The Forest and the Hood

Once upon a time there was a forest, and into that forest, once upon a time, there skipped a little girl in a red cape.

Stop right there. You think you know this story. I suggest that you don’t.

What do you know about the forest? It’s dark and tangled, obviously; a backdrop, definitely; a metaphor for the subconscious, if you want to be smart. One can assume some kind of path winding through it but really, are we talking widely spaced trees filtering dappled sunlight onto grassy clearings strewn with flowers? No, we are not. The forest is ancient, twisted, and so full of shadows that the coat stands out like a poison berry, a startling drop of blood. Many creatures live there but the crucial ones to this story are a wolf, a grandma, the little girl, and a woodcutter. Yes, they are all human – even the wolf, really, who is so anthropomorphised he talks. They bear closer examination.

First, the wolf. He is dangerous but also sly; no impulsive roaring and biting for him. He is a cross-dressing psychopath with a penchant for the sinister wisecrack. His hobbies are lurking, building up tension, and introducing an element of fear into an otherwise bland tale. Vegetarianism is his dirty little secret. No, really. He threatens and controls but all the time he has Grandma stashed in the cupboard. Why not eat her? Even if he wanted to save his appetite for a tastier morsel, he could have a nibble. Blood is blood, surely. Sinews are sinews. While we’re on the subject of the wolf, there’s another gaping plot hole in the bedroom. Did you notice it? The clothes. How does the wolf, with his ripping teeth and his wolfish paws, effectively don a bonnet and/or a dress? Collusion? Is Grandma really who she says she is? Is the whole story a cover-up for unnatural acts between Grandma and the wolf? Is it possible that, when her innocent granddaughter unexpectedly arrived, Grandma had just popped out of bed (naked) to fetch something? Lubricant. Leather. Just a thought. She wouldn’t be the first guilty adult to duck into the nearest wardrobe.

Grandma, narratively speaking, is barely there. She must have a back story but we never hear it. (Why was she living in the forest? Was she born there? Banished? Did she kill a witch when she was a child and steal the house?) In her old age she has been reduced to a plot device, her sole purpose to lure the child into harm’s way. She also provides the costume. Thanks, granny. Still useful to society.

The woodcutter, male of course, swoops in at the last moment and heroically saves the day by brutally murdering the wolf with his axe. It’s a gruesome image, generally skipped over. Blood spattered walls, clumps of hair sticky on the axe blade, the guts and faeces of freshly dead animal soaking into the mattress. We don’t like to think of it, so we glorify the rescue instead. I, for one, would not be sleeping in that house any more, at least not until it had been industrially cleaned and fitted with proper security. Not much of a personality, the woodcutter – not even necessarily a speaking part – yet he does all the dirty work including some pretty intense manual labour. Perhaps he is a migrant worker.

Are we ready for the girl yet? Surely not. Let’s spend a moment on the coat. Sometimes it’s a riding cape, which does beg the question – where’s the horse? Too spooked to enter the forest? I like to imagine that grandma made the cape, perhaps just for dress-ups; we’ve already discussed her interest in such things. Whatever the design, we know it had a hood and we know it was bright scarlet. Why red? Because it was rare and bright and fabulous, of course. Oh, there are the obvious references, but really, it’s a coat. Do we need it to be anything more? It is gorgeous, warm, brightly coloured and desirable even from this distance. Let’s sigh over it and move on.

So finally, the title role. Little Red Riding Hood, named for her clothes. It must be said that the girl is none too bright. For one thing, she skips blithely through a clearly dangerous forest looking neither to right nor left whilst being stalked, tracked, and hunted by an undefined number of animals but at the very least one swift and sinister wolf. Not that she shouldn’t be in the forest. She has every right to be there, wearing whatever she pleases. Presence in the forest in a blood red cloak does not imply consent to be eaten. But still. Then there is the frankly unbelievable scene with her ‘Grandma’, who looks, speaks, and smells like a wolf, while Little Red Riding Hood completely fails to notice. There are two plausible explanations for this strange behaviour. First, that Little Red Riding Hood has Autism: she is unaware of social/ contextual cues that would make her nervous in the forest and her eye contact is so fleeting that she fails to take in the whole picture when she sees the wolf in her Granny’s bed and relies for far too long on the false evidence of the bonnet. Alternatively, that she is older than we have been led to believe and already suffering from teenage ennui. In possession of an electronic device that demands 95% of her attention at all times, she is plugged in and oblivious on her walk through the forest and when she gets to Grandma’s, she is so desperate to access the wifi that she does not look up from the screen until she has checked all her texts, likes, and notifications. However, she knows some kind of interaction is required, however desultory, so she fobs Grandma off with random and frankly sarcastic comments on her appearance: ‘My, what big eyes you have.’ You can just hear her reporting back to her parents: ‘I DID talk to her. I said she had big teeth. WOT???!’ True, it might be neither of those things. Perhaps she is simple, or enchanted, or fey. But you have to admit, her behaviour is questionable.

Speaking of questions, here is the big one. Why this story? Of all the legends and fairy tales ever written, why is this one so loved, so frequently reproduced, so well-remembered? We could have dancing princesses, glass slippers, princes turning into swans, but this is the one we choose. Is there something elemental about the forest? Is it the simplicity of the innocent child vs the cunning wolf? Sick of royalty, are we instead drawn to the fate of the common people?

We may never know, but here is a theory.  Once upon a time there was a forest, where now there are streets. Once upon a time there was a skipping child, simple and unencumbered. Once upon a time, we were apex predators who protected our young. Once upon a time there was poor life expectancy and limited food security and people never left the area they were born in and most were illiterate – yes – but against the dazzle of once upon a time we are inclined to forget such details. The gift of this fairy tale is as follows: that it has been so handled and smoothed and worn and retold, that the minutiae have been shaken loose, revealing underneath the shape of our true desires. And what have we really wanted all this time? It turns out to have been simply this: food; a family; a common enemy; a sense of mystery, and a fabulous scarlet coat.

Mr Kawasaki

I first noticed Mr Kawasaki that Summer. I had just started working at the rest stop on the main highway and I was busy learning the job, so it took a while before I had time to stop and observe the customers. People think that cleaning is easy, but any job requires concentration if you want to do it well, and I was new and proving myself so I worked hard and did my best every day.

It was particularly hot that year, and tourists poured in by the coach load in search of some cool mountain air. To give a pleasant experience in those kinds of conditions one needs to work fast, cleaning up discretely after each guest whilst allowing people their privacy. If anything developed a fault, for instance if one of the toilets lost its bidet function, it had to be checked and fixed immediately. Don’t rely on complaints, my supervisor advised me. Nine times out of ten, people won’t complain, they will just go away with an unfavourable impression and your business will suffer. I felt that was true. Who would bother to complain, when they only had a brief stop in a place? Better to spend that time in the souvenir shop buying okashi snacks and themed keyrings to take back as gifts for your co-workers. The cheekily named ‘monkey poo’ chocolates were particularly popular sellers at our rest stop due to the famous monkey park nearby. Most people visited there, if only just to take a picture on their way to the springs.

That reminds me, I was talking about Mr Kawasaki. He probably came in every day for a while before I became aware of him. One day there was a traffic holdup on the highway just coming out of Beppu and so there was a lull between coaches. I took the opportunity to give the mirrors a good polish, whistling as I went because I assumed the place was empty. It was not until I reached the very end that I noticed the door to one of the stalls had been closed the whole time. Embarrassed, I cleared up quickly and left the building. The heat pushed back at me like a thick mattress of cloud and sweat immediately broke out all over my body like a prickling, wet, rash. I stopped, pulled out my handkerchief and wiped my face and neck. As I did so, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a man leaving the rest room. He was dressed in the olive-green uniform of the monkey park and was carrying a suit over his right arm. Strange, I thought, to change out of a suit into a uniform, and in a public restroom too. Then the first of the coaches arrived and I thought no more of it.

The following week, though, it happened again. This time I had taken a detour to the vending machine for a cold drink, holding the can against my hot skin for instant relief. A gaggle of schoolgirls had been crowding around the area fanning themselves and squealing about the heat ‘So hot, so HOT!!!!’ as they chose their sugary drinks. I moved away to a quieter spot, and there was the man again, coming out with his uniform on and this time a suit bag over his shoulder, coat hanger held steady by one casual finger.

I confess that it became somewhat of an obsession of mine. I looked out for him every morning and once, staying late because we were understaffed, I was there to see him enter the rest room in his uniform and leave in a suit. The suit was grey with a subtle pin stripe and a crisp white shirt underneath that gave the impression of an air-conditioned office. His tie was precisely knotted and his shoes, which I’d never noticed before, were expensive looking leather and perfectly polished. That was the day I named him Mr Kawasaki, after the businessman from that silly show – what was it called again? I can’t remember now. It was popular at the time.

There is an unsatisfying end to this story. One day he stopped coming. I thought he was on vacation but after three weeks he was still not back. It bothered me so much that I even went to the monkey park one day. The monkeys were as cute and as mischievous as everyone said but my day was unrewarding, nonetheless. He wasn’t there.

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Fortune

Tubs the Cat, Companion of the Immortals,  Denizon of the Underworld, Basker under a Thousand Suns, was interrupted in the act of licking his nether regions by a jangle of chimes as the shop door opened. One ginger leg in the air, he looked up and sniffed. A new customer. Nothing interesting about her. He went back to his grooming. Tubs knew interesting when he smelled it. Tamika, his human slave, told fortunes all day while he looked on. So much banality, so much tedium, so much repetition. Whatever nonsense Tamika told them, Tubs knew the truth just by wrinkling his nose. The humans would mate, reproduce and die. End of story. Tubs splayed out a paw and chewed at the itchy webbing, absorbed completely in his task. He quite liked this body. True it was a little tubby, but the fur was soft and it could run fast. His other two bodies were not quite as comfortable. The old, arthritic one, he spent very little time in, waking it mainly to eat and groom. The younger black and white one was springy and nimble but stuck permanently indoors, or in a caged outdoor area that enabled other cats to observe his captivity. He woke that one up most mornings around breakfast time but gave it a rest in the afternoons, when he preferred to wake this one and stroll along the rooftops then drop in on Tamika at work. Tamika had a good range of kibble.

The door chimes jangled again in the middle of ear grooming. Lick, up, over, lick, up over. He had got into a great rhythm when the atmosphere changed, causing him to freeze with one paw on his head. What was that? A different scent. Tubs righted himself in a hurry and flowed quickly and smoothly down to Tamika’s chair, winding himself in and out of the legs while he chased for the right air particle. That one. That was it. He inhaled luxuriously. Interesting. The customer was interesting! Finally. Tubs sat alert under the chair, front paws together, ears pointed. The customer was a female with pale, white, legs and rich-smelling shoes that had been to many outdoor places. Each item of her clothing smelled different but underneath she was umami, like mushrooms or fish, and a little salty. Tubs longed to lick her. The humans spoke for a while. Blah blah blah blah. Tubs had not bothered with human speech since the glory days of the pharaohs. He listened instead to the vibrations of the voice, the movements of the body, and the scent behind the words. This human was powerful but her power was blocked somehow. Tubs edged closer. She thought she was weak? Something to do with mating. A rejection? But she was so powerful; Tubs could feel it buzzing like a fly in a jar. Mating should not bother her. She was alpha. The human kept talking in a high breathy voice, her body language deferential. Why didn’t she release her strength? The effort of holding it in was making her weak. Tubs concentrated his mind and sent messages to her but she didn’t hear them. It was no surprise; this breed of human was very basic. She needed to be shown, physically. She needed to fight.

Tubs held himself aloof from the human servants as a rule, but he was nothing if not gracious and sometimes, just sometimes, he deigned to help them in their plight. This would be the customer’s lucky day. Tubs gathered himself, took a deep breath, waved his bottom back and forth for a moment and SPRANG. Onto the customer’s leg, all claws out. The customer shrieked and leaped up. It was ON! They fought, they fought most gloriously. Tooth and claw and yowling and batting hands. Tamika fought too, with much shouting. Then, finally, Tubs felt the customer’s power, with a great roar, burst free. He had freed her. His work here was done. He dropped to the floor and positioned himself, head and tail erect, to graciously receive his praise. Not since his time as Aggie’s witch’s cat 400 years ago had he done such a good clean job. He still had what it took.

Imagine Tubs’ surprise, then, when he was picked up rudely around the middle and unceremoniously thrown out of the door, jangles going crazy as it slammed behind him. He was stunned for the smallest of moments and then infuriated. To be disrespected by such fools. He ran directly to his sleeping place, put the ginger body to sleep and woke his old arthritic body a couple of suburbs away. He would spend the afternoon aching by a warm fire, stroked by a servant who appreciated him. Tonight, he’d take his ginger body somewhere else for kibble. Tamika did not deserve him.

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