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Photo by Johannes Plenio

The grassy path was long and winding and seemingly never-ending — exactly how he remembered it from his childhood. Abu walked briskly, hoping to be completely through the forest and back on the open road to Jinoda before night set in; dreams of the large, soft bed that awaited him in the Goldbear Inn helped him keep a fast pace despite his fatigue.

It’d been nearly fifty years since he’d last set foot in this forest, but every corner felt ripped straight from his memories; every tree seemed exactly as it was, every turn layered a new feeling of deja vu, every stone and pebble on the ground seemed like they hadn’t been overturned in centuries. Even the thick roots growing over grave-like mounds of protruding earth seemed like they should have overtaken the forest floor years ago — yet they also crawled in the exact same shapes, mass, and patterns that had been etched perfectly into the recurring nightmares of his childhood.

Of course, Abu had heard the local stories and myths around Persistence, the Forest That Never Changed. Everything was as it was and always would be, the poems and stories always ended. It had a nice ring to it, but rhythmic prose was never quite enough to convince him the stories were real. And, honestly, the stories were never really that good.

The most commonly-told fable of Persistence was the tale of the shadowy Forest Guardian, always just out of sight of adventurers passing through. His form and role varied widely dependent on the story, but stretched from being the source of magic that kept the forest from changing year after year, to protecting the forest from bandits and nefarious adventurers, to merely caring for the plants and animals in the woodland. His intentions were unclear, but all stories generally seemed to agree that the guardian of the forest was virtuous and good — and as long as you stepped foot within the forest with an honest mind and innocent heart, you had nothing to fear.

Of course, the stance of officials in the area was that the forest guardian didn’t exist, the forest’s idiosyncrasy was unexplainable, and that the single pass through known as the Shortcut should be used as sparingly as possible, and adventurers choosing to use it at their own risk should never stray from the path, lest they were prepared for trouble. While kids in the area dared each other to enter abandoned homes, caves, and tunnels, Persistence loomed over them as the ultimate test of fear — one at the root of an unspoken rule that even the most daring and foolhardy of children knew not to cross.

When he was younger, Abu’s parents used the Shortcut on a regular basis to peddle wares between Hunder and Jinoda. Abu and Beau (his pet fox) had to stay in the back of the covered wagon for the entirely of the Shortcut, but he always pulled the fabric back slightly so they could gaze wondrously at the forest and her complexities. Every time he and his parents passed through, he felt more and more comfortable with the familiar forest; it felt more real, less scary, less unknown.

It offered a sense of comfort and reliability between Jinoda and Hunder, where his parents invariably scrambled to make whatever sales they could to any strangers that happened to pass by; and, in the same breath, acquire as much as they could from the locals to resell again — often without their knowledge.

The two cities sat atop opposite plateaus, each acting as a hub of commerce for the smaller towns and settlements (often full of fishing and farm towns) nearby. They bustled loudly with oceans of heads bobbing in the crowded streets, vendors and consumers each calling out loudly over each other and those in the vicinity. The cacophony of voices blended together just like the motley of smells from adventurers representing all walks of life emulsified into a singular presence. In some sense, the towns could be described as living things — moreso even than a static forest that refused to entertain even the slightest change day-to-day.

The sun was getting lower, and Abu glanced nervously at it through the thick, leafy ceiling.

“I don’t know if we’ll make it before nightfall,” he instinctively said to no one, kneeling down to pet the memory of a fox he had the last time he set foot in Persistence. A wave of confusion washed over his face when he realized what he was doing and he immediately straightened back up and noticed an eerily familiar sight: a horizon he remembered perfectly: the place where his childhood imprudence had died: the clearing he’d watched, helplessly, as Beau jumped from beside him in the wagon and ran off into the forest’s darkness.

It looked just like it had when it happened and Abu felt like a kid experiencing the loss of his best friend all over again.

Beau was a special fox his parents had picked up in Hunder one summer. His pelt was bright orange and white and he had two tails which he could seemingly control independently. When he was happiest, he’d twirl them in a circle, wrapping each tail around the other until they morphed into a single twist of hair; and then he’d unwrap them and keep spinning until they wrapped around again in the same way in the opposite direction.

Abu’s parents had intended to sell the unique fox in Jinoda, but had no luck.

“He’s a rare breed,” his father had said hundreds of times in the street, calling out to strangers with holes in their hearts. “Never seen an animal quite like this!”

But no one had taken the bait and Beau went unsold for several trips while Abu built a relationship with the fox in the back of the wagon each trek. When his father had seen how the boy connected with the fox, he decided they’d keep it. “Life on the road could be so lonely for a boy,” Abu had overheard him saying to his mother one evening. “The boy could use a friend.”

Abu was never sure what the fox must have seen on the horizon that got him so riled up, but he watched from the back of the wagon as the pup’s ears perked up suddenly and his eyes darted to the treeline. He let out a low growl and then, almost instantly, leapt out of the wagon and sprinted headlong into the darkening forest.

The boy jumped out after the fox but only got two steps in before his father grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him back to the wagon. Abu protested, but his parents just shook their heads sadly.

“We need to stay on the path,” his father had said repeatedly. “It’s not safe.”

And so began an almost morbid curiosity in Abu regarding the unseen parts of the forest which grew and grew with each subsequent trip through. That same curiosity — long since forgotten in the nearly fifty years since he’d last set foot in Persistence — suddenly welled up with a vengeance as he stared blankly at the exact trees that Beau had escaped through.

“I miss you, bud,” Abu whispered into the forest. He stared blankly, forgetting the time, and reminisced in melancholy memories that had been locked away for years behind early-onset dementia and long-term memory loss.

And as he did, he gasped.

Unsure of whether it was his mind playing tricks on him, just a luminary illusion, or the forest deceiving him, he took a few steps toward the treeline and squinted. The unmistakable silhouette of two tails trailed slowly over the bushline like two sharks swimming close in tandem among the Frozen Sea.

“Beau?” Abu whispered, then repeated louder, then louder, then as a yell. He found himself running toward the treeline with no father around to hold him back this time. The path disappeared behind him and he frantically searched high and low for the long-lost fox, calling his name repeatedly with exasperation.

“It has to be him,” he muttered madly to himself. “I’d recognize those tails anywhere.”

* * *

Hours passed, then days. The bed large, soft bed in the Goldbear Inn went unclaimed at first, and then found new patrons happy to enjoy its comfort. Abu continued searching the forest for his childhood friend, but the forest was entirely unfamiliar and isolating from vantage points away from the Shortcut and he eventually pivoted his impetus from the fox to retracing his steps back to the path, and eventually instead to foraging for food and finding shelter.

The memories that Persistence’s familiarity had unlocked had faded once again, and the old man Abu found himself unable to navigate through the forest. Occasionally something would look familiar once again, but he was unsure whether it was because he was walking in circles (which he often was) or if he was just remembering the sights of his childhood.

He’d lived a good life. He’d traveled, adventured, loved, and learned to survive. Although everything else in the forest hadn’t aged since the beginning of time, he had; he wasn’t the quiet boy in the back of the wagon anymore: he was a learned old man who knew how to survive when the going got tough.

However, Persistence still had many tricks up her sleeve.

The first few shelters Abu built for himself became undone the moment they were out of view. After building his first shelter (with a layer of leaves and mud stretched over long sticks lying over an overturned tree trunk), the man set out to find brush and suitable logs for a night’s fire. When he returned to the bare overturned trunk, he wasn’t sure whether he’d gotten lost and stumbled upon another fallen tree or if he just misremembered building the shelter altogether.

“Isolation isn’t good for the mind,” he could hear cellmates from his past whisper. “We need to know what’s real and what’s not.”

After rebuilding the shelter a second time, he picked up a sharp rock from the brush and used it to mark the trunks of trees he passed looking for more lumber (as he must have set the lumber down somewhere out of sight the first time when dealing with the confusion of getting lost). He marked large crosses facing the direction he came from so he could have constant guidance on the way back, pointing him back toward camp. However, when he marked the final tree and bent over to pick up from the pile of dry shrubs he’d found, he was surprised to see the mark he had just made had already disappeared — like every mark before it.

Abu ended up sleeping on the bare ground for many nights, curling up tight with his collar up high to keep as warm as he could. He decided just to light small fires with what brush was around, but was surprised again to find the lighter in his pocket had vanished at some point during his time in the forest. The smokes he’d kept with it were still there, begging him to find a light.

Days stretched into weeks before Abu started to get a feel for the forest again. He started to recognize landmarks like large boulders and overturned trees and small springs of fresh water; and from those landmarks he learned where he could invariably find food, water, and comfortable ground to sleep on.

After a month of surviving solely on the forest’s sustenance, Abu decided to search again for the Shortcut. He anchored himself to his newfound familiarities and systematically searched outward, alternating between adventuring into the unknown and returning to the known to recalibrate.

And, eventually, he found the Shortcut again.

It was the rolling sound of the wagon that led him to it, just like the wagons he rode in as a kid. The followed the sound through the forest and arrived in a clearing covered in thick roots from one side of the plains to the other. After carefully crawling over it all, he watched the tail end of the wagon roll off down the road.

“I made it,” he gasped, clearing the last of the roots. The old man hobbled quickly toward the Shortcut, ready for his forest adventure to be over.

However, the Shortcut never got any closer. He walked for what felt like miles before taking a breather and looking around, finding himself still on the edge of the root-laden clearing. He looked forlornly back at the road, exactly as far away as it had been when he first spotted it.

The next day, he tried again to reach the road. He circled around the clearing and strode toward it from multiple angles. He walked and he ran and he crawled, but he never got any closer. At one point of exasperation, he turned to look at the mass of roots and walked backwards toward the road, never taking his eyes off the clearing. The clearing fell from view and he kept walking for what seemed like an eternity, but more forest endlessly appeared beneath his feet where he expected the road to appear. Tired, he decided to quickly glance at where he was going to see how close he was, and was surprised to see the same familiar vantage point that he had from the edge of the clearing. When he turned back to keep walking backward, he was again surprised to see he was, in fact, back at the clearing.

And so, eventually, he gave up on trying to make it back to the Shortcut.

Abu learned the forest and her intricacies like the back of his hand and he began to truly appreciate the beauty of constancy. Persistence became like a parent to him, always there and ready to provide anything he needed. He depended on her for food and water, and she happily obliged.

After years of not only surviving, but making a life for himself within the forest, Abu returned to the clearing to watch the wagons pass by and reminisce about life before the forest. As one wagon was passing by, he saw the back flap peeled back just ever so slightly. In the darkness within, two glimmering globes peered back at him for a moment before a fox with two tails pounced out of the wagon and reunited with his old friend.

“Beau!” Abu shouted incredulously, watching the fox’s two tails bob up and down as he ran. “You’re back!”

The old man kneeled down at the edge of the rooty clearing and pet the most excited fox he’d seen in almost fifty years, who snuggled aggressively into his hands and yipped softly with admiration.

“I missed you, bud,” Abu soothed. “Where’ve you been? Who were you with?”

The two caught up and Abu led his new companion back to a spring of fresh water, where the fox lapped up a mouthful and then curled up for a nap next to Abu, who also curled up on the ground for his own nap.

In the morning, he awoke to find the fox gone. The man looked around and then waited for hours on a tree stump for Beau to return, but the pup never did. Thinking he might’ve returned to the Shortcut to return to his new owners, Abu made his way back to the rooty clearing and observed the road from afar, watching wagon after wagon pass with no sign of his furry little friend.

Eventually, a wagon passed with the back flap peeled back just ever so slightly, and Beau’s eyes stared back for a moment before he jumped out of the wagon and reunited with Abu once again, with just as much fervor and fondness as he had the day prior.

This time, the two went on a long walk through the forest and played games, darting in and out of the shrubs as Abu tossed branches and berries to his friend. That night, the two slept in a new clearing; and that next morning, the fox was gone again.

In the forest of Persistence, nothing ever changes. Abu continued his daily routine for centuries, never aging. On most days he would reunite with Beau and take him around the forest for a wondrous reuniting. On other days he’d explore and learn more about his arborous home.

While no adventurer on the Shortcut has ever actually seen Abu in person, it’s said that he watched over the forest with Beau and eventually friended all of the plants and animals in the woodland, caring for and solidifying whatever magic was kept the forest from changing year after year: Abu had made Persistence his permanent home and become a part of the forest forever.

Reality often differs from the folktales that get passed down from generation to generation, however. Like most immortal beings, Abu eventually became bored with life and existence and chose to deepen his bond with the forest in a new form. One day, after a particularly exciting evening with Beau, he waited until the fox was sound asleep and then returned to the clearing full of roots just outside of the Shortcut and laid down across the forest’s foundation.

In a place outside of time, the roots growing over Abu could have taken mere seconds or could have taken millennia, but it was all the same to the man who never aged. He waited, patiently, for the forest to claim him.

Eventually, it did. Dirty roots grew up around Abu and pulled him tightly into the ground, never to be seen again. The forest quieted and no fox or human ever set foot outside of the Shortcut ever again. Order had finally been restored, and Persistence was happy again; and she vowed to never toy with the mortal realm again.

And at that very moment, everything was as it was and always would be.