|'Thelana Leaves Home' by Nicholas Cannan|
Blooms of orange and purple brushed at her thighs and touched the horizon. It was the time of low moon, the season of color, and Ilmarinen was pregnant with ilms. But Thelana did not bother to guard herself from their thorns, or pause to wonder at their beauty. On she pressed, against the Mother Goddess’ breath—the wind—blinking the swirling petals from her eyes.
Pride straightened her spine and eagerness added to her steps. A rabbit lay long and limply, its neck broken, its blood mottled fur tickling her shoulder. Over the hilltop, she spotted Old Man, the ancient evergreen oak marking her house.
At her rear, the tributaries of the Potamis cascaded like a woman’s hair, and the land swelled and dipped like hips and bosom. She fondly remembered her grandmother, how she would regale them at the ritual of Solstice, with tales of the Goddess, how Alashiya had lain herself across the barren world to become Ilmarinen. But having reached the age of bleeding, Thelana knew to separate fact from folktales. Trekking homeward, the illusion of the Goddess-shaped landscape gave way to formless hills and valleys, no more substantial than myth.
Somewhere in the dense fauna her younger siblings were busy at being children, Heimdl and Lodr and Baldr; Anja, Brittania and Nicola; dodging chores for games of tag and hide and seek, running and climbing, tumbling and collecting bugs. Vaino and Laine, who were older, hammered posts to fence in the hens, complaining of life’s facts now that innocence had gone from them, while Aliaa and Amina were turning their feet purple in baskets of mashed blackberries. They would be delighted to know of the meat, even if the rabbit provided only a sliver to each. And for a moment, against her heart’s desire, Thelana’s mind turned to her eldest sibling. Borz loved the taste of rabbit. He would have greeted her with a broad grin, tousling her hair. Oh Borz . . . a sigh came up from her throat, bringing lumps of pain. Where are you this moment?
Within the root folds of Old Man oak, the house rose up like a fallen seedling. Over the years, Baba and his sons set every stone and beam—now mired in moss—though Old Man’s wood, ingrained in the solitary post and lintel, was from an older generation. Built into the side of the house was a silent water wheel, fed by the stony brook which branched from the Potamis. When the climate edged toward cooler winds, bougainvillea speckled the house in icy pinks as though flicked from a paintbrush.
Where she stood the ancient tree cast sharp shadows, and the house felt strangely forlorn, an odd thing for a dwelling of fourteen. Memories beckoned at the gates of her consciousness, but they frightened her, and she pressed on. Remembering her mother’s oft repeated reproach, she scraped the dirt and blades of grass sticking to her soles and pushed against the door. It creaked as its hinges came apart, a noise usually lost amid the bustle of work and play. Nicola was at Mother’s side, a silhouette of braid and buttocks and jutting spine. She was weeping because a spur was in her toe. Thelana was angered by her sister’s weakness, how did she expect to survive like that? Hesitantly, Nicola pulled away from Mother’s hair, which was thick with gold braids and flowers and was sometimes all encompassing and could heal bruises of the heart. Mother hushed her younger daughter with a kiss and shooed her from the house, and as the girl moved away Thelana noticed Baba. They were seated beside one another, Mother and Baba, neither working, which was odd, for it was midday, and at once Thelana feared them ill.
Whenever Baba was unsettled, he would ring his great big hands, as if feelings could be scrubbed off like dirt. When Borz went away, he shed no tears, but there had been much hand scrubbing.
Now his hands were tightly intertwined.
Thelana slid her bow and quiver against the door, as if slowing her movements could hinder the passage of time. The rabbit carcass, which had carried her home with such swiftness, lay forgotten.
“Baba . . .?” she whispered, “Wh-What is it? Has something happened?”
“No, Thelana,” he said. “No.” Mother sat quietly, dressed in strands of gold hair and petals, with moons and stars of henna about her nipples. Even after twelve children, she was still strong, still beautiful. When Thelana thought of the Mother Goddess, no other came to mind but her own mother. But now, beneath that face of stoic beauty, Thelana saw weakness, and the building tide of emotion.
“I brought you a rabbit,” said Thelana, but the words did not sound right—she’d stressed the wrong syllables at the wrong moment.
“We can see, Thelana,” said her father, clearing his throat. “Sit down. You must be tired.”
Sit down? You must be tired? He doesn’t say things like that! “No, I can stand. I’m strong, Baba.”
“Of course,” he said, “We know you are.” He attempted a smile but failed.
“Is this about Borz?” she asked.
He glanced suddenly to Mother, taking up her hand. She looked strangely detached. Her eyes met his, focusing on him only after a time, but she could not give the consolation he sought. “Not about Borz,” he said, but it was a half-truth and Thelana knew it.
“You’re going to sell me?” Thelana heard herself say.
“No,” Mother exclaimed, a bit too loudly, “it’s not like that. We made a mistake with your brother.”
“You are different,” her father said, the words flowing more easily and deliberately, “you are special, like the spirit of the wind. No one place should keep you.”
“Like the spirit of the wind?” Thelana echoed. “What does that even mean—?”
“You can no longer stay with us,” she heard him say.
This was supposed to be a special day. Mana and Baba were to shower me with praise; we would spend the day skinning my catch, boiling water to cook the meat. It was not supposed to be like this. “Baba?” she implored, “Mana?” Thelana searched her mother’s eyes. They were hazel, sometimes gold. “You’re sending me away?”
Father took her up by the shoulders. How many times had he embraced her so? How many times had he lifted her onto his back or tossed her into the air? “Try to understand . . . You are not meant to be here—your abilities, what you can do—the gods have shown us you were meant for greater things. You must go out into the world and do great things.”
Thelana was unable to think, unable to digest the words and come to rational thought. She was there with Baba, and then Mother began to sob.
“If this is about food,” she started—food was a thing she could understand at least—“I can hunt more, eat less. I can, I can . . .” she stammered, just as Baba wrestled to quiet her with spurts of No and No.
“No,” he whispered at last with a sudden hard edge, his face grown still, impassive. “I have made my decision. It’ll do no good to beg. Now be strong, my child. Just as Ilmarinen becomes harsh where the world encroaches—so you must be strong to survive, and shed no tears, nor think on us any longer. Do you understand?”
I can be strong, Baba. I’ll show you. “When do I leave?”
“Now,” he answered her.
“No!” a voice rang out. It was Mother become hysterical. “How can you be so callous? Let her stay a little while—”
Baba scolded her with a glance. “Bryseis,” he said, “we’ve been through this. We’ve kept this from her for a reason. If the children were to know, it’d make difficulties.”
“Wait.” Thelana interrupted him, visibly quivering. “I can’t say goodbye?”
There was no answer, though she heard her father’s voice. “Bryseis, get her things.”
“But how will she live?” her mother argued. “You said it yourself, the world beyond is cruel . . . and she’s only a child!”
“Silence yourself, woman!” he cried. “The girl’s as strong as she’ll ever be. Nothing will happen to her.”
“Don’t you dare say that!” she contested, throwing her arms up, half in frustration, half in prayer. “You’ll give her the bad eye talking like that! You’ll bring the gods’ envy down upon her. Go knock on wood.”
He rolled his eyes, and then thinking better on it, found the lintel of the door to rap his knuckles against it. “There, I’ve done it. Now will you go get her things?”
Mother stood mechanically, gathering items into a blanket: a gourd with a cork stopper, an assortment of breads and berries, flint stones for lighting fires, a small paring knife. Her fingers shook so violently that even her skilled hands fumbled to knot the four corners. Thelana was quick at her side, adding her fingers to the task.
“Now you remember to keep yourself clean,” her mother said as though reciting a verse from the songs. “. . . and making a fire, you know how to do that . . .?”
“Of course, Mana.”
“I think that’s everything you’ll need. I pray the gods I not forget anything. I even made extra pasteli; it’s still your favorite, isn’t it—?”
Thelana nodded. Her earliest memories were of eating the chewy mix of sesame seeds and honey. She remembered how her mother used it to soothe her childhood sorrows. Now she was being sent out, like a grown woman, but was she so different from that child?
“Good,” said Bryseis. “Remember to eat it slowly because it won’t spoil.” She continued to ramble nervously with advice as her fingers twitched, though the supplies were all packed for the journey. After fastening the bindle to her bow, her mother left the room to return with a long piece of fabric, yellow with patches of brown.
“What is that for, Mana?”
“Something I nearly forgot . . . and I spent weeks at it! Well, it’s the best I could do.”
“It’s a . . . a goat,” said Thelana, her stomach turning sour. Goats were saved for milk, never for slaughter. Hides stored foodstuffs or were used to make tents. By the pattern of the hide, she recognized the young kid. It had been no taller than her kneecaps. She remembered its gentle nature, the way its tongue tickled the straw from her fingers. Now its dead skin was being prepared to cover hers.
Her mother worked up a false smile, stretching and turning the fabric this way and that. “You remember the soldiers who sought shelter from us? How they were covered?” Spread to its full length, the goatskin tunic dwarfed Thelana’s slim frame. With a small knife, Mother cut and rearranged it, imagining how it might go.
“I don’t need that,” said Thelana. “I shall stay as I am, an Ilmarin, no matter where I go.”
“That may be,” her father answered, “but Alashiya, who protects us, is weak where other gods are strong. In the West, men burn under the sun of Solos, and in the East, cold winds blow from the trumpet of Strom. In other parts of the world, you will learn, clothing protects man from these cruelties.”
Baba came nearer, embracing her, “But even where the gods are kind, you must be wary of men, for men can be worse than any gods. In the lands far from home, men do not thrive as part of Aenya, but apart from it, seeking to possess every little thing. It is the lust for possession that drives men of the outside, causing every evil and misery. If a man should lay eyes upon your beauty, it will drive him to madness, and he will seek to possess you. From this you must hide yourself, your body.”
“I don’t understand,” said Thelana. “How can my body drive a man to madness?”
“Trust in our wisdom!” her father said forcefully, “we learned much of the world when the soldiers came. Do you remember how they looked at us, at you? If you reveal yourself, at the very least, they will shun you. Hidden by clothing, they will not know you are Ilmar.”
Bryseis pressed her daughter to her bosom, just as Thelana appeared to founder with realization. “You will always be Ilmarin within your heart,” she added, “and no one can take that from you.”
“Never,” Thelana murmured. “I’d never forget you.” As her mother worked the tunic over her head and past her knees, she became terribly conscious of it. But it was a small discomfort amid the pain and uncertainty churning inside of her.
“Where will I go, Baba? What will I do?”
“Follow the river,” he said. “Continue until the hills of Ukko become faint, and the ilms nowhere grow. Do you still remember the speech the foreigners taught you?”
Captain Aola. She was the only one kind to me, teaching me the bow, the language of Kratos. Thelana nodded slowly.
“Seek them out, anyone who speaks the same language. Show them what you can do. A skilled bowman has great value in the outside. But do not show fear, or be overly trustful, or let them cow you into service. Promise me never to suffer your brother’s fate. And promise one more thing: do not permit yourself to starve. Do what needs be. Understand?”
With a will not her own, Thelana pushed apart the hinges of the door. Clothing, her quiver and bow, and a sack sat heavily upon her. The rabbit lay forgotten in a heap of fur and blood. As the door shut behind her, she slumped onto the porch with great sobs. Faces fluttered in her mind and her heart drained into her stomach. “Why can’t I say goodbye!” she cried, feeling suddenly young and frightened. Her shoulder fell against the door and it gave with a groan, but her father stood on the opposite side.
Thelana slapped at the door as her father wrestled to shut her out and keep Bryseis away, who sobbed and pleaded for her daughter. “Don’t make this harder on your mother!” he shouted. But there was no cruelty in his voice.
Time lapsed strangely for the three of them, and when exhaustion set on both sides, their hearts toughened and became proud again.
Baba? Thelana was powerless in his arms.
“I cannot send you away.” He sounded broken, defeated.
“No,” she said softly. “I must go. I’ll come back. I’ll find gold and jewels, like the men of Kratos had, and there will be food for us always.”
“That’s my brave girl,” he said, wavering between pride and despair, “that’s my Thelana.”
Her mother remained in the house as her father escorted her to the edge of the porch. At the foot of the steps an ilm grew from between the floorboards. How many times had her mother made ilm tea for a broken bone, for Vaino or Laine, or even that one time when Lodr attempted to chase Thelana up Old Man’s branches? The memory made Thelana smile, and at once sad, knowing she would never again laugh with her brothers.
“Even here,” her father began, thumbing the orange petals, “they grow rarer.” With a twist he broke the flower from its stem. The orange blossom filled her cupped hands. “Remember: we are children of the flower. As long as you keep it close to your heart, this land will never be far behind.”
She nodded as the delicate petals trembled against her belongings.
With bow-bindle firm in hand and heart lighter than before, Thelana set out across the valley, numb to all but the path ahead. This time she paused at the top of the hill overlooking Old Man oak and the place she once knew of as home, taking care to fill her breath with the intoxicating scent of ilms. Wind rushed through her tunic, knocking orange buds against her thighs. Dying petals swirled around her like fingers holding her back. But it was just the wind escaping to freedom as wind is wont to do.
Her bare feet sank into the rich soil, down hills and up again, coming finally to where the dirt met hard against her soles and the earth became strewn with gravel. The sounds of the Potamis trickled in her ear, but she did not cross it before her sister came up. Britannia was a sliver of muscle and bone, thin enough to hide behind a birch, which she made a game of, surprising her siblings by appearing from trees and disappearing again. Unlike Anja, who was prissy and proper, Britannia never bothered to comb the twigs from her hair or wash the earthy muck from her body, nor did she mind her soles turning to leather against the river rocks. Britannia was a mirror of her sister, only two years younger, too young to show any hair on her body but for the chestnut locks that fell over her cheeks and nipples. Now she stood, an accidental flower pattern of mud caked across her, a snog twitching fitfully in her hand.
“What is that?” Britannia asked, eyeing her sister’s new garment with fascination.
Thelana worked up a smile. “Something Mana gave me. I think it’s called . . . a toonik.”
Britannia combed a strand of hair from behind her ear, her face puzzled. “Is it some kind of game?”
“No,” Thelana replied, wishing it was. “The outsiders used it to hide their bodies, remember? But I can’t really think of any use for it.”
“It looks scratchy.”
Thelana’s cheeks reddened with a strange new emotion as, for the first time in her life, she avoided her sister’s searching stare. Fibers were scraping against her pores, were sticking to her in the sweat of the building heat, were stifling her breathing. Without thought, she tugged at the garment and the sun washed across her shoulders once more. The rush of air was like jumping into a spring on a sultry day. Thelana could not bring herself to understand the ways of outsiders and did not care to. After all, she was who she was, body and all. Shame was as incomprehensible to her as a fear of heights in a sparrow.
Despite her discomfort, Thelana did not wish to disobey her parents so soon after leaving home. Reluctantly, she pulled the sheet around her shoulders again, shutting herself from the touch of the world, and searched her sister’s expression.
“Well, you won’t catch me in that,” Britannia said, rolling off her heels.
Among her sisters and brothers, Thelana would miss Britannia most. Other than Borz, she was her closest friend, the only one of her kin daring enough to venture this far from home.
“I have to go.”
Britannia took her by the hand. It felt warm and full of youth. “Come quick. I have to show you something.”
Steep and unforgiving earth slashed at their heels and made a staff of Thelana’s bow. Memories of past and future floated like petals blooming and decaying. They arrived at a precipice over a broad horizon, but the land beneath was peculiarly absent, only clouds rolling beneath their bare feet.
“Wait. There is no such place as this,” Thelana murmured to herself. “This isn’t what I remember . . . Where are we?”
“Nimbos, I think,” Britannia answered.
“Why are we here?” she said, shivering against the cold.
“I’m not here,” Britannia said. “Just you. You were brought by the bird people, remember?”
Gradually, Thelana pulled apart her eyelids, and all the warmth went from her. She was without any clothing, curled cat-like into herself, the wind lashing her with icy tendrils. When, at last, the blood ran through her again, she gazed about in wonderment. There was only continuous sky and great swirling shapes vast as mountains, pink and violet clouds gilded with sunlight.