Neave woke in bed in the spare room of the cottage. Mud and anxiety washed away, she had surrendered to a motionless sleep lulled away by the low kept voices of Ambrose and Sierra and the still lingering scent of the opiate candle. The morning was a different shade but Neave was still clutched in the remembrance of yesterday.
She rolled on her side, fingers woved into the blanket, pulling hard to simulate possession. She curled her body into a fetal position escaping for new seconds into darkness behind closed eyes. Beneath the cover she felt naked, exposed, only a skin thin shroud of a memory covering her, the house, Enok, the blurred faces she called family. And nothing more of her present self, of who she was. All memories were fragments from the past, just nostalgia in heaps, nothing useful, only bittersweet. A fickle horror swirled like smoke from a burning cigarette but she blew on it disconnecting its chances of encompassing her to suffocate in its blue haze.
Despite it all her memory loss had boundaries now, a beginning to be placed with precision and an intermission- now, to be played out in order to restore the middle and provide the ending. Her want to go home was still present, but returning would also mean living with the missing and Neave couldn’t bear to be her own stranger. She opened weary eyes to the dull silhouettes in the room. The voices in the other room had escalated to fully developed sentences, rising in volume and urgency. Neave left the bed and received the cool morning air against her bare skin.
She found Ambrose and Sierra in the small kitchen. The devious grin that had played on his lips hours ago was replaced by a youthful smirk. There was a sudden gentleness lurking in his features and Neave found herself reaching for the coffee mug he offered, a symbol of an act of complete normality she welcomed.
“We know where to go,” he said pointing towards the backpacks on the sofa. Next to them rested against the leather seat was a hunting rifle.
“I don’t know why he needs this,” Sierra joined taking a long sip from her cup.
“In case. Just in case.”
“There is something wild to shoot? How about you leave the shooting to me?” Sierra waved an instant camera at him and slipped it in her backpack.
Neave left the coffee untouched. “I don’t understand. What do you mean you know where to go?”
“It was something you said that gave me an idea. Fair fact, it’s a long shot but I suspect a plausible one. On the way here you mentioned that story, “Inside the cave lived a Fox”. You said it was like local lore, so we did some digging and sure enough there is a similar folklore tale originating in Yarlford, one of the villages up in Mt. Wrell. We figured it would be best to start there.”
Neave folded her arms searching through her brain for the village, a place she had known, had visited. Yarlford, hundreds of years old withstanding the wheels of time, the changing currents. It surfaced with semi-vivid imagery, echoes more than voices, passing weak odors instead of pungent smells. It hovered ghostlike but the more she focused on it, the more the link strengthened returning her to a world less distorted and more memory like. It settled right there in her childhood, a pieced of her mind untouched by her amnesia. Neave could feel Ambrose watching her closely, leaning into the same want to construct a world that was not tainted, that could be reached and anchored.
“I remember spending my summer vacations there but…. Could I have gone there?” And was I alone if I did, Neave wondered.
Sierra took Neave by her hand and pulled her towards the door. Her lips hovered close to Neave’s ear, the breath ticklish on her skin when she whispered. “I think it’s worth the try. Are you ready, Neave? You will rediscover yourself today.”
* * *
Yarlford was far. Neave remembered trekking up to it from the train station in Tallbridge. It would take half the hours of daylight to cross the invasive river, hoping from boulder to boulder, to climb over fallen trees shattered by lightning and find the right herd path beside game trails leading into deep woods. A bullet had whistled above her head once, the hunter hiding in silence behind his scope. She had to crisscross over hills and valleys overgrown with grass, remaining at all times above a quaint quiet world populated by distant yowls of cattle. By the time she would reach the house the sky would be turning indigo.
Ambrose took the wheel leading them out of the dirt road and on to a new one miles away that climbed them in her periphery of civilization’s reach to a domain where the wind rustled through the tall grass. Sierra rolled down the backseat window. Her hair scattered, toyed with by the currents.
“It really is a moaning mountain,” she noted. They crawled, tires fighting against the still wet unevenness of the red dirt road threatening to become a landslide and throw them in a ditch of splintered trees soaking in mire ponds filled with rocks. Sierra took photos and wrote down with a blue marker on the white space of the Polaroid her thoughts.
Neave could see she was enthralled by the endless valleys and jutting peaks colored in pale blues.
A map was spread on the dashboard but Neave’s uneducated eyes couldn’t see where they were or would go. Ambrose tapped a finger at a junction. “That would be somewhere at the foot of the village. We’ll leave the car there and continue on foot.”
Outside of the car the steep trail that opened on the side of the road snaked its way past the first houses, caved in under time and nature’s pressure. Neave knew them to be sanctuaries of snakes, tongue-splitting venomous reptiles hiding inside their man-made shrines.
“These were abandoned a long time ago,” Ambrose spoke squinting to look inside an empty window.
“When I was a child people would still search for buried gold coins in them. One man was bitten twice by snakes.”
“Did he die?” Sierra snapped her photo pausing only to scribble, the marker leaving a squeaky noise.
“I think so.”
“But did he find gold coins? A pot of gold coins perhaps?” Ambrose caught up with her lighting a cigar. The smoke he blew caught her in a sweetened haze.
Neave pictured two gold coins dug from underneath dusty floorboards crawling with the slimy bodies of smooth green and yellow snakes, placed over her eyes, a cold payment for greed, mistrust and cruelty.
“I don’t think there were ever any.”
Coming up the uneven trail outside the density of trees and nodding houses, Neave’s heart skipped and she rushed ahead. She slipped over exposed rocks white as bone to climb the path to open ground. The sight of a crownless oak spreading dried branches like a scarecrow to touch no sky, made her smile.
“I remember this tree. Lightning struck it and it never grew afterwards.” The snap of the camera behind her sealed the moment. Ambrose gave her his leading stride offering open palmed the discovery.
“We’re here,” Neave told them.