By Wendy Wilson O'Connell
Mama has to draw. I begged her not to go tonight. My face still stings from where she slapped me. She left a mark as bright as my name – Red. Her shit brown eyes glared defiance at me leaving the stench of her ignorant pride up my nose. I shouldn’t worry. She has more of a chance this year not to draw the paper with the wolf symbol. There are twenty more names in the drawing because of the high school graduates just turning eighteen. Next year, I’ll be eighteen and I dare this town ask me to go. I double dare them to lead me to the edge of those woods.
That wolf should be coming after me, not Mama. She’s all I’ve got, and being alone is the only thing I’m afraid of. I shouldn’t be here, but when have I ever done anything I’m supposed to do? My body presses further into the tree behind me. The night air is supposed to numb me to what’s going on in that big white Plantation house on the hill, but it doesn’t.
My awareness has made me warm. You could even say it has made me wolf-like. It will soon enough. It’s dark, and the full moon passes behind the roof. Its six large windows on both floors make it look like a real mansion, but close up you can see the paint peeling, just like this town and all of its traditions built out of fear and superstition. The woods stay behind me, funny how I feel safer out here with a possible wolf than inside with them. A single flickering candle blurs my view of Mama and the other people in the room.
The need to find her causes my hands to shake. I go to run them through my hair and remember I chopped that mess off the other week, dyed it carrot-top red, needed a change and to be stronger. I’ll need that if Mama draws the wolf paper. They’ll take her to the town diner for a last meal and, then to the woods where the kids will line up and watch as she’s led into the darkness. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. She’s all I’ve got. It’s so cold out. How can I be warm, but I know why.
There must be over two hundred people gathered in that one room, but the shadows remain still against the candlelight. Finally, Mae Fleetwood glides to the center of the room. Even from the distance, from where I stand, I know it’s her. She was my grandmother’s best friend. For many years we had teatime with her on Wednesday afternoons. Her shape is forever memorized in my mind. She’s paper-thin and bent like a parsnip and she gestures with her right hand. Her mouth barely moves no matter what she pronounces. She’s old, and hard to understand and on top of that she drinks, but not tonight. She’ll stay sober in case her name is drawn. Of course, they all stay away from booze until they know whether or not their names get pulled.
Mae adjusts a pair of glasses on the bridge of her nose and faces the crowd of people in the room who wait for the wolf drawing speech. The speech and drawing is treated like any other order of business in town with the exception of Mae residing over it and she resides over it only because she owns the plantation home and throws one big party afterwards. She begins the speech, the one I have forever in my head. I don’t have to hear it.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of Hartsville, SC, we are gathered here together as family to protect each other and to offer up a sacrifice of one of our own. Many years ago a wolf ravaged this town. A young boy dressed in a red cloak offered himself as sacrifice and thereafter every year the sacrifice of one has been made for the lives of the many. This is written in the true original tale of Red Riding Hood. The tale no one tells you about. Now, let us bow our heads and pray for the soul chosen to meet the wolf tonight. Pray the pain is quick.”
The shadows of the men, and women go down, and then lift. Mae picks up the box, and carries it to each row where everyone has a chance to open the paper to see if the sign of the wolf is on theirs. Mama is sitting on the back row. I’m going to have to wait awhile before she gets to her. My stomach flips. Hunger and nerves are not a good combination. Usually my appetite can just about make me forget anything. A stocky man opens his paper next, Mayor Green. He doesn’t get the symbol.
He sits with his legs crossed and his hands the same way. He always rocks when he’s nervous. He’s still in motion even when finding his paper blank. I suspect his wife and son haven’t drawn yet. They are all tense now, but later they will be relieved and the sounds of their laughter will be mixed with the blood curdling screams of the poor fool whose name will be drawn. The adults will pretend they don’t hear, but the children will listen. They will be made aware, as always. Fear makes them afraid and makes them carry on the tradition.
My stomach twists in anger and hunger. Every year I come out here intending on stopping this and then I don’t. Mama reaches her hand in the box, opens it – no hesitation. Mama won’t show fear to the others. Her unshaken hand goes to the back of her neck and that’s how I know she doesn’t have it. I can breathe. She won’t meet her fate this year. Who will it be? I wait. Soon the mark is shown. My body jerks. Who? They turn the lights on and the red hooded jacket is placed on him. This is a small town. I must know him. My heart hammers. He moves awkward like he has a limp. This boy has a clubfoot and they are sending him to outrun a wolf. Isn’t there a rule about the sick and injured? Wait. I know him. He shouldn’t be here. He’s protected by the reservation. He’s not from our town.
I squeeze my eyes. He’s teaching me to fly a kite. It was a long time ago. He came to my grandfather’s funeral. He wore high waters and his clothes were wrinkled, but he had a joy like a firefly, has a light. I’m speaking of him as if he’s already gone. He’s not dead - yet. Maybe I should have found a jar for him back then. Maybe this wouldn’t happen, please not him – not Samuel.
When I open my eyes, he’s gone. They’ve taken him. My face is wet. The snow has started to fall again and the big house on the hill has turned all its lights on. The party has started. I have to stop this. The diner is within walking distance from here, and three of my friends will be there. I’ll think a little better on a full stomach – at least I won’t do anything un-heroic. I can’t, not this time, food first. Samuel, when did I stop thinking of him? Did I ever? The wind howls, urging me to run harder than ever never stopping until my heart leaps from my chest, or is ripped from it.