Excerpt from The Company of Wolves
By Angela Carter
It is midwinter and the robin, friend of man, sits on the handle of the gardener's spade and sings. It is the worst time in all the year for wolves, but this strong-minded child insists she will go off through the wood. She is quite sure that wild beast cannot harm her although, well warned, she lays a carving knife in the basket her mother has packed with cheeses. There is a bottle of harsh liquor distilled from brambles; a batch of flat oak cakes baked on the hearthstone; a pot or two of jam. The flaxen-haired girl will take these delicious gifts to a reclusive grandmother so old the burden of her years is crushing her to death. Granny lives two hours' trudge through the winter woods; the child wraps herself up in her thick shawl, draws it over her head. She steps into her stout wooden shoes; she is dressed and ready and it is Christmas Eve. The malign door of the solstice still swings upon its hinges, but she has been too much loved to ever feel scared.
Children do not stay young for long in this savage country. There are no toys for them to play with, so they work hard and grow wise, but this one, so pretty and the youngest of her family, a little latecomer, had been indulged by her mother and the grandmother who'd knitted the red shawl that, today has the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow. Her breasts have just begun to swell, her hair is like lint, so fair it hardly makes a shadow on her pale forehead; her cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman's bleeding, the clock inside her that will strike, henceforth, once a month.
She stands and moved within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system; she does not known how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.
Her father might forbid her, if he were home, but he is away in the forest, gathering wood, and her mother cannot deny her.
The forest is closed upon her like a pair of jaws.
There is always something to look at in the forest, even in the middle of winter - the huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy o f the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing; the bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of trees; the cuneiform slots of rabbits and deer, the herringbone tracks of the birds, a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year's bracken.
When she heard the freezing howl of a distant wolf, her practiced hand sprang to the handle of the knife, but she saw no sign of a wolf at all, nor of a naked man, neither, but then she heard a clattering among the brushwood and there sprang onto the path a fully clothed one, a very handsome one, in the green coat and wide-awake hat of a hunter, laden with the caresses of game birds. She had her hand on the knife at the first rustle of twigs, but he laughed with a flash of white teeth when he saw her and mad her a comic yet flattering little bow; she'd never seen such a fine fellow before, not among the rustic clowns of her native village. So on they went together, through the thickening light of the afternoon.
Soon they were laughing and joking like old friends. When he offered to carry her basket, she gave it to him although her knife was in it because he told her his rifle would protect them. As the day darkened, it began to snow again; she felt the first flakes settle on her dark eyelashes, but now there was only half a mile to go and there would be fire, and hot tea, and a welcome, a warm one, surely, for this dashing huntsman as well as herself.
This huntsman had a remarkable object in his pocket. It was a compass. She looked at the little round glass face in the palm of his hand and watched the wavering needle with a vague wonder. He assured her this compass had taken him safely through the wood on his hunting trip because the needle always told him with perfect accuracy where north was. She did not believe it; she knew she should never leave the path on the way through the wood or else she would be lost instantly. He laughed at her again; gleaming trails of spittle clung to his teeth. He said if he plunged off the path into the forst that surrounded them, he could guarantee to arrive at her grandmother's house a good quarter of an hour before she did, plotting his way through the undergrowth with his compass while she trudged the long way, along the winding path.
I don't believe you. Besides, aren't you afraid of the wolves?
He only tapped the gleaming butt of his rifle and grinned.
Is it a bet? he asked her. Shall we make a game of it? What will you give me if I get to your grandmother's house before you?
What would you like? she asked disingenuously.
Commonplace of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed.
He went through the undergrowth and took her basket with him, but she forgot to be afraid of the beasts, although now the moon was rising, for she wanted to dawdle on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman would win his wager.
Grandmother's house stood by itself a little way out of the village. The freshly fallen snow blew in the eddies abut the kitchen garden and the young man stepped delicately up the snowy path to the door as if her were reluctant to get his feet wet, swinging his bundle of game and the girl's basket and humming a little tune to himself.
There was a faint trace of blood on his chin; he has been snacking on his catch.
Aged and frail, granny is three-quarters succumbed to the mortality the ache in her bones promises her and almost about ready to give in entirely. A boy came out from the village to build up her hearth for the night an hour ago, and the kitchen crackled with the busy firelight. She has her Bible for company; she is pious old woman. She is propped up on several pillows in the bed set into the wall peasant fashion, wrapped up in the patchwork quilt she made before she was married, more years ago than she cares to remember. Two china spaniels with liver collared blotches on their coats and black noses sit on either side of the fireplace. There is a bright rug of woven rags on the pantiles. The grandfather clock ticks away her eroding time.
We keep the wolves out by living well.
He rapped upon the panels with his hairy knuckles.
It is your granddaughter, he mimicked in a high soprano.
Lift the latch and walk in, my darling.
You can tell them by their eyes, eyes of a beast of prey, nocturnal, devastating eyes as red as a wound; you can hurl your Bible at him and your apron after, granny; you thought that was sure prophylactic against these infernal vermin …Now call on Christ and his mother and all the angels in heaven to protect you, but it won't do you any good.
His feral muzzle is sharp as a knife; he drops his golden burden of gnawed pheasant on the table and puts down your dear girl's basket too. Oh, my God, what have you done with her?
Off with his disguise, the coat of forest-colored cloth, the hat with the feather tucked into the ribbon; his matted hair streams down his white shirt and she can see the lice moving in it. The sticks in the hearth shift and hiss; night and the forest has come into the kitchen with darkness tangled in his hair.
He strips off his shirt. Hi skin is the color and texture of vellum. A crisp strip of hair runs down his belly, his nipples are ripe and dark as poison fruit, but he's so thin you could count the ribs under his skin if only he gave you the time. He strips off his trousers and she can see how hairy his legs are. His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.
The last things the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed.
The wolf is carnivore incarnate.
When he had finished with her, he licked his chops and quickly dressed himself again, until he was just as he had been when he came through her door. He burned the inedible hair in the fireplace and wrapped the bones up in a napkin that he hid away under the bed in the wooden chest in which he found a clean pair of sheets. These he carefully put on the bed instead of the telltale he stowed away in the laundry basket. He plumped up the pillows and shook the patchwork quilt, he picked up the Bible from the floor, closed it and laid it on the table. All was as it had been before except that grandmother was gone. The sticks twitched in the grate, the clock ticked and the young man sat patiently, deceitfully beside the bed in granny's nightcap.
Who's there, he quavers in granny's antique falsetto.
Only your granddaughter.
So she came in, bringing with her a flurry of snow that melted in tears on the tiles, and perhaps she was a little disappointed to see only her grandmother sitting beside the fire. But then he flung off the blanket and sprang to the door, pressing his back against it so she could not get out again.
The girl looked round the room and saw there was not even the indentation of a head on the smooth cheek of the pillow and how, for the first time she had seen it so, the Bible lay closed on the table. The tick of the clock cracked like a whip. She wanted her knife from the basket but she did not dare reach for it because his eyes were fixed upon her - huge eyes that now seemed to shine with a unique, interior light, eyes the size of saucers, saucers full of Greek fire, diabolic phosphorescence.
What big eyes you have.
All the better to see you with.
No trace at all of the old woman except for a tuft of white hair that had caught in the bark of an unburned log. When the girl saw that, she knew she was in danger of death.
Where is my grandmother?
There's nobody here but we two, my darling.
Now a great howling rose up all around them, near, very near, as close as the kitchen garden, the howling of a multitude of wolves; she knew worst wolves are hairy on the inside and she shivered, in spite of the scarlet shawl she pulled more closely round herself as if it could protect her, although is was as red as blood she must spill.
Who has come to sing us carols? she said.
Those are the voices of my brothers, darling; I love he company of wolves. Look out the windows and you will see them.
Snow half-caked the lattice and she opened it to look into the garden. It was a white night of moon and snow; the blizzard whirled round the gaunt, gray beasts who squatted on their haunches among the rows of winter cabbage, pointing their sharp snouts to the moon and howling as if their hearts would break. Ten wolves; twenty wolves - so many wolves she could not count them, howling in concert as if demented or deranged. Their eyes reflected light from the kitchen and shone like a hundred candles.
It is very cold, poor things, she said; no wonder they howl so.
She closed the window on the wolves' threnody and took off herscarlet shawl, the color of poppies, the color of sacrifices, the color of her menses, and since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.
What shall I do with my shawl?
Throw it in the fire, dear one. You won't need it again.
She bundled up her shawl and threw it in the blaze, which instantly consumed it. Then she drew her blouse over her head; her small breasts gleamed as if the snow had taken over the room.
What shall I do with my blouse?
Into the fire with it, too, my pet.
The thin muslin went flaring up the chimney like a magic bird and now off came her skirt, her woolen stockings, her shoes, and they onto the fire they went, too, and were gone for good. The firelight shone through the edges of her skin; now she was clothed only in her untouched integument of flesh. Thus dazzling, naked, she combed out her hair with her fingers; her hair looked white as the snow outside. Then went directly to the man with red eyes in whose unkempt mane the lice moved; she stood up on tiptoe and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt.
What big arms you have.
All the better to hug you with.
Every wolf in the world now howled aprothalamion outside the window as she freely gave him the kiss she owed him.
What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest'sLiebestod, but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat. She laughed at him full in the face, ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering, but she did not pay them any heed.
Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.
She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her own mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in asavage marriage ceremony.
The blizzard will die down.
The blizzard died down, leaving the mountains as randomly covered with snow as if a blind woman had thrown a sheet over them, the upper branches of the forest pines limed, creaking, swollen withthe fall.
Sunlight, moonlight, a confusion of pawprints.
All silent, all still.
Midnight, the clock strikes. It is Christmas Day, the werewolves' birthday; the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through.
See! Sweet and sound she sleeps in granny's bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.
Brief Biography of Angela Carter
Compare this Story to other renditions
The Story of Grandmother - Unknown
Little Red Cap - Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Little Red Riding Hood - Charles Perrault