The flowers on the path to my front door were starting to wilt. The summer had been dry, and with everything else I hadn’t taken the time to water them the way I should have. I pulled three bags of groceries out of the trunk and toted them up the front steps. Lindsey, the babysitter, must have seen me through the window and she opened the door for me. Violet was still too young to be alone in the house, and my mother, who’d been living with us for five months, couldn’t move around enough to watch her anymore. Her breathing was getting more and more labored every day, and the sound of it frightened Violet so much that she didn’t like to stay in the same room with her.
Vi ran up to me as I dropped the bags of groceries on the kitchen counter.
“Mom, Grandma’s wheezing again.” She had just learned the word ‘wheezing’ and was using it at every opportunity. I scooped her up, though at seven years old, she was determined to be a big girl and squirmed to get away from me. I squeezed her until she wormed her way out of my arms and back to the floor.
“How long is she staying here?”
I knelt down so I could look her in the eyes, “Sweetheart, I told you, Grandma’s going to be staying with us for a long time, ok? She needs us to take care of her. So we have to be big girls for her, okay? Until—“ I trailed off, chewing the inside of my lip.
“Until when?” Vi whined.
I tried to keep my voice from catching in my throat, “Until—until she doesn’t need us anymore.”
“How long?” She was glaring at me suspiciously.
“I don’t know, Vi,” I snapped, “That’s enough.”
She stalked out of the room with all of her first-grade dignity and I leaned my forehead against my hands, massaging my temples. The groceries could wait for a minute. I poked my head into the living room. My mother was sitting on the couch. The television was on, but muted, and the shades were drawn. The flickering colors from the TV screen made it hard to make out her features in the dark, but I think she liked it better that way. In the last few weeks her face had collapsed dramatically, and there were dark patches on her skin. Tiny TV screens were reflected in her oxygen tubes.
“Hi, Mom,” I called, too cheerfully. She looked up and smiled.
“Hello, Holly.” I could hear the hiss and suck of her breath from the door. Her breathing was labored all of the time now, even when she was sitting down.
I turned and went back to the kitchen, methodically pulling everything that needed to be refrigerated out of the brown paper bags and putting it away. I opened the cupboards and stacked the cans of soup and tuna and beans on one shelf, boxes of cereal and macaroni on another. I left the bags on the counter and went to find Vi.
She was sitting cross-legged on her bed with her stuffed wolf, Andre.
“Come downstairs, sweetie. I want you to spend some time with Grandma before dinner.”
She ignored me, trotting Andre across her quilt.
“You know Grandma made that quilt for you, when you were a baby.”
She nodded, marching Andre up the pillow. I sat down at the edge of the bed.
“Just for a little while, before dinner? After dinner you can do whatever you want. This is really important to Mommy, okay?” I reached out and put my hand on her back, willing her to understand.
She finally looked at me, “Tell me a story first.”
“You’ll get a story at bedtime, just come downstairs now.”
She stuck out her lip, and started to turn back to Andre on the pillow. I sighed and brushed my hair off of my forehead.
“Okay, okay. A short one.”
“A scary story.”
I thought for a minute.. My brain was full of images: the woods, the cottage, the wolf from my dreams. Ever since Mom had come to stay with us I had been having nightmares again.
“Fine. Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, my Granny lived deep in the woods. Every weekend my mother, your grandma, would bake bread and cookies and we would walk down the path, over the river and through the woods to bring them to her cottage. When I got older, sometimes Mom was too busy to take the walk, so she would just send me with a basket. I looked just like you, except I had this red hat that my mom made for me.
“One day, when I got to my grandmother’s house, there was no answer when I knocked. I went inside, and called for my grandmother, but there was still no answer.”
Violet was holding Andre in her lap, looking at me, waiting for the scary part.
“I crept through the house, feeling like I was intruding, even though I had been welcome in every room before. Finally I came to Granny’s bedroom at the end of the hall. There was a shape in the bed. It had yellow eyes and long, sharp teeth and grasping claws. It was looking right at me.”
Violet’s eyes were big now. I started to embellish the story, filling in the gaps in my memory.
“’Grandmother?’ I asked.
“’Yes, dear?’ said the figure in the bed.
“’What large eyes you have,’ I said.
“’The better to see you with, my dear,’ she answered.
“’What large ears you have.’
“’The better to hear you with, my dear.’
I leaned in close to Violet.
“I could see saliva dripping off of the pointy, pointy teeth, and I was sure that this wasn’t my grandmother. It was an enormous wolf. Stepping back, I said, ‘What large teeth you have.’
“’The better to eat you with, my darling,’ shouted the wolf, and he sprang out of the bed,” here I reached out and grabbed Vi, she screamed and giggled, “and he would have gobbled me right up, but I was too quick. I ran screaming out of the cottage.
“The sun was only beginning to set, but it was already dark under the trees, and the branches were twisting in the sky. I was so scared, that as I was running, I was sure that the trees were moving too, writhing in the sky, grabbing for me.
“I ran so fast, that I was nearly back to the main path before I realized that no one was chasing me. The woods were quiet except for the evening chirps of frogs and the crunch of my own footsteps. Finally Karl, you know, the man who lives at the edge of the woods, found me wandering around and took me home. I ran out of the house so fast that the red hat that your grandma knitted for me fell off. Karl found it later and brought it back.”
She looked at me with the kind of disdain only an eight-year-old can give and said, “That wasn’t a very good ending. You should have slain the evil wolf and rescued Granny!” She covered Andre’s ears when she said this, not wanting him to hear about anyone slaying a wolf.
I ruffled her hair and shrugged, “Maybe I should have. Now come downstairs.”
As we left the room, Vi tugged on my hand, “Mom, do you think if we went to the woods, we might see a real wolf? I think Andre would like to see a real wolf.”
I had already started to regret telling that story, but it had been in my head for weeks. I had thought maybe turning the dreams into a story for Violet might make them seem less frightening for me, but it wasn’t working.
I stopped her before we made it to the living room, “Violet, you know the woods are dangerous. You could get lost, or hurt. And remember, wolves aren’t all nice like Andre, some of them are mean and nasty, like the wolf in the story.”
“But maybe we could find one! It could be my friend, and Andre would like it. We tried to go when Lindsey was helping Grandma, but then she was calling for us.”
I grabbed her by the shoulders, giving her a little shake, “Vi, you have to promise me. You won’t go into the woods unless I’m with you, okay?”
I could hear anger and fear creeping into my voice, and I tried to calm myself down.
“Ouch,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Vi, I didn’t mean to shake you. But promise me, please. Don’t go into the woods unless I’m there.”
She stared at the floor.
“I promise,” she mumbled.
In the living room, my mother was watching the news, but she switched it off when we came in. Violet pulled away from me and flopped into the armchair while I sat next to my mother on the couch.
“Vi, tell Grandma about school.”
I squeezed a few sentences out of Violet, watching my mom smile while her granddaughter talked. At first Vi was hesitant, but she had always been a talker, and she warmed up a bit as she went on.
“Tell me about your teacher.” My mother didn’t speak much anymore, she had to stop and take a breath every couple of words. When she spoke, Vi looked at her with big eyes for a moment before starting to tell her about Mrs. Stevens. My mother nodded along. I leaned back against the cushions, watching my daughter warm up to her grandmother.
“Mrs. Stevens loves animals. We have three class pets, an iguana, a hedgehog and a guinea pig.”
Mom smiled, “I always liked animals too. We always had a dog when Holly was growing up.”
Violet nodded. She was quiet for a second, then, “Mom says there’s wolves in the woods.”
My mother raised her eyebrows, “She said that, huh?”
“I want to see a real wolf, like Andre, but Mom made me promise—”
I interrupted, “Vi, go on and play, I’ll call you for dinner.”
I watched her leave the room and turned back to find my mother looking at me, that calm, but questioning mother-look that I had yet to master. I had been trying to get Vi to spend more than a few minutes with my mother for weeks, but this was the first time they had really connected.
“I’ve been having nightmares again,” I offered as an explaination, “Like when grandma died.”
She pushed the breath back out, lips pursed and drew in another one, “The wolf?” she asked, her voice faint and hoarse. I nodded. She covered my hand with her own. The skin was dry and cracked, and the nails had a bluish tint around them. The doctors called it cyanosis, a symptom of the emphysema.
She coughed, then said more clearly, “You should let her go to the woods, Holly. You loved them when you were little.”
“She doesn’t know them like I did; she might get lost. I’ll take her when I have time.”
“You mean when I’m gone,” Mom said dryly, “I’m sure Karl would take her.”
I nodded, my mind now on other things.
I ran my fingers over hers. The knuckles bulged in arthritic lumps, every part of her was aging faster than I had ever imagined. She rubbed my knee, slid her claw-like fingers back and forth over my jeans. The hands weren’t as curled as my grandmother’s had been, not yet, but every day she was getting closer and closer to the twisted creature that had slunk back into my dreams after nearly forty years.
“Mom, do you know what happened to that red hat? The one you made me?”
“I think I kept it somewhere,” she took a deep, rattling breath, “You used to wear it every day.” Another breath. “It might be in one of the boxes.” Breath. “In the basement.” Breath. “I held on to some of your things.”
She leaned over to put an arm around my shoulders, and I dropped my head to rest on hers.
* * * * *
After dinner I helped Mom to her bedroom. This was the first night that Violet didn’t hide behind my legs to say goodnight.
In Violet’s room I stopped reading after two chapters of Pippi Longstocking.
“It’s late Vi. I’m tired.”
“Just one! There’s no school tomorrow.”
I shook my head, tucked her in and went into my own room.
In my dream I was a little girl again, a few years older than Violet. I walked through the woods, over a wooden bridge that my grandfather had built across the river when my mother was a child. The trees were friendly and safe. I had grown up in these woods, after all, and in my young mind there was nothing there that could hurt me.
My grandmother’s house was in a clearing, deep in the forest, the path led to the clearing on one side, and a long, winding driveway on the other. When I reached the cottage, I couldn’t hear any movement inside. I knocked, but no one answered, so I pushed open the door and walked inside. I set my basket down in the kitchen. My grandmother had long refused to move closer to town, so that we could keep an eye on her, so my mother picked up her medications, and always sent homemade baked goods along with them.
“Granny?” The house was silent. Not a creak of the floorboards, or a breath of air disturbed the inside. It was too dark in the house, darker than it should have been in the middle of a clearing in the afternoon. As I walked down the hallway, it got longer and longer, fading down to my grandmother’s bedroom door at the end. I started to run. What if Granny was sick? Maybe she had fallen down, like my mother always worried she would. The faster I ran, the farther the door seemed to get. It was shrinking, like something from Alice in Wonderland. Then, suddenly it was there, I crashed into it, and my head spun. The handle was cold, and it stuck when I tried to turn it, creaking as I pushed the door open. I walked up to my grandmother’s bed, and there, instead of my Granny’s tired but happy smile, was the wolf, fangs bared. It leapt out of the bed and I ran, back down the endless hallway, out of my grandmother’s cottage. I ran through the woods as the trees tried to grab me, until I was falling, falling, falling though the clutching branches.
I lurched awake, feeling as though I had just hit my bed from several feet in the air.
The clock read 1:09. I rolled over and tried to fall back asleep, but couldn’t. Finally I sat up and slid my feet into my slippers.
Cold air hit my face when I opened the door to the basement. When my mother had come to stay with us we had sold her little house. Most of her things, the ones she didn’t need on a regular basis, were in boxes. I waited for the light to flicker on before descending. I could feel the temperature drop as I went down the unfinished wooden steps. The concrete floor was dusty, and the air had the same dank smell it had had since we moved in. We usually avoided the basement, and the things down here had mostly been forgotten.
Mom’s boxes were piled against one of the walls. Underneath a couple of large boxes labeled things like ‘kitchenware’ and ‘winter clothing’ I found one that said ‘Holly’s things’ in my mother’s shaky printing. Inside were a few old toys, baby clothes, high school yearbooks, my graduation robes, and buried at the very bottom, beneath the robes, was my hat: a flopping thing somewhere between a beanie and a beret. It was bright red and smaller than I remembered. The knitting was almost felted inside from wear, and there were dark stains on the yarn in places. The wool was scratchy in my hand as I climbed back up the stairs. In the light from my bedside lamp, it seemed even dingier than it had down in the basement. I picked it up, turned it over and over in my hands. It had been one of my mother’s first forays into knitting, and the stitches were uneven and lumpy. I rubbed them between my fingers. When I pulled the hat over my head, it squeezed my temples, but it went on. It was strange to look in the mirror; I could see past the wrinkles and the flecks of grey in my hair, back to my nine-year-old self.
I set the hat on my nightstand and climbed back into bed.
* * * * *
The next morning I woke up from an unexpectedly dreamless sleep. I sat up and reached for the hat on my nightstand, but my fingers hit smooth wood instead of rough wool. The hat was gone. I knelt on the floor, wondering if I had knocked it down in my sleep; I searched under the nightstand and felt under the bed, but found nothing.
I frowned, trying to decide if my midnight trip to the basement could have been a particularly lucid dream. I dressed quickly; I had woken up late, and Violet, who was an early riser, was probably waiting for her Saturday pancakes.
Downstairs, I poked my head into the living room; my mother wasn’t up yet. I didn’t see Violet either, I checked the kitchen, and the dining room, thinking she might have gotten herself a bowl of cereal. I ran back up to her bedroom, though it would have been unusual for her to still be there at this time of morning. Neither she nor Andre was there, but she had pulled the bedcovers up in an attempt to make the room look neat. My heart was starting to beat faster. I opened the door to my mother’s room at the bottom of the stairs. I could see her shape in the bed, but no Violet. The bathroom door was open, the room empty.
I ran through the living room out the back door into the yard, but my daughter was nowhere to be seen. I thought about the missing hat. Had I mentioned the hat in my story? Yes, I thought. Maybe Vi had woken up in the night, had seen me coming out of the basement with the hat. She wouldn’t have gone to the woods, she had promised not to.
“Vi?” I yelled over and over.
I was out of the house before I knew what I was doing, sprinting down the road towards the edge of town. The spring air was crisp and chilly. It was more than a mile from our house to the edge of the woods. I passed my mother’s old house, the house where I had grown up. I hadn’t felt much selling it, but now there was a pang of loneliness as I looked at it.
As I ran, I looked back and forth scanning everything I could see for my daughter, for a red knit cap or a stuffed wolf.
At the end of the street, the road dead-ended near Karl’s house. He was nearly as old as my mother by then. I thought I caught a glimpse of him through the kitchen window as I hurried by, and thought about going in and asking for his help, but instead I ran straight into the woods.
It was sunny out, despite the cold, and the light came brightly through the trees, and glowed through the small spring leaves. Buds were just starting to burst open, and there were a few early spring beauties huddled under the trees. I peered up at the branches overhead, but they weren’t the grasping fingers from my dreams. Instead, the tiny new leaves made a kind of glow.
I stuck to the path, praying that Violet had too. The place where the main path forked wasn’t nearly as far as I remembered. I glanced down the fork that led to my Granny’s cottage. Had I mentioned it in the story? I didn’t think so. I took a few steps down the right fork, towards the cottage, but then turned and went left instead. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the cottage.
I was walking quickly and soon I could hear the stream trickling along beside the path. I left the trail to follow the stream. There was a little pond further on that I had played at as a child. It was further than I expected before I heard the higher tinkling of a few tiny waterfalls above the sound of the stream itself. The pond was swollen with recent snowmelt and the ground was muddy. I looked around it for any sign of my daughter, but there was nothing.
I set off toward the path again and crossed it, following a tiny trickling branch of the stream. I came to a little dip in the land where a couple of large trees had fallen over, making the perfect jungle gym for an adventurous child. I scanned the area for any sign of a red cap.
“Vi?” I called. There was no answer.
I kept running through the woods, searching for landmarks and calling my daughter’s name until I came back to the fork in the path. This time, I took a deep breath and went down the branch that led to my grandmother’s cottage. I was slowing down, out of breath as I approached the clearing. I didn’t know if I had mentioned the fork in the road to Vi, but she could easily have found her way there.
Finally, the trees thinned and I stepped into the clearing. There was my grandmother’s cottage; like everything else in the woods, it seemed too small. In my dreams it often seemed like a sort of backwards fortress, designed not to keep danger out, but to keep me in with the wolf.
The building was worn looking, but not as decrepit as I was expecting. A few shingles had fallen off of the roof, but other than that, the cottage was much as it had been. The door was slightly ajar, and I hoped that that meant Vi had found the cottage and was somewhere inside. There was a layer of dust on the floor, but instead of being untouched, there were the marks of large work boots scuffed along the floors. I smiled at the image of Karl, reattaching the porch railing or raking the leaves, taking care of Granny’s house the same way that he had when she was alive.
“Vi?” I called, poking my head into the different rooms. With each door I opened, I hoped that I would see my daughter, sitting on the floor playing with Andre.
The hallway to my grandmother’s bedroom was short, I made it to the end in a few steps, and the door was right there, not sinking away from me along a lengthening hallway, as I half-expected it to. I slipped into the room. The bed sat in the corner under the window, covered in a handmade quilt that had been bleached so much by the sun that I could barely see that the squares were once different colors.
I ran my hand over the quilt, the fabric felt so thin that I was afraid the light pressure of my fingers would tear it. I tried to imagine what I saw on that day, what I saw in my dreams, but in my mind all I could see was my grandmother’s face. Her eyes were closed, sunken in masses of wrinkles, her formerly rosy cheeks were sallow. Her mouth was slightly open, revealing her coffee-stained teeth. One hand rested on the edge of the bed, her capable fingers arthritic and curled, the nails untrimmed for too long. There was no wolf in the bed.
I sat down on the bed. Violet wasn’t in the cottage, and I didn’t know where to look for her. The forest was huge, and so much of it was empty of paths. I leaned my forehead on my hands, feeling helpless. I couldn’t stop looking, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I could feel a few tears squeezing their way out of the corners of my eyes.
There were footsteps in the hall, the clomping of big boots.
“Holly?” called a voice I recognized.
Karl was standing in the doorway, holding Violet by the hand. She was holding Andre against her chest; her clothes were muddy and covered in leaves, and my red hat was on her head. I ran towards them. Violet buried her face in Karl’s pant leg.
“Are you all right, Vi?”
Karl answered for her, with a smile that deepened the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, “She just took a little fall by the stream, she’s fine.”
I started to take Violet from him, but she wriggled to the floor, where she pulled the hat off of her head and hid it behind her back. She was looking at her feet, but I could see her lip shaking as she tried not to cry. I knelt down and put my arms around her; any anger that I had felt at her disappearance was dissipating.
“Vi, what were you thinking?” I was halfway between scolding and crying.
She squeezed her little arms around me, “I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t mean to break the promise.”
I squeezed her tighter, “I’m just glad you’re safe. You won’t do it again, right? I promise we can come back and explore together, okay?” I held her at arms length, taking in her muddy clothes. Blood was seeping through a tear in the knee of her jeans and there was a scrape on her cheek, but otherwise she didn’t look the worse for the wear. Andre was looking shabby, his fur caked with mud in places.
I smiled, “Did Andre like his trip to the woods?” She looked up at me, as if trying to gauge whether I was mad or not.
She beamed, “Yeah! But not the part where we fell in the mud. There were rocks.” She paused, and looked up at me accusingly, “And we didn’t see a single wolf.”
She looked as affronted as a first-grader can look when Karl and I burst out laughing. He was eyeing me knowingly, “Her too, huh?”
I took the red hat out of Violet’s hand and put it back on her head, “I guess so.” I took my daughter’s hand, “Hungry, Vi?” She nodded, “You bet!”
We turned and the three of us walked out of the cottage, letting the latch click firmly behind us.
Hannah Stoppel was raised in the forests of Northern Michigan and her connection to fairy tales was formed early. She is currently continuing to pursue that fascination as an MFA student at Pacific University and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives with a journalist, a cat and a greyhound (who doesn’t look a bit like a wolf) and survives by making wigs (which sometimes do).