First off, she wasn’t exactly my grandma. Everyone in town called her that, a term of respect for those fortunate enough to survive to middle age. Though perhaps, given the realities of my youth, the word ‘fortunate’ does little justice to the everyday brutality of our lives. ‘Hardy enough’ is possibly more accurate. We killed what we had to, ate when we could, and survived the vagaries of our environment to the best of our ability. Most folks were ready to die when their time came.
And I wasn’t exactly a sweet, knock-kneed little girl. Those berry-stained capes were a signal back then. I was a fully-fledged member of a club that was equal parts feared and reviled. And technically outlawed. That we were all anatomically female goes without saying, as anything a male did was axiomatically considered within his rights.. No, transgression belonged to my sisters and me, as well as to those who identified with neither or both camps.
Our crimes were all of passion. We devoted ourselves to the health of those with child, aiming to upset the naturally cruel order of things by supplementing their nutrition enough to bring new life into our unforgiving midst. We had also learned how to assist the little ones as they arrived screaming between our outstretched palms. The sanctioned and the illicit, the weak and the strong, the typical and the unusual; all newborns were given our tender care in collaboration with their mothers, according to their wishes. When parental desires did not coincide with the well-being of the babes, we took them in as our own, and so, grew our ranks.
Our collective included only a single male-presenting child, as boys were highly valued treasures in our village. But Aaron, as I named him, was born feet-first, and judged responsible for his mother’s death and later, his father’s disappearance. I loved him from the moment he was released from the womb, silent and curled like a blanched seashell. I had snatched him away from the oaths of his vengeful older brother, who later followed his father’s craven example.
Aaron was with me that day, and I remember his excitement at the prospect of displaying his hard-won musical mastery of the ram’s horn Grandma had given him the year before. We had made three potato pies for her. She depended on the Red Hoods for food, especially in the wintertime. Her cottage was on the far side of town, near the forest, and I argued with Aaron about wearing warmer clothes for the trek; he had just turned ten and his burgeoning independence was beginning to test us both.
Halfway there, we lay our knapsacks of pie down on a frozen tree stump to rest and ate the apples we had packed. The wind had picked up, its icy fingers bleeding through the worn places in our cloaks and leggings. When I wordlessly pulled Aaron’s fur-lined gloves out of my satchel and handed them to him, his blazing smile warmed me as no fire ever could.
Grandma’s cottage came into view as the sun began to set. As we drew closer, I thought I heard a crash come from inside. I threw my arm across Aaron’s chest to halt his progress and pointed downward. Boot prints in the snow. They originated from the adjacent forest and clustered around the well in Grandma’s front yard. I judged five or six men had gathered there. More tracks led to her door. Woodsmen. The thought chilled me to the bone.
I was stirred to action by the sounds of obscenities yowled and pottery smashed. I half-dragged Aaron into the thicket. He was shaking with fear and the cold, but his eyes were steady as they met my own.
Wolfsbane, I whispered to my son. For the pies. Be careful. He was still for a moment, then held up his glove-protected hands to let me know he understood.
We had gathered the venomous purple flowers before. They had many therapeutic uses when prepared and deployed in tiny amounts by a trained practitioner. But the raw plants were poisonous even to the touch. Ingested, death was quick but agonizing.
It took no more than a few moments for us to locate a smattering of wolfsbane. We were able to lift the crusts off the pies and add the stems and petals to the potato fillings with a minimum of surface disturbance, though I doubted the food would be inspected before consumption. When we were finished, we sprinkled the plant’s deadliest element, its seeds, over the top of each pie.
I bade my child stay put, and I crept from the woods to the cottage’s hearth and deposited the pies there. I ran to the well; when I was close, I blew Aaron’s prized ram’s horn as loudly as I could before ducking behind its thick stonework.
The pillagers appeared in the doorway, and one of them shouted at the sight of the food. By the light of the moon, I saw the Woodsmen fall upon the pies like the animals they were.
The screams were dreadful as the men succumbed to our lethal recipe, and incapacitation did not take long. I beckoned Aaron from behind the tree line, and he joined me at the well. I handed the ram’s horn to him; his nod told me he would use it to warn me if necessary. I stepped over the dying and went inside.
The Red Hoods’ frantic search party found Aaron and me outside Grandma’s cottage, huddled together in the lunar haze. We wept as one, our grief recognized and amplified by the local wolves, whose howls joined our own as they offered their soft bodies to us for warmth and comfort.
At dawn, we staggered to our feet. And we carried Grandma’s ravaged body home, over the river and through the woods.