Forgotten, by Abby Hall. 2019.
Maeve had her hands pressed dramatically to her head as screams erupted from her open mouth. Priddy stood in front of her, barking, fur raised all the way down her back. When she saw Ada practically leap down the stairs and slide into the gallery, Maeve pointed hastily—shakily—at the glass door.
Ada looked. A shot of chilled blood drained down her spine. She could see him through the window, and through the door, when he would back away from the brick wall separating the window and door. Then, he would move his massive, shadowy body toward them again and slam into the wall. The gallery seemed to shake with the force, but, then again, Ada’s head was swimming anyway.
In the quick-growing darkness of night, the shadowy creature barely made an impression on Ada’s eyes, but she could feel him like the weight of an impending storm. Her breath hitched in her throat. She could see, concentrated in the middle of the shadows, the faint, smudgy silhouette of a long human-shaped figure. Arms—more like limp tree branches—hung at his side, swinging wildly when he threw his body.
Dole exhaled loudly behind Ada, making her turn. The expression on the older witch’s face was a mixture of fatigue and stress. “He can’t get to us in here. It’s good that you got to me before nightfall. He travels through shadows, you know, so he moves a lot more quickly at night.”
“That thing is a he? Like, a person?” Maeve screeched. Ada had almost forgotten about the screaming, until it stopped and she recognized the absence of it. Now all she heard was the wailing of a wind outside the door that pointed directly at her.
“You must sate his hunger, Ada,” Dole said, ignoring Maeve and her incessant, frightened panting. Priddy stopped her barking and only growled now, listening with one ear pricked to the conversation.
“Sate him? Maeve cries, grasping at her chest. “With what?” Her brown irises shrunk at her eyes widened. She stared right at Ada.
He continued to throw himself furiously against the door. A breeze broke through at moments, nearly freezing Ada’s heart when she heard the raspy sound of her name forced through her ears. She shivered.
With a small sigh, Dole ushered the group upstairs into her apartment. Maeve went reluctantly in such a tizzy that Ada wanted to reach out and squeeze her hand. The thought made her blush.
Priddy ran over to the nearest window and tensely watched over the creature still banging against the window. After the door was closed, the sound was nearly gone, but still audible under the hum of an old clanking radiator on the wall. “You can make yourself at home, Ms. Maeve. I’m sure you won’t protest if I ask you two to spend the night here.”
“Three,” Ada said, pointing at Priddy.
“Right, three,” Dole said, gently grabbing Ada by the arm and leading her into a corner near the closet containing Ada’s panting. A force drew Ada toward the door, and she wanted to sit and examine the likeness over and over. There was something so much sadder about her face in the painting; she remembered looking in the mirror in her cabin and trying to grasp at the crumbs of her past by watching her own face. All she saw was a tinge of lifelessness against the tan of her skin, lines under her upward-sloping eyes. The painting was different. The person there, the Adathis of old, had suffered something greater. Ada almost felt pity toward Adathis for making herself forget.
“Listen,” Dole whispered, “you need to know what you’re dealing with. What you—or whoever, who you were—agreed to. He doesn’t tell us his name, but he makes it very clear that our agreements are to be upheld.”
“What agreement?” Ada hissed back, staring Dole in her wrinkle-lined blue eyes. “That painting. Does it mean that I’m—that I’ll—”
Dole closed those same eyes for a moment to catch her breath. “Yes, Ada. You have lived for a very long time. I said I met you in 1956. You were, what, somewhere in your mid-twenties then? You’ve been in your mid-twenties since you made your deal in 1959.
“Every painting is infused with the essence of life—the soul. One human soul extends your life indefinitely. The painting becomes like a vessel, like a body, and it works the same way. If the painting is destroyed, the soul is free to leave. But our human bodies aren’t designed to survive forever, so eventually—” Dole gestured at her sun-spotted hands, her pallid skin—“you will age.”
Ada took a deep breath to absorb the information. “Then what does he have to do with all of this?”
“Well,” Dole continued, shaking her head, “he promises life, and he provides, that’s for sure. He provides the first soul to create the painting. After that, he delivers souls to the artists in small vials when they ask for them. Many witches like us paint for others in exchange for things.” Ada shuddered at the thought of her being lumped in with witches like us. “You made such a deal with the foxes, but you didn’t follow through. Anyway, back to your question. He doesn’t do all of this for free, obviously. He has his own portraits, but he isn’t human. He’s powerful, and old. Every thirty years, he requests a new portrait from each of the witches under his pact. The catch is—” Dole hesitated. She didn’t look worried, just unsure. Her thin, purple-y lips were pursed until she sucked in a quick breath of air through her teeth. “Nobody can be involved in their own portrait. You can’t paint it, and you can’t collect for it.”
“Collect?” Ada paused. “You mean—you mean souls, right?”
Solemnly, Dole nodded. “I helped you with the first one. It was in New York City. We were out at night, and passed an alley, and just like that, we found someone. It was no work at all. Not every time is that easy.”
“Easy?” Ada laughed, a raspy, awkward sound. “Are you telling me we let someone die in front of us? And that’s easy?” She took a step forward, a flash of red head exploding in her mind. Emotions like this hadn’t affected her for months, and the feeling livened her in a bizarre way. “What did you do when you couldn’t find someone dying, Dole? You’ve been doing this for a while. What did you do?”
With closed eyes, Dole raised her hands defensively. “Now, Adathis—”
“Ada.” Dole opened her eyes, staring intently. “Ada. Most of this world is full of dying. I was born in the 1730s—my good-for-nothing father never told me exactly, but I think it was ’33 or ’34—and I’ve lived through more destruction than you can imagine. The Revolution. The Civil War. Both World Wars. Diseases, famines, small scale witch trials, Ada. But I was also a doctor, and I still am. I only took what was given to me.”
Ada scoffed but stepped back. She felt sick to her stomach. Every thirty years she had to kill. Her contract began in 1959. Thirty years later, Dole helped her, in 1989. That meant the next collection would have to be—
“I had to collect this year. That’s why I was trying to escape it.” She watched Dole nod in assent just as she realized the sounds downstairs had stopped. Maeve was curled up on the couch, sleeping with a thin, polka dot blanket tossed over her body. She had tear streaks on her face, falling downward like waterfalls onto the couch.
Priddy trotted over. She eyed Dole, and Ada nodded. “Oh gosh,” Priddy whispered as well as a dog could, and she relaxed her shoulders as she sat. “I haven’t been able to talk forever. It was driving me bonkers, Ada.”
Ada watched a shock zip through Dole’s body for a moment, but she quickly bent down to scratch Priddy beneath the chin. “Oh, I just knew you were special, huh?” she said, smiling. “Another one of Adathis’s projects, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Priddy replied serenely, leaning into the scratches.
Ada narrowed her eyes. “What other projects did I have?”
Dole sat back on her heels, and her knees popped when she stood. “Lots of them. More than I know about. That herbal medicine was one. This memory loss is almost certainly another.”
“You know about the herbal medicine?” Ada asked, suddenly remembering that she would need to take some before she slept, and that her supply was running dangerously low.
“I do,” Dole said, moving toward the kitchen. She waved her hand, indicating for Ada to follow. Ada did. Priddy plodded in behind her and stretched on the floor. “He isn’t really there at night, when you see him, even though it can be nearly as real. Those pills block his entry into your dreams, and it took you a lot of research to figure that out.” Dole filled a mug with water from the sink and offered it to Ada. She accepted gratefully, sipping at the round rim every few seconds, trying not to seem too eager to drink. But, she realized, she was very thirsty.
“I have another question,” Ada said, holding her mug in both hands. “Do you know anything about some white blobs? They—well, they attacked Maeve, and I think they wanted to kill her.”
“I don’t know about white killer blobs,” Dole said as she closed the cabinet, another mug in hand. This one had NEW YORK, NEW YORK written on the side, but was painted over partially with a multitude of homemade squiggles and splatters. “For now, you should get some sleep, like your friend. I’ll bring some blankets out for the other couch.”
When Dole left the room, Ada took one of her pills and then rested her hand on Priddy’s warm head. She’d missed her voice.
A gray sun woke Ada up the next morning streaming through the window behind the couch on which she slept. Her eyes felt sticky, like they didn’t want to open, and the room was fogged by sleep. Maeve slept on another couch against the wall to Ada’s left, and Priddy was on the circular rug between them.
Ada raised her arms above her head. She turned and looked out the window behind her. There was no sign of the disturbance from the night before. A round clock with no numbers hung on the wall opposite Ada; there were only marks for every quarter of an hour, but Ada guessed that the exact time was somewhere around 6:53 in the morning.
She sat back on the leather sofa. A blanket had been tucked over the uncomfortable material for her to sleep, but it bunched under her body during the night, and her cheek was sore from sticking to the leather at various times while she slept. She thought for a moment about her old bed, and for a moment, she felt a deep sadness at leaving the cabin.
Since she had woken up, nothing had been wholly hers. Even her own hair felt strange and different, her reflection backward. Ada was a whole new person in someone’s old life. It was like being thrust into an acting role in the middle of a play and being expected to know your costumes, your lines, your placement on stage. Maybe you know what you’re supposed to do, or you know how to do it, but never both at the same time.
She thought about Ona, and Home. She wondered who the foxes in her painting were. Maybe if she looked again, she could recognize them, but she’d left the painting in Dole’s office downstairs, and she was in no mood to go after it. Walking had made her ankles, knees, and hips ache, and carrying the bag gave her awful pinches between her shoulder blades.
The pain made her wonder if her body were starting to age like Dole said, if she were no longer a mid-twenties-something and she was advancing much more quickly in age than anticipated. But, no, she realized—she had no wrinkles, and her body only hurt after days of walking and stress. She felt and looked young, but, inside of her body, she was much older.
Ada drew one leg underneath her and took deep, grounding breaths. Her mind wandered to him, and to her choices: she could stay here, in Dole’s apartment forever. But, no. Someone who lived forever had to move often, and who knew how long it had been since Dole moved to Brigue? She wondered if she could run away forever, but if he found her in Michigan, he would find her again, and soon.
A final thought raced past her eyes so quickly that she almost forgot it, and a second, lesser thought—Is Adathis still trying to hide something from me?—crept by for a moment. Quickly enough, she gathered the first thought into the forefront of her brain. What if she could kill him?
There were plenty of logistical issues with this plan, the least of them being how she would do it. Ada also worried that she wouldn’t, emotionally, be able to finish the job, despite knowing that he took the souls of people from all over and trapped fragile witches in contracts that would be forever binding. After all, anyone willing to be surrounded by death in order to attain eternal life most certainly did not want to anger a creature that could rip the souls from people’s bodies.
Then there were the lives of the witches to consider: how many had contracts with him? Dole, sure, and Ada, but there had to be more. Would they die if he was destroyed? Would they begin to age like normal, and would they be angry? Ada couldn’t decide if it was worse to be pursued by one shadow creature or numerous witches.
There was something that bothered her about what Dole had said about living longer, too. Apparently, those who are already witches have a much better time of it. Dole wasn’t a witch before she made her deal. But, does that mean that Ada—
Maeve sat up with a start, and it made Ada’s heart jump.
“Oh, God,” Maeve said, holding her chest. The slick fabric of her new coat—which she had fallen asleep in—made swish sounds when she moved. “I was so scared for a second. I don’t remember falling asleep.” Her purple hair stuck up in all directions, and Ada had to fight not to crack a smile. Priddy yawned on the floor and rolled onto her side. Her tail wagged gently as she looked at Maeve.
“You passed out on the couch,” Ada replied. “I’m sorry about all of that last night. It’s a complicated situation.” Ada continued to speak as Maeve sat up, shook out her hair, and folded her blanket onto the back of the couch. “I asked about the white blobs, but Dole didn’t know anything. I guess we’ll have to keep asking around.”
Maeve scoffed, but then she frowned in a thin line. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but who are we going to ask, exactly?”
Ada didn’t respond. Maeve groaned and put her head in her hands. The guilt of something strangled Ada’s ribcage, but she wasn’t sure what. Still, it lingered like the sting of a deep papercut.
“Good morning, friends.” Dole peeked her head around the corner. She emerged from the hallway wearing a long black cardigan over a bright red dress that fell to the middle of her orange tights. Ada noticed that she wore pale blue slippers around the apartment, and an image of a young, black-haired woman in slippers flitting around a small, dark, wallpapered kitchen burrowed into her mind for a split second before disappearing.
Both women muttered a good morning in varying tones, and Dole commented on how early they had woken up.
“I never sleep well in a new place,” Maeve admitted. A yawn punctuated her statement.
Dole smiled behind her glasses and nodded toward the kitchen. “Ada, could you help me with breakfast? Maeve, feel free to help yourself to any books you find lying around.”
Ada followed the witch into her bright yellow kitchen, and Dole quickly leaned in to whisper. “I assume you’ll want to be leaving once you form a plan of action. I won’t suggest anything, but I would like to know what you decide to do. I could be affected, after all.” Ada nodded as Dole opened a new looking stainless-steel fridge and filled a bowl with eggs. “I have a small spell to help you cover your tracks. You have to cleanse your shadows—otherwise, he can track you.” She sits the bowl of eggs on the counter and turns up the heat on the stove top before reaching under the counter for a small Mason jar or a dusty, brownish-white material.
“This,” Dole said, shaking the jar and handing it to Ada, “is birch dust. Every few days, start a small fire. A fireplace works as well, if you aren’t outdoors. Sprinkle the dust into the fire, and spin slowly in a circle. The light will cleanse your shadow and confuse his search for you.”
Ada held the jar of powdered birch and wondered how Dole got the wood to be such a fine dust. She thanked her, and they made breakfast together. Something about it all felt good, but tense. Despite the daylight slowly growing brighter outside, he loomed in their minds.