Ethel Hempstock sold her name. She hated her name since the day she learned to speak it. And when she asked her father what her middle name was he said to ask her mother. When Ethel brought the question to her mother she simply replied that Ethel Hempstock was her full name and she saw no need to muddle it.
They just get in the way, dear.
So any hopes Ethel had of going by a middle name were dashed and any names she tried to apply to herself never seemed to stick. Odd, the power names have over us, given that we are not the ones who choose them. Some days all she would do would be to lie on her back in the forest and come up with new names she wished she had. Wonderful fantastic names would come to her like Penelope Sweetwater, Clara Bellview, Sweet Briar Rose, or Rapunzel even. Anything would have been preferable to the horrendous, mundane title she was stuck with.
Ethel was not a stunning beauty, but neither was she ugly. Yet she became convinced that her very name had locked her into becoming who she was. Over time, her name became the poison root of all her misfortunes. She became obsessed with the notion that even if she looked the same, a different name would make her more desirable.
She prayed in the woods to every god and monster whose name she could remember from stories, pleading for the blessing of a new name – of a new life. Even to the cruel trickster gods she begged, those who relished in giving us exactly what we ask for. Sometimes our prayers are answered.
One day, as she howled to the heavens her prayers were interrupted by a stranger. Startled by the sudden presence of another soul in her sacred place, the place she was sure only she could find, Ethel rose to her feet unsure of how to greet the stranger. The figure was dressed in a wool cloak with a square patch on the hood. Though the stranger’s face was concealed, the voice that came from it was unmistakably female.
So you wish to sell your name, eh girl?
I…yes, I want a new name, a new life. I hate my name.
Hate? Oh this is no good, no good for you. I happen to carry just what you desire.
You can give me a new name?
It can be so that all who know you shall forget your name ever was at all, tearing it from this world. But such a gift, it has a price of course, like anything of value, and a name is a very precious thing indeed, yes girl?
Yet your new name would be, yes?
Oh yes, please, please. But…I don’t have anything to trade.
You are offering to sell your name, this is more than fair. So what price does this one name?
What? All I want is a new name, to be rid of the thing once and for all.
So then you offer a trade, as I say. A name for a name then. What is the name you own?
Ethel, but I want it to be Penelope Sweetwater or-
Your full name, and you may not simply choose a name, you did not choose the first one after all. A name has power, is a promise of who you are and a hint of who you shall become. Call a rose a tulip, but you shall taste the lie.
Oh. This was disappointing to her but she couldn’t think of any name worse than hers. She said, what will my new name be then?
I cannot say.
But, don’t you know?
I cannot say, but I have a name, for a name.
Well anything is better than Ethel Hempstock.
You offer up this name and understand once it is stripped from you it shall be forever?
The stranger pulled a small container from under the cloack and said, Drink half of this liquid and poor the other half onto the fire. You must sleep tonight amongst the nameless trees. When you wake, you shall be known as Ethel Hempstock no longer.
And you can’t tell me what my new name is?
I cannot say.
Well that’s silly, how will I even know that it worked then?
You will know. You will know your name as you know it now, but like everyone else you will no longer remember the name which was sold. Your old name shall be less than dust.
Good riddance. Thank you so much, Ms…Miss…Oh my, how rude, I never even asked your name.
No. You never do.
Then the stranger made to leave but Ethel stopped her.
Wait, she said, who are you, why are you doing this for me?
The stranger paused but did not turn back, then said, Because you asked for it.
Night seemed to come on far too slow and Ethel took out the leather cask the strange woman gave to her. She had the fire built and ready hours early and considered heading back home to let her parents know she would be sleeping among the trees so they wouldn’t worry. Then she thought perhaps that might cause them to worry more and so in the end decided it was better not to risk it, just in case. Something special had started here in her clearing, and she didn’t want to leave until it was finished. Her parents could yell at her when she returned in the morning and they could call her new name loud and repeatedly as they did. When they were upset with her, her parents had a habit of calling her by her full name, which was how she knew when she was really in for it. She only hoped sleeping out here would be enough.
She spent the rest of the time before sunset holding the cask and wondering what her new name would be – so many wonderful possibilities. Though there were also some pretty bad ones out there she’d prefer not to have. She started thinking of some truly terrible names, but surely she would not get stuck with anything worse than the one she had now.
Yet as the sun began to set and she lit the fire, she started having her first real doubts, started feeling a little scared. Had she, in her haste, made a mistake? Yes it was true that she hated her name, had always hated her name, but it was hers. Her mother was so proud of it. The perfect name, she called it, too perfect even for a middle initial which stood for nothing. The she thought how her name had done her no good, been nothing but trouble, gotten her made fun of and dismissed. It was all the name, right? The trouble, she decided, was that her mother had named a baby and she was becoming a woman now, should rightly be able to name herself. Though she realized at that thought, she wouldn’t actually be naming herself. Just another stranger naming a stranger. She had no say in it, all over again.
Of course whatever title befell her it would have to be better than her old name, which she’d hated so much for so long. Though all at once, as she gazed into the flickering flames, she couldn’t seem to recall why she hated her name, only that she hated it and always had. Then she realized she couldn’t even remember what her name was, which frightened her.
She tasted something sour on her lips and when she wiped at her mouth her hand came away with red liquid on it. The cask was in her left hand, with the plug removed, it was half the weight it’d been earlier, though the girl couldn’t remember having drunk any of it. She tried so hard to recall her name but it had been burned away. It was as though she had never glimpsed her reflection and was trying to recall the appearance of her face. She attempted to comb through scrapbook of memories in her mind but it were as if, after finding only broken mirrors, she’d gone desperately to photos of her only to find she’d vanished from all of them. Maybe not even removed, just blurred beyond recognition, as though the image were out of focus. There she stood in all the memories and everybody else there appeared clear, with their names singed over their visage. She was now a stranger in her own memories, and she no longer knew herself at all.
It was a terrible feeling, an emptiness which pained her very existence. Just to make it end, she turned the cask over the fire and watched the red liquid turn the fire many different colors as it crackled and hissed over the pyre. Then she slept among the trees, a long dreamless slumber.
When she woke the fire was out and birds were singing. She heard a noise, a voice nearby, and stood to great the stranger. It was only then she remembered why she was sleeping in the woods.
She had a new name. She felt the name, could see it but could not seem to say it, her mouth for some reason refusing to voice the word aloud. What is happening, she wondered? And what was so awful about her old name again that she would give it away like loose change to the first beggar who asked.
That was when she realized she was wearing the cloak with a square patch on the hood, and it was then she recognized the voice of the girl in the woods, praying for a new name.