Named and Nameless
In the midst of the naming, the boy asks: What’s your name?
The Voice remembers: years in the future, others will ask this question. The reply is the same: I am what I am.
The boy: That’s not an answer. We’re all what we all are, nameless or no.
The Voice: But it’s you who must come when called.
Hers & His
Once torn apart, the two freshly skinned bodies take the names given to them. The boy takes one name and the girl another.
They learn the words I and mine.
It will be easy to swallow the fruit.
The girl wonders aloud: what name would I take if the verses hadn’t spoken first?
About his own name, the boy says nothing. He thinks: it has been mine all along.
That first week, all the seasons tumble into the garden. The girl is the first to notice.
The forest’s trees turn green, then golden-red, then brown. The first snowfall: white against bare stone-gray bark.
Later, green tendrils break the ground’s thawing crust, greedy for light. Each new rooted life buds, leafs out, flowers, launches scent and seed on every new gust, reveling in plenitude through long hours of heat, of rain, of wind.
So too with the creatures: small and blind when born, quickly multiplying into flocks and herds.
Aloud, the girl says to the boy: Why one name for each kind? Every beast and green thing lives its own life. We are not done. We must name them all.
The boy says nothing. Instead, he opens his eyes, stares into a creature’s face, and says: Cockroach!
Created before the newborns and their gated child-garden, before the villagers outside the fence, Other-man wanders grasslands.
Other-man smells the hedge closing up around the new-fashioned beasts and the two children.
Air closes in with the trees, stifling and hot. An odor of feral fear rises from the hemmed-in herds. What do these children know? Set here, in the midst of this hardscape, all seems to them fresh-made and lovely.
Every name given the beasts is an iron stake hammered in rock, prisoning free creatures. These children: what do they know?
To make his escape, Other-man tunnels under the hedge. Then he hesitates. He loves beasts too well to leave them behind. He can’t help them all. Maybe a few can be saved from this naming.
Heavy-muscled, heavy-browed, Other-man remains. Meanwhile, the children play with matches.
After the Murder
The husband, having lost two sons, returns home from his mad inconsolable grief. An infant still lives, a third boy. There will be more, both sons and daughters.
As anguish burrows within him, rage eats at his sleep. He names these dreamless nights. He names them dishonor.
Never again, he says. Never again. He decides: this new son and all of the children to come must obey his every word, must ask for every freedom.
His wife warns him: if you push them hard, they will break. In silence he looks at the woman. He thinks: she too must be made to obey.
The wife, what can she do? She lives among strangers. If she runs off, where would she go? She has no mother or father. Her childhood refuge is ash.
She must stay and stay.
She feels a sickness rise her belly. She gives this nausea a name: it is shame.
In this version, the Husband and Wife name only their sons. The daughters are nameless.
To name is to honor. That which is honored, owes. The debt must be paid. These unnamed daughters, granted no dignity, stand safe beyond arm’s reach.
Their father knows the names of all living creatures, but does not know these daughters of his.
Their mother knows the price paid for taking a name from a husband. She keeps her daughters out of his sight, nameless as dim and untouchable stars.
The beasts know these daughters by scent. The beasts know their feral eyes, their stillness. They know these women by posture: alert, ready to fight or to flee.
The sisters, silent in sunlight, keep to the fiction. In a house where brother kills brother, it is best to give and take names only in a new moon’s blue shadow. The beasts know this too.
Their children are gone. The Voice hasn’t spoken in centuries. The wife and husband are old.
All these years together, through the changing of names: girl and boy, woman and man, wife and husband, mother and father. Living in squalor, Bible-forgotten, they are the only two left in the world who understand one another.
Sometimes names are like sutures, binding the wound from the bleed through the pain and the scar. Year after year, all their old names find one another. The names call one another. Each one is half of a whole.
One day, each quietly gifts a new name to the other. No one else knows these names, not even the story.
Nine hundred thirty years later, the Namer finally gives up the ghost. As
each iron word flakes to rust, the animals reclaim their names, making their own covenants.
The creatures know too well the power of a name. Free of the old man’s surveillance, they make new names: chains to subdue the dying man’s living children, his children’s children, and all of the many human tribes.
A wolf pack, seeing women and men in the distance, will howl their names. Irresistibly called, their prey, trembling and sobbing, walk unwilling toward the beckoning teeth and dripping slaver.
Terrified, the tribes retreat into sheltering caves and clefts, subsisting there on blind fish found in underground streams and mealy bugs in the leaf-fall. At night, they gather roots and haul riverside carcasses left behind by daylight’s carnivory.
The young ones, strong girls and boys, resolve to reclaim each animal’s secret. Just before sunrise, they creep to a creature’s own den. They take the adults by surprise, trussing them with sisal thongs. Then they strangle the newborn litter, one whelp after another, until the bitch surrenders its own true name and the names of all of its kind.
It’s hard and dangerous work, torturing syllables from a shark’s gasping gills or an antelope’s voiceless whimpering.
Over the years, humanity wins back its mastery. The tribes are free now to build their own mud-brick, mud-laned Edens, eating fatty meat from burnt bones, offering a share to their God.
To this same God, the suffering creatures, wholly broken, cry out: Make them forget our names! We will leave them alone! Just make them stop!
The Voice is silent.
Insatiably hungry, human hunters call the roll. The animals make their terrified way toward the knives, the clubs, the fire, the boiling white milk.
The world exists for six thousand years.
The first of those years are the same as the last: the sun tasked to orbit its chosen planet, the planet wild with dangerous beauty.
On one of these days, the Garden burns. On one of these days, the dry land drowns. On all of these days, even to burnscar and floodplain, life returns.
The first woman and man live for long epochs. As children, they bite the fruit, bringing catastrophe. As husband and wife, they enter the world. They witness the world’s new life. They witness death’s crucifixions. Birth-blood, death-blood: endless.
They and their children name all the world. By the end it is under the power of words. Each noun is a prison, a bullet, a whip. They must be saints, these two, seeing again and again that ruin and hope chase one another.
Are you surprised they live so long, enduring such horror?
Are you surprised to discover, old as you are, that you too are grateful?
Tom Laichas’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Panoply, Eclectica, Lotus-eater, Convergence and Blue Unicorn. His essays appear at the blog Left, Write and Centaur (https://leftwritecentaur.com). Tom lives in Los Angeles.