Excerpted from OURSELVES by S.G. Redling. Copyright 2015. Published By 47North. Used by permission of the publisher. Not for reprint without permission.
Nahan Da Li
Nahan da li: literally, Are you Nahan? A traditional welcome, a friendly greeting, affectionate.
Stell knew there was something wrong with her. Something dark lived inside of her. She didn’t know what it was or how the others could see it. She might not even have known about it herself if she didn’t see it in the eyes of the congregation and feel it in the fists of her uncle. When she was little, she used to look for it in the ribbons of blood that poured from her body when the ritual knives cut into her.
Now she knew better.
Whatever was wrong with her couldn’t be cut out like a splinter underneath her skin. Whatever was wrong with her was wrong to the bone.
Since she couldn’t cut it out or pray it out, Stell took herself and her darkness out of the compound at every opportunity. She’d climb through the hole in the wall behind her bed, crawl through the forsythia, and run hard and fast up the steep western side of Calstow Mountain. She’d run like someone chased her although she knew the congregation wouldn’t miss her. Her classmates wouldn’t. Stell drew the wrath of Uncle Rom like a magnet to a lodestone and everyone gave Stell a wide berth.
She thought maybe her mother missed her when she took off into the woods of Calstow Mountain. She thought maybe Malbette might worry about her daughter alone in the darkness of the mountain forests, might wonder if her child was safe and unharmed running through streams and climbing trees, sleeping under the stars and waking in beds of pine needles day after day. She thought her mother might miss her but Malbette’s eyes had a distance in them that was impossible to read so Stell didn’t think about her mother much.
After all, Stell wasn’t a kid anymore. She had to be at least twenty by now. Maybe closer to twenty-five.
Nobody ever told Stell how old she was. Nobody ever told Stell anything except to shut up and to repent and to pray. Nobody cared whether or not she could read. (She could but she hated to.) The teachers didn’t care that Stell never looked at the maps or listened to the Traditions or that she learned her numbers quickly. Stell never asked questions and nobody noticed or cared.
When she was little, before she knew better, she’d ask questions.
She’d asked why she had to pray so hard, why she had to bleed into the bowls in the filthy church room. She’d stomped her foot and cried and clung to her silent mother as the two of them were led to Uncle Rom’s waiting ritual chamber to be cut and bled before the pale faces of the congregation.
Uncle Rom had answered those questions with snarls and threats and long recitations of Tradition but those weren’t the questions that silenced Stell. Malbette had done that.
Stell had asked about her father.
She didn’t know how old she was when she’d asked but since she hadn’t been tall enough to look out the window, Stell figured she’d been pretty young. Young enough to press her luck. Stell had demanded her mother tell her why she didn’t have a father like the other kids in the compound. Stell had shouted and pled, whined and wept, badgering Malbette to tell her who father was and why he wasn’t with them and why nobody would tell her anything about him.
Malbette hadn’t answered her. Instead, she ignored her daughter’s dirty, grasping hands and settled into the only chair in the small shack they called home. She folded her hands in her lap, stared into the grimy wood of the near wall, and fell silent. At first Stell had raged as small children do. She cried and pulled but Malbette wouldn’t move. She climbed into her mother’s lap but the larger hands made no move to comfort her. And finally Stell got quiet too. She curled up on the floor beside her mother’s chair, thumb tucked securely in her mouth, her cheeks pressed into the scratchy wool of her mother’s skirts.
They sat that way for three days.
When Malbette rose from the chair on the third day, smoothing her skirts, and walking off as if nothing unusual had happened, Stell wiped at the tears and spit and snot that had dried on her face. She headed into her room, pulled the cot away from the wall, and kicked at the loose board behind it. She crawled through that hole and ran up to the mountain.
On Calstow Mountain it didn’t matter what was wrong with Stell. Whatever darkness she had inside her didn’t bother the raccoons or opossum or hawks. The wild turkeys kept their distance but the streams and poplars didn’t mind her. The only ones that screamed at her were the blue jays and they screamed at everything. They even screamed at the common.
Stell loved those moments when she heard something crashing through the brush louder than any forest creature would. Birds would fly and Stell would climb as fast as she could up into the nearest tree, folding into herself and being as silent as an owl so she could watch and listen to the strangely dressed, heavily burdened common making their way along the forest trails. She listened to their voices; their English sounded so different from hers, no trace of a Nahan accent at all. And sometimes if she really stared at one of them, if she really focused on one particular part of one particular common, that common would freeze. Stell would bite her lip, trying not to giggle as they scanned the forest around them, some ancient instinct alerting them to a danger they couldn’t see.
Stell didn’t know why they would fear her but she loved it when that happened.
Maybe that had something to do with the darkness within her.
She didn’t care. The common would go and Stell would climb down and the mountain would be hers again. It was hers today and Stell lay in her favorite spot, a thick blanket of moss between the creek bed and a thicket of blackberry bushes. Summer had only just started warming up the mountain and it would be weeks until the blackberries appeared but Stell had peeled off her gray, woolen dress as she always did once the snow melted. She’d tossed the hated garment into the poplar branches and sprawled out along the chilly moss.
The canopy overheard hadn’t thickened fully yet and the sun warmed her pale skin. Bits of mud flaked off her body as she stretched long. She must have fallen asleep because she didn’t hear the rattling of the blackberry branches or the swearing until it was too late to hide. Stell leapt to her feet, blinking away the sleep, as the branches closed together, catching the skin of a young man who pulled at the thorns.
They stared at each other. Stell knew her eyes and mouth were as wide open as his.
He was Nahan. She could see it and smell it and feel it.
And he was beautiful.
“Nahan da li?” she asked, smiling at this wondrous site before her.
He looked nothing like the congregation. His clothes weren’t drab and rough. His skin shone with a health she had never seen. And most wondrous of all? His surprised gape turned into a smile.
“What? Oh yeah, yeah.” He nodded but Stell didn’t think he blinked. “I’m Nahan. I’m…I’m…I’m Thomas. Tomas. Tomas is my real, you know, my real name, um, that we, you know, use here because my grandparents…that’s my name when I’m here. I mean it’s my name but I use Thomas when I’m home but here I use, you know, my name. Tomas.”
Stell watched the words pour out of his beautiful mouth. She wanted to touch the shadows of pink that rose on his pale cheeks as he talked and talked. He said more to her in that minute than anyone had said to Stell in months.
“I’m Stell, ” she said but he seemed to want more. “All the time. I’m only ever Stell.”
The pink on his cheeks settled into a glorious rose shade that matched the lower lip he licked. His teeth shone white as he bit into it and Stell couldn’t think of a single reason to ever look at anything else again. She watched his mouth move and waited for more words.
“Why are you naked?”
“My dress is in the tree.”
“Do you want me to get it down?”
S. G. Redling hosted a morning radio program for fifteen years before turning to writing. A graduate of Georgetown University, she was a finalist in the 2011 Esquire Short Short Fiction Contest. She is the author of The Widow File, Redemption Key, Damocles, Flowertown, and Braid: Three Twisted Stories. She currently resides in her home state of West Virginia.