“Red,” I called her. It was because of the red, hooded cape she always wore. No one else could have worn that cape. Anyone else would have looked ridiculous. But my little Red could never look ridiculous. Maybe it was the thick, straight eyebrows, the simmering, liquid-gold eyes. She was such a dark, little beauty, the eyes stood out in sharp relief. Looking at her then, you would not have believed she was only fourteen.
Perhaps that’s why no one ever worried about her, not even when she walked alone in the woods. The mother was awful. The grandmother was worse: all day in that musty bed, in that hideous nightgown buttoned all the way up to the grotesque glob of chin. They took advantage of poor Red. The girl had no childhood at all. And, like a child, she stuck religiously to that path.
Her given name was “Robin,” given by parents so dull that even this, the faintest acknowledgment of her frailty and her fire, could only have been accidental. To me, she was not a commonplace robin at all. She was Stravinsky’s firebird: all grace and radiance, a chaotic flurry of wings.
“Is that where you’re going?” I asked. “To see your grandmother?”
“You don’t know?”
“I know. I just don’t see why you need to know.”
“You’re funny,” I said. Though I meant it affectionately, she pouted. She wanted so much to be taken seriously, poor thing. She hated any reference to her age, any insinuation that she ought not be traipsing through the dark woods all on her own. Yet, everyday, she would pause at the mouth of the woods. Her face, set. She wouldn’t even turn to look for me; She’d simply pause. I’d join up with her and, together, we’d enter the woods.
Dry twigs snapped beneath our feet. Some days the gnarled, gray branches shivered above us and insects sprang from below our knees. A stray arm of shrubbery might catch at her cape, causing her to wince and pull the cape even more tightly around herself. Disembodied notes emanated from hollow places and were lost in the dense web of foliage.
I didn’t always tell her what I could hear, what I could see just on the periphery: things decomposing and devouring each other. Nor did I tell her everything I knew about what she was seeing and hearing when those stunning eyes betrayed her in a slight flicker of the eyelids.
It’s not for young girls to worry about such things, I’d tell her. She only need know that I was there beside her. She would relent, of course, and discreetly, almost guiltily, grasp the wool sleeve of my sweater. I never said a thing about these transgressions of hers. I knew how the palpitant little body trembled at my side.
On those days of strange, low light and restless winds, I’d let her take my hand. “What big hands you have!” she would childishly exclaim. When we came within view of her grandmother’s house, we would wordlessly separate. There was no need for words. Such was the bond between us.
“I don’t know why you do it,” I said, “waste your days with that, decrepit old thing.”
“Grandma gets frightened living out here alone.” Her voice was soft, but I could see the sullenness that drew deep lines in her brow.
“Why? Who the hell would want to even bother with her?” I laughed.
“You’re terrible!” She turned that smoldering gaze full upon me.
Oh, she was lovely! It sent ripples of sunlight right through to my extremities. I held her gaze, just for a moment, and then looked back to the path. “And what about you, out here alone? You’re just a baby.” I then added, pointedly, “You’re a baby in a woman’s body.”
“I’m alright,” she replied, though not with much conviction. She could hide nothing from me, try as she might.
“She probably hasn’t taken that ridiculous, Victorian nightgown off in 100 years. I’ll bet she’s got cobwebs…”
“You’re terrible,” she said again. But I’d gone too far. Sometimes I’d forget she was just a child,—even as I spoke of it, aloud. Such candid truths were shocking to her.
“I’m sorry, little Red,” I said gently. “You know, there’s a clearing out by the pond. You can’t see it from here, but I’m sure you’ll adore it. Sometimes I lie out there for hours…just thinking.” I looked at her, significantly. “There are all sorts of wild little flowers and berries. You could make a bouquet for your grandmother!” I gave her a moment to consider. “Be reckless,” I teased.
“I don’t know. I’m not…allowed.” She was a bit embarrassed by the word. Just like that, her anger was quelled. “I’ve heard there are…foxes,” she said, uncertainly. And then, “Why are you laughing?”
“You don’t need to worry about foxes.”
Sarah Akin is an American writer of short stories and poems. Her previous work has appeared in the magazine Barking Sycamores. She currently resides in New Bedford, Massachusetts with her boyfriend George and their cat Emilia. Twitter: @E_c_h_o