Here Be Toothsome Wolves
Sometimes they’d arrive in a house of straw blown in from the harvest, or they’d appear deep within the mirror-maze halls of an ice castle. Other times a prince-turned-pauper gone a-hunting them would stumble over a rusted iron cauldron and out they’d pop, one two three, and then they’d ask him three riddles and grant his heart’s wish. Or they’d make him a devil’s bargain and steal his soul. Or they’d sleep with him—one after another, maiden, matron, crone—and if they were pleased they’d grant him a palace of his choosing, and if displeased turn him into a hind or a swan or a wolf. None of the wyrding woods’ many denizens could pinpoint their exact location, but prince and pauper alike knew when it was time to risk seeking the Fates: when toil and trouble had recently doubled.
Little Red was having wolf problems. A man in a gray wool suit stood on her stoop, his snout pointy, sunlight glinting off his teeth.
“Little girl, I’m your grandmother’s mortgage officer. Is she at home?”
“She’s ill abed.”
The wolfman snapped open his sheepskin briefcase and presented her with a stack of forms.
“Please tell your gram that her eviction is scheduled for this afternoon. I’ll return later, with the rest of my pack.” The little man flashed her a predatory grin, shut his briefcase, and loped away on all fours down the yellow brick road.
Little Red wasted no time, rifling through paperwork, poring over the fine print. Everything was unfortunately in order.
Little Red stuck her nose into Gram’s sickroom where the old woman huddled under a pile of bedclothes. “Wolf at the door again, wanting to eat us up. He has documentation saying we’re behind on our payments.” Red inhaled through her nostrils, bracing herself for a fight. “We have to ask the Fates for help.”
Gram’s eyes peered over the comforter, lids narrowed to lupine slits. “Do we now.” They didn’t talk about that, not ever. The wolves had come before, when Red was truly little, age six or so. Her mam had kissed Red on the forehead, then gone off to visit the Fates. She must’ve found them, or so Gram said, because the wolves left them alone after that, all through Little Red’s growing up—til now. “When they’re as like to cook us into stew as help us?”
“We don’t have a choice.”
“Ah, but we do, bright apple. I’ve a better plan. We’ll make a run for it. Pick us a basket while I make myself presentable.” Gram disappeared under her blankets once more, leaving a bewildered Red to clasp her long red cloak about her shoulders and head out into the wintery blue daylight.
A lunchbox tree graced their yard, with lunches of every size and color hanging heavy on its limbs. It flowered in every season, kept them fed even when times grew lean. Little Red pulled the ripest box down from the tree, sniffing to guess its contents: lemon tart, perhaps? An orange, certainly. Possibly a Swiss cheese sandwich. Wolves slept under the stars, ate meat every night. What did they want with her Gram’s cozy house, with its tree that bore cheese sandwich and lemon tart? The situation was manifestly unfair.
Red brought the box inside. With reverence, she took her mam’s axe down from above the mantle and tied the lunchbox to its handle, belting the axe across her back and sliding its sharp blade under the folds of her red hood. But when she went to fetch Gram, the old woman had scarcely moved. She’d merely turned sideways, skinny legs hanging over the edge of the bed, knobby knees peeking from beneath a pink flowered nightie.
“Gram, it’s time to go.”
“Patience, child.” Gram murmured under her breath, her eyes unfocused. “Should’ve done this years ago, might have saved your mam…” Recrimination lapsed into incantation: “Whimsy, whitewash, wicker, and bile; blue-tongued witches and blackest fire…”
Two round holes dilated open in the carpeted floor, holes that bored straight through to the dirt below, holes that had never been there before. “My, what strange holes those are,” said Red.
“All the better to make our escape,” said Gram, and Red wondered if Gram planned to shrink them both tiny enough to jump down the miniature rabbitholes. But instead, Gram’s legs began to stretch, getting skinnier and knobbier-kneed as they elongated.
“My, what long legs you have,” said Red.
“All the better to outrun a wolf pack,” said Gram. Her feet disappeared through the holes, and she pushed off the blankets and stood, growing ever taller, until her palms pressed up against the ceiling. Her white hair tufted all a-whichways, but a witchy mischief lit her grin, an expression Red hadn’t seen in years, not since Mam had disappeared. Wiry cords of muscle bulged along Gram’s spindly arms.
“My, what strong arms you have,” said Red.
“All the better to carry us to the Fates,” said Gram, and with a wrenching sound of metal uprooted from cement, the house came free of its foundation. Gram began to run, lifting the house up and away on skinny chicken-legs.
Red went to the back window and looked out. From the darkness of the woods came five, ten, twenty furred bodies running low to the ground. They still wore gray felt suits, and the file folders they clutched grew muddy as they loped along, silent shadows chasing the running house.
“They’re catching us up,” Red cried.
Gram picked up speed and the house listed dangerously, rattling Red from room to room; she narrowly avoided cutting herself on her mother’s axe blade. Gram’s chicken legs kept on trucking but her wax-white skin had gone crimson with effort and the breath rattled in the cage of her chest so bad Red thought she’d drop dead right there.
“Gram, it’s too heavy for you.”
Gram dropped the house with an oof, dust sifting down from the eaves, then collapsed, knees folding up to her chest.
“Too old and too tired, granddaughter mine.”
“Get up. We have to leave it!” Red dragged her grandmother’s skeletal frame upstanding, and just in time: there came a knock at the door.
“Ma’am, open up. You have stolen property in your possession; we’re going to need you to…”
Red didn’t hear the rest of the wolf’s speech; she and Gram staggered out the back door and fled into the woods, wolves at their heels.
Up ahead loomed an enormous black hollowtree. On every limb hung a warning: Do Not Climb, Turn Back Now, Will Grind Your Bones to Make Our Bread. Red almost missed the small sign tacked to a knot. It read The Fates, but the F had a slash though it, and beneath it curved a sinuous red S. High above them, its beams twisting round in the frigid wind that battered at the hollowtree’s crown, perched a listing, lurching treehouse.
“Up there, must be,” said Gram.
Red gave Gram a leg up, then snagged a low-hanging branch herself. They hupped high into the tree, one two three. The wolves stopped up short, howling and yipping: “A lien on your home!” “Interest rates at historic lows!” “Consider refinancing!” They shook their fists full of paperwork at the treetop, but they couldn’t climb with so many files in their hands.
“What’s that reek?” Gram asked, wrinkling her wrinkled nose.
The hollowtree had, in life, been a lunchbox tree, and rotten lunchboxes clung to every twig. Red stifled a gag, pulled a mold-furred box free from its branch, and upended its contents onto the wolves below. Yowls of dismay filtered up on the breeze. She flung rotting lunchbox meats down on the wolves until they skulked off, though their golden eyes still peered from the underbrush.
Red let out a whoop of victory, and Gram managed a wan smile. They kept climbing, stopping often to let Gram catch her breath, until they came to a trapdoor set into the base of the treehouse. Red helped Gram hoist herself up and through, then followed herself.
The treehouse was cozy and warm; a blue-tongued fire licked sparks from the hearth. Surrounding Red and Gram on three sides, three women worked busily away, tending to…nothing. Or at least nothing Little Red could see. The youngest woman was enormously obese. Her chubby fingers pulled fistfuls of air from all around her; the maiden shoveled nothing down her throat like she could never be full of it.
The eldest looked like Gram if Gram stood at death’s edge. The crone tottered around the tiny room, slowly decomposing—an arm would fall off or an eye would loosen in its socket and roll away. The old woman kept picking up forgotten parts and reaffixing them, sewing them back on with an invisible needle. A long seam wound its way along her breastbone, her head connected to her neck by a thread.
The matron kept busiest of all, though her teeth clacked with cold and she shivered even in the fire’s warmth. Her frantic, darting movements reminded Red of her own mam’s panicked flurry as she flew about the kitchen trying to get dinner on the table after a long day chopping wood. But though she stared, Little Red couldn’t make hide or tail of the shapes the middle-aged woman inscribed on empty air.
“She’s baking,” Gram whispered, and sure enough she was: the matron rolled out air like dough, crimped the edges in an invisible circle, popped the pie or cake or loaf into the fireplace as if it were an oven. She hunched over to bask in the heat, then pulled out whatever had been cooking there before. But her shivers came back in earnest as she crossed the room to hand nonexistent baked goods over to the youngest, who stuffed empty space into her mouth before belching loudly.
“What brings you to visit the Sates?” asked the eldest.
“I think we’ve come to the wrong place,” hazarded Little Red.
“Oh no, you’re exactly where you should be.” The matron gave her a maternal smile without ever once pausing in the metric beat of her air-cookery. “We’ve upgraded. I’m Lack, this here is Clot, and the old one over there is Atrophy.” Clot belly-laughed, Atrophy hissed, and Lack leaned back, cocking her head. “So, what’ll it be? What do you need of us three?”
“We want to know what we should do about a pack of wolves been prowling around our house. You helped my mam back in the day, and we thought you might help us.”
“We’ll be wanting our gifts first,” said Lack. “A polite guest always brings a present for her hostesses, and this is our treehouse fine. Etiquette, my cardinal-bright girl.” Lack rubbed her hands together eagerly. “What’ve you brought to tickle our fancies?”
Gram had nothing but her nightgown. It was up to Red.
“I have food.” Little Red handed the untouched lunchbox over to Clot, who tucked in, oblivious to the distinction between fictitious food and real.
“And I have my red cape.” Red undid the clasp of her beloved cloak and shimmied free of it. Lack tested the red fabric between roughened fingertips, then swung the heavy material over her back. Little Red watched Lack’s shivers calm. The matron-Sate wrapped herself up tight as houses, fire casting flickering shadows down her narrow face. She appeared so like Mam, Red had to look away.
“And I have this axe. My mam left it for me before she disappeared.” Little Red pulled the axe free from where it hung like a hunchback across her narrow shoulders. She handed it to Atrophy, who lurched a bit under its weight.
“Little girl, this is not the gift I desire, and it’s not the gift that will convince us to call off our wolves, neither,” hissed Atrophy.
“But I’ve given you all I have!” said Red, outraged.
Atrophy produced a quill and a yellowed sheet of paper, edges cracked with age. “Not quite. Sign on the dotted line.” Little Red could see, above the blank for her name, the narrow loops of her mother’s handwriting, and above that, Gram’s. Red squeezed shut her eyes and signed.
Atrophy’s lips curled in a rictus, revealing a row of cracked and blackened teeth. Gram shot Red one terrified glance as Atrophy hefted the heavy blade, and then in one sharp stroke the Sate cut clean through Gram’s neck, snickety-snick. Gram’s head rolled along the slanted floor until it stopped up at Lack’s feet; the matron scooped it up.
Red had no time to cry out or speak or think. They’d killed Gram—perhaps to cook her into stew—rather than help, and it was Red’s fool idea had started it all. She knelt beside Gram’s body, patted the withered hands to smooth their wrinkles, stroked the gore-covered, pink-flowered nightie, and began to sob.
“No use blubbering, girlie. Do you want your Gram back or not?” Atrophy asked, all business.
“Catch,” said Lack, tossing Red the corpse-head. Red almost dropped it, blood spattering her hands and disappearing into the folds of her red dress.
With delicate seamstress’s fingers, Atrophy loosened the thread keeping her own head attached; it came free with a tug, her rejected visage landing facedown on the floor.
“What’re you waiting for?” Clot said between mouthfuls of lemon tart.
Atrophy’s headless body held out a hand. Pinched between thumb and forefinger, the Sate’s sinewy thread, which Red took up, though she scarce could see the needle through tears. Lack held the seam steady while Red, stitch by stitch, sewed Gram’s head onto Atrophy’s neck.
“That’s better,” said atrophied Gram, cracking her neck, her wrists, all ten fingers.
“Gram? Is that you?” Little Red didn’t trust the Sates for a split minute. “Can we go home now?”
“Yes and no, child. I’m a Sate now, and that ‘home’ you think is yours? Belongs to me and my sisters.” The old woman’s cracked and blackened smile was all Atrophy and no Gram.
“No! This wasn’t in the contract.”
“We promised nothing. You came begging.” Atrophy raised her chin high and howled, and the other two Sates joined in, calling their pack. Red stared in dismay as an endless cascade of wolves erupted from the treeline; as one, they dropped the paperwork clutched in their fists and began to scale the hollowtree, nails scything deep into bark as they climbed to meet their mothers. As they breached the windowsill and began to flood the tiny room with their muffled barks and shuffling paws, Clot unhinged her jaw and commenced shoveling wolves into her mouth, tail over claw, the squeak and crunch of gristle and bone grinding through the treehouse.
Lack slid over to Red, patting her shoulder in consolation. “Never you mind, dearie. Everyone signs eventually.”
Little Red felt her face begin to stretch, snout elongating to monstrous length, the backs of her hands tufting with fur. When she opened her mouth wide to scream, her tongue caught the sharp edges of a mouthful of glittering teeth.
Brooke Wonders writes weird fiction that thinks it’s true and memoir that thinks it’s fabulism. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) Monkeybicycle, Daily Science Fiction and Brevity: A Journal of Concise Nonfiction, and she blogs at girlwonders.wordpress.com. No grandmothers were harmed in the writing of this piece.