Patrick Somerville

from the April 2011 issue

XV. I Senzanome, The Nameless Ones

THERE WAS ONCE a beautiful young girl who lived in a land without lakes far from the ocean. A zigzagging river ran right below the family cottage, its waters like ice from the glacier far upstream. Water there was aplenty, for the river ran in all seasons of the year, even when it had not rained for forty days and forty nights.

Early in the mornings, whether it was dark or light, she would go down the path to the river with her two buckets and bring back the first of the day’s water. With it she would scrub the wood of the floors as though she was a sailor aboard ship. After the floors came the table and chairs. Her mother who was not her mother would stand with folded arms and would point, and whether it was the spinning wheel or the shelf with its wooden owls, she would set it to rights, even when there was nothing amiss. For the spinning wheel was always in the same corner and the owls on the shelf did not have the gift of flight.

Rare was the word that was spoken to the girl.

Of course the girl had a name, which had been given to her by her mother and her father. But the woman who was not her mother, when she came to live with the girl’s father as his wife, did not call the girl by her true name. Had her name been Susanna she would have called her Annie. If Mary then Molly, if Juliet, then Rose. When the father who was not her father came to live with the mother who was not her mother, her true name was altogether forgotten. Where you might expect to hear a name, as with Anna, do this or Anna, do that; instead you would hear Wash this or Clean that. Before long, without the benefit of words, the girl did what she was bidden to do.

Since I am neither the father who was not the father nor the mother who was not the mother, I will give the girl who was growing into womanhood a name, Patience. If I could, I would call her by her true name, her lost name.

Why, you wonder, would Patience be treated so harshly? I would give you an answer if I could, just as I would teach you the secret of the speech of birds, if I could. If there lives a person who knows either the history of the woman who was not the mother or that of the father who was not the father, let that person come forward and speak the truth. Till then, I will say nothing more of those two nameless persons.

As I said at the beginning, the girl was beautiful. I will say that once more: Patience was beautiful, like a star that shines in the night with Purity and Constancy, which could be two more names for Patience. You ask, Did Patience know of her beauty? I can answer that question: No, she did not. The word Beauty, as with many other words, had fallen by the wayside. Think of the word Beauty as turned to dust. And without a word to anchor you, unless you are a beast of the earth or a bird of the air, you will see, but you will not see Beauty.

One morning late in spring, Patience did not wake, not with the dawn, not as the sun rose above the snow-capped mountains to the east, not as the sun was disappearing into the valley below. The two nameless persons shook her by the shoulders as you would a rag rug. They brought icy water from the river which they threw upon her face. They cried, “Wake up!” But Patience gave no sign of understanding. Yet they saw her steady breathing.

And so they sent for me. I will not tell you my name, for this is a story without names, and moreover, mine is of no consequence. What is of consequence is that I found a way to free Patience from the nameless ones. Ω

Tony Wolk is the author of three novels: Abraham Lincoln: A Novel Life, Good Friday, and Lincoln’s Daughter.