Free Fiction Friday: Straying from the Path

First published in Flash Fiction Online, Cicada Magazine, and in audio at The Centropic Oracle.

It was a wolf, rather than an ailing grandmother, that tempted Red into the woods. All day his cries echoed, small, plaintive-sounding things that filled the forest. By the time she found him, night had fallen and the blood on the snow looked black.

By moonlight, she pried his paw from the rusted jaws of the trap. He ran from her. And why wouldn’t he? It was her kind that set the trap to begin with. The wolf limped through the underbrush, tail between his legs. Later, if you asked her at what point she fell in love, she would’ve said that night. At the time, all she knew was how his injured gait made her heart lurch.

Later that night, Red spied his yellow eyes from well beyond the woodpile at the edge of the forest. The next evening, she left a meat pie on the lowest stack of wood. By morning, the tin had been licked clean.

And so went the winter. As the days grew colder and her supplies dwindled, she cut back on her own portion of meat. She could go without, but the wolf was still healing. Now, when she walked in the forest, she never feared brigands or the overly friendly woodcutters. When men called on her, they found the howl of a single male wolf so unnerving that they left their teacups half full, crumb cake uneaten.

When at last the snow melted and the sun heated the earth, Red took to bathing in the stream behind the house. No one dared disturb her. Every night, she set out a meat pie. Every morning, she collected the empty tin.

Except for the morning she didn’t. Flies buzzed around the soggy crust, the filling, chewed and pilfered by tiny mouths and claws. She threw on her cape and ventured into the forest—alone.

The trail was easy enough to follow. Drops of blood, tufts of gray fur. The farther into the forest she walked, the slower her steps became. What was done was done. All she could do was delay her own knowledge of it, spend a few more minutes free of a world where, every time she closed her eyes, all she saw was matted fur and severed paws—far too many to count.

That night, for the first time in months, she did not bake a meat pie.

The scratching came when the coals in the fireplace were mere embers. There, at the door, sat her wolf, bloodied but no weaker for his fight. He cocked his head as if to say: Where’s my meat pie?

She threw her arms around him, buried her face against his neck, and cried until the dirt in his fur became streams of mud.

When the townsfolk came, bearing axes and ropes, she threw open the door for them.

Why, no, she hadn’t seen any wolves at all lately. In fact, she’d stopped her treks through the forest for fear of them. Instead, she now cared for her grandmother here, in her very own cottage.

The men tiptoed from the room, not wishing to wake the old lady. The women rubbed their chins, hoping old age would not bring such a crop of whiskers.

After that, suitors stopped visiting. Although Red always sent them on their way with a meat pie, they found her grandmother’s beady eyes unsettling.

People forgot about Red and her grandmother who, while always ailing, never departed this world for the next. But on moonlit nights, townsfolk stumbling from the tavern swore they heard a woman’s laughter mixed in with the howls echoing in the night air.

If you liked Straying from the Path, consider the fairy tale compilation of the same name. Straying from the Path contains two novellas and four short stories in my Sour Magic fantasy world. Available in e-book and print.

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