Once upon a time…
In a pretty little house in a pretty little wood there lived a pretty little family. The family consisted of a mother, a father, and a little girl. The mother was called Clara, the father was called Jonas, and the little girl was called Red. The little girl was not named Red, for her name was Jennifer, but she’d been called Red ever since her grandmother, who lived a little ways away in the same wood, had given her a red jumper that Red had refused to take off until it fell to pieces. Even now, Red loved the colour red; she always made sure to wear at least one thing in that colour. Her parents didn’t mind, as it made Red easy to keep track of in a crowd.
Not that Red often had the opportunity to get lost in a crowd. She and her parents lived in a wood, remember? Nobody came through the wood except for the occasional woodcutter who had to be chased off. The closest neighbours were a family of bears and Red’s grandmother, a spry little woman who lived by herself and kept her garden neat and her cookie-jar full even though she was getting on in years. By the time she was five years old, Red knew the way to her grandmother’s house by heart- it was easy; there was a path, after all.
The summer she turned twelve, Red’s parents let her go to her grandmother’s house by herself. They were a little worried about her, for she had seemed rather lonely as of late. There weren't any other little girls in the wood, so Red didn’t have anyone else to play with besides for the woodland animals, and after she had finished her lessons for the day- her mother taught her out of an old book- she would go outside and make up her own games. She’d already picked all the berries on the bushes near the house and climbed all the trees nearby as well, and she was thoroughly bored.
“Why don’t you go visit Grandma?” Clara asked one day to stop a very bored Red from bouncing off the walls. “You can bring along some of the jam we made from last week’s berries.”
“Oh, Mummy, can I?” Red asked excitedly. She flipped forward off of the couch upon which she’d been lying upside-down. “Can I really go by myself? You and Daddy always say I have to have someone with me!”
Clara would have taken Red to visit Grandma, but she had things to do in the house, and Jonas couldn’t take her either; he was out hunting down the latest woodcutter. Red was twelve years old now, Clara reminded herself. “I think you can,” she said, putting two jars of jam and a bottle of water into a basket. “You know the way, and if you promise to go straight there and not to go exploring on the way, I think it’ll be fine.”
Red ran to her mother and hugged her. “I’ll do that. Oh, thank you, Mummy!”
Red skipped happily along the path to Grandma’s house, a basket swinging from the crook of one arm. She was going to visit Grandma all on her own, for the first time ever! The sun was shining merrily, and Red was full of bouncy excitement. The walk to Grandma’s house took about half an hour, and though it wasn’t a very long walk, it seemed long to a twelve-year-old girl walking on her own, as Red was. It took about five minutes for the novelty of walking to Grandma’s by herself to wear off. Red’s basket was getting heavy, and she transferred it to her other arm. After another minute or two, she switched it to her hand. She was getting tired, but she refused to turn back. If she went home now, who knew when Mummy and Daddy would let her go on her own again?
To pass the time, Red sang nonsense songs that she made up as she went. “The sun is shining brightly, and the day is hot, but I’m not turning back yet; oh, no, I’m not! It’s shady in the wood ‘cause I’m underneath a tree. And all the lovely shade keeps the sun off of me!”
When she tired of skipping, Red tried bouncing with both feet together. When that got boring, she hopped on one foot, then the other. When she tired of that, too, she tried walking backwards. This was a little harder, for she had to keep craning her head and twisting it around to see where she was going, but that also made it more fun. After about three minutes of bouncing, two minutes of hopping, and five minutes of walking backwards, Red decided she’d had enough. She was more than halfway there, but she was tired from all her various modes of travel and needed a break before she kept going further. She spun around, intending to plop down on the side of the path for a little break, but before she could, she smacked into someone and the basket went flying out of her outstretched hand.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Red said, scrambling to pick up her basket and put the jam and water back inside. “I’m afraid I wasn’t looking where I was going, and—” Red broke off abruptly as she stood up and got a good look at the person whom she’d bashed into.
He was about her father’s height and build, but much scruffier. His clothes were scruffier and shabbier than anything she’d ever seen in her life; though her mother often had to repair her family’s clothes, it was always done neatly and as unobtrusively as possible, whereas this man wore clothes that were caked with dirt, had all the seams showing, and looked like they had been purposely cobbled together from anything and everything: old tablecloths, curtains, bedsheets, towels… There was even a part of his… shirt-like garment… that looked like it had been made from an old burlap sack. His hair, caked with dirt, seemed to stick out in all directions, and his hungry eyes peered out from a face that was even more caked with dirt than the hair.
“Who are you?” Red asked in bewilderment, then immediately regretted her tone. “Sorry. That was rude.” Nobody else came through these parts, as far as Red was concerned, but on the rare occasion that one did, it was usually a woodchopper. In the past, Red’s family had tried to convince passersby that the wood was haunted to discourage people from chopping it down, but Red never felt unsafe within its boundaries, and now was no exception. It didn’t cross her mind that this dirty stranger could be dangerous. She was merely curious as to who this stranger was and what he was doing in the wood.
“They call me the wolf,” the man told her, “because I’m a scavenger, see.” He seemed friendly enough, and Red could see that she hadn’t offended him. “Of course, wolves aren’t really natural scavengers, but they will scavenge if necessary, so I suppose it does fit.”
“I’m called Red,” Red told him. “On account of the fact it’s my favourite colour of all time.” A thought occurred to her. What if he was that woodcutter in disguise or something, come to chop down the wood that was her home? She’d better bring him to Grandma. Grandma would know what to do. “Say, scavengers are usually hungry, aren’t they? I’m going to my Grandma’s house for tea. Why don’t you come along?” What would she do if he said no?
“Sure, Red. I’d like that. Are you sure your Grandma won’t mind, though?” Phew! He was going to come.
“She won’t mind at all. She’s very fond of this wood, you see. She’s been living here for ages, but she doesn’t get too many guests.” Now that Red had someone to talk to, she wasn’t tired anymore. She wanted to get to Grandma’s, fast, and she couldn’t leave this stranger alone in the wood. “Come on! Grandma lives just through these trees.” Red grabbed the stranger’s hand and pulled him along, chattering about any little thing that popped into her head as she went.
“Don’t you just love this gorgeous breeze? I love breezes, especially the ones that swoop down from the treetops and whoosh by your ear and whisper promises of all the wonderful things you’d see if only you could fly, and then the breezes offer to pick you up and swoosh you away, and you really want to go, only you can’t because you’ve got responsibilities, and anyways you don’t know how to fly. Do you wish you knew how to fly? I sure do. How wondrous it must be to swoop above the trees and play with the wind and birds and every now and then dip back down to make the leaves flutter!” Red tended to chatter when she got nervous, but she kept her chatter lighthearted and didn’t let the stranger see her uneasiness. “If I could fly, I would stay up there in the sky, swooping around, light as a feather- hey, maybe I could become a feather! I wonder what it feels like to be a feather. Have you ever thought about being a feather?”
“I imagine it must feel rather… fuzzy,” the stranger ventured when Red looked at him intently, waiting for an answer.
“I suppose it might,” Red agreed, still pulling him along down the path. “Or perhaps furry, but not too furry, really, and well, it must be feathery, I suppose; after all, it’s a feather we’re talking about. It must be rather a nice feeling; it wouldn’t do for a feather to be an uncomfortable thing to be, not when they’re so pretty, and so useful, too.” Red chattered in this manner all the way to Grandma’s house, which made the walk seem shorter than it ever had before.
Grandma lived in another pretty little cottage. A cobblestone path lined with flowerbeds led up to a big square door set into cheery yellow walls. Big windows and a thatch roof completed the picture. Red skipped up the path with her new friend following close behind her. She had long ago left off tugging on his arm, for it seemed he was not going to desert her. She’d even let him carry her basket, for it had gotten rather heavy. Clara’s jam jars were BIG. Making the wolf carry the basket had another effect. After chattering at him for a few minutes, and watching him closely all the while, Red was sure he was an honest man, the sort who wouldn’t run off with a little girl’s basket. In case he was not, the heavy basket would make it difficult for him to run off if he tried.
Red rapped lightly on Grandma’s door.
“Who is it?” Grandma’s warm voice called out from the other side, though she already knew. Red had a distinct knock, and nobody else tended to visit Grandma.
“It’s Red, Grandma!” Red called back. “I’ve brought someone to see you!”
“I’m coming, sweetheart! Just a minute!” Grandma came to the door and pulled it open, reaching for Red to give her a big hug. Red breathed in Grandma’s cinnamony scent and grinned. She’d brought the wolf to her grandmother, and Grandma would know what to do.
“I brought you someone. I thought he might be the woodcutter Daddy’s looking for, but now I don’t think so.”
A minute later, Grandma was ushering Red and her guest into the kitchen and putting the kettle up for tea. “I hope you’re not offended,” Grandma told the man. Her voice was businesslike. “But I can’t have you tracking dirt all over my house. You’ll have to wash up before you sit down anywhere. And if you’re not attached to those clothes, we’ll have to find you something else to wear. Perhaps some of my late husband’s things should do.”
Red couldn’t be sure, but she thought the man looked a bit embarrassed under all that dirt. “I’d like that,” he admitted. He was definitely embarrassed. “I don’t often get a chance to be someplace this clean. I’ve got to scavenge for a living. I’ve had to for a long time. They call me the wolf,” he offered by way of greeting.
“Now, that won’t do,” Grandma said briskly. “You must have a given name. What is it?”
The man was taken aback. “Nobody’s asked for my given name in a very long time,” he explained. “It’s Ernest.” The name seemed to suit him. Once he was cleaned up and dressed in some of Red’s late grandfather’s clothes, which were somewhat worn but neatly mended and certainly much cleaner than anything Ernest had got on before, Ernest insisted on helping get ready for tea. In response to Grandma’s questions, Ernest’s story began to come out. He’d been cast out of his house and forced to seek his fortune by a wicked stepmother. He’d never been on his own before and did rather a poor job of it. He’d not thought to try finding work, just lived on whatever people threw away. The thought of stealing had likewise never even occurred to him. He slept on the ground and tossed in his sleep, which was how he’d gotten so dirty. His clothes had been washed away one time when he left them too close to a stream while attempting to bathe, and he’d been forced to cobble together new ones from whatever he could find. He’d also been scared to wash after that. He didn’t want to be a bother, but it had been so long since he’d had a solid meal, and even longer since he’d had anything sweet, that when Red invited him, he had not been able to do anything but agree.
Hearing this, Grandma got some chicken soup out of the icebox and put it on the stove, then took an extra loaf of bread from the pantry.
By the time tea was ready, Ernest had told Grandma everything he had planned to admit and then some. Grandma had already started thinking of excuses to keep Ernest around. The young man obviously couldn’t make it on his own, but he had a good head on his shoulders and was honest. She liked that.
Red had also become quite fond of Ernest. Once she had Grandma’s approval, she knew he was okay. And he had been a good listener and good company on the walk over. He had paid more attention to what Red had been saying than Red herself had!
“You’ll have to get rid of those old clothes,” Grandma said as she spread some of Clara’s jam on a piece of bread and passed it to Ernest.
Ernest did not like that idea. He blatantly refused. “It’s the only thing I have left that’s really mine,” he explained. “It took me ages to put together. And it’s warm. You have no idea how cold it gets at night in these parts.”
Red did know how cold it got, and so did Grandma, but they let this last remark slide. Ernest was obviously attached to his raggedy patchwork clothes. “Well, at least let me wash them for you,” Grandma offered, but Ernest would not hear of it.
“If you’ve just got a bit of soap to spare, I’ll wash them myself. I’m not afraid of hard work.” He really wasn’t. After tea, which for Ernest turned out to be something like dinner instead, for Grandma plied him with all sorts of food until he could eat no more, Ernest insisted on cleaning up. He tied on a frilly pink apron that Grandma loaned him and started washing all the dishes (he’d been made to use several for all the different types of food Grandma had forced on him, of which he ate heartily), whistling cheerfully as he worked. When he was through with that, he took the broom from the corner and began sweeping the floor.
Red and Grandma shared a conspiratorial look. “I may just keep him,” Grandma confided in a whisper. “I can’t imagine why his stepmother chucked him out.” But it was not to be. As soon as Ernest was through with the cleaning up, including giving his old clothes a thorough scrubbing, he told Grandma that he had to be on his way. His clothes were still damp, but Grandma told him he could keep the ones she’d given him, so he hung his old clothes over one shoulder and said his goodbyes, looking a little sad to be leaving. “I’d be out of place here,” he explained. “I have to go.”
“Come and visit sometime,” Grandma told him, and Ernest promised he would.
CRASH! The glass in one of the windows shattered; a hatchet flew through it and buried itself in the opposite wall, missing Ernest by inches. A man jumped through the hole in the window and landed awkwardly on one of Grandma’s chairs, breaking one of the legs off. He jumped to his feet and lunged across through the room. “I’ll save you!” he proclaimed, reaching for his hatchet.
Grandma got there first, swatting his reaching hand away. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded. “Hasn’t anyone ever taught you to knock? Look what you’ve done to my house!”
“But- but-” the vagrant stuttered. “That wolf…” He was looking at Ernest.
“Red, run home and get your dad, or your mum, if he’s not there. Quickly,” Grandma told her. “We’ll take care of this vagrant until you get back. I’ll bet my cookie-jar he’s the woodcutter they’re after.” She turned to Ernest, a smile on her face. “Do you have to go?” She asked. “My house will need repairing. I’d like to offer you a job.”
This time, Ernest couldn’t refuse. He smiled. “I’d like that.”