‘The lost tree’ (1/2)

It was the morning of Christmas Eve, and the forest looked as magical as it always did. Just a short walk, Ebba told herself as she took a deep lungful of the icy air. A chance to stretch her legs before the relatives descended. In that air, she smelled the smoke of fresh fires, the steam of cocoa, the shine of winter moons. And then – somewhere behind her or ahead of her – there was a metallic fricative sound that might have been the jingling of bells, or clinking of glasses. She pulled her hat tighter over her ears, tied it beneath her chin, and turned left towards the pine forest.

Each confident stride crunched the snow tight beneath her boots. She imagined she was walking through icing sugar on top of a cake; but this cake had no edges, as far as she could see. The rippled white of the slow hill, the dull white rolls of cloudy sky; it was all one frozen whole.

Whipped into drifts on the hillside by the night, the sculpted peaks of snow reminded her of Grani’s English Christmas cake, with its hard shell of egg white icing. It was Ebba’s job to arrange the rows of plastic trees and tiny skiiers on pegs on the top. What was inside, she never knew, as she was always too afraid to try it.

She refused to believe it was cake. It was certainly like no cake she had ever seen before. It smelled like Pop’s breath when he came to visit, and it was sticky like earth when the snow thaws. She would only peel off the marzipan and snowdrifts and and let them dissolve slowly on her tongue. The last time she had tasted it, it was nineteen ninety-something. Hard to believe it had been so long.

By now, Ebba was at least an hour from the village, somewhere in the muffled quiet of the pine forest. The snow was lighter, and in the half-light it had become harder to tell if she was following a path. Ahead of her was a clearing. She thought she recognised it, but really, it could have been any one of a dozen clearings, and as she was not entirely sure how she had reached this point, she was, in the simplest sense of the word, lost.