The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Nola” by Jacqueline Doyle

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It’s fairly common to read about fictional protagonists whose past traumas serve as obstacles in their present lives. But often those traumas are at the hands of another, whether a parent, lover, spouse, a childhood bully, or even a childhood friend. In “Nola” (Monkeybicycle), Jacqueline Doyle explores a protagonist haunted not by what happened to her, but what she did to another.

Doyle begins the story with the main character Cathy searching for a friend from her childhood named Nola. She scours the Internet, various archives, even queries family members, but with no luck. Her mysterious reason for the search—which Doyle initially veils in rich description—serves as the driving force for the narrative.

Fifty years later, fragments of memory have resurfaced in my dreams, vivid and unsettling. The smell of pine needles and wet earth. Dim shafts of light filtered through a dense canopy of branches overhead. Silence broken only by the occasional jeering of a scrub jay or the sudden, agitated twittering of small birds. Gigantic trees towering above us as we hurried home, breathless, our hearts pounding. Only I’m not sure it ever happened.

Years ago, something may have happened in the forest between the protagonist and Nola, who may or may not exist. To add to that, elsewhere it’s revealed that Cathy may have been culpable in whatever might have happened. That’s a lot of mays, but Doyle sets it up so that the stack of mysteries amplifies the potential drama of the past events instead of confusing it, leaving the reader to wonder whether what happened was so traumatic that the narrator repressed it.

The compelling mystery in the first section buys Doyle time in the second to develop the backstory of the narrator and Nola’s (possible) relationship. As the details mount—specific descriptions of playtimes, houses, trailers, and even furniture—those questions of whether Nola existed are subtly answered in the affirmative. Also, the backstory creates a nice sense of youthful innocence of the characters, a reprieve that sets up for a painful revelation:

She (Nola) was wearing that black lace dress when we tied her to the tree. We were far from the path, deep in the woods. I’m not sure what game we were playing, me and Nola and my school friends…Nola agreed to play. We didn’t make her…Her arms were pinned to her sides and we wound the clothesline around her legs and her arms and her torso and her shoulders and tied it in double knots. There were tears and snot on her face.

“Cathy?” she kept saying. “Please make them stop, Cathy. Don’t go, Cathy.” She knew the others wouldn’t help, but she kept saying my name. “Don’t go, Cathy.” Her voice was shrill with fear. Nola should have known that she wasn’t my friend when I was playing with Candace and Daria. And besides, we were playing a game. That’s what I told myself.

What begins as child’s play develops into something far more serious. They leave Nola in the woods, and never see her again. Notice how Doyle slowly shifts the voice between young Cathy and old. While the first two sentences (and the last) sound like they are from the adult narrator, in between the diction changes—for example the run-on sentence starting with “Her arms…” and then the excuses, such as “Nola should have known…” Cathy, all these years later, is still going over the reasoning behind her decision, as if picking at a scab that just won’t heal.

And she’s hounded by dreams.

Night after night, my dreams take place in the forest. The still air shimmers with menace. I feel like I’ve been walking forever, my footsteps muffled by a thick cushion of pine needles…I’m afraid it will get dark. I’m alone, I’m hurrying, I don’t know where. Maybe home to hide behind my mother. Maybe back to Nola to release her.

I can feel her mounting terror, the clothesline biting into her skin as she struggles. I run faster, through clouds of tiny insects that I brush away from my face, and thickets of twigs that scratch my hands. The woods darken as twilight gathers. I don’t know where I am or where the path is. I think I hear Nola’s panicked breathing somewhere nearby…

Cathy never finds out what happened to Nola. And Doyle ends the story in such a way that it’s clear she will continue to be haunted by what she did, what she should have done to stop it, and the ways in which she talked initially herself out of taking any blame. This lack of resolution is key. When we do others harm, we do ourselves harm as well—harm that doesn’t just resolve on its own over time.