‘Thelana Leaves Home’ by Nicholas Cannan.
Somewhere in the dense fauna her younger siblings were busy at being children. Heimdl and Lodr and Baldr, Anja, Brittania and Nicola—all of them 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 various drudgeries, 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 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?
From within the root folds of Old Man oak, the house rose up like a fallen seedling. Over the years, Baba and his sons had set a myriad of stones and beams—now mired in moss—though the original post and lintel structure had been erected by a much older generation. Built into the side of the house was a silent water wheel, fed by a stony brook that branched from the Potamis. When the climate edged toward cooler winds, bougainvillea speckled the house in icy pinks as though flicked from a paintbrush.
From where she stood, she could see the sharp shadows cast by the ancient tree, 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. Its hinges creaked, 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 had embedded itself in her toe. Thelana frowned—how did Nicola expect to survive, being so weak? 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 unusual, for it was midday, and at once Thelana feared them ill.
Whenever Baba was unsettled, he would ring his great 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 he sat still, his hands resting on the table, 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. “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, her body retained its vigor. When Thelana thought of the Mother Goddess, no other came to mind but her own mother. But now, beneath that stoic face, Thelana saw something fragile flickering.
“I brought a rabbit,” said Thelana, but the words did not sound right—she’d stressed the wrong syllables.
“We can see, Thelana,” said her father, clearing his throat. “Sit down. You must be tired.”
Sit down? You must be tired? Her father didn’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.
“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 and lacking consolation. “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 objected, 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 her with praise, spend the day skinning her 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 stood and went to her, 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—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.
“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?”
She took in a deep breath—she could be strong. She’d show him. “When do I leave?”
“Now,” he answered her.
“No!” her mother’s voice rang out, laden with hysteria. “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, 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. 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 hands shook so violently that her fingers 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 included 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 sparingly, as it won’t spoil.” She continued to ramble nervously 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 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 spots, 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 weak 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 within it. Lust for possession drives men of the outside, causing every evil and misery. If a man should lay eyes upon you, it may drive him to madness, and he will then seek to possess you. From this you must hide yourself, your body.”
“I don’t understand,” said Thelana.
“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.” She grimaced as her mother worked the stiff tunic over her head and down past her knees. But it was a small discomfort amid the 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 sparse. 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 the door open. The tunic, 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. 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. “Go, child!”
Time lapsed strangely, and when exhaustion set in, her heart toughened and became proud again. She became still, surrendering her struggle to reenter her childhood home.
“I cannot send you away,” Baba finally said, his voice muted by the door. He sounded broken, defeated. Finally, he stepped outside, and took Thelana in his arms.
“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, stroking her hair as he had when she was a small child. “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 tea from it, 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. Her eyes brimmed with hot tears, the kind that sting—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 ilm. As long as you keep it close to your heart, this land will never be far behind.” The delicate petals trembled, and she forced herself to nod.
Where does Thelana go? Does she ever return to find her family? Get the whole story here!