Deep, deep in the Elder Woods, where the grass grows tall and wild, there are trees that no axe has ever cut. These trees are thick with age, and twisted knots bulge out across the branches like mouths, gasping for air. They would make good lumber if you cut them down. The wood is as strong as stone. It would burn well too—would keep a family warm through the winter. But we do not cut them down.
In the springtime, red, translucent fruits sag low on the branches, heavy with nectar. Their fragrance is sweeter than any other fruit in the Elder Woods, and you will not find these things anywhere else in the world. Yet we do not take the fruit. At the end of spring, they fall into the mire and rot, untouched. We build our houses with mud and clay, and then shiver through the winter. We do not harm the trees.
Listen now, there is a girl in our village that has grown sick and the doctor cannot help her. She is no good to us. You must bring her to the heart of the forest. Wear your cloak, keep to the path; I will bake a basket of oatcakes for when the hunger sets in. Remember, it is easy to lose track of time in the Elder Woods. The lights that you see through the leaves are not always the sun, and they will trick you if you are careless. You must not wander after dark. The night falls fast at this time of year.
The girl will protest, of course. They always do. She will beg and plead and say, no, no, please don’t make me. I don’t want to go. Do not listen. Do not respond. She may even try to fight you or run away, but she is ill and weak, with her hands tied at the wrist, and you should not have much trouble. I know that you are a good boy, and will do as you are told.
You will hear the trees before you see them. It is a different sound from the swaying branches and rustling leaves that fill the rest of the Elder Woods. No, these trees are old and firm. The wind makes a sound like a low flute as it slides across the bark.
Then you will notice the smell. It comes from the fruit, you see, and they are sweet, like marrow. Like spoiled wine. Remember, we do not take the fruit. We do not harm the trees. When you see them at last in the heart of the forest, tie the girl to the trunk and make your knots as I have shown you. Three loops pulled tight. The ancient druids of this land once used to unspool their own entrails around the roots of these trees. They believed that their suffering gave a higher purpose to their lives, right before they ceased to be alive and suffering at all.
Understand, it is this sacrifice that makes us more than what we are. Without it, our hearths would grow cold, our food would lose its flavor, and our whole village would slowly be swept away in the wind. This is why the trees make music in the Elder Woods. It is the reason lights dance in the foliage, just out of reach, and the meaning of everything we cling to, yet cannot own. There is no sweetness that does not rot.
You will leave the girl as she is, bound and unharmed. She will not be there next time you walk through the Elder Woods. At nightfall, long after you are gone, old, nameless things will seep in from between the trees. Nobody ever sees them clearly, but I have heard people tell of vague outlines, all shambling, and full-bellied, with the gleam of many eyes and tendrils and teeth. They come to deliver what all those ancient druids were searching for.
And you and I will be here, sitting by this hearth, with a fire to keep us warm. I will have freshly-baked cakes waiting for when you return.
Rye Jaffe is a graduate student at Wake Forest University. Their writing has previously appeared in Gone Lawn, Plain China, and the Oberlin Review. In their spare time, they enjoy plotting world domination.