Barely a woman and already cloaked in red. He can smell it, and so can They, the stench of fresh blood trickling between her thighs. Her gown was once white, once clean, and then the dirt and the famine, and the ache came, and all of that changed. Though clean had never meant safe, only ignorance. Barely a woman, barely a girl, and yet she walks the woods alone.
“Barely a Woman” shriveled Grandmother called, voice and body weak, limbs shaking. Frail was Older than Woman, so wrinkled she could not recall the last time blood leapt from her depths, but she can remember the ache. She feels it still. Comfortable now, but never safe. Even decrepit old ladies are prey here, tucked under layers of down and flannel. “The storm, it makes my bones cold.” If Barely a Woman had been older, she would have known that Crone had lost the ability to tell what her bones meant. Bones were fickle in old age, always misprophesizing.
Barely a Woman sang as she walked. Mother, Woman, had advised against it. Mother knew what Crone could not forget and Maiden had not yet learned. Maiden, Barely a Woman, skipped as she sang. White skirts shuffling noisily around her as branches reached towards her like spindled fingers, grasping and greedy. Peaks of pink just beginning to bounce beneath white fabric. And the trees, the trees, They can see too. Just like Him, They grope and prod. Barely a Woman does not understand the trees, and has never claimed to. She once found their stretching limbs inviting, warm wood, gnarled with lines as if stretched by their open arms and large smiles. But winter has come, and Girl is Maiden is Barely a Woman now, and They reach for her. As her feet pad slowly through rocky terrain, roots snaking the ground like vipers, teeth posed at her ankles, Barely a Woman thinks perhaps They always had.
Barely a Woman had felt heat before, below. Even before red liquid had left her, clotted and smelling of rot. It was not there now. Father, Beast, loomed over her like a wolf she had refused to see behind half lidded eyes and sloshing smiles. Tipped over on the floor it was, the bottle. She would be too if she didn’t hurry. “What have I done? What have I done? Am I to blame?” Chanted Barely a Woman as his hands became like talons, knives poised toward her breast on craggy fingers. Maiden carried knives too, little white ones. In between them sat shreds of flesh and a pocket of warm hot bread she had been saving for later. When his hand came to her mouth, to silence a noise that had not been there, she used them. Bone cracked and for the first time Barely a Woman tasted blood.
Barely a Woman carried a basket of hot bread and sweets. The smell of honey and lavender wafted from in between the slots in the wicker. Stomach rumbling, she pulled out a roll and stuffed the soft plush thing in between ravenous lips. Older than Woman would not notice one missing loaf, and neither would her bones. On her lips lingered the fragrant sticky substance. It was why she was licking them, slow, tantalizing. They would blame her for enjoying her food, but how could she know that? The only thing she knew was that she much preferred the taste of honey and solitude to company and blood.
Barely a Woman had been an easy baby. Mother had praised her plump cheeks imbued with red life and the warm of her brown eyes. Father had stared approvingly, looking up from his caramel bottle to see her. See her once and dive back in to glass and the sucking sound that Baby did not recognize until her lips planted on her mother’s teat. Her fingers grabbed for soft skin, inviting and kind. Home was Mother, but Father was hungry and not just as simple Baby was. Baby needed milk to live, but Father sucked on everything because living had never been enough.
Barely a Woman danced into flower fields for she knew only few joys. It was not safe, said Mother, to wander from the dark and lonely path, but flowers swayed in the wind and almost smelled as sweet as hot bread and honey. Grandmother’s bones would not mind the wait, and she was sure she could not smell a storm. The grass, lush and green coaxed her into its depths, its fingers tracing gently up her arms as she waded into it, little lilacs and daisies waving hello as she let nature swallow her.
Barely a Woman wore a red cape. Velvet. She figured it would be good to say because They would ask her. It was not important to her, only that the cape was her favorite color and kept her warm. Crone had made it for her, before her bones had lost their minds. She could have been only in her white dress and it wouldn’t have mattered, but to Them, to Them she had summoned Him from the edges of the field with the stark color of the cloak that lay formlessly over her back.
Barely a Woman brought Grandmother hot loaves of bread and tasty sweets to bring her strength. Grandmother had not left the heat of her down bed. Summers and winters passed and Maiden brought her subsistence. Her bones did not expect the child to come through the wood each time, but still she broke through the trees. Crone smiled: cracked teeth and worn lips, pulled themselves together for a shaky grin. Barely a Woman left again and for reasons she could not forget, Crone wondered if she’d see the girl again.
Barely a Woman wished she could forget, but hot breath and moist air are not feelings one often experiences so intimately. She had been prepared to taste again, to fill her mouth with copper, but He had not tried to stifle her screams. Beast was stronger in the woods. Deeper and deeper and no one could hear. They would say Barely a Woman wore a Little Red Riding Hood. Would They say his hands had lifted the dove white fabric to find blood and grime and hair? Would they recount the sobbing, or the silence that was infinitely worse, as scars were ripped a new in flesh that could not be mended? Defiled among the grass, no longer gentle. Scratching spindled wide blades ripping at her skin and then pulling away, repulsed. Reviled. Not at him, no, not at Him. Nature would follow Them, it always did. Barely a Woman wore a Little Red Riding Hood.
Barely a Woman got to Crone’s house too late. Lying in her bed lay the Beast. Older than Woman had been swallowed too, and both of them huddled in the darkest corner of their hearts, lost in the belly of the Wolf.
Huntsman was a hero. But he only had carried a blade. Barely a Woman had tasted blood before and was no longer afraid. They would remark only on the speckled flecks on her white dress and her torn red cape. Her hood could be “little” but she had never been. Not to Them. No, They would not see the desolation, the havoc wrecked behind now cold brown eyes. Barely a Woman burned the Little Red Riding Hood.
Maiden, Mother, and Crone remember the taste of ash on their tongues. It does not go away even though the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf are gone. Copper and ash, honey and lavender, hot and cold, bitter and sweet, the three know what it means to be Woman. To walk the woods alone in fear, for even the flowers are liars and the grasses betrayers. Hoods are cause for pain and Beasts go on without consequence. And They say Barely a Woman wore a Little Red Riding Hood. Barely a Woman. Little Red Riding Hood. Barely a Woman. Woman. Woman. Red.
Isadora H. Petrovsky
Isadora H. Petrovsky is an author and poet who aims to address and remedy LGBTQIAP+ and female erasure in literature/history through the subversion of folktales/fairy tales. Isadora is a senior BA English/History student at Long Island University. When she isn’t writing, she can be found working at the university’s Writing Center, editing for three university affiliated publications, reading, and playing dungeons and dragons. More of her work can be found in Loomings Literary Journal, The Bottom Line Magazine and LIU Post Writing Center: Writing About Writing. She also co-hosts a bookish podcast The Written World Podcast. To keep up with Isadora and her work, follow her @izzypetrovsky on Instagram.