There was a time, which seems distant but really was not so very long ago, when very few people lived in cities. Back then people lived in small villages or in solitary houses a long way from anywhere. We tend to think of olden times as being more friendly and more simple but really people went to great lengths to keep out of each other's way. Take, for instance, the family who are at the heart of the story I am about to tell. The father, well, he was either dead or working abroad for the king, depending on who you listened to. The grandmother was so keen to avoid the rest of her family that she had installed herself in a remote cottage in the middle of a forest which was populated by rowdy woodcutters and crafty, talking wolves. The mother, meanwhile, thought so little of her only child that she was willing to send her off into this parlous labyrinth of trees unaccompanied, and dressed in bright clothing which was bound to draw the attention of any ill-intentioned passer-by. The little girl? It seems that she was a simple, beautiful soul, rather as we imagine little girls to be in stories like this. So that's a relief.
She was, like small people are to this day, prone to fads. Her mother, in a rare fit of affection, had sewn her daughter a bright red cape with a hood, and the girl wore it all the time. The villagers thereabouts called the girl “Little Red Riding Hood”, because it was remarkable that she always had the same garment on, and because they couldn't be bothered to remember her real name; they had problems of their own, after all, what with blighted crops and talking wolves and suchlike.
One day, Little Red Riding Hood's mother (a name she resented, she was a person after all, with an identity of her own) learned from a passing tinker that the girl's grandmother was ill. She had some leftover cakes and a small pat of butter that needed using up, which she wrapped hastily, and put in a small basket. “Little Red Riding Hood,” she called into the garden, “Take these things at once to your grandmother in the forest!” The little girl, delighted that her mother had embraced the nickname theretofore used only by the faceless populace of the village, skipped to the kitchen step, collected the basket and set out on her way. Her mother readied herself for a trip into the village, to do some leisurely shopping, and to perhaps get her hair done. She saw the floating crimson form of the child's riding hood dwindle out of sight amongst the long grass at the forest's edge. Then it disappeared altogether into the darkness of the wood. “Mmm,” the mother thought. “What's the worst that can befall her?”
It took a while for the small girl's eyes to adjust to the light beneath the forest's canopy. As soon as she had finished squinting she saw a large, low figure approach. A wolf it was, wearing a pair of small round spectacles and a yellow waistcoat which was a little loose, where he was hungry. He was otherwise dressed much as you would expect a wolf to be. He stopped a few feet from the girl, sat up on his hind legs and spoke.
“Good morning, delicious child. Where are you off to?”
“Good morning, sir,” said Little Red Riding Hood, politely. “I am going to see my grandmother a short distance hence. She has been unwell and I am taking her victuals which I hope will restore her health.” The wolf eyed her quizzically, not least because of the child's diction, which seemed rather old-fashioned, even in those days.
“Okay,” said the wolf. “I won't keep you, but I would advise, since you've gone to the trouble of entering this here forest, that you take time to admire the beautiful wild flowers that lie just off the quickest path between here and your Granny's house.”
“Oh, do you know whereabouts my grandmother's house lies?” The wolf thought for a moment. He wondered if the girl was perhaps not as naïve as she appeared. His avid yellow eyes looked into hers, which were blue and trusting. The situation was developing. His initial ruse was simply to get the girl out of earshot of a crowd of unruly woodcutters who were chopping things, wood presumably, in a nearby clearing. Now he saw that his plan might be easily adapted into an eat-one-get-one-free opportunity. He was tremendously hungry.
“It's half a league from here, as the crow flies, due west. A compact, picturesque rustic-style property with its own mature nuttery.”
“Made of gingerbread?”
“Made of bricks,” said the little girl, firmly.
“Right you are,” said the wolf. “I'll let you be on your way, don't want to keep the old girl waiting. Don't forget to smell the flowers, and maybe pick some. They're gorgeous.” And with that he fell gracefully onto his forepaws and trotted off westwards.
The forest was indeed full of beautiful flowers, most of whose names her grandmother knew or had invented. The dew wort, the badger lily, the philanderus. In places the sunlight pierced the the leaves overhead in narrow beams, illuminating small patches of the forest floor, and revealing every small thing in the air above. Little Red Riding Hood lost herself in the splendour of the moment, of the then and there. She quite forgot about her mother and her grandmother and the wolf and her poor father, either lost or dead or in France or somewhere even more horrendous. She pulled her hood down and danced to the music of the forest, which was mostly just crickets.