Red Wolf, by Anthony Rella

 Imbolc is a strange holiday to me.  The earth’s energy is beginning to move outward after its withdrawal at Samhain, but the season is still quite unpleasant, muddy, wet, and cold.  This arc of energy is represented in Grandmother’s cycle of sleep, in which her power is at an ebb and her apprentice Red Wolf must learn to survive in his own way.  When I saw the prompt for this collection, I thought it would be fun to take ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and remix the gender identities and roles of its principle characters, but only after completing the piece was I reminded that this recent full moon, just before Imbolc, is also called the ‘Wolf Moon’.

Red Wolf

Season of mud: glistering snow
now dirt and piss slush,
fog-sticky air, muck sucking
Red Wolf’s soles in deep
as he sought work from hearth
to hearth and found no
babies sick, lovers scorned
no families needing meat
or medicine.  Grandmother
instructed Red Wolf endure
the cold as human, to spurn
his guise of fur and claw:
“Don’t change from laziness.
Bear winter frost as man,
summer heat as wolf.
You will command yourself.”
Red Wolf begged an inn
to warm his toes by the fire.
Beside him sat a hunter,
handsome, lips sensuous.
“Heard you would rid a man
of his urges for a warm meal.”
Red Wolf kept silent, sensing
female scents through his
coarse green coat.  “I track
a wolf who walks as man,
whose winter has been hard.”
“Stories.  I do not service
assassins nor competitors.
You steal my business.
My customers speak of you.”
“They speak of Grandmother,
say you will lead me to her.”
Standing, Red Wolf’s nimble
fingers drew a needle to prick
the hunter’s neck.  Stony grip
encircled Red Wolf’s wrist.
“I will sharpen my blade
on your bones, then gut
your witch.  I will leather
your freakish hide.” Fist
going slack, the hunter’s
eyes lost all light until
waking alone in his bed,
invoice pinned to his chest:
the fee for moving his body.
After settling his account,
he hunted Red Wolf’s tracks,
deftly obscured except
for his expert eye.  At dusk
he discovered Grandmother
at a cabin sharpening her
scythe, singing of old magic
and love between human
and fae.  “You look hungry, cold,
and wet.” She smiled, waving
him close.  The hunter aimed
his arrow at her heart.  “I come
for power.”  “You will not find
power in my bleeding corpse.
Let me teach you the forest.
Submit yourself to animals.
Study greening leaves in Spring.
Taste herbs that cure and kill.”
“Your ears and teeth will make
a ward against evil spirits.
Your eyes will be my prize.”
Wondering why he rambled,
finally he loosed the shot
and watched the arrow thud
into an oak where Grandmother
had seemed to be sitting.
Through the glamour Red Wolf,
naked, sprinted, skin sprouting
crimson fur, mouth sharpening
to rend the hunter’s bicep.
An arrow grazed his shoulder
Red Wolf trailed crimson,
hunger calling him to prey
and pack, but he trained
his human mind to protection.
In the mountain, Grandmother
lived in a house anchored
room by room vertically
into the stone.  Shaping paws
to hands, Red Wolf climbed.
Grandmother slept at the top
from harvest until the first green
shoots of spring.  Older than towns,
older than the mountain—
Grandmother needed her rest.
Red Wolf doused himself frigid
from the barrel of rainwater,
bathing his bleeding cut, rubbing
mud from skin, and patted dry.
He found a robe and mane of fur.
Under the full moon, Red Wolf
saw the hunter skipping
up the scree like a goat.  He hated
to admire the hunter, some spoiled
child whose parents likely paid
his tools and training, indulged
these excursions.  Yet, Red Wolf
remembered, they likely cared
little for the one they imagined
as daughter living as vagabond.
Red Wolf folded himself into bed,
feigning sleep, reviewing the plan
for some flaw or clue forgotten.
He nearly gasped once the hunter,
silent as snow, entered the room.
“Dear heart,” he croaked.  “What
brings you to Grandmother’s side?”
“I seek the magic in your eyes.”
“Dear, these old eyes carry magic
like a crow feasting upon a corpse.”
“Then your ears, into which masters
have whispered their secrets.”
“Merely words those were.  Now
their teachings lie in my bones.”
Ripping back the cover, the hunter
howled, “What a horse voice you have!
What hair legs! What small cock!”
Red Wolf blew a fistful of dust
into the hunter’s face, on which
boiled blisters.  The hunter coughed
raggedly, slicing at Red Wolf
who rolled to the floor, arm trapped
beneath his body’s weight, worsened
by the hunter leaping upon him.
Face pressed to the floorboards,
Red Wolf noticed the tiniest green
shoot rising from Grandmother’s
pots of dirt, illumined by moonlight.
“Foul thing! Poisoner! Trickster!”
Frantically damning Red Wolf,
the hunter felt his strength subside.
He pushed away from Red Wolf,
clawing the medicine pouch
on his belt.  Above them clattered
the ceiling door, and Grandmother’s
glaring eyes peered through.
The hunter swallowed his medicine,
but her gaze pinned him to the wall.
“He came to cut you into parts,
To steal your magic.” “I seek
transformation,” the hunter said.
“Shaper of forms.  Jealously,
your beast tried to stop me.”
“Bind him thrice, my darling,
and let him sit.  I am waking still.”
On the cold stove, Grandmother
set a pot to boil, stirred fire
into the dry wood.  From herbs
and stones she boiled a tea.
“Let none leave Grandmother
without a taste of his desire,”
she said, offering the hunter
a mug.  He bucked, but Red Wolf
opened his lips.  She poured.
The hunter’s head bent, limbs
stiffening and shrinking as mouth
pursed into a sharp beak.  Black
feathers erupted from his pores,
legs bending into spindly things.
Attempting to shout, his mouth
and mind cracked a brittle caw.
The raven pecked loose bindings,
setting empty black eyes upon
the witches.  He flapped his wings,
and launched into the thaw.

Anthony Rella

is a witch, writer, and mental health counselor living in Seattle, Washington in the United States with his husband.  He is a long-term student of Morningstar Mystery School, initiate into the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, and a lover of the Kemetic gods.

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