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art by Jonathan Westbrook


Mari Ness has published fiction and poetry in numerous places, including Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. You can keep up with her through her blog at mariness.livejournal.com, or by following her on Twitter @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."
Everyone turned to stare at me. I looked at the floor. Was I supposed to think of my name? I thought, and thought, but heard only blankness, and the word, "nameless."
"Not here, I think," said the singer. "But elsewhere."
An excited buzz filled the darkness. "Elsewhere?" came the clear voice of a cousin.
"Elsewhere," repeated the singer. "If she cannot find her name here, she must by necessity find it elsewhere. Though you must permit her to leave."
The cousins said nothing this time. I watched the aunts and uncles exchange measuring glances. I swallowed.
I had never thought of leaving, never thought I could leave. No one I knew, save the singer, ever did. We had no need to: why would we leave a place with plentiful water and food and silk and shade? We knew little of the other places, but that they were less pleasant, we were sure. The singer sang of wants and needs and hungers; we had no wish for such.
But it seemed I had a need.
"You can think of no other way?"
"Names, once stolen, are rarely returned," said the singer. "But sometimes they might be found."
More glances. "Do you know where?" asked an uncle.
"I know where she might begin to look," said the singer cautiously.
More looks. A few whispers. The singer strummed her instrument. It seemed to me that the darkness grew closer.
"We will permit it," said an uncle, at last. "If she remains in your company. She is very young."
"I cannot depart for a few days," the singer said. "After this, I have not the strength."
Everyone nodded.
And so it was decided. I would leave. I wrapped my arms about me tightly. I did not want to lose anything else. I did not dare look at any of the cousins.
Three days later, I said farewell to them all, clasping them in my arms and sobbing, crying out their names. In turn, they hugged me, and whispered special words in my ears, or snuck small treats in the pockets of my smock and my sleeves that I would find later--small toys and sweets and pretty things. I sniffled over them. I was loved, at least, though I had no name. The singer watched this, and said nothing, until I trotted up to her, feeling dejected.
"Where do we go?"
"To the temple of wood, I think, and then of water." She gave me an amused look. "I do not think you are ready for the cities yet, little one."
"What are they like, truly, the cities?" I asked. I had never been curious before, but now, with a chance that I might see them--
"A difficult question to answer," said the singer. "For each one is different; different, and yet a sameness runs through them all." She sighed. "Let us say that they are noisy, and yet each has a corner or two, or sometimes more, that welcomes singers."
We walked on.
"Could I be a singer?" I asked, after some time.
"I do not know," she said. "Could you? Sing."
I sang.
"No," she said. "You cannot."
And that was that.
Many have asked of the length of that first journey, from the fabled lands of my huts (although, in truth, I had no idea that they were fabled; they were to me, then and ever, merely the huts of my uncles and aunts and cousins, of kin with names) to the far temples. I learned only later that the singer might have taken me to some closer place, some closer temples, and guessed only later that she had hoped that the journey would drain me to tears or rebellion, and that she could abandon me, nameless, with a clear conscience on her part. She did not like traveling companions, of any age, and feared that, once named, I would never leave her side.
But I did not give way to tears. I was curious, yes, and spent much of our journey darting glances this way and that, asking for words and more words: for names of plants and places and foods and things. In this, the singer was not of much help; she was good at stringing words she knew or found together in a song, and bringing music to anything she touched, but she was of no use in plant lore or the knowledge of things. Or of cooking: after only a few days, I firmly took over that task, young though I was, and although I could not say much of my own efforts in that regard, I did catch her in a smile or two as she ate.
But I cannot tell you how long the journey was, or how long we traveled: years, it seems at times, mere days at other times, and no matter how I try to count the days in my memory I can never add them to a number that seems true, or to the same number each time. We journeyed, and journeyed, and that was enough.
I had never dreamt of sights like these: of the giant trees, the blue deserts, the green rivers, and the golden lakes. We paused at many temples, though never the ones she had named, for the singer to pay our passage upon the paths in songs, and at small huts for travelers. Sometimes, we left the paths altogether, to walk upon the mountains, or among the trees; at these times, I sometimes grew terrified that we would be forever lost, but the singer knew her footsteps, and always we came to another path, even if it seemed to me that we would never reach any of the temples where I might find my name.
We did not visit the cities, or even the other huts and homes that we passed along the way. Or at least, I did not; sometimes the singer went there, to gather food for us both. But she would not let me come. "It would be too difficult, without a name," she said. I sighed. It seemed that a name had more importance than I had thought.
Instead, we journeyed in the edges, in the lands avoided by humans, among the other life of this world. Someplace out there breathed the shadows that had stolen my name, but I did not know that, not then, not for many years. I merely watched the birds and foxes, gasping at the brilliant colors and fierce plumage, clasping my hands in delight, until the singer called to me in irritation, forcing me to hurry up behind her.
Sometimes she filled the day with songs as we walked, and sometimes with gossip of the cities, and the strange and glamorous people who lived there. I sighed, knowing that I would not meet them, nameless as I was, and unable to sing.
She must have seen the disappointed look on my face. I had never thought of entering the cities, but to find that I could not was an unexpected blow. She reached out and touched my shoulder, lightly; from the singer, who had never touched any of us that I had seen, it was a concession, indeed. "I know of others who wander among the cities, and do not sing," she told me.
My heart felt a little lighter. "Who?"
"Weavers, traders, artists, people of no purpose or profession at all."
That I could do.
And so we wandered, until the Temple of Wood gleamed before us.
I say "gleamed," for in those days, it did: polished and polished each morning with a rare and costly wax, it reflected back the very stars, though it was merely made of wood, not metal or stone. I say "merely," though I should not: they had gathered the most expensive, the most rare, the most precious of the woods of this world, and even beyond, and polished them as if they were jewels. Their efforts were lost on me; I barely saw the Temple, only the monks and nuns at its entrance, who looked grimly at me, their faces growing only colder when the singer sang my tale.
"Can you help her?" the singer asked, when the song was done.
They nodded, and brought me into the temple.
And for fourteen days, as the pink moon waxed and waned, they prodded me and prayed above me and beat me with fine wooden sticks and had me stand for hours beneath the sun and beneath the trees. They called and cursed the shadows, and bade me pray to the lights.
In the end, I still had no name, nor any that the monks might give me.
"She is nameless," said the monks. "Let her wander nameless, if she would. Or stay here and learn of wood."
"There is still water," said the singer, and we left, after she sang a few songs in payment.
I should have been disappointed. Instead, I felt a certain relief. However I might gain my name, I did not think I wanted it through pain. And the singer did not seem completely disheartened. Perhaps this was because a failure here meant a better song for her, but I did not think so.
"Do you know of others, without names?" I asked her one night.
"Know, no," the singer said. "But I have heard of some, yes."
"Do you know any songs of them?"
"No," said the singer softly. "Songs are sung only of those with names."
We were quiet for a moment. "What happens to me, if I do not find a name?"
The singer shrugged. "You live. What else would happen?"
That was not as comforting as it might sound.
Once I thought I saw a dragon, breathing flame in the distant sky beneath the blue moon.
I did not tell the singer. I did not want her to tell me that there were no dragons.
We came quickly to the Temple of Water. It terrified me, stretched as it was over a great waterfall that plunged down into an amethyst sea, with a roaring river behind it, and other streams passing by and to and away from it. To reach it, we had to walk across a swinging bridge of rope and planks over the rushing water; the singer stepped over this lightly enough--though she took a moment to rewrap her instruments in all of our blankets and cloaks--but I had to shut my eyes and grip the ropes to get across, and even then, my chest was tight with fear.
But when we came to the temple, the faces there were welcoming, not only for the singer, but for me.
The singer sang my tale, and then the monks and nuns spun me in a circle and prodded me. They reminded me, a little, of the uncles and aunts, and I had to bite back tears.
"Stolen, most definitely," said a nun.
"As I feared," said the singer. "Can it be found?"
"We can ask the water," said a monk.
And so they did. For another seven days and nights we waited by the water, crossing another rope bridge back and forth to the guest rooms on the river's other side, waiting for the monks and nuns to hear my name. (Only the holy, we were told, could sleep above or below the waterfall and river; lesser souls--and even with a name, I would have been a decidedly lesser soul--must sleep in rooms above the lesser earth. And so we tracked back and forth across the swaying bridges, my stomach and chest in agony each time.)
"And what does the water say?" the singer would ask.
"Many things," the holy told us. "But not her name."
And after those days, they told us we might go, and pushed me away, still nameless.
"If they don't know it, they might give me a name," I said. My voice was shaking, and I drew my legs up against my chest, hugging them to me. They had beenů they had been... They had been kind, which in turn, had been unkind.
"It is not so easy to give something that has been stolen away," said the singer gently. "Or to find it."
"They could still give me something," I said. I found that I was crying.
The singer said nothing more, but drew me to her, letting me lean into her warmth as I cried.
She knew of one more place of names: the Temple of Air. The Temple of Fire burned anything it touched, she explained, and even if my name had traveled there--a tale she found most unlikely--it would be transformed beyond recognition, and the Temples of Iron and Ice would keep their secrets, and any names they found. But Air--Air was welcoming, was giving. It was far off, this temple, but it might--
"No," I said.
"It is often," she said gently, "in the third place that we find our ending and our reward."
"I don't want a reward," I said. "And two temples are enough."
"In the songs--" she started.
"You said your songs didn't have my name," I interrupted.
"This is true," she said.
That night, nameless, far from the huts of home, I could not sleep. The singer's soft breathing, usually a source of comfort, kept me awake, and I kept hearing the sounds of the winds, the sounds, I fancied, of shadows. Even beneath the heavy quilt I shivered. I sat up.
Under the twisted lights of the two moons, I saw the shadows shift and dance.
I cannot explain what came over me then. The breath of a fox, or of an unsteady wind, the singer said later, but even she did not know. I knew only that I was standing up, watching the shadows, and then I was chasing them.
Have you ever tried to catch a shadow? They are always there, ready to be touched, the double shadows made by the moons, the heavy shadows of the sun, the thin shadows of a single moon, the ever moving shadows formed by fire. I ran, and ran, following the flickerings, reaching here and there as I could, my fingers plunging through shadow. I splashed over a stream, wetting my robes and soft boots; I crashed into a tree, bruising my arm and bringing blood to my lips and fingers.
And still the shadows shifted and danced. I brought my fingers to my lips, and tasted blood. Above me, the moons continued their steady path. Perhaps--perhaps--
I reached out to the tree and grabbed its shadow.
For a second--a second--I think I held it; the double shadow of the tree twisted from the light of two moons, something thinner and softer than silk, more bitter and painful than a new forged knife still hot from the fire. I heard myself moan from pain. Or perhaps it was only that I had placed my bloody fingers in the dirt near the tree, and had cried out from the sting.
Whichever: my fingers hurt, and I moaned again. Ohhhhhhhhh.
The shadows shifted and came, I thought, a little closer. Or perhaps it was just the journey of the moons and stars.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I said, and then heard myself, and heard the sound, echoing back from trees and shadows.
A sound. A sound culled from shadows.
My sound.
"O," I said, holding the sound to myself, then repeating it again, bringing my bloody fingers to my face, before hugging myself in joy. "O. O. Ohhhhhh."
I might not have a name. But I had a sound. A sound I could take for my own.
They say many things can steal a name: foxes, water, spirits, shadows. The moons, if they are so inclined. The darkness of the cities. The lights of the temples.
They rarely speak of the things that can build a name: footsteps, shadows, stitches, sounds, tingling, pain. We, if we are so inclined. The lights of the cities. The darkness of the temples.
That was the first sound of my name, though not the last. I added sounds as I found them, one by one, sometimes placing them in front of the O, sometimes after. I wove what I have into a scarf, a shawl, to wave as I enter a city, to wrap about me as I tell my tales and sell my weavings, to show to the aunts and uncles and cousins when I return.
It is still growing, my name, and I do not know its ending. I do not think I need to know, no more than I need to know when the next sound might come. I wait, and weave, and wander, and tell my tales, and watch my name build, sound by sound, into something to hold against the shadows.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 6th, 2012

Author Comments

This story began as an inside joke: I have a horrible time naming my characters--in fiction, in role playing games, you name it. Just horrible. So, as a joke, I wrote a few paragraphs about a character without a name, and as I kept writing, it evolved into this.

- Mari Ness
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