it would be charming -- a description which she knows is reserved for princes, but Red doesn't care anymore. November is weak, she won't survive on her own. She'd be devoured by the wolves of the world.
Red wonders if the princess has ever been eaten before. To death.
November reminds her of flowers. Flowers themselves are fragile, helpless, too easily plucked despite their tiny token thorns. Red finds herself fond of them anyway. She has always liked flowers -- more than is good for her, for they have led to her present condition -- but they are harmless indulgences.
As is how she used to be.
Red likes November in the same way that she likes her axe. They are both very pure. The axe, because it can chop and kill, and the princess because -- because November is like flowers, innocent. Naive. She sees the way that November looks at Perrault sometimes, blushing, and even the way Perrault likes to pretend he's not looking back. It makes Red (almost) angry because she could tell November all about the cat, how beasts in the end only are true to their own natures, and how felines chase and tease and taunt before sauntering away on cold mornings when the sky is very, very grey.
Because the princess frightens easily, Red is careful when she reaches over and takes the girl's hand. Red is not a wolf; she does not apply pressure, knowing how readily November's skin mottles with bruises.
"Do you know what you do to someone who eats you up?"
November's eyes are perfectly round. There is so much Red could do to them, to say, infecting them with the secret that has changed the nature of the world. Flowers would wither beneath such truth. Cats would die.
The moon could vanish.
There is so much that Red could do, and so much that she refrains from. She does not tell November about what it was like to be compressed together with a softly moaning corpse; Grandmother missing her hand, pressing a stump against the flexing walls of their prison, scrabbling with the remaining fingers left on the other. Stomach acid already crumbling the elderly skin, causing it to peel and flake. Red's face squashed into her grandmother's side, against the exposed rib where the wolf had carved off a chunk, but the cut didn't look jagged, it was as clean and smooth as any turkey roast -- and suddenly things connected for Red, the meal that had been laid out on the table for her to eat, fresh deer (she'd been told) that had tasted nothing like what she remembered venison to be, raw raw red.
Her grandmother's lung was a pink moth fluttering through the mesh of her ribs.
Red remembers the meat which she had consumed obediently, the rough voice of the wolf in the bed commanding her to sup and grow strong.
(The villagers gossip about how she is a witch, how she eats humans, and Red wishes she could deny that. At least once.)
November is shaking her head now, small retreats that she cannot make with her body. Perrault has tensed; the sharp tang of cat-fear is what alerts Red to the present moment, snaps her out of her trance. He does not know if he should take action, and Red is not a creature which can be coaxed with mere words. She will not listen to his tongue.
She looks at him, momentarily curious at this power she has over him, and then she releases November's hand.
They spend the rest of the day walking. November, the cat, Red. The trees are dishwater grey, leaves fluttering like breathless courtiers. Later that night, Red curls inside her nest of scarlet cloak-folds and pokes her nose out just enough to scent the breeze, and listens to the grumbling of her traveling companions. They don't like the cold. The inconvenience. It's hard for November to sleep.
When Red was first unhatched from the plush womb of the wolf's stomach, she dreamed of nothing but steak tartar for weeks straight, bloody, fresh, eaten with her empty hands. Her palms slipped over the muscle tissues while she tried to get a grip tight enough to chew, touching lukewarm fat. She devoured the wolf a thousand times a night and woke up retching each morning, seeing the fur turn into the withered locks of her grandmother, slicing up her parentage with a hunter's knife.
Red knows that she died in there. What came out of the wolf's belly was another creature entirely, no longer a girl, but a being capable of handling a world where a person climbs into bed and discovers monsters there waiting.
In her dreams (which are always warm and rich with the smell of the furs she's killed, wrapped around herself until she has become a wolf too) -- in her dreams, Red answers the question.
"I ate him." Leaning close to November, pulling the girl near until their shoes bump together. Their skirts brush. "I consumed that which had become my greatest fear and became it, so it would never have power over me again."
In the secret nest of sleep, there is no Perrault to stop them. Red smiles, just a little -- and then squeezes November's fingers. The princess drops like a stone, crying out once from the grip and twice when her knees hit the ground. A brief pleasure blooms in Red's stomach at the sight; the feeling is quashed as soon as it appears. (She is no beast.) Instead, Red lowers her mouth (nibble nibble) to November's palm, loosening her jaw just enough to huff and puff and sigh against the princess's skin.
Then she turns her cheek to the girl's hand, and places her teeth upon November's knuckle.
Pure agony distends November's face as she envisions a world's worth of dismemberment -- but when the princess opens her eyes, wallowing in tears, it's just Red standing there. November's thumb touching her lips, smug. All digits intact. No wounds.
"Relax," she says. "I don't hurt girls like you."
She's not that kind of wolf.
They wake up. They walk. A little after noon, November complains of a glass shard working its way into her heel, which, when they stop to investigate, turns out to be a small thorn that had snagged on her sock. The offending object was minor, but November's foot has turned a blotchy, angry crimson; the princess gives a small cry when Perrault handles her ankle, bunching her fingers into her skirt to suppress any moans.
Red is privately amazed that the princess made it that far, though this appreciation is dampened by the fact that November should have spoken up earlier.
After Perrault has finished clucking his tongue in analysis, he sets down the girl's foot. "An inn?" November pleads, squinting against the tears that have swollen up prettily in the corners of her eyes.
There's a long, fluid sigh from Perrault. "Since our tenderfooted companion here would attract a whole army of bandits upon us with her continued cries," he announces, head tilted back so that his voice would be able to carry to an audience (but there is no one here, just Red and November and red and red and red,) "it seems we must accept her delay."
Red looks at Perrault and thinks cool observations to herself. She takes some small amusement in the fact that he tries to meet her gaze only for a moment before becoming discomforted. Blame it on insanity -- so she laughs instead and shows her teeth. "Haah," she says, and it tastes like a rasp, "you'll have her walk there, kitty?" (Up comes the axe in Red's mind.) "Or would you carry her yourself?" (Down.)
As expected, the suggestion causes Perrault to take a finicky step back, grimacing, his white-gloved fingers arching as if claws would spring from the tips.
It is Red who moves forward then, disregarding November's protests, scooping the princess's legs up and settling them gently on the log. It is Red who turns and leaves the camp, and goes out hunting.
There is no town for miles as far as Red can tell. Perrault does not trust her, but when he returns several hours later to the shallow clearing with nothing to show for himself but mud on his boots and an unpleasant glare, Red rewards him with a smug, smug smile.
They make do.
"This stew is really delicious," the princess exclaims. "What is it?"
The answer should be self-evident. Perrault is a beast and knows better; his slit-pupil eyes slide around the bowl and up to Red. He has consumed his fair share without protest. Good, Red thinks, pleased that the predator is willing to devour other meat-eaters. Perrault is a cat, and he knows.
So Red answers. "Boys."
November drops her spoon.
"Boys would taste worse," Red chides, disappointed that November is so gullible. "Snips and snails. Girls taste better."
"Girls," Perrault remarks dryly, a nobleman's faux-wit while he drags his spoon around his own meal, "should not be made into stew, regardless of how delectable their charms may be."
Red ignores the way the cat pulls his brow in November's direction, an oblique nod; she can smell his thoughts on him, and it's only the fact that he hasn't tried anything yet that's keeping his hide intact.
A slight cough on November's part reminds Red that she has not answered the original question. "Possum," she replies bluntly, leaving it at that.
This answer soothes the princess's mind. Red, turning over the stringy lumps of meat in the stewpot, hears a tiny "Thank you," come from November where she huddles on the far side of the fire. It's punctuated by the scrape of a spoon against the wooden bowl. "For being able to find this."
Surprised, Red lowers the flat spoon. There is no cause for gratitude; no need, nothing but bare practicality. "We need to eat."
"Thank you," November repeats anyway, her eyes fixed on her supper. For a moment it looks as if she will say something else, something forceful that brews behind her lips, but then she gives a little shake of her hair and remains silent.
Red takes another bite.
Wiping the thin broth off her chin, she sees the unconscious way that November leans towards Perrault, huddling her shoulders together, thin waif in a ragged party dress that lost her way home. Perrault pours the force of his concentrated distaste upon the soup bowl. She wishes she could tell November how important this is, how Red's very existence explains what boys do, what wolves do. What beasts know, in their dark hungry souls.
Red has strayed upon that other path: what her grandmother tried to tell her that boys can do, so long ago on a stone hearth cabin in another life. There's power in the pain, the woman had warned her. There's strength in blood. What Red hadn't realized back then is that there are two sides to every method, two directions. Giving. Taking.
November should know. It would be fair to warn her.
But then November takes both her hands and brushes back the hair from her face, cupping herself like a flower hiding its own heart within its petals, and Red decides she can wait another day.