To 2015 - 2016
Red Hunting Hood

By Sherry Luo

  1. Untitled
    By Molly Friedel, 12

Fhwump. Fhwump. Fhwump. I time my breaths perfectly with the sweeping, heavy, ungainly flaps of a speckle-breasted goshawk taking flight from its roost, its girdle and wingtips frozen stiff, barely functional, with none of the grace of a summer hunt. I allow my lungs to gorge the sweet, sharp winter air after I starved them to stifle the sound of my breathing. Watching my breath float away like an ethereal will-o’-the-wisp, I reluctantly cover my mouth and nose again with my cowl. My thighs and calves have long gone numb from crouching so long on this one bough, but I dare not shift my weight; as easily as it conceals, the hemlock is just as willing to betray your presence. A single disturbed needle can trigger the powdery tremor of the entire tree.

I gaze out at the land. The flurries skim along gentle exhalations from Above, where today the gods are carrying out their housekeeping, blowing on their shelves of clouds to rid them of dancing dust motes. A lonely, linty flake can drift aimlessly for miles solely on the whims of the wind before it joins its brethren on the dead earth which rests peacefully under a silky corpse sheet.

I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve been up here, waiting for my quarry. Pursuing doesn’t work. I know. It tauntingly leads you in dangerous, tiring circles. No, waiting is my best option. Or, at least, the only one I haven’t tried. It too has its dangers; I couldn’t even say whether I’m downwind of the beast that I’m after. I can only pray that I’m not, although maybe it would be for the best if it came after me instead. Better to know your place, even if you’re the hunted and not the hunter.

The feeling of my knives pressed against my hips is the one thing that’s keeping me alert. They remind me of why I’m here, how far I’ve come, how many mistakes I’ve made. This time, I’ve left my ranged weapons behind. A bow at fifteen, a spear at twenty-one, a musket at twenty-three. Against a monster of this caliber, they have all the effectiveness of a dull needle. No matter how intricate they are, traps and snares are no good either. All three times I confronted the fiend it fled, its injuries laughable. Chasing after it was also out of the question. Even on horseback, it is physically impossible; the beast can easily outrun a purebred greyhound. No other woodland animal can match its speed or endurance. A carefully planned ambush followed by close combat is the only way. The problem is, my chances of surviving a melee battle are slim, the margin for error even slimmer.

A ripple in the stillness, a stitch out of place in the frigid fabric. A startled ptarmigan bursts through the crystalline bracken in an explosion of glass. Is it close by? I shut my eyes, which are useless here; they’d only be a hindrance to my other senses. The snow and the whiteness play tricks on them. They make you see things that aren't really there and make you miss things that are. My ears are my only reliable guides right now, but even they are hard pressed to sift through every sound to lock onto the one I'm looking for. Winter has never seemed so loud or so quiet. Predatory animals are more intelligent than you think, and scarily so. If they can't exploit an opportunity, then they will create one. Recruiting the favor of their surroundings, hunters can conceal its approach using the slightest sounds. Every sigh of the wind, every groan of the arthritic trees, every stirring of a creature violating winter’s hush, I strain my hearing to its limit, listening hard for the sound of rough pads softly sliding on crusts of ice, the crunch of crushed snow, the telltale ruffle of an especially thick winter coat.

I hear it. I instinctively swivel my head towards the direction of the sound. That’s it. Nothing else in this forest has so delicately heavy a step. I adjust my cloak, getting ready for the beast’s appearance.

The beast prowls out of the underbrush, its snout to the ground, tracking my scent. In my twenty-year pursuit of the beast, this is the closest I have ever been to it barring the first time I encountered it. Larger even than a fully grown bear with paws the size of dinner plates, the beast looks well-fed; the sheen of its silvery pelt and its muscular frame show that it clearly has had no trouble surviving the winter. But of course, its prey isn’t limited to just animals.

As it sniffs the hemlock’s treewell where I spent the night, I start to get nervous. If it looks up and sees me hiding amongst the branches, it’s over. I have to make a move before then. The final trick is to get close without moving at all.
Just as it lifts its narrow snout, I jump, shattering the hemlock’s armor of rime and hoarfrost. The blade of my knife pointed downwards, both of my hands gripping the hilt. The beast sees and hears me in time to leap to the side to avoid what would have been a fatal stab, but still I manage to deal it a nasty gash on the shoulder. Drops of blood litter the snow like translucent yew berries.
Ears flattened, lips curled, fangs bared, the beast is angry. Scared too; I can see its tufted tail curled between its legs. Close up I see the beast’s pelt pockmarked with craters and dents, bare patches of fur, battle scars from previous bold but unsuccessful hunters. Eyes, sharper than those of a bird of prey, coldly rational with an underlying current of basal furor. Fight or flight? Stay or strike? I can see the question broiling beneath those yellow irises, but I don’t give it time to ponder. I throw my knife. Again, the monster darts to the side, this time into the brittle underbrush, but not before my flying knife pierces its flank.

The beast may have the advantage when it comes to running, but I know the terrain. I can hear that it’s heading for the river, maybe to take the fight there? I know for a fact that it can’t cross the river; the ice is still too thin. I stay still and listen, but that in itself has a risk. If I freeze for too long, the beast could slip away. Its pawsteps are fading. I almost go after it when I hear it coming back, faster and unafraid. It keeps to the underbrush, circling me, running so fast it is impossible to keep track of. It is everywhere at once. It’s trying to mess with my ears, knowing that my hearing is my only lead. I unsheathe four throwing knives, short, stout little things, and fling them as fast as a hummingbird’s sap-thirsty tongue, fingers crossed. One for each of the cardinal directions. They won’t be enough to grievously wound the beast, but if they hit, they’ll stop it. The satisfying sound of a blade lodging itself in flesh, a piteous whine, and then a snarl. I brace myself.

The beast leaps out, a shadowy blur of claws and teeth, all stealth and poise thrown to the wind. It completely disregards my ensemble of steel. I fall back, but not far enough. The beast’s massive paws smash into my chest, knocking the wind out of me and me into the snow. I have become its prey, a bitten jugular away from death. Any more pressure from its weight, and my ribcage could collapse. At first it’s bedlam, a storm of snow and blood. All I can do is try to dodge or block the beast’s lethal, swift bites, but I can’t keep at it for long. My arms are covered with bangles of scratches and bite marks. My clothes have been shredded to tatters, along with most of the skin on my chest, all in the span of seconds, but the pain, somewhat dulled by the cold, is the last thing on my mind.

From my belt loop I wrestle out an axe, given to me long ago by an old friend, a woodcutter who I promised retribution. The beast backs off when it sees the deadly curved blade, but I’m not aiming for its throat. I grab hold of its forepaw and start hacking away at it. Panicking, the beast tries to wrench itself out of my grip, but I dig my nails into its flesh even deeper and hold on. Its bone is easier to chop through than I thought it would be. Soon the beast’s entire paw is dangling from just a flimsy strip of skin and fur. The shard of bone sticking out of its stump leg is shockingly white against the crimson flesh. The erupting blood is hot, thick, and salty, but, in climes as cold as these, freezes instantly on my skin.

The beast’s nerve-splitting screams are eerily human. Even with so much blood loss, it still it finds the strength and mental clarity to run away, loping awkwardly on three legs, slow enough for me to chase after it. Again it is heading for the frozen river. I run after it, pumping my legs high enough to clear the snow mounds. As much as I don’t want to lose ground to it, I have to pause now and then to slap some snow and dirt on my stinging wounds to prevent myself from bleeding out.

At the river, a pristine prairie of frost, the beast limps onto the thin ice, leaving in its wake a sticky, stark red trail. I take my axe and walk to the edge of the frozen river. When it sees me, the beast desperately hobbles faster, as if it knows what I am about to do. I raise my axe above my head, as high as my mangled arms can lift, let the blade fall into the ice, and twist the haft for good measure. The cracks grow like impatient trees, their branches spanning the entirety of the river, the noise thunderous. In spite of its head start, the icy fissures catch up to the beast, and it vanishes beneath the water. Only a murky, plum splash marks its disappearance. 

I hurry downstream. My wounds are starting to take their toll on me. The blood loss combined with the leaden pain is making me light-headed, but I need my wits about me for what’s ahead. I find the beast lying exhausted on the bank. With its fur sopping wet, it looks only half its normal size. Its stump leg is still oozing blood into the black, hard earth. Here lies the great Wolf, terrorist of unwary travelers and forest dwellers. At long last I have the elusive beast at my feet, a twenty-year hunt culminating to this moment. 

I take out my revolver, my only inheritance from a family devoured. Had Father gotten his hands on this a little bit faster that fateful day, he might be the one standing here today instead of me. The revolver is already loaded. Five bullets are all I need; this thing wasn’t built for accuracy, but power.

I aim the barrel of my gun at the Wolf. The beast makes no effort whatsoever to fight or escape. Its yellow eyes, pupils constricted from fear, close in a gesture of defeat, saying to me, Be done with it then. Twenty years, and this is how it ends.

I fire. “One for Grandmama.” The entire body of the Wolf jerks from the impact of the bullet. A little girl, dressed in a red hooded cape, led by a woodcutter, away from her grandmother’s mauled corpse and bloodied cottage, back home to the safety of Mother and Father. The blood is beginning to pool at my feet.

Again. “One for Mather.” A little girl, dressed in a red hooded cape, on her knees, screaming with her hands covering her face, refusing to believe her eyes. Her mother’s purple intestines are strewn across the floor like dead snakes. She has been slaughtered cruelly, with less dignity left than a rotting pig’s carcass. The blood is soaking into my boots, disgustingly warm and thick.

Again. “One for Father.” A little girl, dressed in a red hooded cape, picking up a revolver that was inches away from her father’s fingers. She cannot bear to stare into his vacant eyes with none of the usual warmth and sensibility in them. The foul, metallic stench coming from her parents is burning her nose. The smell has been branded deep on her mind. I let my cloak fall into the blood. I won’t be needing it anymore anyway.

Again. “One for all the other children you f****** orphaned!” A little girl, dressed in a red hooded cape, looking out the window to see the ghastly face of the Wolf. Its lips are curled back in a grisly smile. The woodcutter chases after it with his rifle, but the beast is too swift. In a flash of silver fur, it’s gone. The little girl grips the revolver tightly. It’s done. My knees buckle and I fall onto the bloody bank. My wounds are starting to bleed again, and my own blood mingles with the beast’s. I pick up my cloak, now entirely soaked through. It lapped up the Wolf’s blood thirstily like a woolen tongue and has turned a deep crimson red. The story ends how it begins.

“And one for me.”