“Little Red Riding Drawers”

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Neverwasnia, which is quite a long way away, lived a girl who loved to ride horses. This is not at all unusual, since most girls love to ride horses, or at least they love the idea of riding horses, because it is ever so romantic. All this girl’s friends rode horses, and all of them spent a great deal of time in and around the community stables where they kept them. There they groomed, trained, cleaned up after, and also jumped and raced their horses quite often in friendly competitions.
This girl was called Deepa, which is a word in an archaic Neverwasnian dialect meaning ‘red.’ Her hair was, in fact, red, but the cognomen also was a diminutive of her real name, Dependable. Her parents were Tremblers, and they raised Deepa in the same tradition.
When Deepa was very young, both her mother and father had gone to take humanitarian aid to refugees from yet another civil war in faraway East Aridia, never to return. They had left Deepa in the care of her great-uncle, Sir Cyril Tanner-Hyde, who kept a large-ish estate in the northern part of Neverwasnia, near a town called North Calabash. There had been a South Calabash, many years before, which lay some dozen miles due west of North Calabash, but it was swept away when the dam on the Calabash River burst.
Sir Cyril never married, nor had he children, so he spoiled Deepa from the start. Amongst other lavish treats, he gave her a lovely roan gelding called Foxtail, along with saddle and tack, and a lifetime membership in the local Pony Club. The only glitch in Deepa’s dreamlike existence came when Uncle Cyril ordered her riding clothes. He wanted something similar to his old regimentals, but his tailor was even older and harder of hearing than Uncle Cyril, so Deepa wound up with six sets of riding breeches and short jackets that fit quite well. However, instead of the breeches being a light fawn and the jackets red, the colors were reversed. Still and all, the outfit looked very good with her glossy black riding boots.
But none of the other girls in Pony Club wore red breeches, and soon they began referring to Deepa as Little Red Riding Drawers behind her back, though often in her hearing. Being a plucky girl and somewhat used to feeling singular, owing to her parents’ philosophical persuasion, Deepa decided that rather than take umbrage at the designation, she would own it.
Then she worked very hard to make sure she had the best seat of anyone in the jumping competitions, and that her red breeches would symbolize excellence in the saddle. As Deepa grew in age and stature, and larger riding ensembles were required, she invariably asked for the same again, please. After a while, the other girls also began to wear red breeches, but only Deepa ever was called Little Red Riding Drawers.
As for Uncle Cyril, since he had no mothering skills or inclinations whatsoever, when Deepa first came to him and it appeared she would be in his care for some time to come, he engaged Nanny Hardtogs to look after her. The woman had been Cyril’s nanny, those many long years before, and she came out of retirement as a special favor in order to take care of his niece. Nanny freely admitted to not knowing her own age, and even said that she had forgotten how old she was when she stopped counting birthdays.
Still, she worked with pride and determination to care for little Deepa while the girl grew toward her teens. Then, with much grumbling but equal determination, she stayed on as the girl’s governess until such time as Deepa could be enrolled in Madame Blueberry’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. At that point, Nanny resumed her retirement in the little cottage at the edge of the town, which Sir Cyril had given her as a gift when she first had left his service.
One or two Saturday afternoons each month, Deepa went to Nanny Hardtogs’ cottage for a visit. Their cook, Mrs. Greengage, would pack jars of preserves, freshly baked suet pies, plums, soft pears, and other foods that required little in the way of chewing, along with a large flask of the apricot brandy made on the estate, into a couple of big wicker hampers that Deepa tied with a line behind Foxtail’s saddle.
It was a longish ride to Nanny’s house, but pleasant enough, for the horse trail led right along the riverbank at the edge of town, between the Great Circle Road and the river. As she rode, Deepa could see the sights of the town to the south on her left, the cars and buses going by, the shops and theaters and cafés in the distance. To the north, at her right, were the quiet rolling of the river waters and the sylvan slopes of Lohen Green Mountain just beyond, rising abruptly from the water’s edge.
Ever since she came to Uncle Cyril’s, Deepa had been sternly commanded to ride only on marked trails, to mind the boundaries of the estate, and especially to stay out of Lohen Forest, the wood that covered Lohen Green Mountain. The reasons given by the adults for avoiding the forest were not at all specific, but their warnings were dire. The stories she heard from her little friends and acquaintances as she grew up were varied and ghastly enough, though also short on specifics as to when the strange events, disappearances, apparitions, unnatural noises, and so on, had actually occurred.
Still, for many years Deepa dutifully avoided entering the wood, since to do so would involve jumping a boundary fence, an endeavor that was sure to incur Uncle Cyril’s displeasure, and he had said so on several occasions. In any case, there were plenty of lovely places to ride throughout the estate, as well as in the surrounding neighborhood.
The estate lands boasted many trails, wide meadows, huge orchards that broadcast their fruity aromas as if steaming them from a cauldron, along with vast stands of timber, the trees spaced as if particularly with a girl, her horse, and high speed slalom in mind. There were plenty of fences and hedges for jumping, along with Deepa’s favorite, the spire of the folly built by Cyril’s great-grandfather. It was a seventy-five foot unicorn’s horn set atop a low hill, visible from anywhere on the estate and for miles beyond it, and just the thing for a steeple chase.
But one Saturday in late summer, the heat became so intense that even the river seemed to slow in its course, with dense vapors arising from its surface to make a ripply haze in the air above the sluggish ripples upon the water itself. Deepa swiped dampness from her brow beneath her riding helmet as she rode Foxtail along the estate drive toward the trail that led to Nanny’s house. She looked toward Lohen Green Forest, and the cool shade of the trees beckoned her, drew her with a promise of relief from the blistering sun, fiery so late in the afternoon. Oak and sycamore, ancient and huge, lined the drive, but even they could not compete, in Deepa’s eyes and imagination, with the faraway and forbidden temptation of the mysterious woodland.
She bit her lip and turned Foxtail’s head, but he shook it hard and stayed on the drive.
“Oh, come on. We’ll only ride along the edge of the trees, I promise. You’ll lather up just walking to Nanny’s house, and you know how you hate that. And hey! We can jump that fence. It’s almost practically not at the boundary at all ’cause it’s sort of close to the trail bridge on the other side, so come on. Let’s jump. You know you want to.”
Deepa pulled the reins lightly once more, and grinned when Foxtail responded. He slipped into a soft trot with only a tiny touch of her heel as they crossed the front pasture.
“Atta boy,” she whispered, and scratched behind his ear. “Okay, here we go, baby. Mama needs another gold medal. Hyah!”
Turf clods flew behind as powerful hooves smacked into soft earth, and suddenly they were airborne. Only the wind of their passing disturbed the ivy that grew along the top fence rail, for they cleared the four-foot jump with inches to spare. Foxtail cantered on, snorting and wagging his huge head while Deepa laughed joyously, into the deep shadows of the wood beyond the pale. Happy and cool, Deepa looked about. Pine, birch and sycamore grew in abundance, with little undergrowth. It was almost as park-like as Uncle Cyril’s land, and Deepa gave Foxtail his head to pick a way amongst the scattering of low bushes and creepers.
The undergrowth thinned even more the farther up the slope she climbed, and Deepa headed that way. She could just see the haze from the river off to her left, at the base of the slope, but to her right the way seemed much easier and also cooler, so she went ever farther upward as she traversed the mountainside. Birds chirped and warbled in the trees and bushes, and red squirrels looked at her curiously before darting up dark tree boles. Deepa relaxed in the saddle and breathed deeply of the pine and sorrel, the sumac and honeysuckle that grew rife in the dimness, so soothing after the garish glare and heat of full, open day.
Always the course proved easier and less cluttered higher up, and she quite forgot her promise to Foxtail that they would only skirt the wood, and she leaned down to pat his neck.
“We’ll drop down in a minute or two, boy. I’ll bet we already cut a mile or two off our trip as it is, huh? Going across like this? We’re pretty smart.”
Foxtail shook his head, his bridle hardware jangling in the quiet. They rode on. Several times Deepa tried to turn downhill, but in each instance she came upon sumac thickets as dense as rock walls, or bramble patches like knife gardens, and had to once more climb the slope in search of easier ground. As the afternoon wore on, the wood became sultry, as warm as the open pasture or more so, and without a breath of breeze.
Finally, weary and out of patience, she turned back the way she had come, but the only way along still seemed to be upward. Clouds rolled in and completely obscured the position of the sun, and after a long, tedious while, she cried out in alarm when she came upon a set of her own hoofmarks in the pillowy loam. She reined in and sat still, her heart pounding.
“We, we’re going in circles, boy. We have to stop that.”
She looked around for moss on tree trunks, but was dismayed to find that the only moss she saw grew right the way round the tree so that she still had no idea which way was north. Closing her eyes, she took deep breaths, trying to regain the calm she had felt not many minutes past, wondering that the air now smelled not so much of healthy trees and bushes, but of dead needles and decaying wood. She leaned down and wrapped both arms around Foxtail’s neck, holding him close and breathing his strong, familiar scent. Her distress passed, and she reached back to open first one hamper and then the other, searching for a water bottle.
“Drat that woman! How could Cookie not pack water for me? That is outrageous and I shall tell Uncle, I shall!” She puffed a petulant breath, and Foxtail snorted and shook his head. “Oh, shut up, you! Yes, I know it’s my own fault, and Uncle always tells me to bring a canteen, but I forgot, all right? Anyway, we have this brandy. It isn’t water, but it’s wet.”
Foxtail stood, pawing at the loam with a front hoof, while Deepa dislodged the brandy flask from its position in the hamper and opened it. The heady fumes made her nose wrinkle, but she took a sip. The liquor burned in her mouth and throat, and she winced. It did nothing to slake her thirst, so she took a big gulp. She managed to swallow it all before she was seized by a fit of coughing. Foxtail shuddered beneath her, but kept his ground. When the fit had passed, she took one more drink, made a face, then capped the flask and secured it in the hamper.
“Well, that was perfectly dreadful, though I do feel some better. Hey, boy! You know we have yet to come to the little rivulet that runs down the mountainside into the river just before we get to Nanny’s house. It must come from up here somewhere, and if we can only find it, we can follow it down, and also have a proper drink of water for the both of us. Let’s go.”
He started off when she clicked her tongue, and she tried her best to keep them routed more or less straight across the hillside, though inevitably they climbed a bit higher with each passing furlong. The sun waned beneath the clouds as the evening came on, and the temporary elation of the brandy gave way to a sickly dizziness, along with a queasy stomach. She urged Foxtail to a faster walk, though brambles and branches whipped out from both sides to lash her hands and face, and tear at her clothing. Sweat poured from beneath her helmet, and she pulled off the chinstrap just as they passed a large cedar. A big, green, prickly frond reached out and slapped the helmet from her hand, and she squealed.
She reined in and looked back at her felt-covered hardhat, lying, incongruous, amongst the fallen leaves and bracken, and started to dismount. But there was scurrying and chittering in the undergrowth and in the low branches above, as if dozens of tiny creatures were watching, just waiting, amid the gathering shadows, for her to get down. With a whimper, she gave Foxtail a little kick, and they were off again.
On and on they went, branches like eager hands clawing at her in the dimness, when suddenly the horse stopped, backed, and turned, shaking his head vehemently.
“What? What, boy?”
Deepa looked down toward where the animal had halted. She gasped. Not three feet from where Foxtail held up short was the sheer edge of a great chasm. She stood in the stirrups and leaned over, gazing in fear into a deep gorge that would have swallowed both her and Foxtail, and left them dead or dying at the bottom of it, many feet below. The crowning irony was that she could hear the tinkling of water over stone coming out of the chasm, the sweet, fresh, spring-fed rivulet, cascading down the mountainside on its rocky path to the river. Her thirst returned tenfold, and she sobbed and once more hugged the horse’s neck.
“Okay. Okay. Okay,” she whispered hoarsely. “We can go down the mountain now, boy. It’s all right.”
Only it was not all right. She turned left, but another dense wall of sumac, higher, thicker, and broader than any they came across earlier, blocked their way. It stretched across the hillside as far as she could see, back the way they came, disappearing into the oncoming twilight. She stamped down her growing despair with anger.
“Very well, then,” she shouted. “Up! We’ll find a way across this blasted gorge! Come on, boy.”
She wheeled and kicked him, and up they trotted, following the chasm’s edge into the gloom. The gorge narrowed and her heart grew somewhat lighter, but then she began to see, or to imagine she saw, flashes of darker shadow in the shadow to her right, away from the gorge. She whimpered and slowed to a walk, her eyes shifting both ways, watching left for any way across the rift in the mountainside, while hoping not to see more of the mysterious flashes to her right. Only she did, and at each brief sighting, her heart pounded the harder in her bosom. On and on they trudged, higher and higher, while it grew darker and darker.
At last, Deepa fancied that the gorge had narrowed to a manageable width, no more than ten or twelve feet, she reckoned, though she reckoned without the aid of very much light. She cast about for a sufficient clearing in the wood where Foxtail could get a good run, and sail right across the gap to an easy descent toward Nanny’s house on the far side. Why, they would come to Nanny’s in no time at all, with a tale of adventure to tell while they drank tea and ate toasted bread smeared with preserves from the jars in the hampers, and Nanny got a little tipsy on the apricot brandy.
Finally, there was a gap in the trees and undergrowth that Deepa knew would be wide enough to allow her big, strong hunter sufficient room to work. She put the smile on while she chatted him up and steered him round to the far edge of the clear space.
“All right, laddie buck,” she said cheerfully, mimicking Uncle Cyril when he jovially exhorted one of the servants. “What we want is a hard run and a smooth jump right to the other side of that little hole, yeah? And you shall have all the oats you can chew when we get to Nanny’s, I promise. You are the best horse in the world, my sweetheart, and I know you can do this, so let’s go!”
She kicked both heels hard to his flanks, and Foxtail whickered. Both fore hooves came off the ground, then he lunged with all the force in his massive haunches and hit the turf at a dead run, wide eyed, straight toward the precipice only fifty feet away. Ten feet from the edge a man appeared out of nowhere, right in front of them, and Deepa screamed and pulled back on the reins. For an instant she thought she was too late, but Foxtail responded instantly and skittered to a halt in a spray of dead leaves and loam, then reared high, higher than he ever had before, his steel-shod hooves beating the air inches from the man’s face.
The man stood unmoving while Deepa panted, clutching hard to both reins, struggling to keep her boots in the irons and her seat somewhere near the saddle while her mount’s spine stood almost perpendicular to the earth. Finally, all four hooves touched ground at the same time. The man calmly grabbed hold of a bit ring with his left hand, while his right stroked firmly down Foxtail’s long muzzle, shushing the beast with what could have been a purr, or a soft and reassuring growl. Foxtail snorted once and gave his head a quick shake, but the rest of him stilled instantly.
“Where are you going, girl?”
Deepa swallowed dryness and gave her head a shake as well. Somewhere above the treetops, the last red rays of sunset broke from behind the clouds and let her see the man who had stopped a charging twelve hundred pound horse with a look.
He was stocky, dressed in rather out-of-date hunter’s style – gray tweed vented jacket, a thick, blue cotton shirt with attached collar, open at the throat, with an even bluer silk scarf casually knotted beneath it, full cut twill trousers, the leg ends stuffed into the tops of heavy, high-topped, lace-up leather boots in tan, much scuffed and worn with use. His neck was long, but thick, and his large head rested easily on it. His face was oval, his nose short and somewhat pointed, his skin fair, but the chin and cheeks were covered in several days’ beard growth, almost to the eyes. He wore no hat, and his short, medium brown hair was salted with gray, covering his scalp and forehead to within a couple of inches of thick eyebrows. The brief glimmer of light faded and the gloom returned, yet his eyes, his deep brown eyes, continued to glow in the dimness.
Her heart pounding with fright as well as relief that they all three had not been killed, she struggled to form words.
“Whuh-what on earth are you doing, mister?”
The man shrugged. “Just asking you the same thing, young lady.”
“But you jumped right in front of me! Didn’t you think I’d run into you, you idiot?”
He smirked and wagged a finger. “A trespasser on my land oughtn’t be calling anyone names, little girl.”
“Your land? This whole mountain is King’s Deer Park, everyone knows that!”
“Oh, is it now? He and I must have a chat about that some fine day. In either case, you are trespassing, and you were also about to get yourself and this fine animal killed, into the bargain.”
Deepa snorted, her anger at the man’s effrontery trumping her relief to be speaking with another human after such a long sojourn in the wilderness.
“You don’t know my horse, mister.”
“And you don’t know this chasm, missy.” He turned and held out a hand, and for an instant there was enough light to see the gap between the banks of the gorge. “That’s twenty-five feet if it’s an inch. You would have both been dead before sunrise if he had jumped.” The man nodded to her. “Pieter Lupus.”
“Mister Pieter Lupus. Or Herr Lupus. I prefer the archaic dialect myself, but so few do these days.”
Deepa frowned. “It’s never Lupus.”
“Oh, uh … sorry. I have no idea why I said that.” She cleared her throat. “I, uh, I guess I owe you an apology, Herr Lupus. It looked so easy earlier.”
“You owe me at least one, but I will accept that to pay for all, even your lodging for the night.”
“Oh, no, no! I mean, uh, thank you, sir, only Nanny will be expecting me.”
“Nanny will have to be disappointed. These woods are no place for a young girl to travel at night, no matter how intrepid and valiant her steed. I daresay few men could make it through unscathed, were they thus far embroiled. Now come down from that.”
She blinked. “Sir?”
“Dismount. Get off your horse. Come. Here.”
“But …”
Of its own volition, her right foot, then the left, slipped from the irons. She twisted out of the saddle and slid to the ground, holding fast to the bridle and grabbing handfuls of Foxtail’s mane as she stood on quivery legs beside the horse. Herr Lupus nodded.
“You need food and water, young lady, as does your animal. I shall go ahead and make preparations.”
“And what am I to do?”
He flicked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go back down the slope along the gorge about six furlongs until you come to a solitary pine, as big around as a hogshead. On the ground at its roots you will see a stone. A few feet from that, in the opposite direction from the ravine, you will find another stone like it, and then more. Follow the path of stones until you find me.”
“Oh. Thank …”
The man no longer stood in front of her, but his scent lingered, strong but not unpleasant. It made her heart throb in a most unusual manner, like the way it had beaten the few times she was allowed to watch Shadow Fox, Foxtail’s grandsire, stand at stud. Most of the mares fought him, but he always brought them around with kicks and bites to the neck right above the withers. Eventually they had all submitted to him, bearing magnificent colts to honor his magnificent efforts.
She blinked and shook off her lewd and inappropriate reverie, and called out hopefully in the direction she imagined Herr Lupus to have gone.
“Deepa! Dependable Pryor-Nodiss! That’s my name!”
From a long way away, she fancied she heard something like I know, so she waved and shouted.
“Pleased to meet you!”