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Fiction

Most children—and in fact, most adults—were fearful of traveling too far into the woods, for no one quite knew what lie deep within. Jacob, however, had never been afraid of the long trek through the winding, barely visible paths almost completely concealed by underbrush and overgrowth. To the untrained eye, perhaps the narrow trails were nothing more than slight spots where sunlight never shone, but Jacob knew better. He had visited these woods several times in his youth. As he had grown older, though, he had lost interest in the trip, and had not journeyed within for years.

The scent of fresh pine wafted into Jacob’s nostrils, the slight hint of a spruce undertone bringing a smile to his lips. He had almost forgotten how refreshing the walk could be, especially with a calm breeze blowing gently through the trees. There was a soft rustling of oak leaves often covering the barely audible sound of pine and spruce needles rubbing against each other, wood occasionally creaking gently under mild strain. Jacob stopped pressing forward for a brief moment, allowing himself to take in the beauty, wondering if but briefly why he had ever lost interest in making this trip.

Pressing forward, kicking white pebbles out of their resting places as he hiked deeper and deeper into the woods, far beyond the normal stopping point for the folk of the nearby villages. Another smile flashed as he considered how fearful men were of creatures of the wood they did not understand, failing to recognize that most wolves and bears and lynxes would rather run away than risk encountering a strange man. Of course, all bets were off if that strange man wandered too close to a den where children lie. Then there was real danger. Avoiding that fate was fairly easy if one only kept notice of where one went, and Jacob was certainly keen of eye.

He lost track of how long he had been walking, traversing the few miles by instinct more than attention, checking his bearing only once in a while. It was not long before his destination was in sight, a beautiful cottage that had once belonged to his grandmother. The home was so beautiful and seemed to be precisely as he remembered. The walls were the most wonderful color, not quite wood, not quite dirt. In fact, if Jacob were honest, they reminded him of gingerbread with their almost syrupy caramel color.

 As Jacob took a moment to reflect on his grandmother’s house with the childish eyes he had first seen it with, he grinned widely. He remembered thinking the shingles on the roof looked like small cakes covered with a beautiful white frosting, almost dripping down over the eaves as though they were ready to be eaten. The windows too, yellowed and aged and not so finely tempered, seemed more like well-cooked sugar than glass.

One of the windows was missing, now that Jacob was looking more closely, and some of the roof had fallen off. Perhaps there was a little disrepair apparent in the old structure, but for not having been visited for years, it was still quite resplendent. It did make him think of his grandmother though, and he wondered once again what her fate had been.

Where his grandmother had gone off to had been a mystery to the family. His mother and father had told him that she had probably grown old and senile away from the world of men and that in her advanced years she had likely gone for a walk into the woods. Whatever fate had befallen her, no one could quite guess, but Jacob hoped that destiny had been kind to her and if, indeed, she was no longer among the living, granted her a peaceful and quiet death.

Walking up to the door and giving it a gentle pull, he smiled instantly as he looked inside. Everything was exactly as he remembered, right down to her favorite sitting chair and the twin beds on the far side of the room where he and his younger brother often spent the night. Even the linens were still a brilliant shade of white as if the interior of the tiny cottage had been spared the wrath of time. The bookshelf on the far wall and the small table where they had eaten filled out what little space was left. Jacob couldn’t bring himself to pass through and visit his grandmother’s room, at least not yet.

This wasn’t at all why he had come anyway. Today he had better memories to brush up on. Turning, he headed straight for the kitchen. There too time had not crept, fresh produce hanging in baskets—juicy apples and baskets of nuts. Flour and salt and sugar in clear glass jars, slightly yellowed, much like the windows. The large brown counter upon which he and brother and grandmother had baked so many scrumptious snacks. Yes, this was why Jacob had returned to his grandmother’s house.

Jacob longed for just one more taste of his grandmother’s cooking. He had tried to replicate her recipes at home, but nothing he tried seemed to recreate the taste of oma’s fantastic snacks. Whether it was pancakes or cookies or nut bread, nothing was quite the same. He hoped that by coming here, he would be able to remember what he was doing wrong, letting memories of days long past take control of his body and fill in whatever blanks had been left by absent thought.

Lighting the fire under the wood stove and ignoring the larger oven which he had never been allowed to help her use, Jacob then pulled out a griddle from beneath the counter. The heavy, wrought-iron pan reminded Jacob that his grandmother would always tell him to be careful while carrying it. “Remember, it is heavier than it looks, young child,” she would say with her kindly voice. “Now go get me the eggs.”

Instinctively, he headed for the small egg box on the shelf in her pantry and removed three, grabbing the glass mixing bowl sitting next to it as well. With a near reverence, he placed the bowl on the counter and then cracked the eggs open one at a time, watching the runny whites rush forward first, quickly followed by a large plop as the orange-yellow yolk landed in the middle. One. Two. Three. Then a small amount of sugar spooned out carefully and a pinch of salt. Milk!

Back to the pantry, he opened the small hatch in the floor and trudged down dark stairs until he reached the bottom, the only light being cast in from the windows above and behind him. The room below was not large, though, with barely enough space to turn around in. The temperature fell as he descended the stairs, and now at the bottom he felt a slight chill. Here too was a conveniently placed cup to pour some fresh milk into, which he did, the creamy substance filling the small glass mug. “Don’t forget to wash up after we’re done, and always remember to put things back where they were,” he could hear his grandmother’s voice echoing in his head.

Walking up the stairs, careful so as not to drop a single splash of the precious milk, he kicked the hatch back closed to ensure it stayed cool downstairs. Then he crossed back to the counter and poured the white liquid into the eggs and sugar and salt. Placing the mug down, he shook his head and muttered under his breath. “Jacob, you know the butter’s down there too, and you might as well grab the vanilla on your way through the pantry,” he chastised himself, and quickly dashed off to grab the last few ingredients.

When he returned, he poured in a small amount of the vanilla and a measure of butter. A quick reach below the counter produced a small sifter into which he poured some flour, and a whisk he would need to stir.

“Gently, now,” his grandmother’s voice reminded him again from his youth.

Slowly pulling the trigger on the metal sifter, the flour became light and powdery as it fell into the batter, almost as if snow falling onto the forest floor. Jacob smoothly began to whisk the contents together, folding the batter over on itself from time to time, leaning in to smell the sweetness of his grandmother’s recipe. By the time he was done, it was not quite thick in texture, but certainly not runny, and he was prepared to pour it onto the griddle. Still, he felt like something was missing as he stared at the creamy beige batter.

“Eggs. Sugar. Salt,” Jacob called out, counting each item on his fingers as he went. “Milk, vanilla, butter, flower…” He stared down at both of his hands, six fingers and a thumb that would have been staring back at him had they had eyes. He could feel them judging him for his lack of confidence in his recreation of his grandmother’s pancake recipe, but he couldn’t think of anything he was missing. Letting out a deep sigh, he gave up and walked over to the griddle, pouring a medium amount of batter onto the ebon pan. Moving slowly, he walked the griddle to the stove and set it atop, ready to cook.

Before his very eyes, the batter began to transform, thickening and browning, and he let out a gasp as he spun around and grabbed a turner from beneath the counter. Quickly hefting it in his hand, he returned to the stove and deftly flipped the pancake over, smiling as he noticed he had made it just in time. The room began to fill with the smell of pancakes he remembered from visiting his grandmother, but there was definitely something off. A small stack of pancakes later, he was ready to sample the large, golden-brown coins he had plated on a large, yellow plate.

He walked out to the small table in the main room and set them down, returning to the kitchen briefly for a fork and knife. Jacob smiled, seeing the small jar of syrup still sitting on the blue-and-white checkered tablecloth right where he had expected it to be. Watching as the green, honey-like molasses spilt out of the jar and begin to cover his pancakes slowly, he smiled as he remembered how much more he preferred the natural safflower syrup of his grandmother’s house than the imported maple or berry syrups most enjoyed in the villages. There was something altogether better about the hay-like taste and earthy aroma. It added a little something special to his grandmother’s recipe.

Slicing out a small triangular wedge with his knife and stabbing it with his fork, Jacob hefted the first delectable bite to his mouth and began to taste the wonderfully fluffy pancake and gentle syrup as it combined in his mouth with every chew. He continued to chew, perhaps too long, recognizing all of the individual flavors he had combined in the bowl, but there was absolutely something missing. Jacob had failed to recreate the recipe, and now he was at a loss as to what was missing.

Finishing his pancakes with disappointment quickly settling in, Jacob began to turn other recipes over in his head. Nut bread, banana bread with imported fruit, sweet strudels, and cakes all flashing through his mind, but all missing that one special ingredient that was evading him. Frustrated, he returned to the kitchen to quickly clean and then went back to the main room to look at the old bookshelf on the far wall. He knew it was pointless, as his grandmother had always pointed a bony finger to her head when asked where she kept her recipes.

“Perhaps you got away with them and now they are lost to time,” Jacob muttered under his breath as he looked at the various tomes on the shelves. He shrugged his shoulders as he looked, shaking his head. The search was pointless anyway, or at least near pointless. Jacob couldn’t read, and so he would have to get them home to one of his younger siblings—younger than his brother—who had been taught to do so. He wasn’t sure he wanted to withstand their mockery or superiority over him, but perhaps to save his grandmother’s recipes it would be worthwhile. Not that he knew what he was looking for, and there were far too many books to heft home in less than fifteen or twenty trips without exhaustion.

Jacob let out a deep breath, exasperated. If only he could remember.

Knock. Knock knock.

Jacob slowly turned his head toward the door, startled, but then a shiver ran down his spine. This shiver was not one of fear or terror, but one of joy, of memories spilling back that he had long since forgotten. The smile on his face now had not been so large in many years. Rushing for the door, he swung it open.

Two cherubic little children stood outside, one male, one female, looking lost and frightened and in need of help.

It was then Jacob remembered the missing ingredient.

December 08, 2020 05:59

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9 comments

Itay Frenkel
03:26 Dec 15, 2020

I can't believe I'm reading one of your stories for the first time now, WHAT have I been doing? I really enjoyed this, it read a bit like a new take on an old fairy tale, is that a Hansel and Gretel referance at the end? Quite dark, and lots of suspense, my kind of story. Great job!

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Jim Snyder
15:40 Dec 15, 2020

Thank you so much! There are definitely a lot of Hansel and Gretel references sprinkled throughout. I went back to the original Grimm version and made sure to drop in some descriptions that would subtly link it. I just liked the idea of kind of picking up with something a bit different, seeing another side to the tale that wasn't there, but also not specifically impossible to tack on either. Thanks so much for the compliments though. I greatly appreciate them!

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Crystal Lewis
01:26 Dec 15, 2020

I loved this story! I thought it was so smart the way you weaved in the Hansel and Gretel tale to it! The build up to it was very good as I had that suspicion I knew exactly who his grandmother was. I really enjoyed this! It was a fresh take on something age old. Feel free to read my story “Knight’s Assassin” if you would like. :)

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Jim Snyder
15:37 Dec 15, 2020

Thank you so much for the compliments! I'm glad it came across the way I was hoping it would. I was trying to be kind of subtle with some of the details, but not so subtle as it would get lost in translation. I'll definitely check out your story!

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Ari Berri
16:15 Dec 08, 2020

Awesome story!

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Jim Snyder
22:59 Dec 08, 2020

Thanks so much! I definitely had a blast writing it!

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Ari Berri
23:00 Dec 08, 2020

No problem.

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Antonio Jimenez
06:35 Sep 22, 2021

Hey Jim, I don't know if you're still on Reedsy but I just came out with my first story in months and would love for you to check it out and give me some feedback. Just trying to connect with all those who have given me advice in the past.

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Antonio Jimenez
19:13 Dec 30, 2020

Awesome story! The writing and descriptions were superb. It read kind of like a fairy tale. Great job! Would love for you to check out my newest story!

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