Time flows in unfathomable ways at summer’s end.
Thea had felt the high sun on the back of her neck, sweat at her temple, the daylight breeze across her flushed cheeks, and then she had turned away, to drift, to dream, to become a lost princess at the side of a stream, and in the moments while her attention was elsewhere the sun danced, dipped, and disappeared. Another rich September sunset. The most beautiful warning there is to mark the passing of time.
She startles at the rich gold on the horizon, her foot sliding down a slick stone and landing in the cold water of the stream. She swears—quietly, as though Mama is waiting in the bushes to catch her out, employing a favorite curse of Papa’s that he often mutters under his breath whenever it rains, or it snows, or his swinging axe is not strong enough to break the Black Forest wood.
There’s no time to shake out her wet boot, to let her stocking dry in the last stretches of light, or to bid a final farewell to the kingdom she had created at the side of the stream. There is only encroaching darkness and the nightmare of Mama, a mountain in the kitchen doorway, wooden spoon held tightly in a fist, face pinched like a crow’s beak. It always begins with, Where have you been, Dorothea? Then, Did you pick the juniper berries like I asked? Then, You see, Josef? You see what happens when you let this child roam free?
And Papa always says, Marta… pleadingly, consolingly, while Thea watches shadows pass over her feet.
There’s no helping it. Thea cannot pass a stream without planting stories at its edges, cannot walk past a great pine without perking an ear for faeries, cannot crawl under juniper branches without glancing over her shoulder for gnomes. Papa says it’s because the Waldmeister spirit lives in her, just as it lives in him.
Thea loses no momentum at the hill, the final crest before she reaches the valley the farmhouse sits neatly within. She pushes up, and onward, digging her heels into soft grass and keeping her eyes fixed on the peak of the hill. As long as Thea has been alive, she has always seen the hill as the border between the forest and the world outside of it. The dream and the waking from it. Thea usually dreads it, the return to the house and to her chores, but now, with the fingers of night curling over her shoulders, she lets out a sigh of relief.
Thea is watching the approach of that peak so carefully, so determinedly, that she does not watch the ground under her feet.
Anyone who walks the woods will tell you this is a mistake. Some think the secrets of the forest play out in the swaying of branches against the sky, and some think they can be found in the call of one bird to another, but the truth of it is, a forest holds all of its stories in the ground: in the scuttle of a beetle across a leaf, in the scent of moss on a log, in the roots that burrow deep beneath the surface.
Thea does not yet know of this world underfoot. She does not watch, and so, she does not see where deep green grass has given way to dark mud, a gift from the last rainstorm that roared down from the mountains.
Her heel lands, strong and sure, and then slides, and her heart sinks low —rolls into the bottom of her stomach when her leg gives way, followed by her torso, her head, and finally her flailing arms.
She shrieks, a cry that echoes into the valley as she falls, hands clutching desperately at the air. But there is nothing she can hold, nothing that can stop the momentum that now drags her down, heels over hands over head, nothing that waits for her at the base of the hill aside from a heavy landing and the ever-watchful pines.
She wakes with a pounding head and groaning ribs. Slowly and carefully, she sits up, one hand pressed to the earth, the other holding her aching side.
Around her, the night hisses.
The sun has gone, and instead there is the pale light of a full, round moon filtering through the thin branches of the trees. It sits high, that moon. Too high for it to be early in the night. The air, which had still held the gentle warmth of summer’s end at sunset, is now frosty and sharp. Panic churns in Thea’s heart.
“How long?” she whispers to herself. Her throbbing head drops into her hands, her knees fold up to her elbows. She makes a toadstool of distress and nauseating fear. How long?
She thinks of Mama, pacing by the kitchen door, furious and worried. She thinks of Papa, lacing his boots and reassuring Mama that he is going to find her.
Because surely they must be looking for her now. Surely they must have known where she went. Surely they must be close now, because Thea was at the edge of the valley, the last of the forest at her heels, she was right there—
Her breath catches in her throat.
She had turned in the midst of her thoughts, seeking the place from which she fell, but where she had expected to see the smooth curve of the hill, there is only pine.
“What—” she whispers, rising to shaking legs. She closes her eyes and counts to ten, thinking that it is just the darkness tricking her mind, and that when she opens them, she will see the gap in the trees. She will see the way home.
Yet when she opens them, there is just the same flat darkness of the forest.
I am lost, she thinks, a truth both terrifying and exhilarating. She almost laughs.
There is little that children like her are more warned against than wandering into the woods at night and losing their way. Thea knows the tale of the brother and sister with their bread crumbs, knows of a witch in a house of sweets, and a wolf that pretends not to be a wolf. There are other stories, too, of children being led into the deepest parts of the forest by a kind woman with a sweet voice, of fairies that play tricks, turning day into night and north into south.
Thea knows these stories as well as she knows Papa’s smile and the taste of Mama’s bread. But she also knows that if she were one of these stories, or if she were the child listening intently with the covers pulled to their chin, she would want to see herself find her own way home. She would want her to be the hero. The hunter.
“You are not a coward, Dorothea,” she tells herself grandly. She brushes the dirt away from her dress; stands as tall as she possibly can. “You are the Waldmeister.”
She squints up at the moon and stars and tries to remember every lesson Papa ever taught her about navigation, but she lowers her gaze back down with nothing gleaned. There’s no new guiding sign revealed to her, no direction the moonlight can point her towards, no parting of the trees to reveal a well-worn path.
“Right,” Thea whispers, staring down the night that breathes before her. She gathers her skirts into fists and tilts her chin up. “This way,” she says, hoping that she sounds more confident to the forest than she feels. “I am going this way,” she repeats, a declaration to her surroundings as much as it is to her own feet, which finally pick up, carrying her forward into the trees and the dark.
Her confidence falters as she walks.
The reach of the trees is far, and shadows bend and tumble before her like ghosts. Every rustle in the branches makes her consider turning back to where she had woken from her fall. Except now, she’s not even sure if she could return there. If she were to turn around, would she be able to find it again? Would she know when to stop walking?
She had given up counting her steps after she reached forty-two. She doesn’t know how much time has passed since then. Whenever she glances upwards, she can glimpse the moon, still fixed high above her. Neither falling nor rising.
Doubt is often a familiar gateway to fear, but not for Thea, who was raised in the forest. Thea, who forages and tracks and seeks adventure in the wild. Fear is new to her, and she feels it like stones in her shoes. Over and over again, she whispers to herself, I am going this way. I am finding my way home. I am the Waldmeister.
And when even those murmurs of comfort are lost to her, spilled out of her cold hands somewhere over a quiet stream, she finds something else to hold onto: one truth, and one lie.
“I am Dorothea,” she says aloud, just bolder than a whisper, “and I am not afraid.”
The hope is the lie will become true if she says it enough.
She’s opening her mouth to say it again, clenching her fists at her sides for strength, when she notices something in the corner of her eye, the shadows shifting around a small shape. Her voice comes out in a strangled cry, her hands flying up to defend herself from what she does not know—perhaps it’s a scavenging animal, or perhaps it’s a faerie that’s been following Thea this entire time, altering her path and blurring the lines of the trees to keep her lost.
This is it, Thea thinks, resignation heavy in her bones, I am about to become a story.
She watches, rooted to the ground, as the shape moves swiftly and silently across the forest floor. She has to squint to keep it in her line of sight, eyes straining against the black, until it turns abruptly, emerging from the opaque darkness into a sliver of moonlight cresting over a fallen tree.
Pointed ears and a tail like a brush. A coat that’s been washed pale in the dim, but would be a vivid, burnt orange in the daylight.
“Oh,” Thea says, and she lets out a short laugh. Then her breath leaves her in one long, relieved exhale. “Hello there.”
The red fox pauses on the fallen tree, seating itself at the base where thick roots were ripped from the ground, splaying out like hundreds of tiny fingers reaching back for their home. The fox’s tail brushes over the tree’s bark. It stares at Thea with blank consideration.
She grins. “I don’t suppose you could show me how to get back to the valley, could you?”
The fox cocks its head at her.
“No?” Thea plants her hands on her hips and widens her stance, something she’s seen Papa do countless times when describing how he faced down an elk, or a badger, and Mama do countless times when facing down other villagers at the market.
The fox just continues to stare at her.
Thea sighs. “Fine.” There was a part of her, small and childish still, half-expecting that the fox would begin to talk, just like in a fairy tale. “If you can’t help me, then I’ll be going,” she says, but when she takes one step forward, the fox suddenly moves, leaping down from the fallen tree and padding away, its body slipping between a thin gap in the pines.
Thea doesn’t hesitate before following it.
“Are you leading me home?” she whispers, pushing a branch away from her face. She can just see the fox’s tail bobbing in front of her. “Or are you leading me further away?”
The fox glances back at her, as though to make sure she’s still following before it continues on, leading Thea out of the trees and into a clearing where moonlight pours down in bucketfuls. It softens the world to a dream. Thea gasps at the sight of it.
The fox sits beside her, folding its tail over its paws once again. It meets Thea’s gaze when she glances down.
“Is this your home?” she asks, gesturing towards the clearing. A giggle bubbles out of her—born from her own silliness, at the strangeness of this night and encounter, at the odd wonder of it all. “Do you live here with the fairies?”
If the fox was going to reply to her, it doesn’t get the chance to, because just as she poses the question, Thea hears something. She strains her ear towards it, frowning. At first, it’s too much of a contrast for her to focus on, the sudden presence of noise so startling when compared to the murmurings of a nighttime forest. But as it grows closer, she finds the name for it.
There’s a fiddle and an accordion, playing a tune that would be welcome in a country dance, usually accompanied by stomping feet and swirling skirts. Music, of course, means other people. Other people mean that Thea may have stumbled across rescuers who can guide her home.
She looks down, triumphant, to the fox, but is met with smooth, untrodden grass. She hadn’t even noticed that it left her.
The relief that Thea felt at the realization that there are nighttime travelers in this forest is soured at a sliver of doubt that prods at her, warnings from Papa and Mama echoing in her ears: that the forest sees so many people travel through it, and some of those people, particularly those who move under the cloak of night, can be dangerous.
Thea gulps. What if she doesn’t encounter gnomes or fairies, but criminals? Thieves? Vagabonds?
She drops behind a nightshade shrub, rising up onto her knees so she can peer through a gap in the branches. You will wait, she tells herself, willing her racing heart to slow, lest every creature in the clearing hear the way it thuds and thumps. If they seem…trustworthy, respectable, you will ask them to help you get home. She nods to herself, like this is the most logical course of action she could possibly take, like this is what the hero of the story would do, and she sets in to wait.
Only a handful of seconds fall around her before she sees it: a wild boar, impossibly huge and imposing, parting the thick grass with its hooves like water. Thea recoils, her eyes wide as they take in its gleaming tusks. On the boar’s back sits a woman, wrapped in a golden cloak and with long, dark hair falling down her back like a rippling stream. Her left hand holds a staff, the wood dark and intricately carved, and what Thea thinks might be a sun sitting at the top of it. The woman is beautiful, the very image of a queen, but Thea’s eyes do not stay trained on her for long, for just behind her is a procession of travelers, and each of them is just as strange, striking, and fantastical.
There is a man walking behind the woman on the boar, wearing furs and holding another wooden staff. His hair and beard are long, both tied into thick braids. An owl sits on his shoulder, entirely still except for yellow eyes that flit across the clearing. Thea thinks she sees them pause on her shrub for a moment, and she curls down over her legs, closing her eyes tightly and holding her breath. She waits one second, then another, but already is desperate to look again and see what else is coming, to see what else travels through the forest at night.
She exhales slowly and raises her head.
Behind the man with the owl, there is another woman, sitting atop a horse without a saddle or reins. Thea recognizes the horse’s color, its short neck and broad hooves—a Schwarzwälder Kaltblut. When Thea was very young, she saw one hauling harvested crops from the fields to the village.
The horse and the woman share the same flaxen hair, the woman’s tied into two braids that reach past her feet. Her dress is strange, made of layers of pale woven fabric that almost resemble wheat, but move and fold with her like cotton. She holds no staff, but has a leather bag tied at her hip.
Merchants? Thea wonders, but she dismisses the thought as soon as it comes. The designation doesn’t fit the grand, elegant woman at the front of the party, nor does it fit the young men (or rather, Thea thinks at first they are men, but the longer she looks at them the more unsure she grows) who are now entering the clearing. They spin in circles and leap into the air like birds, their arms stretched out, their deep purple cloaks fanning out behind them. They move at an exhausting pace, but they don’t seem to tire, continuously smiling at one another, and cheering when a different song begins before the last one has even finished.
The source of the music is just behind them: two young women playing instruments on a horse-drawn cart, both of them laughing and nodding at an older woman seated next to them, who claps in time to their song. The cart is piled high with trunks on their other side, well-made in beautiful colors, but also well-worn, as though they’ve been opened and closed so many times their locks are more of a suggestion than a practicality.
It’s these trunks—alongside the sight of at least a dozen more dancers (some appearing to be even younger than Thea), a short-haired woman wearing riding clothes with a falcon resting on her arm, and an unnervingly tall man in a wide-brimmed hat leading one of the largest horses she’s ever seen—that first draw the word out of her head. Zirkus.
It was Sofia Meyer from the village who first told Thea about it, after she travelled to Frankfurt to visit her distant family.
There’s a tent, she had said, while her rapt audience, Thea included, listened. And inside the tent, there are horses dressed more finely than anyone in this village. There are men and women who can fly through the air. There are women who tell the future. There is more than any of you can imagine.
The description had seized Thea with a rush of wonder, and since that moment, she had wanted nothing more than to be able to venture into one of those tents herself, and to see impossible things.
It fits this procession before her perfectly. Thea cannot imagine what other reason there could be for such a group of people to be together, passing through the woods at night. A performing troupe, she thinks with a thrill, a Zirkus that has come to the Black Forest.
She nearly laughs when she imagines how envious Sofia Meyer will be when Thea tells her that she got to see the performers before anyone else. She eyes one of the larger trunks on the cart, wondering if one of them is stuffed full of canvas. She wonders where this troupe will finally end their journey; when they will decide to set up their tent and invite people in.
“Hello there,” a soft voice says, and Thea lets out a sharp gasp, falling onto her back from her crouched position. Her head snaps up, and there, sitting between her feet, is the red fox. Just behind the fox is a young woman wearing a cloak colored a green so deep it’s nearly black.
“You,” Thea hisses at the fox, her cheeks flushing with the shame of being caught watching.
The fox cocks its head. The woman raises an eyebrow.
“So you do know each other.”
Thea stares up at the woman. She is startlingly beautiful, just like the woman on the boar, but also entirely different from her. She smiles, quick and teasing, and for a moment, under the sheen of the moonlight, she looks just like the fox: the same bright orange color in her hair, the same deep amber eyes.
“He told me,” the woman says conversationally, “that he found a stray in the woods. A lost lamb.” Her voice is so soft and low that Thea can barely hear it over the music.
“You speak to it?” Thea asks, unsure of what else to say.
The woman reaches down, scratching the fox on its head. “Oh, yes. August and I tell each other everything.” She glances back up at Thea, and she winks. “He says you have a curious heart. He likes that about people.”
Thea wants to believe this woman with the desperation of the dreamer—that she can understand what a fox wishes to say and speak to it in turn, but there’s something in the woman’s expression, in her teasing smile, that convinces Thea she’s making fun of her.
She pushes herself up from the ground, brushing leaves and dirt away from her dress. The woman is taller than Thea thought she was, taller even than Papa. “I’m not a child,” she mutters, focusing on picking at a spot of mud on her sleeve. “I know that animals can’t talk.”
“Hm. But you are,” the woman says. She crouches down so she can meet Thea’s eyes. “It’s a wonderful thing to be.” She plucks a berry from the nightshade shrub and rolls it between two fingers. “There is such adventure in every moment. Each day is a new story. Each turn you take on a walk could bring you to another world.” She pops the berry into her mouth. “Or to the faeries.”
“Are you trying to convince me that you’re fairies?” Thea frowns, glancing past the woman’s shoulder to the rest of the troupe. They haven’t paid them any mind. Either they haven’t noticed this woman stopping to speak to Thea, or they’re ignoring it. “It won’t work. I know what you are.”
The woman raises one pale eyebrow. “Really?”
“You’re part of a Zirkus.” Thea leans forward. “And you’re on your way to set up your tent somewhere for a performance. I’ve heard all about people like you.”
The woman’s right hand scratches at the fox’s ears absently. She mouths the word to herself, Zirkus, and also glances over to the procession, watching them for a moment. When she looks back at Thea, her eyes are bright.
“A performance,” she says at length. She rests her elbow on her bent knee, propping her chin up on her palm. “There is one already happening, dear.”
Thea squints at her. “Where?”
“All around you.” The woman’s eyes drift over to the trees, up to the sky, and slowly come down again. “You feel it, when it all begins to change, don’t you?” She lifts her right hand from the fox’s ears, holding her open palm up. “Summer wanes. The sun tires and the nights grow longer.” The hand folds down, then turns over, and opens back up so her palm faces the sky. “The Earth sprouts its wares for harvest. The leaves burst into color before they wither. Everything changes, you see? It’s a dance all around you, no, a Zirkus as you say, every act being performed to perfection.”
“I don’t understand,” Thea says. The woman’s words are soft and lulling. They roll over her like a bedtime story, as simultaneously comforting and disquieting as every fairytale she knows.
The woman’s smile is patient; indulgent. “When you see these things, these miracles that mark time, it is because of us.”
Thea’s gaze returns to the troupe. She can only see the woman’s back now, the one who sits atop the boar, but if she looks at her out of the corner of her eye, it looks like there are stars in her hair.
“We change the season when we are called to do so,” the woman continues. “Take time and turn it over. Make it anew.”
One of the dancers passes by an old, knotted beech, a memory from another face of the forest. Thea watches as the dancer brushes a hand over it; presses a kiss to the tree’s bark. When the dancer parts from it, a wind blows by them that makes the tree bow and bend, and when it rights itself again, some of its leaves have begun to turn red.
“It is thankless, sometimes.” The woman sighs. “There are no great songs of us, or curious tales. But we know how to make our own fun.” She laughs, and it sounds like rustling leaves.
It’s impossible, what Thea is seeing. Beyond a canvas tent, beyond a story. It’s magic.
“How?” she asks, voice faint with disbelief. She turns back to the woman, and she cries out sharply at what she sees, stumbling back on her heels.
The sleeves of the woman’s robe have fallen down to her elbows, and there, on her forearms, there are flowers blooming from the skin. Deep red and violet asters, unfurling towards the night sky, then curling back up, withering in seconds only to be born again. It’s horrifying and beautiful to watch.
“What are you?” Thea whispers. Hot tears form at the corners of her eyes, fear and confusion melting together like one pool of burning wax.
“Performers,” the woman says softly. Her forehead creases in delicate concern, as though she can’t understand why Thea is upset. “Just like you said.”
“I don’t—” Thea shakes her head. “I don’t understand.” Is this woman a fairy? A ghost? A forest-dwelling spirit? Is she real? Is she a figment from a dream?
“We can show you,” the woman tells her gently. She sounds so much like Mama, coaxing Thea to come back inside when she has been out for too long, and at once, all Thea wants is to see her, to have her come up behind this terrifying, wondrous woman, wielding her wooden spoon with a scowl. “Come, Dorothea,” the woman says. She slowly reaches one hand out, an aster blooming from her wrist and curling into her palm. “Come, and you’ll see. There are wonders all around you that you cannot begin to imagine.” Her hand halts between them, waiting. “Would you like to see the world, Dorothea? As it really is?”
The thought, How does she know my name? is so fleeting in Thea’s mind that she barely even registers it, too overwhelmed with her churning feelings of fear, confusion, and —most alarmingly —excitement.
Despite every lesson every story tries to tell, despite every warning from Mama and Papa, she thinks about taking the woman’s hand. She thinks about being welcomed into the fold of the troupe. Would she sit on the cart, with the musicians? Would she spin with the dancers? Would she ride on a wild boar? Would she walk alongside a fox? A badger? A deer? Would she be able to touch a tree and turn it to autumn gold?
Magic, the very idea of it, is almost too intoxicating to refuse.
“No,” Thea says quietly, picturing Mama and Papa, their farmhouse, their animals, her room, her small collection of books, a pot of fresh stew on the table. “No,” she repeats, more firmly. “I don’t want that.”
The woman’s face falls, just for a moment, and she returns to her full height, letting out a low sigh.
“If you’re certain.” She says it like a warning, as though Thea will be disappointed when she realizes what she has done.
“I am.” Thea’s voice cracks on the second word.
The woman lifts one shoulder. “Then you better get going, Dorothea.” Her eyes flick to the front of the procession. “Before they notice.”
Thea takes one step back, then another.
“Take care, dear.” The woman waves a hand at her, a small violet aster curling around her thumb, before she turns away, pulling the hood of her cloak up. The fox glances back at Thea, revealing nothing in its sharp gaze, and then it follows the woman, weaving between the gaps in her steps.
Thea spares one more moment, just one more, where she watches the dance and absorbs the song of the troupe, and she pictures herself amongst them, just once more, before she turns on her heels and flees into the trees.
She runs without thought of direction, pushing aside twigs and branches and leaping over stray roots and pools of mud. It’s as though the forest is working with her now, urging her onwards in the way the wind pushes at her back, in how the moonlight seems to be lighting every place she’s about to step.
She runs until her chest is burning, until she isn’t sure that she can run anymore, and that’s the moment she bursts from the line of trees and finds herself at the base of the hill that leads to the valley.
This time she takes it at a walk, carefully watching her steps. When she reaches the top, the familiar sight of the farmhouse is enough to bring tears to her eyes again. She sniffs, rubbing at her nose with her mud-caked hand.
She tears down the hill at a run, letting out a small cry as her momentum carries her all the way to the front door.
She’s expecting Mama to be furious and relieved when she enters the house, to run to her and hug her, to tell her that Papa has been looking for her all night because they were so worried. But when she closes the door behind her, it’s to see Mama in the kitchen, placing a pot on the table.
“There you are,” she huffs when she sees Thea, wiping her hands on her apron. “How many times have we told you to come home at sundown, Dorothea, not after it?”
Thea’s brows furrow together. “I—” she starts, not even sure what she’s going to say, but Mama holds up a hand to stop her.
“I don’t want it to happen again.” At Thea’s dubious nod, she waves her off. “Alright, then. Dinner is ready and your father will be home soon, so go clean up. You’re covered in mud.”
Thea walks to the back of the house numbly, as though she’s passing through a dream. How long? she wonders. How long was I gone?
It’s the cuckoo clock in the main room, a beautifully carved wood piece that mama had to trade a great deal of wool for, that tells her. The smaller needle points to the inscription for seven, the larger hand pointing to the six.
Thea was sure she had been in the woods for hours, possibly even all night. But this…it’s as though she had fallen down the hill, then immediately rose and made her way back home.
It’s as though it never happened.
“Dorothea! Bring that here!”
Thea grunts as she lifts the basket of potatoes out of the cart, swaying with its weight as she carries it over to Mama and the market stall they’ve taken for the day.
“We’re already late,” Mama sighs, gripping onto the lip of the basket and dragging it towards her. “If your father hadn’t—” She ends the thought before she can finish it, rolling her eyes to the gray sky. “Gather the rest of it, quickly. I want to get something sold before the rain comes.”
Thea leaves without a word, returning to the cart for the next basket of potatoes.
Since Papa was injured in a hunting accident in the spring, she and Mama have been frequenting the market more than usual, peddling produce and wool, trading and selling until the sun goes down. All summer it has been this, Thea hauling baskets—from the farmhouse, to the cart, to the table, back to the cart—and giving half-smiles while Mama chats with the other villagers, a never-ending line of gossip and bargaining. Thea will daydream of the bubbling stream at the edge of the forest while Mama laughs at a snide comment from Frau Krüger, will long for the books in her room while Mama subtly nudges her in the ribs and raises her eyebrows at Henrik Schneider, who, in the last few years, has grown like a tree and widened like a bear.
A summer of this, lacking naps in the sun and adventures in the forest and everything Thea has long associated with the warm months at the farmhouse. Now, the light narrows and the nights grow cold, but the neighboring wheat and corn fields are bursting, and Mama sends Thea to help them for payment. A summer of this—departing early for the fields in Papa’s coat and falling asleep at dusk still wearing her boots. Her hands are raw and her eyes are hollow, but if she ever complains to Mama, she receives the same response:
You are no longer a child, Thea. You know what our situation is. You know that your father can no longer work the forest like he used to. We must all do our part. If you wish to stop working, then marry the Schneider boy. Now that family —oh that family —could take care of us all.
Thea barely knows Henrik Schneider, has only ever spoken to him a few times, and whenever she does, she’s reminded all over again of why she tries to avoid him.
Her Bollenhut slips down her forehead, covering her eyes. She swears under her breath, nudging it back up with a closed fist. She hates that hat. She hates her long, exhausting days. She hates having to speak to Henrik Schneider. She hates that, ever since she turned nineteen, Mama talks about little else aside from the fact that Thea’s stubbornness towards marriage will make her a burden to her parents, and she will be forced to live out her final days old, alone, and poor.
But when Thea thinks of her life, lines up the coming years like rows of stalks, she can see nothing apart from this: her long, exhausting days and the constant reminder that the best thing a young woman in the village can be is married. She has considered cutting her hair, packing a bag for the hunter’s camps, and pretending that Papa had a son instead of a daughter. She has considered fleeing to Frankfurt, to Munich, and seeking any kind of employment there. Yet as little as Thea knows of the cities, of anything apart from the farmhouse and the forest, she knows that the world waits for young women like her. It waits for them to stumble, nervous and eager, into its depths, and it waits for them to make a mistake. Then it swallows them whole.
So, no. Thea does not do any of these things, because she is afraid. Afraid to run, afraid to stay, left with one foot in dreams and one in resignation.
She shifts the basket into her arms and a potato rolls out, bouncing down the cart and onto the ground, rolling into the bustle of villagers dancing from stall to stall.
Thea swears again, not bothering to lower her voice and not caring when it causes an older man at a carpentry stall to frown deeply at her. She follows the potato’s trail, weaving around the bodies she passes, and she marvels at the fact that it’s still rolling, despite how even the ground is here. It’s as though it has somewhere to be. It’s as though it is leading her somewhere.
The thought is embarrassingly whimsical and childish, and Thea admonishes herself for it. You haven’t thought that way since—
This is the moment she notices the fox.
She stops mid-stride, her mouth dropping open in a silent gasp. Someone knocks into her from behind, grumbling about young women and their need to disrupt everything, and Thea steps aside to let them pass. Her heart is pounding, her eyes searching out another glimpse of that bright orange tail in the blur of black, brown, and green. She catches it ducking behind a barrel and she surges forward, gathering her skirts up in her hands. She knows she must look mad, chasing an animal through a market, but she cares little for what anyone else will think. She knows that fox. She is certain.
It’s the one from her dream.
That is what she has told herself it was for the last ten years: a dream, brought on by the injury to her head from her fall. For so long, it has been the only possible explanation.
Yet now, Thea is chasing down that dream while she’s wide awake, in the middle of a bustling crowd, and she’s sure that it is him. August. That’s what she said his name was. August.
She skids to a halt next to the barrel, panting, and her heart falls when she doesn’t find the fox there. She turns, her heart in her throat, desperate to find something that will tell her the very thing she’s wanted to believe all these years: that it wasn’t a dream. That that night in the forest, Thea saw something—something too impossible to imagine.
She lowers her eyes, seeking out small paws amongst human feet, but what they discover is the edge of a dress brushing against the ground, a dress colored in a green so deep it is almost black. Thea’s eyes travel up the back of the dress to the place where it’s met by a long braid of red hair. Fox red.
Thea can’t breathe. There’s wind in her veins. There’s a fiddle playing in her chest.
The sleeves of the woman’s dress are long, and when she moves, Thea can see that she’s wearing gloves.
Thea has no name to call, nothing but the dream of a girl singing under her skin, but it’s as though she can hear her anyway, for her head turns, amber eyes drifting over the crowd before they stop, resting on Thea.
And she smiles.