“Red” is a short horror story written for, and published in, the sixth issue of The Quilliad, a smallpress publisher of Canadian poetry, prose, art, and everything in-between. Last night I attended the launch party for the sixth issue in Toronto, and in the cozy, couch-filled second floor of betty’s on King St E I had the pleasure of reading this story for a small audience, along with seven other creative and enthusiastic readers.
Everyone, keep creating and giving yourself to art! There is an entire community of people out there who are continually sacrificing their time and energy in the effort to make something new and beautiful.
For purchase of the sixth issue of The Quilliad, click here.
Happy Halloween and enjoy!
The night Grandmother didn’t bang on her bedroom walls and yell at me between naps, I saw Something through the back window, in the forest. The Something was shorter than the fence at the back of the yard, so I felt I was safe. It touched its nose to the chain link and then turned around and went away.
A handful of yellow stars glowed faintly in the dark sky above the treeline. I watched the wind spread the grass of the backyard into little green fingers and then press up against the house. It whispered, but I didn’t hear what it said. I was listening for Grandmother’s hollering above me, through the ceiling and the floorboards.
“Grandmother?” I said, having moved upstairs and now standing by her closed bedroom door. I knew not to bother her while she was sleeping, but I was worried. Worried? Yes, worried. That excited rush of blood through my body was only a result of seeing the Something outside. I didn’t like how it had pressed its nose into the fence.
Similarly, I pressed my ear to the wood of her door and heard nothing.
“Grandmother?” I said again and stepped back. While I had been listening at her door, a greyness had squeezed up between the floorboards and coated the air. This meant it was time for bed, but I wasn’t tired. I went down to the kitchen and turned on the light above the stove. Now I couldn’t see out the window to the backyard and forest if I tried. The inky reflection of a young woman stared back at me from the glass, her red hair in a frizz around her pale face.
On the kitchen counter was a pair of Grandmother’s sharp sewing scissors, the ones she liked to nip the top of my ears with when I made the wrong expression or spoke in the wrong tone of voice. These scissors were the reason I came downstairs. I had decided that because Grandmother hadn’t called me ‘Red’ that night—she called me ‘Red’ instead of my real name, on account of my luminous hair—it wasn’t any use for me to fit her description.
“Red!” she would call to me every night, before the greyness crept between the floorboards upstairs. “Red!” and I would be up there with a kiss for her cheek and sometimes a story for her ear. Whisper-soft I would tell them, just as she liked them, just as she used to tell them to me when I was younger and coming to her house was rare and special. Stories of forests and wolves and little girls. She would remind me at the end that there were lessons to be learned from the stories, but I never understood what the lessons were. I only understood the forests and the wolves and the little girls. Now, when I tell Grandmother the stories, she smiles at me, saggy and toothless, as if me telling her makes her happy—as if me telling her makes a difference.
But she didn’t call me ‘Red’ that night, and it had been so long since my parents had called me by my real name, what with their being dead since my tenth birthday, that I sort of felt empty and fake, like the inky reflection in the window wasn’t mine anymore, like I was the inky reflection. I took the sharp sewing scissors and cut my hair off. I cut it off above my ears and watched it fall in curls to the white kitchen floor. That’s when I heard the scratching at the back door.
It was a dog, I thought. Probably the neighbour’s. But I didn’t open the door right away. I turned off the light above the stove and looked out the window. Nothing stood by the back door, and I was about to pass the scratching off as me hearing things, which I do sometimes, when I saw the trees in the forest shaking near the fence. I thought, that is not the wind shaking those trees. And yes, when I quickly opened the door and looked, I found four deep scratch marks in the wood. I touched them with my fingertips and then shut the door tight.
Then it was really bedtime because the clock in the living room started chiming for midnight and shadows began to roam from the corners of rooms into the centers, even with the lamps glowing and throwing their soupy light onto the floors. I locked up the house, sliding deadbolts across door frames, and turned off the lights. The steps moaned as I went upstairs and I only remembered at the top that I had left the scissors and my pile of red hair down on the floor by the stove.
I heard the growling before I entered the kitchen. It was coming from beyond the back door. Without turning on the light, I crept to the window and saw a giant black dog standing outside.
No, not a dog. A wolf.
It wasn’t looking at me. It was looking at the door, focused, its eyes pinched to slits, its nose pressed to the wood. As I watched, it pawed the scratch marks softly, almost delicately.
Then it started barking. I watched its throat quiver and its teeth appear white as pointed piano keys. Then it started howling, its voice mixing with the wind which still pushed against the house. The wolf had rumpled grey hairs around its muzzle. It was old and swayed as if unsteady on its legs.
I quietly picked up the scissors, danced over the pile of my red hair on the floor, and went upstairs to bed.
I awoke maybe three hours later to a louder, deeper growl, emanating from outside my bedroom. I was up in an instant, snatching the scissors from my desk and gripping them tightly in both hands. I left my bedroom and followed the noise down the hall to my grandmother’s door, where the growling ricocheted off the hallway walls and rumbled loud and horrible into my eardrums.
Her room, when I opened the door, was very dark. The growling came from the bed. There, rolled up in my grandmother’s white duvet, was the wolf. He looked older still, his milky yellow eyes staring at me from the pillow where his head rested. In fact, he had grown a mass of curly silver hair between his ears. I thought I saw a tint of red lipstick on his wet lips.
The wolf pushed the blankets away and stood up on all fours on the bed. He stepped forward and I did too, slipping the scissors casually behind my back as I moved. I thought I should speak, should say hello, some sort of greeting, but all I could think of were the old stories and how the little girl hadn’t been afraid, not at first, and how she was always too dumb to recognize a wolf when it was sitting right in front of her.
“Oh, what big ears you have,” I said, smiling because I was not that little girl anymore, and I was not blind. The wolf growled and licked its lips with a long pink sliver of tongue.
“Ooooh, what big teeth you have,” I began to say, when the wolf leapt forward. I caught it right under the chin with the scissors. Blood spurted from its mouth onto my face and hands. I lowered the wolf to the floor and cut open its stomach to look for my grandmother, my real grandmother—the one from the stories, the one who told the stories—but all I found was a belly full of jelly innards and lakes and lakes of blood.
Then I stood and laughed because of course my grandmother was not in the wolf’s stomach. My grandmother was lying on the floor with her tongue hanging outside her red lips, her silver curls in disarray, and a pair of sharp sewing scissors in her gut. I laughed and laughed and even turned on the light to get a better look. My laugh was rough as a dog’s bark and soon it transformed into sobs, into a crooning howl. I bent down and licked the red from her skin, her face, her nightgown, the floors, my hands; I lapped up the blood from the tiny spaces between my fingers and the creases in my palms. I clutched the short hair on the sides of my head and swallowed the red and thought maybe it would have been better to have never left the stories, to still have my grandmother lying sick and powerful in her bed.