the short story project

search

Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein

Little Red Riding Hood

It’s such a shame, really, such a shame. I was looking forward to visiting my daughter and granddaughter today. I’m not well, I’m coughing, I might even have a fever.

When I visit them, I need to walk almost fifteen minutes to the bus stop, and there I normally wait for a good long time. When it arrives, I slowly get on the bus and sit down heavily, waiting to catch my breath, and then I relax in my seat. The ride is only a couple of minutes long, but it’s enough for me to close my eyes and think of my daughter and sweet granddaughter. When I arrive, the table is always set, and my daughter has prepared delicious food. She kisses me, invites me in and always says the exact same words: “Mom, why don’t you move into this neighborhood? Why do you live in that secluded place, deep in the forest? If you lived closer to us, you wouldn’t have to take the bus to see us.”

I look at her and smile as my heart sinks. Every time we discuss where I live, an inner string stretches and detaches, and needs to be put back in place and tightened. She thinks the forest is intimidating, I find it charming; she thinks the trees are creepy and that one can get lost, I can see the trail with my eyes closed; she’s sure the wood is dangerous, I find it reassuring. People who lived through a world war know that it is humans who are threatening, not the forest. In the wood, one can find refuge. Early morning fog, tweets and growls of animals that blur the tread of footsteps, tangled plants, a tree with many branches one could climb quickly—they are all shelters, havens from oppressors. When the war was over, I’d lived in a condominium in the city. For years, I used to listen to the elevator going up and down, feeling that it held an obscure threat. Something about the light whistle and the dull ticking emerging from the shaft brought back memories I wished to bury, echoes of a foreign army marching in the city’s streets.

When my husband passed away, I knew it was time to return to the forest. I purchased a small, decaying house; to get there I had to walk for quite a while along an isolated path. When she first saw it, my daughter looked around with horror, checking the window gratings and the door bolt. Finally, she made me promise I would install a new lock on the door, and so I did. I don’t always use it—if something bad were to happen I might be saved if I am not locked in and manage to escape to the wood.

Ah, I am so sorry I can’t leave home, and it is time for my visit. All week I expect to see them. I was going to call my daughter to let her know I won’t be coming, but my cell phone is dead, refusing to connect to the world outside the forest. I’m not feeling well, and I have to lie down and cover myself with my warm duvet. Gloom overwhelms me as I think of my granddaughter, who I know is expecting me. She wears the red baseball cap I’d given her backward on her curly hair, her inquisitive eyes looking around as she rocks her head to the rhythm of the music coming from her headphones. She is very independent, more assertive than girls her age, maybe because she grew up without a father. When I can’t sleep, bitter thoughts surface, materializing in spite of my effort to dismantle and remove them: What would happen had she lived in times of war? First, I tell myself she never would have survived. She is so spoiled; if the pizza isn’t tasty she grumbles, if her mom brings cranberry juice instead of blueberry juice, she gets angry, and sometimes she watches her cell phone and almost cries. But then I change my mind. She is vigilant and slightly hotheaded, which is crucial for surviving a war. Sometimes I warn her: “Sweetheart, there are real dangers out there, ill-willed, evil people.” She smiles at me forgivingly and mutters, “I know, I know.”

 

 

 

 

 

Where is Mom?! She should have been here more than two hours ago. I called her, but the network is unavailable. I’m sure everything is okay, but there is almost no reception in the middle of the forest. Every time she doesn’t answer the phone, a stream of anxiety overtakes me: Did she fall? Hurt herself? Did someone break into her house? Maybe she isn’t feeling well? Maybe even … this fear is paralyzing. When my dad was alive, he used to tease her and say she wouldn’t let her single child live independently, far away from her. She denied it vehemently, but after his death, she began to repeat his words. I knew the relationship between us was too tight, each part of it excessive. The compliments she paid me, the physical expression of her affection and, more than anything, her desire to protect me, to remove any threat. Ah, and also her disappointment that I never got married.

My parents wanted me to marry a man with a nice salary, but not too rich, an educated person who made a good living; instead, I became a single mom. A years-long relationship with a rock-band guitar player left me with nothing but disappointments; a man with a small business went bankrupt and disappeared; and I decided to raise my child by myself. My parents opposed this idea; my mom even declared I was being irresponsible, and that in times of trouble or war, I wouldn’t be able to protect my daughter. I always wondered what war was she talking about. Which enemies? What kind of protection? The world war was over long ago. My one enemy? The shortage of money.

Bills I can hardly pay, rent rising even in this neighborhood on the outskirts of the forest, food and other products are more and more expensive, the part that is missing from my salary constantly growing. The real danger I face is economic collapse, and the fear that it might take place filters into every crack within me. Economic scarcity it the hazard; evil is those who threaten to take my money. They pay very little for the long hours I work, and when I protest, they smile dismissively.

If I could, I would live in an upscale quarter of the city, far from the wood. But life here is okay. I make sure my daughter has everything. I will soon leave for a night shift. I thought she could stay with my mom, but now I will have to send her to the wood to check on Grandma. I will give her a bottle of wine and the apple pie I made. I don’t protect my daughter the way my mom did. I raised her to be independent and slightly vain, charming and a bit spoiled, smart and selfish. This is the best protection.

But she is not vigilant enough.

Walking around with the baseball cap backward on her curly hair, a sweater and ripped denim, she is carried away by the music emerging from her headphones and sees nothing. She is a young teenager; men are attracted to her. I will warn her again before she goes to my mom: The bus drives through poor neighborhoods, you shouldn’t talk to strangers even if they approach you, and the forest – god forbid, who knows if criminals hang around there. You should never ever go off the path!

 

 

 

 

 

“Dreams of reality’s peace; Blow steam in the face of the beast; The sky could fall down, the wind could cry now; The strong in me, I still smile.”[1] I’m crazy about Kendrick Lamar. I love to go by bus and listen to my music without anyone interrupting me—Mom who keeps telling me I’m so beautiful and I need to watch out for guys, Grandma explaining that the world is not a safe place. I’m sorry the ride is over; in a couple of minutes I’ll get to Grandma’s house, and then I’ll have to remove the headphones. It’s kind of nice to walk in the forest and listen to music, only my bag is a bit heavy. Maybe I’ll sit down on this rock for a little while. No harm done if I’m a bit late. Surely Grandma is in bed. She doesn’t answer the phone because there is no reception in the wood. It is so pleasant here; next to the trees, you forget there’s a world out there. I’ll rest for a couple of minutes. When I get there, she’ll want me to have dinner with her, and just ask me about my friends and tell me I should always watch out for people, even if they look friendly. So, yeah-no rush.

Wow, what is this?! I can’t believe it. A wolf! It looks like a dog, but it really is a wolf. It’s so cute, sniffing around, not like it wants to prey on me. I’ll take a photo and post it on Instagram. My friends won’t believe it! What a cool picture, it’ll get tons of likes. Two friends had told me that the photos I post are boring, and if I don’t have anything interesting to post I’d better not post at all. Every time I push the post button my heart skips a beat. I’m not sure what is it that I want more: to show what I like, or for my friends to like my posts.

I’ve noticed I prefer different pictures than some of my friends. I like flowers, trees, wild animals, mountains covered with snow or a beach in the sunset. My girlfriends examine photos of models and actresses, checking their bodies, clothes, makeup. I pretend they’re interesting, but I would rather look at pictures of nature. Sometimes I post photos of flowers and everyone makes fun of me, adding sarcastic comments. I panic and delete them. I’d do anything to stop my friends from unfollowing me. There is nothing I fear more. Sometimes I imagine they did, and I begin to shiver and sweat. I will never leave the house if this happens. And my disgusting classmate scares me to death, threatening to make everyone turn against me, making sure no one would be my friend. Grandma thinks the enemies are on the other side of the border, but the real enemies are here, on Instagram.

What beautiful flowers! I will pick a couple for grandma. The wolf is standing next to me now, making funny noises. What the hell is this? I need to take my headphones off. He’s talking?! Whaaaaaaat? I don’t believe it. It’s impossible. OMG, he is! He’s freaking talking! He’s asking where I’m going. I’ll answer him; what do I care? Anyway, there is no such thing as talking animals. I must be dreaming or something. I’m on my way to my grandma’s house in the middle of the forest. I’m in no hurry; the trees are so beautiful. I will take a short break and then go on.

Finally, he’s gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, I’ve fallen asleep. This cold makes me drowsy. Oh, someone is at the door. Surely it is my sweet granddaughter; I knew that when my daughter saw I wasn’t coming she’d send her here. She may have brought that tasty apple pie my daughter usually bakes. Who is it? Come in, sweetheart, do come in and sit next to me. She answers, but her voice is strange, slightly hoarse. Maybe she, too, had caught cold?

The high temperature creates a sort of daze; I can hardly see anything, and I feel a vague shadow passing in the room. I’m unable to follow it. Something is moving, but I can’t tell what or where it is. It can’t be my granddaughter; she always greets me loudly as she comes in, hugs me gladly and kisses my cheek. Who can it be? A criminal? A murderer? Ah, I need to escape quickly to the forest, only there will I be safe. During the war, the thick, opaque foliage saved my life. I’ll try to get up and get out, though my legs can hardly carry me. Who is here? Who is it?

A wolf! Help, help! God, I hope my granddaughter isn’t on her way here. I don’t care if he eats me as long as he doesn’t hurt her. Anyone who survived the war knows this; people would die without putting up a fight if it meant saving their children, they would walk obediently to their death but leap into a pointed gun to protect their offspring. Maybe if it preyed on me it would leave her alone. No, no, evil can’t be satisfied; this hideous beast with filthy nails, even though it has been pushed to the abyss time and again, it always emerges once more.

Help! Help! What evil eyes, what a malicious nose, what sharp teeth… that huge mouth and throat, dark and sticky…

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, I’ve reached Grandma’s home. I thought this path would never end. The bag is heavy, and I’m tired of carrying it. The forest is kind of fun, but I’ve had enough. I might have fallen asleep, sitting on that rock. I will give grandma the pie, wine and the flowers I picked. Strange, the door is slightly open. To be on the safe side, I’ll knock, so as not to surprise her.

Who’s there? Wow, Grandma sounds strange! She must be really sick. Her voice is so weird and low.  “It’s me, Grandma, I came to visit you and brought your favorite apple pie and a bottle of wine.” Grandma is lying in bed but she seems odd. Her head is wrapped with a scarf, and on top of it are her glasses. Her entire body is covered with her blanket. She doesn’t ask me, as always, to come close and kiss her.

I ask: “Grandma, your ears are slightly sticking out, are you feeling okay?” She answers with this really strange voice that she’s sick but didn’t fully cover her ears so she could still hear me. She seems so different, but I’m not sure how. Her face is almost completely covered, I can hardly see her eyes. And her body looks weak, shivering slightly. What will I do if she gets even sicker? Maybe she is dying? There is no one to call for help here in the forest. I need to get to Mom. Something is wrong. I get a bit closer. Her eyes appear huge behind the glasses. “Grandma, why are your eyes so big?” I ask, and again she replies in this unfamiliar voice that she put on the glasses even though she’s sick so she could see me better. I take the cell phone out of my bag, I’m about to try to call Mom and tell her there’s a problem here, but before I touch the buttons I notice Grandma has hair around her mouth.

There is something scary about old people. I love Grandma, but when I look at her closely sometimes I panic. The wrinkles, a couple of hairs on her chin, the curly eyebrows, even her thin gray hair—sometimes I feel like running away. But now her face looks different, awfully narrow, as if she’s lost a lot of weight. And the hairs above her lips don’t look like the ones she asks Mom to pluck—they’re brown and thick. “Grandma, are you okay? Your mouth is a bit dark. Would you like to have some water? Should I call Mom?”

I can’t believe it! This can’t be for real! Out of the blanket a wolf is jumping, the one I saw in the forest, only now it has a huge belly. It’s leaping on me! It wants to EAT me. OMG, this is so scary, I’m glad I brought a bottle of wine. Here, I manage to smash it on its head. It turns around, dizzy, almost collapsing. I throw the blanket over it so it won’t be able to see. But wait, what’s going on?! It recovers, opens its mouth—its teeth are big, sharp and full of blood, it makes an awful growl, opens its huge muzzle…

 

 

 

 

 

Human beings are afraid of the wood. They walk vigilantly among the trees, careful not to go off the path, looking around with a mixture of admiration and unease. In the daytime, faces of hikers reveal some tranquility. The tall trees create a pleasant humility, the green foliage is relaxing, the light breeze rattling the leaves is delightful, a soft caressing whistle. But as evening falls, they quickly walk away, watching the low shrubs and the tall trees above them with clear apprehension. The pleasant light and the green colors fade away, replaced by a hue that is both bluish and brown. Here and there sudden movements are alarming; a lizard passing swiftly on the branches, a thick-winged insect flying from side to side, a night bird waking from its sleep. What they find most intimidating is not what they see but what they think is hidden out there; dangerous animals might be anywhere, an unexpected obstacle might be right in front of them.

But I like the wood. You can’t be a forest keeper if you’re afraid of its wild nature. As I walk among the trees—never along the paths—I feel there’s a perfect harmony between me and the world around me. I don’t feel this way elsewhere. In the city, in the village I live in, even at home, I always conceal a certain discomfort, a feeling that I have to adjust to my environment. But under the trees is the right place for me, a piece of the world that fits me perfectly. And I have no reservations about the violence revealed in the forest. A cute animal being eaten alive, bleating in pain as sharp teeth tear its flash; this is nature, the principle of sustainability that had always been there. But human violence, which I’ve seen in many places, is horrifying. People want to win, rule, command.

What is this? I hear a strange sound. A sort of odd snore, like an electric saw cutting trees intermittently. What could this be? I follow the sound, trying to determine where it’s coming from. Here, I’m now next to the house of the old lady living alone in the wood. The lights are on, she must be at home, but the entrance door is wide open. Very strange. I know she never locks the door, but she has never left the door completely open. Hello? Is anybody home?

Oh my God, the wolf has swallowed her! He is sleeping. Its belly is enormous; I wouldn’t have thought it could expand so much, and it’s snoring out loud. I will approach it carefully with my knife; it is fast asleep and won’t hear me. I am anxious, I don’t think I can take the sight of this nice old lady dead. Here, I cover its head with a sack and I cut its belly. The fear of what I might see almost makes me faint.

What is this? The old lady, embracing her granddaughter, are ejected from the huge belly. At first, I think they are dead, but they open their eyes and watch me with bewilderment that quickly transforms into joy. “We’re saved, we’re saved,” they cry and stand up, as I fill the wolf’s empty stomach with stones I carry in my backpack. It opens its eyes, gets up and, like a drunk trying not to fall, escapes from the house, emitting cries of pain that gradually fade away in the forest.  

 

[1] I (single version) by Kendrick Lamar.

0