One fine autumn afternoon, a lone wolf put on his best sheep’s clothing and took himself for a stroll in the woods. He had nothing on his mind other than admiring the changing leaves and maybe getting a little nosh if it didn’t require too much effort. At first he kept to the path so as to keep his boots clean, but he soon spotted a bush laden with red berries and dashed into the woods to get at them. After he had eaten his fill, he abandoned himself to running and leaping, without a care to thorns or mud. When he tripped over a rock, he decided to sniff out mushrooms with his nose to the ground. And then, because he was already lying on his belly, he fell asleep.
Around sunset a girl came along the path near where the wolf was napping. Sunset is a dangerous time in the woods when all sorts of wild beasts are about, and the girl wouldn’t have been there if she didn’t have to take a basket of cake and ale to her sick grandmother on the other side of the woods. She was dressed in a red hooded riding coat to blend in with the fall leaves and gum-soled boots so as not to make noise as she walked. She might have gotten by the wolf completely unnoticed, if not for his being able to hear her over his own snores and smell her through a snootful of dirt.
“Hi there!” Mr. Wolf said, jumping out from behind a tree. He let out a long whistle. “What’s a shana madelie like you doing alone in the woods?”
Red just stared at him, having been told by her mother never to talk to strangers, even ones in rich clothes.
“I guess I must have frightened you by leaping out like that, but to tell the truth, you are the one who startled me. I was asleep and you woke me up.”
Mother, however, had also instructed Red to be polite. “I’m so sorry. I was trying to be quiet. You must have big ears.”
“So I’ve been told.” The wolf wiggled them at her, and when she laughed, he grinned back.
“And what big teeth you have!” cried Red.
“You have no idea how long it takes me to brush them,” he sighed. “Same with my hair.” He ran a paw over his head, then picked off some leaves sticking to his shearling jacket. “Oy, am I smutzy. I’m not usually such a shlub. In fact I’m considered quite the dapper fellow, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at me now.”
“You do look a mess,” Red giggled.
“So,” Mr. Wolf said, stepping forward and raising his eyebrows, “whatcha got in the basket?”
“Big eyes, too.”
“The better to see you with, and I must say, you are a sight for sore eyes, my dear.”
The girl blushed as red as her coat. “Thank you, I’m sure.” She lifted a hand to her hood to close it around her throat. “Nice to have met you, but I must be getting to my grandma’s. She is doing poorly and I’m bringing her goodies to cheer her up.”
“Is hers the cottage on the other side of the woods?”
“How ever did you know?”
“I may not run with the pack, but I get around. You know, I saw a bed of pretty asters in a ways. I’ll hold your basket if you want to go pick them for Grandma.”
“And come back to find you’ve eaten everything?”
“What do you take me for, a schnorrer? But if you can’t spare a good soul a little apple cake or a drop of new ale—”
The girl checked her basket. Not a thing showed from under the white napkin.
“Forgot about my big nose, did you?” Mr. Wolf said. “Funny, it’s usually the feature everyone comments on.” He put a manicured paw on her arm.
“What big hands you have!”
“The better to guide you with. Come, dumpling, let us find those asters together.”
“Grandma has a garden. Besides, I am not supposed to stray from the path.”
“Then allow me to escort you to Grandma’s. I can smell skunks before you meet them, hear bears from far off. I can protect you from the big, bad wolves.”
As soon as he said that, Red pulled back and looked at him with wide eyes.
“I hope you are not one of those!” she cried.
“Kintala,” Mr. Wolf replied in his softest voice. “With me you needn’t be afraid that night is approaching.”
“Oh, dear.” Red saw that the sun was slanting low. “Grandma will be so worried.”
“Perhaps I should run ahead to tell her you are on your way.”
“And scare the old woman to death when she sees a wolf at her door?”
“We could trade coats. I’ll put on your red riding hood and she will think I am you. And you can wear my sheepskin jacket. It will be getting cold shortly as well as dark and I don’t really need it anyway. I wear just it for appearances.”
Now Red loved the riding coat her grandmother had made for her more than anything in the world, but she thought the wolf’s jacket looked mighty fine too. “We’ll trade, but I don’t know about you running ahead. I’ve heard tales about you wolves.”
“That you eat grandmothers and little pigs.”
“Bubby miesies! And as far as pigs go, I’m not allowed. They’re not kosher.”
“Then here is some apple cake as payment for your services.”
“My pleasure,” Mr. Wolf said, and swallowed it in one bite.
When the wolf got to Grandma’s house, he found the door locked. So he huffed and he puffed until he blew the door in.
“Who’s there?” the old woman called out.
“It’s your granddaughter, with a basket of goodies,” the wolf replied in falsetto.
“Grab the candle and come close to the bed so I can see you, child.”
The wolf pulled the red hood over his head, but most of his face still stuck out.
“Gott! A stranger in Red’s clothing! I can tell by your breath that you have eaten the strudel she was supposed to bring me. What have you done with my granddaughter?”
Just then Red rushed into the cottage and to her grandmother’s side. “Nothing, Grandma. It was cold so he gave me his jacket.”
Grandma reached out a bony hand to touch the garment. “He gave you a shearling?” She pulled her granddaughter closer and whispered, “Now he’s a good catch.”
“Grandma! He’s a wolf,” Red whispered back.
“Mr. Wolf?” the old woman addressed him.
“Please, madam, call me Mensch.”
“Tell me, Menschie, can you get more of these shearlings?”
“I’m a furrier. I can get all you want. The only thing is sewing them up.”
“My granddaughter happens to be the best seamstress you’ll ever meet.”
Thus it came to be that Red was married to Mr. Wolf and entered the garment business. True to his word, her husband kept her supplied with sheepskins, proving the saying: lie down with wolves, get up with fleece. Every day Red was at her sewing table, turning out coats. The couple soon had enough gelt to build a big house at the edge of the woods and Red’s mother and grandmother came to live with them. The three women lacked for nothing.
After a time, however, Red grew weary of sewing and fearful that her figure was being spoiled by hunching over the table and her complexion growing pale from lack of fresh air. She longed for the forest walks of her carefree youth. Her husband was a good provider, but she was sick of a diet of mutton and lamb. Mr. Wolf had made it clear that pork was out of the question, but why couldn’t they have a chicken now and then like the Foxes—although she didn’t envy young Mrs. Fox her complaint that her husband was always in the henhouse; it was enough that Mr. Wolf himself went off every new and full moon to howl with a minion of other wolves deep in the forest.
Alas, none of these things would have mattered if they had been able to have children, even if they might not have been entirely wolfish.
It came to pass one full moon day that a whole flock of sheep went missing. That smegeggi of a shepherd boy was always falling asleep and allowing sheep to wander off and then crying wolf when he awoke and couldn’t find them. This time, though, the townspeople believed him, and a group went to question Mr. Wolf.
He explained that he got his sheepskins from Mr. Lion, the butcher. But Mr. Lion told them that he got his meat from Mr. Wolf, the furrier.
Mr. Lion came to see Mr. Wolf. “I’m getting out of town with my family and I recommend you do the same. There’s going to be a pogrom.”
“Don’t fedrey your kopf,” said Mr. Wolf. “You just wait, the sheep will turn up.”
“Really?” said Mr. Lion. “In what fairy tale does that happen?”
Soon thereafter a huntsman stopped by the house to ask his way. Red led him into the workroom where her husband was unloading a batch of pelts. Seeing the wolf with the sheepskins, the huntsman took his gun and shot the wolf dead.
Some said he had been hired by the townspeople and others that he had acted on his own because he’d had his eye on Red since he was a boy and wanted her for himself. If that was the case he had no luck, because even after the year of mourning for Mr. Wolf, Red would look at no one else. She devoted herself to the business, adding mink and sable, which Mr. Wolf hadn’t handled because they were rodents. Red Wolf Furs became famous near and far.
One day a prince arrived to buy a fur for his bride to replace her coat of swan’s down. He was so impressed that he offered Red the position of royal furrier at the palace. She accepted, taking her mother and grandmother with her. Red was given twelve seamstresses to order about and never sewed another stitch herself. And she never ate mutton again, either, even when it was dressed as lamb.
In the palace, she could go where she pleased and do as she liked. It was said, however, that she sometimes went for long walks in the woods, looking to pick asters.
Marilyn Dale Berkman, writer and poet, is a DPI-NGO Representative to the UN from the Women’s National Book Association, for whom she blogs on the international participation of women in media. She lives in New York City with her husband, past owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop. This story is part of her project to rewrite Grimm’s fairy tales from a Jewish and feminist perspective.