Originally published as “The Girl, The Wolf, and The Elderly Woman.”
More than once there was a soon-to-be-old woman who had a loaf of bread, held it in her hands she did, and it was inconvenient to have a loaf of bread always sitting in her hands as she tried to sweep or sew or sneeze, so she said to her daughter, the one with cheeks the appalling color of let blood: “With a face like that, you haven’t anything better to do, so here, take this bread off my hands!” The woman said she knew a sickly wolf who would like nothing better than to receive stale bread from a girl like her, “but be careful,” said the girl’s mother, “as the woods are full of primordial women with faces like the bottom of a river and who long to feel the weight of bread in their twisted mitts once more.” The minute the woman handed the bread to the girl, her face grew dark as thunder, and she barked, “Git!”
The girl fled with the loaf under her arm and at the fork where everyone chooses wrongly, she saw a waxen old woman with a face like a fallen cake, and the woman yowled, “You’re headed the wrong way, dear heart!”
“But I haven’t chosen yet!” said the girl with the objectionable cheeks.
“As if that mattered,” said the woman and for a moment her face looked like a weathered map leading nowhere good.
The girl examined the tines of the forking path and could see that in one direction the road was covered in spoons and in the other it was littered with blood sausages. The girl had always preferred spoon to sausage and so she confidently strode in that direction. The sunlight that needled its way through the branches of the forest struck the bellies of the spoons, splintered in every direction, and pricked the girl’s skin as she walked. She tried to brush away the light that beetled along her arms and up her throat. The cowardly light would not go near her cheeks.
The old woman, knowing what was expected of her, cackled. She swiftly slipped and wobbled atop the sausages and cursed herself for having forgotten to bring along a growler of beer. No matter, she’d be at the house of the ailing wolf soon enough, and then she’d have her fill, boy howdy.
When she reached the house of the wolf, the cunning beldam let herself in and shook her head at the sight of him: he looked half-dead already, more moth-eaten pelt than glamorous savage, not even fit to be a stole. She spit a bolus of sausage at the foot of his bed. The wolf weakly stirred at the sound.
“Well, I suppose I haven’t any choice but to eat you,” said the woman.
“I suppose not,” said the wolf, who’d had a hunch the saving catholicon of the bread would not make it to him in time. There is no rescuing a wolf, not in this world or any other. He unzipped his coat and dragged his body dutifully into her mouth, and the woman, who found him a little gamey, spit the bones onto the bed.
From inside her belly, the wolf’s muffled voice came, Take, eat, he said, this is my body, which is broken for you. Such theatrics, heavens-to-betsy! thought the old woman, and she socked herself in the stomach and belched. If she ate before sundown, her meals always repeated on her.
The ancienne noblesse began to undress, lace-up peeptoes, garters, support hose, daisied duster, crocheted shrug, ragged bonnet. A yellow cat lying curled before the hearth unwound himself, sat up, and said, “Get a load of Granny’s gams, ooh-wee hubba-hubba!” then whistled like a sailor newly on leave.
The ripe old dame, whose sister had a weakness for strays of every stripe, had had her fill of cheeky gibs and she booted him across the room. Then she stepped inside the wolf skin, which fit a skosh too snugly, and slipped beneath the covers. She struck a wan pose and conjured a pallor that announced she was on the verge of oblivion and should be the recipient of a steady supply of pity and bread and the affection of innocents, and just as she did, little miss red-cheeks knocked at the door.
“Allow me,” said the limping tom, who wanted to hotfoot it to a place free of irascible old grimalkins, notorious collectors of the likes of him, and he slid out the door sly as butter.
And there the girl was, laden with spoons she’d collected along the way, a crusty loaf, eager to be cradled in the hands of a long-fallow hag, in tow.
“Hello, sick wolf,” said the poppy, and she sat the spoons and the bread upon the floor.
My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, lamented the wolf inside the woman, and she coughed hoarsely and slapped her chest, and the girl said, “What was that?” and the woman replied, “My cold is leaving my snout full,” and she coughed again.
“I have bread,” said the girl, who blushed brash as an open wound, “bread that has never left the hands of my mother until now, bread that can save you.”
I will smite the shepherd and scatter the sheep, said the wolf, and the woman poked herself hard in the gut and her stomach emitted a feeble growl.
The little radish knew there was no love lost between wolf and sheep, but there wasn’t a flock to be found for miles around, and she smiled at him pityingly, thinking some poor creatures are simply doomed by instinct, helpless to pursue more reachable goals, slaves to implausible diets. She picked up two spoons and began to tap a melody on her knees, which made her legs involuntarily kick.
The woman threw back the covers and exposed more fully her lupine duds.
“My, what big breasts you have!” exclaimed the girl with cheeks like molten embers. She dropped the spoons, which landed with a tympanic plonk upon the pile.
So sad when a girl goes ruddy, thought the woman, tsk.
The old woman adjusted her dugs, which, raised in the wild away from the civilizing influence of brassieres, were a little claustrophobic and so tried to escape the suffocating skin of the wolf. She corralled them and they nickered. “The better to suckle you with, dear heart!” said the woman.
“Oh, wolf, what blue hair you have!” said the girl. The old woman had only yesterday been to the beauty parlor and chosen a rinse the color of irises. Sprigs of hair escaped through the wolf’s ears, and the woman tried to tuck them back inside.
Behold, he is at hand that doth betray me, croaked the woman’s belly. She was having a little trouble restraining her feral anatomy.
“What opposable thumbs you have, wolf!” bleated the girl, who began to fear this blue, breasted, bethumbed creature was not all that he seemed, this womanly wolf that smelled vaguely medicinal, giving off an odor of vitamins, blood, and moldering roses. And thumbs, he smelled of thumbs!
“Oh, wolf!” cried the girl. “Your bones, your bones! How can you heave your body from hill to dale without them? How can you properly terrorize rabbits with only raggedy fur and a pudding of flesh to spook them?” Bones were an essential element of locomotion and thuggery the girl well knew.
The old woman now saw she’d left the pile of bones in plain view on the bed, an osteological oversight, and she took up the wolf’s femurs and drummed on the headboard behind her. “If I carry them with me,” said the woman, “they don’t poke me as much. And, erf, well, they’re much more percussive when not swimming inside me!” The woman halted the racket and could see she was straining even this rosily jowled gull’s willful naïveté, so necessary to the telling of stories and the entrapment of children.
The girl bent to fetch the loaf of bread that she hoped would help provoke the wolf’s natural vitality, and when she did, she spied beneath the bed the old woman’s clothes. She remembered what her mother had told her, and she was relieved at the thought that there was one less old woman in the woods to worry about. She put on the old woman’s shift and the old woman’s shawl and the old woman’s bonnet and she clomped about in the old woman’s shoes and she pretended to scold invisible children and to dab at her throat with an embroidered hanky that she kept tucked under her wristwatch, then she picked up the bread and crawled into bed with the wolf, who seemed to her to suffer from womanhood, the worst of all afflictions, a disease she would likely contract in time, and the wolf, quick as a badger’s temper, swallowed her whole like an oyster. The girl shimmied down the throat of the wolf clutching the loaf to her breast only to meet another throat on her way to the wolf’s stomach and she could see this was not the shriveled throat of a peach past her prime.
Only then did she realize she’d been bamboozled and now curled inside the true wolf’s boneless belly as if waiting to be born. She heard the old woman licking her fingers, and she stretched herself inside the flesh of the wolf and began to jab the old woman in the kidneys. “Say, stop that!” growled the old woman. “Nobody likes an impudent lunch!”
Just then, punctual as misery, there appeared at the door a huntsman. The huntsman took one look at the bloated wolf, put two and two together, and reckoned all parties worth saving were at this moment being digested. He’d been sent by the young tomato’s mother to reclaim the loaf of bread, which she had decided she could not live without.
The huntsman, to summon the requisite mettle, lifted to his mouth the wineskin slung over his shoulder and squeezed a stream of port into his gullet. Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood, came a gauzy voice as if from under a pillow. “What’s that?” asked the huntsman. A higher-pitched voice said, “My, oh, my, what a big spleen you have, wolf!” And another voice, clearer but sporting an incognito hoarseness, said, “The better to chide you with, lovey!” And the huntsman, so easily sidetracked when a quarry began to spill its guts, hastily reached a brawny fist into the wolf’s maw and extracted a frumpy girl, whose cheeks were so frightfully abloom, he thought she might be better off left to the vagaries of the wolf’s intestines, but she held the loaf in her hands, so he dropped her onto the ground. Next, with the skill and boredom of a surgeon performing his one-thousandth appendectomy, he carefully plucked a quivering aspic of flesh from the throat of the wolf and decided the old woman, with her long nose and big ears, was likely beyond saving, but when thicknailed, corn-tumored toes poked through the fur as though it were a footed sleeper a size too small, the huntsman reached in again with the resentful finesse of a magician who believes he’s bound for a destiny far grander than the endless extraction of rabbits from hats and he neatly skinned what turned out to be a very old woman, ta-daa! Well, fancy that. The wolf’s weathered exterior lay rumpled at the old woman’s feet like a discarded cape too threadbare to repair. This nested zoology made the huntsman vertiginous, and he dropped himself onto a chair. Just then the jumble of flesh inched up the bed, enveloped the bones, then slid into the fur and got back beneath the covers, where he rattled a final breath and went limp with extinction. The girl, with a face like a rusted skillet, clutched the bread and when she saw the huntsman, she went, stem to stern, red as the end of the world; the huntsman decided no rose that rutilant was worth deflowering and he pumped the bladder beneath his arm and took another slug of wine; and the naked old crone, she smiled at the pair of them and bowed her head at the wolf, messianic with mange, who had just been alive then inside her.
The old-old woman, now much older than when she’d arrived, picked up a sausage and pretended to smoke it, then looked at herself in the shiny dowager’s hump of a soup spoon, and admired the salvaged eyesore she’d become.