Posted on: October 14, 2014
Their bare feet have hardened like leather from seasons of traversing the forest. Another dry twig breaks underneath a carpet of burnt citrus leaves.
The muffled crunch of their walk continues, with more attention paid to buried tree limbs. They are unavoidable, almost undetectable. Periodically a snap or crack will elicit the same harsh shushing from their leader.
When she thinks they have gone far enough, the leader signals the other three to stop.
Fingers of moonlight probe the forest floor. Their bouncing shadows stretch, mingling with those of tall, spindly trees. A breeze whispers the promise of dense fog in the morning, and they shiver. The red, chilled tips of their toes peek out from under the robes, thick and dark and warm.
They have arrived.
Each member of the coven takes her seat on her own flat stone. The four of them form a tight diamond against the wide circular fire pit. Burnt metal, almost buried by the detritus of autumn, winks in the luminescence. They clear the pit with care and consideration, piling the leaves and twigs next to them on the stone.
The leader’s hands move with a confident cadence. In the still of the evening, she coaxes a fire to life. Each woman nurtures it with an offering from the pile they gathered: bundles of twigs, or armfuls of crumbling leaves that catch fire and scatter ash and embers.
Throughout the evening, the leader will pull larger branches from behind her stone seat and feed them to the fire. None of the members of the coven will remember seeing the branches before, and will forget to ask her if it was foresight or magic.
When their faces grow warm from the fire, they begin the ritual.
“You got it, right?” The leader turns to the one with dark skin and eyes like glacial ice, blue and cold and piercing. She nods and pulls the worn canvas bag out from underneath her robe. She sets out the ingredients with painstaking precision.
“And you brought the rest?” The leader turns to the one with pale skin and a layer of freckles so thick it could be armor. Her small hand pulls the sticks out from a disproportionately large pocket. She passes them around and they each take one.
“Now?” asks the smallest one, the quiet one, with wide, muddy brown eyes and an upturned nose.
“Now,” the leader agrees. They each hold an object, once soft, that has grown rigid in the cool night air. Above them, a storm of wings erupts, and they cannot tell if they hear bats or owls, or something darker.
“Eye of newt,” the leader says. They pass around the plastic bag and skewer a white, pillowy proxy for their spell ingredient. It transforms in the flames, bubbling and charring.
“Dragon’s scale and willow root!” They chant together as they pass around Hershey bars and demolish them piece by piece. Golden graham crackers snap in half, and their imaginary spell produces something real and wonderful.
The taste is warm and sweet and decadent. It bursts with the first bite, and marshmallow sinew cuts sticky trails against their chins and robes. Mixed with the smoke and ash, they will have to scrub away residue the next morning before dutiful, prim appearances at church.
They continue the process as their supply dwindles. Laughter turns to cackles. Spells become songs. They grow frenzied and mad, consumed by their lust for sweet, dark power. Their energy spills into the night and they dance around the fire, cavorting among friends, sisters, and smoke.
Skewers are abandoned when the ingredients deplete. Offerings made have reaped their reward: euphoria on a dark weekend night, when the forest fulfills its promise as a safe haven for those with the desire to cast incantations and witness the spark of magic.
It leaves as quickly as it came. They slump against the cold stones as the fire becomes a pitiful collection of embers. In the excitement, the leader forgot to feed it more wood. It is cold, achingly so.
“Time to come back inside.”
The man comes to them when they are too exhausted to make note of it. The members of the coven protest in mumbling half-yawns, and he relents. He wraps them in plaid wool blankets and brushes the dust off their terry cloth robes. He places black pointed polyester hats on the stone surfaces. The hats wiggle from a mediocre breeze.
The man stokes the fire. He shivers and stamps his feet, his breath a warm cloud suspended over them. An owl hoots in the distance as he huddles on the stone next his daughters, the leader and the smallest member of the coven. They share pitted dimples, widow’s peaks, and the thickest blanket.
He watches them with tenderness and builds the fire back up to its glory, log by log.
“It’s sacrilegious,” Sarah stands on the deck, gazing to the edge of the leaf-strewn lawn where the girls still doze on the stone benches. “We shouldn’t have taught them that word. ‘Sleepover’ is one thing, but ‘coven’ entirely another.”
“It’s literally child’s play,” John says.
Sarah glances over at him, her mouth turning up in a smile. He puts his arm around her and gives her a kiss on the head. Her hair is shot with strands of gray that gleam in the soft orange of the sunrise.
“I can make them breakfast,” Sarah says into his chest, “you’ve been up all night.”
“Nonsense,” John argues, “I’ll make them oatmeal pancakes and heat up some of your apple cider. A perfect fall breakfast.”
“They’d rather have hot chocolate with chocolate chip pancakes,” Sarah says, cocking her head in the way he finds irresistible.
“Maybe you should inventory the pantry,” John chuckles, “because I think our daughters and their friends ate their weight in s'mores last night.”
“To be young,” Sarah murmurs.
“Younger,” John corrects, “and metabolically gifted.”
They clink their coffee mugs together and wait for the girls to wake.
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Angela DeRay
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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