From the author: A twist on an my favourite fairytale.
“The wolf always dies. The girl always lives.”
That’s what dad tells Gwen when he closes the book of fairy tales, right before the story ends. Then he tucks her into bed, and no matter how Gwen pleads, he never reads the ending. She knows it can’t be as easy as a dead wolf and a living girl. Nothing is ever that easy, especially not for wolves and girls.
There is only dad to read her stories and tuck her in. Gwen has no mom. Hasn’t had one for as long as she can remember.
“She left,” dad tells her. “She couldn’t live here anymore, so she went away.”
“Couldn’t she stay, for my sake?” Gwen asks, kicking the legs of the table, pouring syrup on her griddlecakes at breakfast.
Dad shrugs and says that sometimes it’s better to leave than to stay and become something you don’t want to be.
In the cedar chest in dad’s room, Gwen finds the only thing mom left behind: a red cloak, hooded, that smells of flowers and snow. She hugs it close, feeling the soft woolen weave against her skin, feeling the absence of the body that is not inside.
“Why would she leave without her cloak?” she asks.
“Too many bad memories left in the pockets,” dad answers without looking at Gwen, even though the cloak has no pockets.
Dad is a good dad. He can braid hair and mend socks and do laundry as well as any mom. He’s not always home at night, though. Sometimes he leaves Gwen alone with the door locked from outside, and the moon hanging clear and bright in the window. He leaves his clothes behind, too. They’re laid out on his bed, and in the morning, he wears them again.
“What’s so bad about wolves?” Gwen asks, poking at the boiled potatoes and mutton on her plate.
Dad is a good cook. A good hunter too, even though he doesn’t even own a rifle or a bow.
“Wolves always die. Better to be a girl, because the girl…”
“…always lives,” she finishes the sentence for him.
By the time Gwen is 12, she knows what dad does when he leaves the house at night. She’s seen him go and come back, she’s seen the tracks change from feet and toes to paws and claws beneath the eaves of the forest.
“Is that why mom left?” she asks one morning when the moon has set.
“Did you kill her?”
“No. She left because she had somewhere else to be.”
“What place would be more important than me and you?”
Dad doesn’t answer.
Before Gwen turns 16, she’s realized that maybe it’s not that dad doesn’t want to tell her the answer, but that he doesn’t know the answer.
By now, she’s well acquainted with restlessness and hunger, and some nights she’s the one who stays out late, and dad’s the one waiting for her to come home.
“Everything all right?” he’ll ask before she goes to bed.
“The girl always lives,” she’ll say.
One February night Gwen comes home with her clothes torn and a split lip. The same night, a boy in the village beyond the forest comes home bruised and blinded in one eye.
Dad doesn’t ask Gwen if she’s all right. He cleans the cuts and mends her clothes. He puts her to bed like when she was little and reads her a fairy-tale.
“Read me the ending this time,” Gwen says.
“No. The real ending.”
Dad looks out the window at the moonlight on the snow.
“Once upon a time, there was a girl in a red cloak walking through the forest. She met a wolf and followed him home. They loved each other and their baby very much. One night, the girl walked into the woods and disappeared. The wolf tried to find her but he never did. The wolf thinks that the girl was a red rose in the snow: out of place, but lovely and true in every way that mattered. That’s the story. I don’t know the ending.”
The following night, the villagers come. A full moon hangs low over the trees when they march up to the house, and the dark forest is threaded through with silver and shadows. At the front walks the boy with a bandaged eye.
The villagers have brought fire and knives and rope.
“Stay inside,” dad tells Gwen.
She stands at the window and hears the shouting, hears the door close and lock. The moon shines so bright into the room it blinds her, she cannot see what happens, cannot see dad turn from one thing to another, can only hear the shrill cries, the snarl and growl, the bones cracking, before everything goes quiet.
She’s not sure how she gets outside. Perhaps she breaks the glass and jumps out through the window. Perhaps she breaks down the door.
Dad is on the ground. The men and the boy who came with rope and fire are there, too. They are dead, but dad is not. Not yet.
Gwen strokes the lingering warmth of his grey and shaggy fur, her head resting on his heaving chest. She feels every ragged breath and heartbeat in his body. She sees the fur turn back to skin, the fangs change to teeth, the paw she holds stretch into a hand again.
“The wolf always dies,” dad whispers.
She knows what he wants her to say, but it’s hard to speak the words.
The moonlight shines into her, threading silver and shadows into her flesh, and she feels a familiar grayness stir beneath her own skin, yellow-eyed and red-tongued.
“The girl always lives. But what if you’re wolf and girl, dad? What then?”
Dad doesn’t answer. Perhaps there’s no answer to be had. Because nothing is ever easy. Especially not for wolves and girls.
This story originally appeared in R.B. Wood's Word Count Podcast.