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The Offering

By Michael B. Schwartz [Winner: 2nd Place]

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Charles made sure he placed his basket on the table the night before. There was no way he was going to be late with the goddess' offering. Charles stopped moving around their small house long enough to grab a glass of water. He was seventeen years old - old enough to go out and gather the offering.

His twelve year old sister had to stay home with their parents. There will be time in the future for Bethany to begin her time as a gatherer -  she still had a year before that happened.

But it didn’t stop her from following him around the house as he made preparations (his cloak, gloves that he’ll put in his pockets unless it gets cold, warm boots).

"Just think,  Charles, " she began.  "The goddess Belisama will be in our house tomorrow." She knew her brother would make it back with the offering in time - there was no need to worry about that like her parents are doing.  Bethany was excited that something would happen in her house that everyone at school will talk about.

         Charles had turned pale and he stopped what he was doing and looked into her tiny face.  "Don't think for once that she is a generous god. Don't you remember what happened last year?"

Bethany shook her head with a "no" on her small lips. "Mom made me go to bed early so I couldn't stay up." She looked into his eyes and asked, "what happened?"

He smiled as he finished his preparations and turned back to the anxious girl. “Get ready for bed. I’ll tell you what I have been told.”

She was laying in bed with the covers up to her chin in no time when she hollered for her brother. Bethany smiled when Charles came and sat down at the foot of her bed, trapping her tiny feet under the blankets.

“This story was just from last year,” he began and she nodded in anticipation. “Things didn’t go as planned for the Wilson sisters.”

 


* * *


“My arm hurts,” cried Colleen while switching the basket of apples from her left arm to her right. She glanced up and noticed the sun falling behind the treetops.

Tara shook her head and took her younger sister’s hand and pointed out, “We haven’t much time.” She looked into their baskets and saw that both were nearly full; this would be plenty, she thought and began walking up the cobblestone path that wound around the lake.

The lake resided in the middle of a wooded area with giant pine trees making up most of the growth. Apple trees lined either side of the path heading into the forest. The lake was first discovered a very long time ago; no one knows exactly when. And once it was discovered, the pilgrims of the area were dismayed to find the lake completely dried. In fact, not only was the lake dried out, the surrounding area seemed to have died out altogether.

They were horrified to learn that nothing could be planted. The men, women, and children were starving and dehydrated - they were losing their will to live. After the third month of trying to plant crops, the remaining villagers dropped to their knees and prayed to whatever god who would listen to them. Their prayers were answered almost immediately.

An offering of apples takes place once a year to thank the goddess that had saved their ancestors from death. Tara knew the consequences of being late. The old bedtime stories, as terrifying as they were…she knew them to be true. Stories just don’t get started without some shred of truth, do they?

Tara remembered Benjamin Levine didn’t make it back in time - and he was on the running team at school. He should have made it. It had happened only three years ago - she still hid her head under her pillow that night as she tried to muffle the screaming voice of Belisama as she exacted her vengeance. She remembered, too, looking out her bedroom window once the screaming ceased and saw that the candle in the front window had been snuffed. 

She turned and looked up at the trees with what light she had left. As if it were a reminding finger tapping them on their shoulders, a breeze came out of nowhere causing them to lift their hoods over bright red hair. They shivered and both were wondering why they couldn’t wear something warmer than just cloaks. Perhaps that’s the way it has always been done.

She hated bringing Colleen out here for her first gathering. Tara was seventeen years old and she knew a lot about the Offering and what it meant to their community. But Colleen, barely thirteen, wasn’t as informed on what the Offering was really about. The school didn’t begin the basics until they were twelve.

Tara stopped walking after the mention of their goddess’ name and she closed her eyes. The offering had taken place once a year for as long as she could remember. Every family had taken turns to send their children out to pick the offering of apples – whether it be one child or six. This year it was Tara and Colleen. She shuddered at the ghastly images that ran through her mind of what would befall them should they be late. She opened her eyes and began walking again.

Belisama must have her offering. Their goddess demanded it.

If Belisama did not get her offering every year –

Colleen looked out at the calm lake, seeing it almost like the first time. She never realized how beautiful the lake was. How could this tiny village be a dangerous place? Exactly why did they have to go out every year to gather apples for the offering? There were probably a thousand questions Colleen had as she glanced down and smiled as she watched bright orange, yellow, and red dry leaves circling her legs; as if they were playing with her. She hadn’t noticed Tara had kept walking.

Colleen saw how far ahead her sister was and sprinted to catch up. She wasn’t easily frightened, but the woods at night was one place she really didn’t want to be left alone.

They were halfway around the lake when Colleen asked the question she had been yearning to ask all evening. “Do you believe in the legend of Belisama?”

Tara wasn’t certain she heard the question right but forced herself to remember that Coleen was three years younger.

“Yes,” she finally answered.

In the distance they heard the gong of the clock. Thus their warning had been issued and Tara knew that they had until the thirteenth gong and then it would be…

“We must hurry,” Tara announced as she slid the handle of her basket up her arm where it rested in the bend.

They began running toward the houses; their soft brown shoes crunching the dirt as they ran. If only they had had a pavement to run on and not the dirt ground, they may have had an easier time.  All of the houses were small yet charming with candles burning in their windows. Nothing decorated the lawn save for the deserted teeter-totter sitting in the Levine’s front yard.

As the third and fourth gong sounded Colleen let her mind run across Benjamin. She had known him all her life; they grew up together. He was a year older than she was but that didn’t stop them from becoming close friends. She was tempted to admit that she loved him - was she too young to love anyone else but her family and Belisama? But then he was late with his offering and she never saw him again.

The sixth gong roared by the time they neared the end of the lake, Colleen glanced over to her right and saw that the water that had only moments ago been calm and inviting, was now churning and boiling – as if some higher power had been angered.

Just as they passed the lake a feminine face appeared in the water and her head broke the surface and began to rise.

By the eighth gong, Colleen stumbled and fell to the ground; her basket of apples slipped from her grasp and her offering went rolling across the path. Terror-stricken, Tara turned and helped her sister recollect her offering and quickly put them back into the basket.

Ten.

They saw the outline of their small house; candles were burning in the window like all other houses. And above their safe home they saw the giant mass of spiraling water; like a tornado yet to touch the earth.

Twelve.

As Colleen and Tara ran as fast as their aching legs would carry them, Colleen knew there was no way they were going to make it back by the...

Thirteenth gong erupted, which sounded like it had come up from the pit of their stomachs.

            Tara felt like she was going to vomit - everything on her insides were hurting, her heart felt as if it were going to explode. She knew they had to keep going; to make her wobbly legs move. Perhaps Belisama will show them mercy.

Tara knew they were too late the second they threw open the door. She looked up, face dripping, and saw the circle of water spinning on their ceiling like a whirlpool. Both girls were paralyzed.  In a moment the whirlpool descended and as it came down it materialized into an enormous woman made entirely of water.

As Colleen yelped, Tara dropped down onto her knees, holding up an apple in each outstretched hand.

“We apologize for being late with your Offering, Your Highness,” she said and bowed her head, water dripping to the floor. “Forgive us.”

The form of water looked down at Tara. A smile appeared on her liquid face; grateful, gentle, and kind.  She extended loving arms to the frightened children as she gestured to them.

“My dear beautiful children,” said Belisama behind an angelic voice and began pacing the floor with her arms now behind her liquified back. “Every year since the beginning, your people pledged never to forget me and how I saved the village from dying. And yes, it was I who saved them - no other gods would listen to their pleads. ME! Who gave them soil to plant? ME! Apple trees for food? ME! Everything you have, Children, is all because of ME! The apples,” she looked down at the baskets resting between them, “are nothing more than a gesture of good faith. It was the one thing your ancestors had and they pledged an offering once a year. I shall NEVER be forgotten.”

Belisama reached down and took their chins in her hands and lifted them so she could look into their frightened eyes. “A year has passed, yet you arrive tardy?” And now the menace exploded in her eyes as she pushed their chins away and she screamed; it was a low scream that sounded like it came from the depths of the lake itself. “There shall be no forgiveness. I WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN!”

Belisama’s liquefied body advanced on the terrified sisters; their screams were heard by the entire village and the candles in the window were snuffed.

 

***

            Charles stopped when his story was over and he looked into Bethany's tired face.  He thought she would have fallen asleep but he could tell that he had her utmost affection. He waited for her to say something.

She was thinking about the story (she remembered going to school with Colleen Wilson but since Colleen was a year older,  she didn't talk to her) and she finally asked,  "Do you really think the goddess can be so cruel?"

He stood up, making sure she was tucked in,  and replied,  "I don't know  - I've never met her. But I do know one thing. "

She looked up at her brother behind tired eyes.  "What."

"Two sisters were late with the Offering and now our lake is two feet deeper," he answered.

He saw that her eyes were closing so he decided to double check to make sure he had everything ready for tomorrow's Offering. 

End

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