"The Tenth Nadine"*
Listen to the audio version read by the author.
I write letters to you in this journal in my attempt to explain the things I know about you. Things I know of the world. The reason I've loved you twenty-seven times.
Humans don't know this, but every time they are faced with an impossible decision, they split. They live out two lives. I met you many years ago, so I've watched you split again and again. I've followed you. I've met you twenty-seven times. Sometimes you remember me and sometimes you don't.
I know this because I'm not human. I'm a skogsnymf, born in a circle of infinity oaks in the south of Sweden. You came to my river, my waterfall, to paint, and from the moment I saw you, I was lost to you.
Skogsnymfer are not supposed to fall in love with humans. They're not supposed to be deaf, either. I left my trees, I left my family—because I was both of those things. I was different.
And you were different, too.
* * *
The tenth Nadine went as far as Iceland. Laugarvatn to be exact.
I found you in the mouth of a cave, halfway up the rock mountains that were dusted in green and the blue of the lupine flowers. All around us were giant brown stones in various shapes. Elf homes. I felt the elves tickling me with the wings of the moths or the tiny branches of the downy birches growing along the narrow trails. They loved to giggle and we shared the same gods so we could talk for hours—not in the same language, but with a sort of inner language the fae sometimes use when we're not carrying on a conversation translatable into one of our culture's spoken languages. I had a hard time keeping my attention on finding you with so many friendly fae around me.
This time, you were Nadine again. Your brown hair hung straight down to your shoulders, dye free, and you wore a simple buttoned-down blue dress with a raincoat tied around your waist. There were no rings on your body this time, just the fire and dragons on your arms, and the banyan tree from our time in Bali ages ago.
Nadine, you didn't just teach me to how to love you—you taught me how to love a particular kind of woman. Some women have such a simple beauty—straight brown hair that gets in their face—blue eyes. Some faces beg you to pull their hair, pull them to you and kiss them deep and long. Some dresses beg you to touch the body behind them, because they're so perfectly joined to the skin—like a human with the skin of a skogsnymf—shining and blending into the bark of our trees, the patterns of their leaves. Two things becoming one thing—altered equally by each of the things that came together to make it.
You were always a woman who wore her clothes like skin, no matter how wild they were or how radically designed. In one world, you wore a top hat like everyone else, hanging just over one of your eyes. In another, you wore only strips of black leather with brass grommets holding them together. In another, you wore nothing but paint splattered cargo pants and skirts and white or black t-shirts that somehow never had a drop of paint on them. Everywhere, you and your clothes, your costumes, were one.
Even in Iceland, when you wore such plain unmemorable clothes, they made you look volumes more put together than anyone else. Even the locals seemed to have noticed and respected you more for it (though you always traveled well and had a knack for knowing what form of dress would be most appropriate to wear in any given place). I thought it must be because you were the kind of artist that always watched the people around them. You needed to know people. You needed to understand their desires or their fears in order to paint them so hauntingly. In order to take a piece of their spirit and trap it down on the canvas like a thief of souls.
You trapped me like one of your subjects. You trapped me like a skogsnymf traps a human. And I think it must mean—I have a soul of my own after all. And I don't think of you as a thief, unless I could call you a thief of hearts.
I followed the tenth Nadine in the dark blue dress back down the river of stones and tiny waterfalls pouring through tufts of green moss. At the base of the narrow trail, where it became a wider, green one through patches of more birches and pine trees, you sat upon the stones and dipped your bare feet into the cold water. You were hiking barefoot when it was barely summer in Iceland. I wasn't sure if it was something you did to be closer to the natural world around you or if it was something you learned from your time with me. But I could tell we were in a place you returned to often. A place where you felt comfortable and less like a foreigner. I knew from our time in Bali that you seek out these places—usually somewhere in nature where you can be alone with trees or the sea—because they make you feel at home no matter where in the world that you are. Nature, any nature, always makes you feel at home.
I could never feel that way, except near the banyan trees, because every new forest whispers something else. Every foreign tree is clearly foreign to me. They speak languages I can't understand. Bushes and ferns cluster together threateningly at times. Nature resists the things that enter it from afar.
But humans step with heavy feet and they can't hear the whispering of the trees. They love every place that gives them peace and quiet enough to look within, because they really do love themselves, and you, too, Nadine. You love yourself with every stroke of your paintbrush, but you resist your own nature, your own built-in drive to survive that every animal has (and humans maybe most of all), and sometimes it looks like it's a game. Sometimes you just look selfish. Or stupid. But everyone has a saboteur inside of themselves, a part that wants to wreck things, a part that is always angry.
I think that deep down, you all just fear death and that fear pisses you off, too. You want answers. You want to know what happens when you die and some people brainwash themselves into thinking that they know this, because they can't live with that mystery waiting behind every next corner. And other people lose themselves in it, loving it and hating it in equal measure, running towards it and from it all the time. Shifting. Splitting. Undecided.
Those mountains in Iceland, and the valley where the tiny town of Laugarvatn sits along the lake where hot springs steam, was a place I embraced even more than the banyans of Bali. The fae there were like sisters and brothers to me. It was—finally—a natural place that felt more at home to me than my own forest, my own trees, because my mother was not there and my fae were not there. Icelandic elves in that valley do not eat humans like my kind does. I could laugh with them, I could run over boulders with them, flying like the birds and the tiny moths—feeling free and loved and accepted.
As I watched you in that river, I prayed to the gods that you would stay in Iceland forever. That we could stay there together. I stayed invisible to you for a while there. I just wanted to watch the way you interacted with the little river, the mountains, and the lake. The way you painted the lupine flowers. The way you painted the elves.
When I wasn't following you around, I wandered the trails and open rock faces of the mountains, considering the multiverse. I never understood parallel worlds like a scientist. I was fae, not human. And most humans got it wrong anyhow. They would split before they could finish their theories, which was sad if you thought about it too much. Imagine knowing that you could never finish an important scientific theory, or an opera, or a painting, or a novel, because something was bound to happen to split you into another world, leaving both halves jaded and lost for a bit before finding their way again. And both of you would be different. The part of you that you needed most to finish a particular project is always part of the other you, the one that leaves the world you are working and living in for something else.
Humans do that so easily. They give up. They leave. Well, I'm not going to leave you, Nadine.
One day I let myself be seen as you stepped out of the lake and used your blue dress to dry yourself before pulling it back down over your head. I pretended I wasn't watching you.
When you walked past me, you looked down, our eyes met, and you spoke to me.
I signed back, "I'm deaf."
And we started everything again. We signed for hours by the lake, and then you brought me up to a beautiful hostel restaurant to eat reindeer meat (because I had never eaten it before, despite coming from Sweden where they have it, too) and drink Brennivin, the Icelandic spirit also known as Black Death. I hoped you weren't staying in Iceland for that. I took one sip and said it was too strong for me and thankfully, you didn't offer it anymore.
We went to the spa together afterwards and there was a small group of foreigners there. They like to chat a lot, though, which made it quite boring for me.
I was never comfortable in groups of humans speaking to each other with too-fast lips. I stayed on the outskirts of every crowd or avoided them altogether. It was easier to spy on people from a few feet away and try and read the stories between their lips and bodies, than it was to be immersed in a group of people having avid conversations and trying to include me, too. There was no pressure when I was just trying to eavesdrop and I could stop at any time if I began to get a headache from it.
"I'm such an idiot! I completely forgot," you said the next morning while we were walking together through the patches of lupine flowers along the mountain trails. "But I had no reason to forget. I've told you about Jan. He always felt like that, too. Stupid, stupid me."
"It's okay, you tried interpreting, but it was a spa and I was fine just sitting in the water and relaxing, " I signed.
"I know, but I should have been more thoughtful," you signed, "I won't put you in that situation again, okay? I promise."
And you didn't.
I slept with you in the small room of your artist residency space, and then when your time there ended, we moved to a tiny apartment by the lake. "I can't leave here yet, Anja," you signed to me, after a few months, "It's just so perfect and inspiring."
"It's okay," I signed, "I love it here, too."
"Is it like Sweden for you?"
"It's better than Sweden."
We were happy there in that valley surrounded by the rock cliffs that always had patches of snow on them. You found more green ribbon and tied it on all of your favorite trees and places. You smiled, and it wasn't because of weed, it was because somehow you had lost Maria and found peace in a far off place—with the elves you could also feel all around you, and the mountains that lined up along the north like sentinels, and the flat green valley that stretched out towards the town of Selfoss and the city of Reykjavik, the nearest places for you to buy more alcohol for the pantry.
Sometimes your alcohol addiction made things difficult there. That and the summer light and winter darkness. You always drank more in the winter and when we ran out, and the restaurants in town were closed, you would moan with your hands, "Anja, please get more Brennivin. Just take the car right now."
"But the shops in Selfoss won't be open for hours."
"Just go and wait!"
I'm ashamed of how many times I did that for you: sat in your car that you taught me to drive only for alcohol runs into town. Waited for shops to open. Drove back to your angry face painting something with trolls or ice giants in it.
Iceland was good for you in some ways because it challenged you to face your demons and helped you feel safe and protected and close to the elves and nature. But the Black Death in the clear bottles that stacked up by our front door kept ominously growing. I thought you must be purging yourself with the spirits you drank, and I kept asking you to hike or go to the pool and soak with me in the hot water, because if you did those things, you couldn't drink as much.
I asked the elves what to do, but they had never dated humans like me. They never loved them like me, but they never judged me either. I was a novelty to them, a bridge between them and you, or them and people, that was delightful and fun, even when I was sad. They could cheer me up with their chatter, their soft moth wings.
I spent so many summer evenings hiking the trails up on the hill. The elves didn't speak my language and I didn't speak theirs, but we communicated through the moths and the flies, the birds and the downy birches. I often lay down in a field of birches shorter than me, with my head against their trunks. They were filled with such resilience, their little forest where the elves tickled my skin and laughed when the birch leaves poked me in the eye or the mouth, or when a moth flew straight into my chest so fast I squealed. The elves in that forest didn't eat humans, but other elves in distant parts of their country did, so they understood my kind. And they loved me more for wanting to go against it.
The elves told me so many times—to stay. They would protect me. I could hike to the cave halfway up the hills, right below where a family of grumpy trolls lived. I could live there and roam their rocks, exploring one elf home after another. I could wander up and down the stream, counting the little waterfalls, making new ones by rearranging rocks. They would let me do that, if I desired.
But I had you, too. I was divided because I was always worried about you, and sometimes, when the birch trees or the pines poked you especially hard, or stuck themselves in your hair, I narrowed my eyes at my elf friends, but I forgave them. They were just looking out for me. They'd never hurt you, but they were jealous. They just wanted to keep their new friend, and so did I.
One day in spring, after we had been living in Iceland for almost three years, I came in from recycling all of your liquor bottles and signed, "Why don't you try and stop drinking here? It's so beautiful. You've practically become famous for your elf and troll paintings. We're so happy here most of the time. You haven't even self-harmed since when—over a year ago? I just think you'd be so much happier without the alcohol."
"You do, huh?" You signed, and I thought you would start yelling at me, or walk out of the room, or break down and cry. I sat on the edge of our sofa and tried not to touch you or sign anything else in case it might set you off.
But you didn't do any of those things. You sat for a long time, staring out at the lake before signing, "I'll try."
I should have known a request of that magnitude would split you. I almost never asked it because of that, but that third winter was so harsh. I drove often through the dense snow for your liquor runs. I almost died on the road once from the car shutting down in the middle of the night during a storm. If someone hadn't been driving by early the next morning, I might have frozen to death. I'm not immortal. I can live for hundreds of years but I can also die from that kind of exposure. It scared me and it scared you, too, but it didn't stop you from asking me to drive to town again once the car was fixed and the snow wasn't so heavy.
You tried to quit for weeks before splitting. I was proud of you for that. Proud that you tried so hard, but I didn't expect you to surmount your addiction that quickly. I was ready for the splitting, even if it made me feel like I was going to have to leave a place where I felt more at home than anywhere else in the world.
We were hiking up by the cave where I first saw you when you split. And for the first time, I didn't run after you. I couldn't leave Iceland quite yet.
It wasn't just because of how much I loved the elves or the birches. I wanted to know what would happen to the Nadine that stayed behind. I knew the eleventh Nadine would return somewhere she felt safe to drink or smoke weed, and I assumed it would be Amsterdam. So I stayed. I needed to know what happens to the Nadines you leave behind, if one example was any indication of the rest of them, that is. I wasn't sure it would be. But I stayed and you kept trying not to drink.
At night, you paced the apartment. You painted and got your paint all over the walls and the floors. You were unraveling, but you still weren't drinking.
One morning, I woke up to find you gone. I ran off to the trails on the mountains when I saw that you weren't swimming in the lake or the pool. The birches moaned as I passed them. The moths held still. The birds froze on their branches. The elves were silent.
Something was very wrong.
The cave where I first saw you wasn't a deep cave, but it's mouth was large and there was a chain someone tied to the stone that we hadn't tried to climb for fear that it could snap and the fall could break our legs or necks. You tied a green ribbon to it, though, and we sat in the cave mouth and meditated while watching birds of prey circling the tall brown cliffs up above with a narrow waterfall pouring between them.
I don't know how you climbed even higher than the chain, but by the condition of your body on the ground at the mouth of the cave, you must have reached the highest point inside it and dived headfirst off of the sharp rock wall. You wouldn't want to have only broken your legs.
You left me a note in the pocket of your blue dress that was bunched up around your waist. It read:Anya,
Forgive me. It's just too hard and I can't drink around you again but I can't stop drinking either. I'm caught between the two like a child trapped between the rocks. This is the only way I know to free myself. At least I can find Maria now, right? If we don't just become dirt and worm holes. I love you. Don't forget that I love you more than I've ever loved anyone. I'm sorry.
I held your body until the sky grew pink for the few hours of false night. I held you until the sky grew bright again. The elves clustered around me in the shape of tiny moths all over my skin. Their minute feet tickled, but I didn't brush them off. I need their wings. I needed their courage to eventually leave and find the eleventh Nadine.
It took me almost a week. I dragged your body into the cave and dug your grave with my bare hands. I scattered lupine flowers over the ground and I knew the elves would take care of the space. I knew I could always return there, but I wasn't sure if I could bring myself to do it. The sadness I felt stuck itself to the rocks like moss, like the wetness of the river water, like the brown dirt that stayed under my nails for weeks. I couldn't look at the lupine dusting the mountain with joy anymore. It was the color of your eyes.
As I wandered the trails, saying my goodbyes to the elves and the birches I had come to love like family, I found a broken bottle of Black Death and wondered if it was yours. I took it as a sign that I should return to the cave and follow the next Nadine right then. I had to leave your death behind. I had to find you alive again.
*"The Tenth Nadine" is an excerpt from Kristen Ringman's speculative fiction novel Twenty-Seven Nadines