art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Mari Ness
They stole my name when I was quite small, too young to understand the loss.
For a time, no one even noticed. Such is the way of childhood, where I could be called the baby, or the girl, or the child, or handed to an aunt or uncle who needed no names to know how to feed and scold me. I knew the others had names, and learned them as I learned the names of every tree and plant about the huts, and which were good for eating and which good for playing and which we might steal as toys, and the names of the moons and the stars. I drank words and tales with every breath, but never thought to take a word for myself.
It was one of the cousins who noticed. The aunts and uncles, of course, were too busy with their own concerns, their own children, to discern a problem with a small girl child who tried hard not be to be underfoot. But the cousins could sense something different, something wrong. They spent some time discussing the matter until they found it.
"She has no name," they told one of the aunts.
"Nonsense," said this aunt, who was busily slicing apples to be dried. I wanted to steal a few slices. "Everyone has a name."
"Not her," they said, and pointed.
"Of course she does," snapped the aunt. "She is--"
And she paused, and a look of dread passed over her face.
This, as it happened, was not a mere matter of idle childish curiosity, but a matter of true import. The aunt rushed to speak to another aunt, who told an uncle, and by the evening, the aunts and uncles sat in conclave, with all of the cousins listening intently.
"But she had a name," said an uncle. "I am certain of it. I remember--" and his voice stopped abruptly.
"I too," said an aunt firmly. "Given in air and water, it was. We said it aloud. We called her by--"
And her voice, too, trailed off.
And so it was agreed: I had had a name, had even been called it, once, but now it was gone, and no one could remember it, or when it had been lost.
"Cannot you recall it?" one uncle said, looking at me.
But I could not. I could not remember a time when I had been addressed by anything more than a gesture, a nod, whatever the aunts and uncles might now be claiming. I shook my head.
"Surely someone can remember it?" exclaimed an elderly aunt in exasperation.
But no one could. All remembered the ceremony, the water, the wind, the giving of the name. But none could remember the name; even those that thought they might found that nothing came out of their mouths when they tried to speak, and that in their minds they found only blankness.
"Stolen," whispered an uncle, and a chill swept through the evening.
"We must take her to the singer," said an aunt, and so it was decided.
The singer did not live among us, you understand. In truth I am not certain that she could be said to live among anyone, although some whispered that when she journeyed to other lands, she sometimes slept beneath the roofs of other folk, sometimes even slept in the beds of other women, other men. I do not know the truth of this, any more than I know where she journeyed when she left us, which was often. She told us tales, of course, but we did not know which were true and which were songs she had woven in her head, pieced together from other tales from her journeys.
We did know that when she came, she did not stay for long. No more than a pass of both moons, if that, sometimes less. I never knew her to stay a full season, or even half of one, nor could any tell at which season she might appear, in the chill of autumn or the harsh rains of springs. She would simply be among us, singing, and all else would stop, until we had heard her new tales, and could allow her to rest in the small hut she had taken for herself.
Small, indeed, far smaller than any other hut I knew, even those with no purpose more than the storage of bread and water. From the outside, it might be missed among the trees. From the inside, others whispered that any of us could stand in the center and touch all five walls. Far too small for a matter such as this. We stood outside her hunt, and the uncles called out to her. Our timing was fortunate; she had indeed, as the cousins had joyfully whispered, returned to us but two days before, resting before singing her new found songs.
The aunts called to her, and she left her hut, stretching her arms and yawning, clutching an instrument in her left hand. Despite the seriousness of the occasion, I could not help staring: I had never seen its like. Long, with five strings, yet meant, I could tell, to be played upon her lap. I could not help hoping that she would play it while we talked.
We all, even the smallest of the cousins, bowed our heads, and the aunts and uncles swiftly explained why we had disturbed her. The singer listened, and then took a long look at me. I stood silent, eyes downcast, unsure of what to say. She leaned back against her chair.
"Have you any thoughts of a name?"
It was directed at me. I swallowed. "No," I said. I had listened, in my mind, but heard only emptiness.
"But she was given a name," said an aunt, although this had already been said. "Of that we are sure."
"Only, it was taken," added an uncle.
"And now no one can say it, or remember it." A chorus of voices, this.
"And I have none," I concluded for them. It was, after all, my name--or lack of a name--and I did not think I should be left out of the discussion.
The singer raised her eyes to look at my aunts, my cousins, the stragglers of our huts who had come to listen (for this would, I could glumly tell, soon be one of the tales told in whispers and sniggers over the fires for the next several nights, if not the next several seasons.)
"And her parents?"
Careful looks among the adults, looks that meant that this story could be told to the singer, but not to me. Anger rose in my belly, only to be swallowed, as anger always was.
"Givers of the name," said an aunt, finally. "Her mother, as I recall. And now... gone."
More looks exchanged. The singer raised one eyebrow, but apparently decided not to pursue this point.
"A name can be something given, or something you take," said the singer idly, running her hands across her instrument. At its touch, we all seemed to breathe a little easier; I felt myself relax, just a little, even under all of those eyes and the anger still waiting in my belly. "They can sometimes be found in songs, names," the singer added, her fingers lightly strumming her instrument strings. She raised a cautious hand as my aunts and uncles began to chatter happily. "But it is no promise. And the name may not be found in any song I have. She may need to find her own songs."
Uneasy glances exchanged.
"And until then?"
"Call her Nameless," the singer said, returning her hands to her instrument. "It can serve as a name of sorts."
I tried the word, Nameless, hearing it in my head, and silently around my tongue. It did not feel like a name, and I could see that the uncles and aunts agreed.
"And when do we begin the songs?"
"Tomorrow," said the singer. "Today, I am tired."
And so we went home, and I curled up in a corner, away from them all, nameless.
For seven days, and nearly seven nights, the singer sang, trying name after name, reaching for song after song. None fit; none raised a memory of the stolen name. When she paused for food or drink or breath, the aunts said names over me, one by one, new names, old names, names of ancestors, names of spirits, even names of trees and flowers. None fit; none proved to be my name.
At long last, the singer put up her hands for an ending. The trees and shadows seemed to lean into us. The moons had left, and the only light was from the small cold stars, and the tiny fire the singer had set.
"I can sing no more." She looked at the aunts. "You can list no more."
Most of the aunts bowed their heads. But one aunt, the one who was known for sneaking sweets to children, protested. "But she must have a name. What will she do without a name?"
The singer inclined her head. "I said I could sing no more, and that you could list no more. That does not mean that she can do no more."