Forgotten, by Abby Hall. 2019.
The late October sun slipped down along the river in a lazy drawl while Ada pulled her paint-stained fingers from the water. She watched the water dew and drop down each digit, illuminating, magnifying the colored streaks all over her hands.
How long had she been out here? The sun was much higher, an unbroken egg yolk stuck to the sky, when she set up her easel earlier that day. What had she been painting? She looked over at the messy canvases, splattered and smeared with greens and blues, but no semblance of a pattern showed up on any of the surfaces.
Ada dipped her hand again in the river but kept her half-lidded eyes on the pile of canvases atop the soft dirt next to her. She took a deep breath, held it until her head was a balloon about to float away, and forced it out slowly to try and clear out the muck weighing down her heart. It didn’t work.
“You’re back again.” It wasn’t Ada who spoke.
She turned to see an auburn figure saunter into the spilling shadows of the trees. The small fox fixed a single amber eye, gleaming in the twilight, on Ada’s wet hand.
Ada stared, fixated for a moment, before turning back to dry off her fingers on a thin cloth from her overall pocket. “I didn’t mean to.”
The fox lifted her paws with the eeriest care and moved a foot closer to Ada. She left no marks in the dirt. “But you’re still here.”
With a shakier breath, Ada moved to sit with her legs crossed at the ankle and peeled a stick stuck to her skin away from its indentation. “I wanted to paint the scenery.”
“I’m not gullible, Adathis. I know you haven’t been able to paint since you woke up.”
“Don’t call me that,” Ada said, and she turned her body away from the fox and toward the river, where the sun melted further and further into an orange puddle, the yolk finally oozing out of the round center.
The fox situated her paws in front of her and swished a black tipped tail back and forth. “Fine.” She lifted one paw and began to lick it.
Ada glanced at the fox out of the corner of her eye. She went back to washing her hands in the river, but kept getting distracted by the creature nearby.
She tossed down her hands, throwing droplets of water all over the ground. “I’m going home. Don’t bother me again.” Ada scooped up her messy canvases and brushes, slapped the dirt from her legs, and traipsed off into the woods toward her cabin. The fox sat idly by, watching all the while as the girl disappeared into the trees.
Ada lifted one filthy sneaker over the other on her way back home, dodging branches and chipmunks and everything the wooded path had to offer that day. She raced the falling darkness and won by barely a second as the shadows chased her up to the door. The painting supplies fell from her arms with a clatter on her small, square dinner table, and she kicked off her shoes with complete disregard for the pile of objects already scattered on her floor.
The girl reached up to tangle her fingers in her messy, mousy bob before ruffling the hair in all directions and stretching her arms high above her head with a yawn. “Priddy?” she yelled. “Priddy, are you home?”
A clatter rang from the bedroom and a large dog—a spaniel with white spots on her haunches, ears that flopped over and inside out, and dark fur that hung lightly from her body—came sprinting out and into Ada’s arms.
“Ada, Ada! You’ll never guess what I saw today,” Priddy yapped in Ada’s face, her tongue finding any inch of skin to lick and her paws weighing on any part of Ada’s body she could reach. “Two squirrels! Two squirrels, Ada! They came up to the window and were so close that I could hear them!”
“That’s great,” Ada laughed, pulling her smiling face out of the dog’s kisses. She scratched behind Priddy’s ears and held the dog’s head still between her hands. “Do you want to go out now?”
“Yes!” Priddy barked. She launched herself from Ada’s embrace and ran to the door as Ada threw it open. Ada stood in the doorway and watched Priddy throw herself this way and that on the grass, rolling, leaping, bounding. The sun sank lower until not a ray broke through the barrier of branches surrounding them in the woods all around.
While her friend played, Ada turned back to the brushes and paint scattered on her table atop open books, diaries, notes, and anything she could find in this house from her past life. She sifted through the items, pulling up a canvas as big as her torso. On it was painted a scene of foxes, one of them surely the same fox Ada shooed away that evening. The painting itself sparkled with something otherworldly, and Ada ran her color-stained fingers down the rough surface. Light from outside slowly ran down the painting, chased by darkness until she couldn’t make out the figures.
Ada tossed the canvas back in the pile. She wasn’t sure who she was anymore. She remembered painting, but couldn’t remember how. And she remembered that name—Adathis—but it had a sour taste in the back of her mind now. After had woken up from what felt like a long slumber, Ada shortened it.
Paws started scraping at the already scuffed front door, and Ada went to let in Priddy, who was panting and well-exercised.
“Oh, Ada, you’ll never guess. Three squirrels! I saw three!” the dog said, prancing into the room. She sat, wagging her tail and fixing her pale blue eyes on Ada. “And they let me chase them, or at least they didn’t scream as much as last time. I think they know I won’t eat them now. Three squirrels!”
“That’s great, Priddy,” Ada said, patting the excitable pup on the head. “Enjoy it now. Next season, they’ll start hiding from the snow.” Ada ran a hand through her short hair again, staring out the window into the darkness. She locked the door.
“Well, that’s fine. The snow will keep me company instead,” Priddy said, moving to jump into a raggedy, coral colored arm chair with blankets bunched beside the cushion. “But the birds will also be gone, and the deer might show up, but they aren’t as fun to chase.” Priddy rested her head on her paws, her tail slowing to stillness.
“But, in the winter, we get to sit by the fire and stay warm,” Ada said, walking over to the fireplace. More notes and papers were strewn about the mantle, cryptic things like He’ll be here at first snowfall and Lock the door! Keep it locked! written across the crumbled sheets. Ada wasn’t sure what it meant yet, and Priddy didn’t seem to know much, either. Priddy said nothing about Ada had really changed, except that she let Priddy talk a lot more.
One note in particular caught Ada’s eye every time she stood near the fireplace. There, in thin, scribbled letters, trailing off near the end, were the words the Foxes did this to us. It was the reason Ada never spoke much to the fox at the river, although she always had the urge to meander in that spot. Still, she wondered if she could figure out who she was before she woke up. The fox seemed to know.
“Well, Priddy, I’m heading to bed.” Ada petted the drowsy dog’s head, eliciting one more somber tail wag.
“Goodnight, Ada. Don’t forget to take your medicine before sleeping,” Priddy said, her voice muffling into sleep as she spoke.
Ada walked into the bedroom, as messy as the rest of the small cottage, and smoothed out the quilts and knitted blankets atop the bed. She changed into sleep clothes that felt almost hers, but not quite, too tight at the shoulders or short at the ankles.
On the side table, on top of books about natural remedies and star alignment, sat a small tin case. Every night, Priddy reminded her to take a pill from the tin before she slept. Ada had never thought to ask what it was for, but figured it was something the Adathis she used to be needed. Her fingers glided over the metal, hesitated on the opening. Ada turned off the lamp and went to sleep.
She awoke to pure darkness. She felt as if her bed was floating, as if the blankets were tucked so hard under the mattress that she couldn’t move. Only her eyes grazed across the room, quick and unsteady, sure of figures in her peripheral vision that disappeared when looked at directly.
A voice was creeping into her ears and she tensed, her fingers twitching at her sides. No words came out, but only a grinding sound, harsh and vivid in the silence of the room. Something pressed down on pieces of her body, digging into the meat of her legs, arms, and throat. She screamed.
“Ada!” Priddy yelled, jumping onto the girl in the bed. “Wake up!”
Ada sat up too quickly, making her head spin. Priddy jumped to the floor staring up at Ada, a seriousness in her stillness. “You didn’t take your medicine.”
Ada shook her head. “No, no, I didn’t.” Tears started welling in her eyes, and she checked her limbs for bruises that were starting to spring up. “I didn’t know, Priddy. I don’t know.”
Priddy relaxed, let out a big breath, and sat. Her ears perked up and her tail swayed back and forth in a comforting wag. “There’s a lot you don’t know about your own life now, Ada. I can’t help you figure out most of it.” The dog scooted forward, resting her head on Ada’s knee. “I only know you take the medicine because he comes at night. That’s all. But I know someone who can tell you more.” Priddy blinked slowly, staring up at Ada’s pink crying face, lips drawn down into a sobbing frown.
“The fox?” Ada said, sniffling, rubbing her palms against her eyes. Priddy nodded. “The notes say not to go to the foxes.”
“You can’t trust them much, but they do know more about who you were. You were close with them once.” Priddy sat back again, all her energy of the day before focused into helping. “Of course, I can’t go with you. Someone has to always be in the house.”
That was another mysterious note: do NOT leave this pace unattended! Ada wondered more and more whether she made these notes knowing she would lose her memory.
Ada nodded. She took a deep, shuddering breath and dropped her hands against the bed. “Alright. I’ll go today.”
Priddy pawed at the floor nervously. “The foxes only become active at sunset. But, night is also when they have the most power.”
Ada sighed, nodding again. “Of course.” It made sense, she thought, that her body was so frightened of being out late. Night is the time of the foxes, and something inside her remembered that. “I’ll go tonight, then.”
Priddy took a big breath and let out a sigh through her nose in that tired way that dogs do. “Be careful, Ada.”
Ada walked along the twilit path with nothing but a severe headache to accompany her. The tweeting of the birds had dimmed down in the last half hour, about the time it took for Ada to reach the clearing in the trees next to the river where she tried to paint. Tonight, she was hoping to encounter something other than an artistic muse, though.
Her insides were twisted into knots, pulling her into a nervous slouch that gave each step a hesitation. Priddy had warned her about the ambiguity of the foxes, and many of the little notes scattered through her house had similar eerie warnings; with the setting sun closing in on the horizon, she was more worried than ever. This was her life she was trying to reconcile, but through somebody else’s issues. She was no longer the Adathis that Priddy had known, but she wasn’t unrecognizable.
Something about it felt all wrong.
Ada’s foot crunched the old brown leaves of the forest and made a comforting sort of cacophony. Still, her head pounded, and she pressed her fingers as hard as she could into her skull to try and dig out the pain, but it was no use.
“Adathis—good to see you.”
Ada swiveled to the voice on her left like she’d been stung on that side, her eyes wide and searching. There, on the ground, sat the one-eyed red fox. Ada wasn’t sure what had happened to the fox’s other eye, but then again, she wasn’t such close friends with the foxes as she might have used to been.
“Um, yeah, hello,” Ada said, stumbling over her words with the beat of her heart banging in her ears. Her brow was knitted tight on her forehead, and the migraine pounded harder.
“No matter what you say, I keep seeming to find you back in this spot,” the fox said, moving delicately out of the shadows, as if on air.
“Yes.” Ada eyed the sun as it moved faster downward, engulfing the forest in shadows, only bits and pieces of bright light scattered on the tips of trees and hilltops. She took a breath. “I have a question. About me. About—about my life before I woke up.” Her hands were doused in thick layers of sticky sweat, liquid that would just reappear no matter how many times she ran it on the thighs of her black joggers.
The fox nodded, sitting back on her haunches and placing her two front paws carefully next to one another. “Of course you do. I can enlighten you, Adathis. For a trade. But, you must know that I cannot make you who you were before, but you won’t be who you are now, either. You will be new again.”
Ada gulped hard, her head a mess of fear and pain. “Yes. Okay. What’s the trade?”
The fox licked a paw and then placed it back on the dirt, and Ada noticed that no print was left when the paw was up. “Finish our painting.”
A breeze blew past the leaves while the sun finally deserted the sky. Only a dim glow resonated through the woods. “I’ll do it.”
And then there was gold.
Ada blinked and blinked but she couldn’t get the shine from her eyes. All around her was gold, gold penetrating every inch of the world surrounding her. It shimmered, lingering in dusty particles in the air, and when she reached out to touch it, squinting against the shine, it all disappeared.
She inhaled deeply, letting the air out sharp, as she looked around and saw the one-eyed fox in front of her, sitting as delicately as ever. Now, though, the two of them stood in the middle of the woods. In front of them were two tall trees, only three feet apart from each other, resembling something like a gate; a faint blue glow emanated from in between them. Ada pressed a hand against her thumping heart. The fox signaled for her to follow and they walked between the trees.
Ada held her breath. All around her were tall walls of trees pushed up next to each other, creating a fortress look, and the leaves grew toward the center to create a canopy that blocked the stars. The blue light she had seen from outside the structure was everywhere now, illuminating large bushes where fox families lived and played. The one-eyed fox who had been leading her through the dwelling place of the foxes stopped walking and turned to Ada. “This is our Home.”
“It feels—it feels familiar,” Ada said, glancing around as a chill crept up her spine.
“You’ve been here before,” the fox said, moving again toward a large shelter of wood that looked like a giant canoe flipped upside down. “Follow me. This is where we hold our…larger guests.”
Ada looked down at the small fox, then nodded and shrugged. “Oh, um, what should I call you, by the way? Your name, I mean,” Ada said. It felt strange asking, since the fox had been pestering Ada for a month, vaguely hinting at Ada’s past and her lost memories. Somehow, Ada felt nervous, and scared, but she didn’t feel that the fox would hurt her. Still, asking the fox for help had left her nerves racketing through her skin at light speed.
“Ona,” the fox replied, her amber eye fixed on the destination ahead.
Ada whispered the name, tasting it on her tongue. She felt as if it were all a slow dream, as if, any second, something would leap out of the bushes and turn it into a nightmare. Nothing seemed real except for the beads of sweat burning down her back.
Each of Ona’s steps was as silent as the air they breathed. Not a sound seemed out of place in this Home. No birds chirped. Only a choir of endlessly singing cicadas filled the space, and even that became nothing but white noise to Ada’s nervous ears.
“Here we are,” Ona said. She led Ada to an opening in the circular configuration of dense trees. Vines covered the entrance like a swirling, decorative rug, but as the two moved closer, the vines moved away to allow access into the belly of the structure.
The smallest gasp pushed out of Ada’s lips; she didn’t want to show any surprise or weakness in this unknown place with strange animals galore, but the magic surrounding her was overstimulating. Every time she blinked, a surge of silver ran across her closed eyelids, and she swore she could feel the hairs on her neck jumping toward the electricity in the air. The energy in the room was nearly too much, inescapable even in her head, where the tiniest clatter of bells seemed to ring like lightning smacking a metal earth. With a shiver that concentrated itself deep in her tightening chest Ada followed the fox into the dimly lit structure.
Inside, fireflies covered the ceiling of interwoven tree branches. Much like the whole of Home itself, this shelter had walls made of trees packed close to one another, but they were leafless and crept up to hold onto the branches of others as if they were lovers in danger of being torn apart. Ada stared at the yellow-orange glow above her, and squinted in the dim light of the fireflies flickering through the air. Gazing at them, she felt the knot in her chest loosen just enough for her to take a deep breath.
“We can see much better in the dark than you, Adathis,” Ona said with a lilt to her voice.
“I asked you to call me Ada.” The knot tightened again.
Ona ignored this.
A few steps ahead, Ada could make out the dim shapes of other foxes. They sat, napped, and licked their paws, all the things that normal foxes do, except that it’s unusual to see so many in one place. But these foxes weren’t usual in any sense of the word.
The floor of the area was a soft green grass, just long enough not to poke and too short to tickle. Pillows lined the walls on wooden couches, and tables with short chairs dotted the space like some sort of cafeteria. Ada stared in wonder at the items inside the structure, guessing as to how the foxes were able to do all this—she didn’t know the extent of their power, but she assumed it must be wholly magnificent. She only assumed this because they knew so much about her while she knew so little about herself. In the very back, so far that Ada almost couldn’t see it in the near dark, was what looked to be a round room attached to the outer wall. No creature went too close to it.
Under Ada’s foot, a twig snapped. Dozens of sets of gleaming yellow eyes turned toward her all at once. She stepped back in fright, her heart beating a frantic SOS to her trembling brain.
An old looking fox, gray across his back and down his nose, walked toward Ada and Ona. Ona, ever calm, sat back on her haunches as the newcomer tipped his head in greeting.
“I’ve retrieved the witch,” Ona said to the old fox. The words stung Ada’s ears with the weight of their meaning.
Witch? she thought, and a rush of blood in her ears suddenly drowned out any semblance of control Ada may have had upon entering Home. Ada wasn’t sure why the feeling of the word was so overbearing—she couldn’t tell if it felt safe and familiar or absolutely terrifying. Images, colored blocks of indescribable memories, played through her head at the mention of the word. Was she a witch? She hadn’t heard the word since she’d awoken without her memories, but in her deepest corners, she knew exactly what it meant.
The fox’s words were nothing but whitewater washing through her mind, covering every aspect of her life in a foam so dense that not even pinching herself over and over brought a sense of reality.
“Adathis,” the old fox said firmly. Ada stared through the haze of confusion causing chaos behind her eyes; after a couple of blinks and deep breaths, she nodded.
“It’s Ada,” she said.
The old fox swished his tail back and forth. Ona stood, looking back over her shoulder with that single gleaming eye at Ada. “Let’s be on our way, then,” Ona said.
A gentle chatter filled Ada’s ears as the foxes around her turned their attention back to each other. She couldn’t quite understand what they were saying, and she stares hard at each one. When she first woke up, not knowing her name or her life, Priddy spoke to her and she screamed. The dog’s mouth didn’t move, but Ada knew every word somewhere deep in her brain.
The foxes were different. They spoke words with thin lips and rough tongues straight into the forest air. It was startling to see such a mouth drop human words, but Ada grew used to it. She had yet to learn the difference between Priddy and the foxes, though. Of course, the answer had to do with magic.
Following silent behind the old fox and Ona, Ada’s eyes grew more accustomed to the dim light. Shivers of remembrance swept through her fingers and toes, and for a moment, she could really believe she was Adathis, a witch. But the moment faded when she ducked under a mossy curtain to enter the small, tree-walled room at the back of the building.
It was even darker here. Ada stopped, afraid to step forward onto a creature or important object. She felt for the wall with her hands, ran her fingers over the knotted bark of the old trees that made up the structure, and slid down the wall to a crouching position. Her legs trembled beneath her.
“Ona?” she said. Her voice seemed distant from her body.
A few feet away, Ada saw the yellow glow of Ona’s eye. It blinked.
“Be patient,” Ona said, but Ada’s body was trembling.
A light appeared in the middle of the room. The source was a round blue orb; it emanated the same gentle light that filled the outer area of Home. “I am Moss. Sit, Adathis,” the old fox said. He rested back on his haunches on the other side of the blue light. Ada could now see her own hands shaking on her lap. She drew long breaths, eyed the two foxes in front of her, and waited.
Ada leaned to one side to see him clearly past the object. “You know he is coming, but you don’t know why. Am I correct?” Moss said, his voice nearly lost in the hum of magic drifting through the room.
Shaken for a moment, Ada hesitated. He? “Oh,” she finally whispered under the shaking of her vocal chords, “you mean from the notes. And the medicine.”
Moss nodded and lowered his weary body down to lie in the dirt. Ada slid down the wall from her crouching position to sit as she was told. The air was still, strangely cool and unperturbed by her heavy breathing.
“You—Adathis—made a deal with him long ago. He gives you your powers.”
Ona stared indignantly forward while Moss spoke, and Ada could almost feel the heavy guilt of something she didn’t understand wafting off the fox like a smoke-tinged breeze.
“I don’t have powers,” Ada said. Every second she was living this life, she felt less and less sure about what she was saying.
“Oh, you do,” Ona spat. Quickly, the fox returned to her normal nonchalant demeanor, but not before Moss sent a frustrated look her way.
“You do, Adathis. But at a price that you haven’t paid for quite a while. And now he is coming to get his dues,” Moss continued. He looked unbothered by his own words, as if the meaning didn’t hold a weight unbearable for the human girl he spoke to.
Ada shuddered. She remembered last night, not taking the pill—the bruises on her legs were proof of the events. She had something coming after her. Sometime in her past, when she was called Adathis, she had made some kind of deal, and now—now she had to deal with it. Adathis, it seemed to her, was a different person entirely than the current Ada; Adathis had gotten herself into a mess, lost her memories, and scattered pieces of her life across the small cabin Ada now inhabited. She supposed Adathis had done all of this to spite her future self, to torture and confuse her, but Ada knew that didn’t make sense. She was Adathis as sure as the sun shone, and yet nothing felt right.
Even if Adathis worked it all out, trapped Ada with her memories and ditched the scene, it didn’t matter. This was no longer Adathis’s problem. Now, it was simply Ada’s.