The Things We Offer, Shelly Jones
I carry the wood, frozen and splintered, into the cabin, sap oozing onto my sleeves. Wiping my hands on my skirt, something stirs and skitters in the shadows. I pluck an acorn from my pocket and place it on the hearth for the house elves to marvel in.
She tells me to knead the dough with rosemary and oil, coating my skin in its pine aroma. “This is what we must do before the solstice,” baba says.
The house elves seem to hide from me, tucking themselves in the dark corners of the hearth, flinching at my voice as I question baba. “Who is the bread for?”
She tut tuts and places my creation in the oven.
When the loaf is baked, she instructs me to put on my wool cloak, my thickest tights. “You mustn’t catch cold,” she says, wrapping herself in an ancient tapestry that I’ve never seen before. I examine the stitchings, a question on my lips once more, but she shoos us out into the late afternoon, dusk gathering in the corners of the sky. The frigid air rips the question from my lungs and I bury myself deeper into my cloak. I carry the bread, still warm, close to my chest and follow baba’s purposeful steps.
We walk for a long time in silence, the crunch of our boots along the crystalline hoarfrost the only sound shared between us. When we reach an old juniper tree, its boughs thick with silvery-green needles, she slips new potatoes, the color of muslin, into my pocket.
“Will we be gone so long we’ll need to eat?” I ask, the potatoes heavy, knocking against my legs as I trudge through the ever-deeper snow.
“If we are to survive the long winter, something must be given up on the longest night,” baba says, her words swallowed by the wind as we climb the steep hill.
I sour at the thought of not eating the bread, its rich, oily scent enticing. “We’ve gone very far, baba. Shouldn’t we return home soon? The fire will have gone out. The hearth will be cold.”
If she says anything in reply, the words are ground beneath her boots in the rime-covered snow.
I pause for a moment as I watch something move in the woods behind bare, skeletal branches. It is gone in a flash, losing itself deeper into the forest, something unseen, unknown. I turn back toward the path and watch as baba ducks beneath a pine vail, her hunched body barely disturbing the snow-laden branch.
“Where are you, baba?”
I stumble through the woods, snow gathering in my hair. The bread is no longer warm, but a hard lump pressing against my stomach.
“Baba, where should I go?”
As the ferns shiver in the wind around me, I strain to listen to the woods. I can barely make out baba’s voice singing an ancient lullaby as I feel the branches wrap around me in the dark, the bread falling to the snow.
Shelly Jones, PhD (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere.