A line of gnarled, crooked trees sit upon a hillside that presides over Yojoa. Their roots reach down into the black, wet earth. Plunging through the footsteps of conquistadors, whose blood mixed with the natives to create the people of Yojoa with skin as dark as the coal they mined or as fair as the flowers that sing sweetly to lure children into the forest during La Ofrenda, the roots create an underground network spanning miles underneath the pueblo. As wind flows through the trees, a single petal joins the breeze. The white petal travels along a dirt road to a small house that shudders and groans when raindrops hit its metal roof. It travels through the open door, along the tiles of the kitchen floor, and into the mouth of a sleeping girl with hair that swathes her hips.
She awakens as coughs tumble out of her chest and the crumpled petal, covered in mucus, falls into her hands. The girl blows air out of her mouth to move the short feathery hairs that hang under her eyes. Her mother, a small round woman whose laugh fills Maria’s stomach with the warmth of a cup of cafe con leche on Sunday mornings, has not allowed her daughter to cut her hair since last year. Only on the day of La Ofrenda will Maria and the other children in the town be allowed to cut their hair and sow the strands into a plot of land just in front of the trees. Maria, like the other children, has known about this ritual since her childhood. When a mother discovered that her child has been lured by the spellbinding melody of the flowering trees, a scream would pierce the town’s silence, filling everyone’s hearts with dread for her loss and shameful relief that their family would remain intact, if only for another year. Maria thinks nothing of the flower petal and walks into the bathroom. The cement floor cools the soles of her feet from the increasing heat of the rising summer sun. She parts her hair down the middle with a wooden comb and braids her hair thick as barbed wire fences that line the farms on the outskirts of town.
When Maria leaves the bathroom, she finds her mother singing softly while stirring a pot on the stovetop. As she listens to her mother’s voice, Maria’s mouth waters with the sweetness of freshly collected honeycombs that ooze with nectar. She joins her mother in singing and the two women gather an audience of three birds who whistle and warble, jealous of their voices. Maria throws a handful of sunflower seeds at the birds and they blend in with the blue hue of the sky as they fly away. The smell of bubbling herbs fills the kitchen, meant to ward off evil spirits. Maria follows the birds out of the house with a sack of feed and a small woven basket into the backyard where the chickens live. Five chickens cluck and gather at the fence. “Buenos días, Alicia, la Gata de Cheshire, la Reina de Corazones, y mi Conejito Blanco,” Maria says to her chickens, named after she read Alice in Wonderland for the first time. She scoops a palmful of feed, consisting of a mixture of grains, leftover food from their own table, and corn, scattering it like a shower of rain. While the chickens dig their beaks into the dirt to eat their breakfast, Maria collects the freshly laid eggs and places them in the basket. She heads back to the kitchen so her mother can choose which ones she will use today. Her mother takes each egg at a time and closes her eyes to decide whether she will use it for breakfast or in her healing rituals. Everyday a number of townspeople stop by their house for a spiritual cleansing or to be healed of some ailment. Maria watches each day as her mother runs an egg over the head, arms, and legs of whoever she is healing to collect any evil spirits. Maria thinks of the time her mother cured a child who had not eaten in five days because his body would expel anything he tried to eat. The boy’s sunken eyes and pale skin had disappeared by the time her mother swatted him with palm fronds and forced him to drink an herbal concoction strong enough to make the knees of a grown man buckle. Both Maria and her mother knew that the townspeople often whispered about la bruja Catalina que vive sin esposo pero con una hija. But the women also knew that the people would always need them for their healing abilities, especially at this time of the year. With only a week until La Ofrenda, the mothers of children who are on the cusp of adulthood constantly visit their home for prayers and assurance that their child would not be chosen by the forest. All Catalina and Maria can do is burn a bundle of palo santo and assure the mothers that what is meant to happen will happen. What Catalina does not mention is how she shares these worries. She knows that her daughter, now seventeen years old, could be chosen this year.
Dusk falls quickly over Yojoa. The growing dimness of day allows the people to see the stars that were hiding in the sky. Maria and her mother sit on stools and peel ripe oranges that coat their fingers in sticky juice, which causes their cuticles to tighten and itch. Catalina points out the constellations that her mother had taught her when she was a young girl and thought the stars were where God has erased the universe. When Maria falls asleep that night, she can see the sky behind her eyelids. Her eyes remain closed as Maria walks out through the wrought iron gate she had forgotten to lock earlier that night. The only light comes from the full moon overhead that glows dimly. Stray dogs lie on the road, fidgeting and trembling as they dream. Maria continues to sleepwalk until she reaches the only source of sound at night, the song of the freshly bloomed flowers on the trees. The generation before my mother’s once put cotton buds in their ears to drown out the siren song of the flowers, who quiet only when the first ray of dawn shines over them.
As Maria enters the woods, the leaves on the trees begin to flutter and dance in excitement. A low raspy voice calls out to the other trees and exclaims, “Es ella! The one we have been waiting for has finally heard our song. She will be the one to join us this year.” At Maria’s side sits one of the stray dogs she had passed by earlier, who the trees instruct to ensure Maria’s safe journey home.
When Maria awakens in the morning, dirt stains her toenails and cakes the soles of her feet, making them the color of the red clay roads. Fear builds within her like a coiled snake rattling in her stomach. As she washes her feet, Maria thinks of the stories she heard as a child, whether in the form of a warning from her mother or a recounting from a chambrosa neighbor. The stories about children who silently leave their homes in a dream state and end up at the lake that lies at the southern border of the town. The lake flows with polluted water that can be up to fifty feet deep. Maria imagines how the first child’s bloated body looked when an unsuspecting fisherman found Daniel floating in the lake, two days after his disappearance. Even though the last child disappeared into the lake six years ago, the townspeople always warn mothers to keep their children close at nighttime. Maria quickly leaves the bathroom to help her mother with breakfast, ignoring the goosebumps that line her arms.
At noon, Maria walks her with her mother to the barren plot of land next to the woods.
Several other families are already there in front of the holes that are dug each year. The parents’ faces are pinched from the constant anxiety of knowing that their child could be chosen this year. With scissors in hand, they wait for the start of the ceremony. Sweat beads on Maria’s lip and makes the hair around her face slick and stick to her skin.
“Madre, this night might change both of our lives. But I know that you will be okay if anything happens,” Maria says as she embraces her mother.
“I’m lucky to have even had you in the first place, mi amor. My parents begged me to not bring a child into this world as an unwed woman, but I didn’t listen. Instead I moved here and had you. You have been my light through the darkest nights.” Catalina wipes the tears at the edge of her eyes and kisses her daughter on top of her head. The two of them glance overhead as the sky darkens once the moon begins to eclipse the sun. Catalina holds her daughter’s braids tightly and cuts her hair. Maria’s thick tresses stop at the nape of her neck, making her look more like a woman. She takes the braids and puts them into one of the holes in the ground. Maria glances at the other boys and girls kneeling beside her. She has known these children since birth. They have splashed in the puddles in dirt roads after the first rain. They have stolen chocolates from the almacén and been chased out by the store owner. They have waited for this day for seventeen years and now here it is. One of them will be the child chosen by the forest at night for La Ofrenda and never be seen again. There will be no protest or fight, because everyone knows what happens when the trees do not receive what they want. The roots that span across the entire town will fill the soil with poison, killing all crops and livestock, leaving the people without food until the ritual of La Ofrenda is completed.
Once the sky returns to its original cerulean hue, the families return to their homes.
Maria sleeps in her mother’s bed that night, a habit she outgrew after she stopped having nightmares. A flower petal falls gently into her open mouth and melts on her tongue. The sweetness awakens Maria from her dreams. The cloying scent of flowers fills the room as a voice whispers in her ear, “La que hemos escogida eres tu. Ven al bosque y encuentranos ahí.” Maria kisses her mother’s cheek and tiptoes to the door. She lingers in the doorway to look at her mother for the last time. Maria does not wake Catalina, to spare her the heartbreak that accompanies an eternal goodbye, and leaves without a trace. As she walks down the dirt road to the woods, the breeze dries the tears that adorn her face. The hypnotic siren song becomes louder until it is all Maria can hear. She enters the woods and peers at the flowering trees that tower over her. In the spaces between the tree branches, the night sky glitters with the constellations Catalina had taught her daughter. When she closes her eyes, Maria can still see the set of stars that make up the phoenix overhead. She exhales for the last time as the trees’ roots latch onto her ankles, pulling Maria hundreds of feet down into the earth. A sapling, barely visible and easily crushed by a passerby, appears in the place her feet had been.
When the light of the morning sun begins to filter through the window, Catalina stretches her arms and finds the spot next to her empty save for flower petals scattered all over the bed.