by Molly Lazer
Ru’s grandmomma is a witch, and not the nice kind, neither. At least that’s what Ru’s daddy says when Momma isn’t around. Daddy says to stay away from Grandmomma, so Ru hides in the cupboard whenever she comes to visit. But Grandmomma always finds her and thrusts her fat head into the cupboard to coax Ru out and lecture her about how the cupboard is a place for teacups and animals, and how a girl’s place is at the table with her momma and grandmomma.
Ru would rather spend afternoons behind her house with Wolf, marauding and stalking the yard. Ru’s momma tells her that Wolf is bad news as she shoos him back behind the trees. Grandmomma sends letters saying that little girls and wolves shouldn’t be seen together. When she hears this, Ru lowers her head, letting her cloak of red hair fall in front of her face to hide her from women’s words.
After Ru goes to bed, Momma tells Daddy about how she doesn’t want Ru to grow up, how there are too many wolves in the woods. Momma wants Ru to walk the path from home to school and back each day, alone. Wolf has other ideas.
He meets her on the path, slinking out from behind a large oak and daring her to go into the woods with him to find Grandmomma’s house. Wolf has only heard of her in the stories Ru spins for him, painting Grandmomma as a forest witch, with her rolls of fat serving as hiding places for evil spells and charms to make her victims sit still and use the right silverware. Wolf wants to meet the corpulent conjurer face to face. Ru reminds him of Momma’s rules.
Wolf shrugs. “Must we always listen to Momma?”
Ru considers this. She is twelve, at that funny place between being seasoned and being seared.
“But Grandmomma might eat you,” she says, in a half-kidding sort of way.
Wolf cocks his head to one side and smiles a toothy grin. “Not if I eat her first!” He laughs. “Are you scared?” His voice is a dare Ru cannot resist.
She peeks out behind her hair with a bit of wolf in her eyes.
“Nah,” she says.
Grandmomma lives deep in the forest, where Daddy says the birds don’t even sing. “Get lost in the woods,” he told Ru, who lay in bed wide-eyed with the covers pulled up to her chin, “and you’re bound to find her, if she doesn’t find you first.” Wolf says he’s been in parts of the forest where he could only hear his own footfalls and see even less, and he wasn’t scared. But when they leave the cobblestone path to school and turn into the trees, Wolf does not run ahead.
Ru doesn’t fancy the idea of getting lost, so she traces their steps by tossing white stones behind her. It is autumn, and white stones are quickly covered up by red leaves. Wolf sniffs out a path of breadcrumbs on the ground, and he and Ru snap them up as they walk. The crumbs are covered in powdered sugar and are thick between their teeth. Wolf’s dark muzzle turns snow white as dark leaves blot out the sun overhead.
The breadcrumbs end at a cottage, brown and square and dusted on top with sugary forest frost. Wolf knocks on the door.
Wolf starts to answer, but Ru shushes him.
“It’s Ruby, Grandmomma. I’ve come to visit.”
“Ruby, girl, just raise the latch and come in. I’m too weak to get out of bed.”
Wolf reaches for the door, and Ru suddenly thinks of fat fingers feeling for her face. She shrinks back, wishing for the comforting wood of Momma’s cupboard at her back. But there is only the forest, its breadcrumb trail now devoured, behind her. Wolf’s paw touches Ru’s hand. His eyes flicker in challenge to the trees. The corner of Ru’s mouth quirks up in a small smile. She tells him to stay outside, lifts the latch, and goes in.
Ru’s eyes adjust to the dim light inside. Grandmomma lies in bed, wearing her nightgown and nightcap. The house smells so sweet that Ru’s teeth hurt.
“My, how you’ve grown, Ruby!” Grandmomma says, sitting up. “What big feet you have! I could hear you tromping up to my door from a mile away.”
Ru shuffles her too-loud feet until she stands pigeon-toed. Crimson scents come from the back room to mix with the sweet.
“Aren’t you going to invite your friend inside?” Grandmomma turns her pearl-white eyes to the door. “I can hear him breathing.”
Wolf peeks his head in.
“My, Grandmomma, what sharp ears you have,” he says as he crosses the threshold.
“The better to hear you with, my dear.” Grandmomma’s dry lips pull back to reveal what Ru supposes is a grin. The door blows shut behind them.
Ru reaches for Wolf’s paw as her hair falls in front of her face.
“It’s a good thing you’re here,” Grandmomma continues, getting out of bed. “I know how hungry little girls and wolves get after long walks in the woods.”
The candles on the walls light themselves as Grandmomma shuffles by. Flames dance inside the eyes of a fox’s head mounted on the wall.
“Oh, that,” Grandmomma says as Wolf’s tail starts to thump against the ground. “He was Ru’s mother’s. A wily little thing. But I ripped him out of her, believe you me, and you see how good she is now.”
But Wolf isn’t looking at the fox. Ru follows his hungry gaze across the room to see a table covered with sweet meats and sweeter candies. Gold liquid glitters in clear goblets. Ru hesitates, but Wolf runs ahead and dives into the entrails.
“You’ll be fatted up in no time,” Grandmomma says, scratching the top of Wolf’s head. She sits at the head of the table and points to an empty chair. “Come, dear, have a seat. I can hear your stomach grumbling.”
Ru sits. Wolf eats. Grandmomma picks up a turkey leg and gnaws the meat off the bone.
“My, Grandmomma,” Wolf says through a mouthful of intestine, “what big hands you have.”
“The better to hug Ru with, my dear.” Grandmomma downs her entire glass of mead in one gulp and smiles. Amber drips off her canines.
“My, Grandmomma,” Wolf says, “what sharp teeth you have.”
Grandmomma strokes Wolf’s paw with a long, fat finger.
“The better to eat you with, my dear!”
Before Ru can move to stop her, Grandmomma leaps up from her seat and grabs Wolf, dangling him above Ru’s head. His free legs run in midair, an impossible attempt to escape with Grandmomma’s fist locked around his ankle. Ru jumps out of her seat, knocking her glass on the floor. Sticky mead pools at her feet.
“No!” she shouts. “He’s mine!”
Wolf’s churning claws nick Grandmomma on the cheek. With a grunt, she flings Wolf into her cupboard, locking the door behind him and wiping black blood off her face with the back of her hand. Wolf’s nose peeks out of a large knot in the wood. Ru cries, but it does no good. Grandmomma opens her mouth and drops the golden key down her gullet.
“Little girls and wolves shouldn’t be seen together,” she snarls. “Wolves eat and eat away at you until there is nothing left.”
“But he’s my wolf,” Ru cries. Her hair sticks to the wet on her face.
“Don’t be silly, girl. Once he’s fattened up, his insides will make a nice meal, and his head will make a lovely lamp. Now grab a rag and clean up the mess you made.”
Ru sweeps and cleans when Grandmomma tells her to and watches as Grandmomma stuffs her choicest meats through the knot in the cupboard door for Wolf. After Ru tries and fails to pick the lock to the cupboard with one of the old rib bones she rescues from the fireplace, Wolf tells her to run back to Momma and Daddy and get help. Ru suspects that Momma would have put Wolf in the cupboard herself if she could have. Grandmomma, having heard susurrations of escape, mixes potions in her back room, stirring Wolf’s hair with grease and teeth to make a poultice that she spreads over the door so they can’t get out. When she thinks Grandmomma can’t hear her, Ru tries to open the door, but snapping teeth make her draw her hand back, betraying her with hundreds of small, clattering voices.
Grandmomma gives Ru bones to gnaw on. Ru slips one through the cupboard keyhole, and when Grandmomma asks Wolf to stick his paw out so she can feel how fat he’s gotten, he sticks the bone out instead.
Grandmomma is impatient. Her pearl-covered eyes rarely close. Ru and Wolf used to be able to whisper through the keyhole while Grandmomma slept, but now they stay silent except when Grandmomma asks them to speak. While Grandmomma stirs her pot in the back room, Ru secrets away a knife and cuts her hair short.
“Ruby,” Grandmomma calls. Ru sweeps her hair under the rug and runs to the back room. When she gets there, she finds Grandmomma with her hand down her throat up to the elbow. She gurgles as she pulls out the cupboard key.
“Whether he’s fattened up or not,” she says, “It’s time to eat.”
“I’ll do it!” Ru shouts. She grabs the key and runs on ahead. Before Grandmomma can get to the cupboard, Ru has twisted the key in the lock and jumped inside. She squeezes in front of Wolf so that when Grandmomma’s hands reach in, they clutch at Ru’s short hair.
“My, what fine locks you have, Wolf,” Grandmomma says as she hefts Ru by her spiked mane, kicking and struggling, toward the oven. “You’ve grown heavier, I can tell. You’ll make a fine supper.”
Ru can feel Wolf running back and forth behind her, trying to bite at Grandmomma’s heels. Grandmomma turns on the oven, and flames lick the rack.
Grandmomma pulls Ru towards her so their noses almost touch.
“You’re a crafty wolf,” she says. “You should know better than to run through the woods with little girls.” Ru can see herself in the white of Grandmomma’s eyes. She looks thinner now, braver, and certainly more grown-up. More than a glimmer of animal grins back at her. Ru breathes in Grandmomma’s sugary scent and kicks her as hard as she can in the stomach. Grandmomma yelps in surprise and drops Ru on the ground as she falls backward into the oven.
“I am a crafty wolf,” Ru whispers as she shuts the oven door. Grandmomma’s screams bubble and pop in the fire.
Ru and Wolf’s heads turn toward the entrance to the cottage as teeth clatter from the doorframe.
Outside, Wolf stretches back on his haunches, and Ru brushes his hair with her fingers. It is knotty like the dark cupboard wood. She combs until it shines.
“Momma and Daddy must be worried about us,” Ru muses, staring off into the forest.
Wolf curls his tail around her feet. “Are we going home?”
Ru shakes her hair, short like Wolf’s, and feels the breeze ruffle though the strands. Wolf is beside her, and the woods stretch out before them, ripe for marauding and conquest.
“Let’s take the long way back.”
* * *
Molly Lazer is an MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. A former editor at Marvel Comics, she now teaches high school, acts, and directs plays outside of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Gingerbread House, The Conium Review Online, Rose Red Review, Medical Literary Messenger, Scapegoat Review, and scissors & spackle. Find out more at meanwhileattherunes.wix.com/home.What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I think that the attraction of the fantasy genre stems largely from the fact that it is so "other" than our world. Fantasy lets readers find themselves in characters who are in wondrous situations but are still dealing with very human conflicts. I recently read a few realistic books in a row and had a hard time connecting to the characters. Then I picked up a fantasy novel with a non-human protagonist and a magical setting and I breathed a sigh of relief. There, there was something I could connect to! I don't think it's necessarily the escapism that attracts readers to fantasy. Instead, it allows us to work out real-world issues somewhere else.