The letter was delivered by a winged simian dressed as a bellhop. It had crossed its own wonderland, navigated the storm-beaten barriers of one child’s imagination, and then flown low through the forest to hammer urgently at Red’s window.
It screed and squawked, and when she slipped the window’s catch, the ape jumped inside and squatted on her kitchen table. It reached into its leather sachel, dropped the neatly-folded note in front of her, looked disapprovingly around her kitchen, and then hopped out into the night.
Red listened to its wings beat a path to the curve of the earth, then turned her attention to the note.
She opened it and read:
There is something borne on the north wind.
I need them – now!
Her eyes tripped the lever crafted to resemble an exclamation mark; it creaked, tilted to one side and the letter dissolved into mist.
Red dusted her hands and sighed:
She’d forgotten she had them.
She searched under grandma’s bed and through grandma’s cupboards, finding the shoes inside a stained glass box on top of the medicine cabinet. It seemed like an odd place to leave them, but grandma, she remembered sadly, was an odd sort of person. She’d lived a grand and adventurous life, and then faded as quickly as the changing of the seasons.
The box turned out to be one of the more obstinate keepsakes in the cottage, refusing to release the shoes until Red said it was the fairest box in all the land.
She put the shoes in her basket and donned the hood she’d worn since she was a small child. Back then of course, it made her look as cute as a fairy cake; now in her mid-fifties, with thinning hair and thickening ankles, she thought perhaps it was time to retire it for something a little more . . . distinguished.
Still, fairy tales are eternal, she mused; even if their characters are not.
She primed the alarm system and quickly left the cottage.
There was a single route to anywhere: along a narrow path that turned and looped and made figures of six on its way through the dark forest.
Red sighed, tightened her hood and made the best effort she could of skipping on her rapidly eroding hip.
The forest became mysteriously, yet predictably, darker and an owl, mysteriously and predictably, too-whit too-whooed in the distance.
Red was asking herself if owls really did make that sound, when a grey and expensively attired wolf leapt out from behind a tree. He flicked the brim of his fedora and bid her good morning. He looked very dapper in his suit of crushed velvet, his shirt of the finest silk, a vermillion cravate and a black waistcoat woven from the fabric of forgotten dreams.
But no trousers, which Red always found somewhat disconcerting; she supposed britches were something of a burden when your knees weren’t where they were supposed to be.
‘Oh, Mr Wolf,’ she said, stifling a yawn and keen to move things along. ‘Once again you’ve caught me; I suppose now you’re going to eat me.’ She closed her teeth and opened an ear for the huntsman. He liked to cut his timing to the bone, for dramatic effect if nothing else. That, the uncomfortable age gap, and his disregard for personal hygiene, had led to the inevitable ‘it’s not you; it’s me’ conversation many years before. She’d lied to spare him that day: it was most definitely him.
The wolf grinned, quite literally, from ear to ear. ‘Eat you? No, not this time, my dear’ he said, presenting her with an envelope.
Red looked at it and blinked. ‘What is this, Mr Wolf?’
‘My name is Tarquin,’ the Wolf said. ‘It has always been Tarquin.’
Red, thinking that was somewhat unfortunate, turned the envelope over in her hand. ‘Is it magic beans? Or a magic lamp?’
‘Look at it, woman,’ said the Wolf evenly. ‘How could I fit a lamp inside such a small envelope?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Red, without a mote of irony, ‘magic, perhaps?’
The Wolf fumed while Red pressed a contemplative finger to her lips. ‘Is it the apple that put Snow White to sleep, or a lock of Rapunzel’s golden hair, or a coin of purest silver stolen by Sinbad on his seventh voyage . . .’
‘It’s a court summons,’ said the Wolf impatiently. ‘I am suing you and that idiot huntsman for mental anguish and grevious bodily harm.’
Red risked a glanced at her timepiece. ‘If I remember correctly, Mr Wolf—’
‘Tarquin! It’s bloody Tarquin! I refuse to acknowledge the labels which have been forcibly attached to me: You say “wolf”, I hear “victim”.’
‘But you are a wolf,’ said Red. ‘And as for being a victim, it was you who ate me.’
The Wolf sniffed absently. ‘I was a slave to my natural instinct,’ he said, ‘but now I understand that instinct is just one of many voices I can choose to ignore — Have you studied Bhuddism?’
Red said that she had not.
‘Well, anyway, the power to rise above my base nature has always been in my hands.’
‘Paws,’ said Red without thinking.
The Wolf narrowed his eyes. ‘And after a three-week course of Contemplative Therapy, I now see that—’
‘Look, Mr—Tarquin, I’m in something of a hurry.’
‘Do not think you can just ignore me, you wizened old crone!’ the Wolf, quite literally, howled.
The fairytale guidebook stated that the official age for cronedom was two-hundred-and-fifty-three years, and not a day less. Red suspected the Wolf was well aware of this.
‘I am not trying to ignore you, and I am extremely sorry you feel so aggrieved.’
‘You’re . . . sorry.’ The Wolf seethed.
‘But I have an urgent delivery to make, so here’s what we’ll do: This is my number; get your people to call me; we’ll set up a meet for later in the week, and thrash all of this out over tea and a muffin. How does that sound?’
The Wolf looked unsure. ‘This week?’
‘Without a doubt.’
‘Well . . .’ He shuffled aside as Red pushed past him. ‘No later than this week.’
‘I suppose that would be—’
‘Fantastic, well I must be on my way. Goodbye now.’
The Wolf waved as she half-skipped, half-limped into the darkness. He licked his lips and sniffed, wondering if, metaphorically speaking, he’d been eviscerated once again.