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The Hyperion Chronicles
“Holding out hope someone will donate…or at least send me some Myrrh”
#374 Child with no Name
It started as a piece of dinner conversation.
“What would a child be like who had no name?”
For whatever reason—the parents were protesting hippies; psychologists looking at children as one big experiment; there was a huge custody dispute tied up in the courts—the end result the same.
The child—a boy, if that matters—on his birth certificate, under name:__________.
Nothing written. Nothing ever written. Just left blank.
What would this child be like? We talked long into the night, arguing the merits pro and con, debating the likelihood of each.
Someone posited that giving a name bestowed personhood and humanity, and that withholding it tantamount to neglect and child abuse. Another theory pointed out that dogs and boats and paintings had names and none of them acted like people (except some poodles).
Another went three steps further, claiming the act of naming robbed the thing of power, made it owned, categorized and labeled it forever, and to be sans name was to retain mystique, an aura, if you will.
And that was the end of it. I told a few friends, got their takes, forgot about it. Then one day, a few months later, I was out on a date with a nurse. I told her stories I’d seen covering the news. She was regaling me with hospital lore. She told me about a case from about ten years back, before her time, a baby who had been born in her hospital. According to the nurse, the mother was a very peculiar woman, claims she didn’t have the right to name her baby. And the mother refused to.
“What about the father?” I asked.
“There wasn’t a father.”
She was desperately poor, the nurse told me, and had obviously traveled a huge distance when she stumbled into the hospital. She said and did all sorts of strange things, “You should have heard some of the claims she made.” My companion said conspiratorially. “They had to call in Psych.”
“What was the end result?” I asked.
“I don’t know. They made her leave the hospital after a few days. Took her baby with her. I guess the government will force a name on the child, for identification purposes.”
I never went out with the woman again, but my curiosity was piqued by the story. I had a friend on the force who owed me a favor, and I had him check around. He found where the woman went, but by the time I got there the mother was long gone, child in tow. I put out feelers, tracked down every lead, but they all proved fruitless.
I kept up my efforts, and few months later they paid off. I ran into the story again, a child with no name. This time I was on a date with a teacher, and she related how this mother had come to the school with her boy, about ten or eleven, trying to register him for school for the first time. The school wasn’t going to let the boy in, because he had no name, but the mother squawked about discrimination and lawyers, and eventually they let him in.
“What do they call him?” I asked her.
“They don’t. Or at least, his teacher doesn’t. I walk around the track with her sometimes at lunch and she told me she just ignores him. All the other kids call him all sorts of things.” I could imagine.
It seemed pretty incredible that I would run into this mother and child twice in just a few months. I mean, what are the odds? (Although, if you date as much as I do….) I felt connected to the story, and as such it was my duty to make contact.
I asked the woman if she would ask the boy’s teacher if I could drop by the classroom to observe. I mentioned something about getting her name in the paper. That did it, and soon enough I had my request.
The teacher was clearly on her best behavior, but even then she didn’t call the boy anything. Not even pronouns. When she spoke to him it was directly and to the point. The boy answered her questions in a quiet but clear voice. He didn’t seem put off by how she addressed him. Nor did he pay attention to the kids whispering about him.
At lunch he sat by himself at a table in the corner. I wanted to observe with the least intrusion possible, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk to the boy alone.
“Mind if I sit here?” I asked, my own lunch tray in hand. He shrugged. I sat. We ate in silence for a time, and the itch came over me. I started asking questions.
“You always eat alone?” That was dumb. I’m not trying to embarrass him. But the boy nodded without emotion. Between bites he said, “The lunch lady tried to make kids sit with me, but she quit after awhile.”
I had so many questions, I didn’t know where to start. “What do they call you, you don’t mind me asking?”
“They don’t. One kid calls me ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot,’ but I think he just heard someone else say those words; I don’t think he knows what they mean.”
“What does your mother call you?” I probed.
“She doesn’t. Half the time she treats me like I’m her master, and the rest of the time she’s afraid of me like some monster. But she never says my name.”
“Does that bother you?”
“It did, but I got used to it.”
The next question is tentative, almost gentle. “Your dad ever give you a name?”
“Never met him. My mom says….” He looks lost for a moment. “I never met him.”
Recess was an appalling affair. The kids had a game: they’d run by the boy as fast as they could and try to spit on him. Harder than it looks on a dead run, and many missed, but some learned to alter their trajectory to compensate for wind and speed. The result was gobs of spit all over him. It broke my heart and I so wanted to get involved, but I was here to observe the boy, not take action. I didn’t want to become part of the story.
The recess monitor actively ignored the situation. The boy really was persona non grata out here. However, one little girl tried to help. After all the kids had grown tired and moved on she approached the boy. She didn’t have a napkin, but she used the sleeve of her sweatshirt to get up what she could. He accepted with wordless thanks, and she ran off, fearful to be seen around him.
I left then, not wanting to see any more. I struggled for a few weeks, trying to come up with a story, but no angle presented itself. I kept tabs on the boy, dropping in on him from time to time. We had lunch a few times. Once I even took him to a ball game. He remained polite, self-possessed, detached. I guess you can’t engage with a world that’s going to treat you like such a outcast.
A couple years later the mother moved him away, and I lost him again. I finally found where they were living, but there was no phone. I thought of writing a letter, but how to address it? I even thought of driving to see him, but it was a long trip, and I had my own life, you know?
It was a few years later when I ran into the boy again, now a young man. My cop buddy gave me the heads-up. The boy had said some things, apparently incited crowds, and they locked him up as a psycho. I got permission to visit. He looked mostly the same, except much more tired, the kind of tired that doesn’t come from lack of sleep, but years of carrying a burden. He also looked kind of proud, but so tired.
He remembered me. He never asked why I didn’t visit him, but I felt the sting of shame anyway. I asked about his mother.
“She left two years ago, on my sixteenth birthday. Couldn’t take it, I guess. The last year she couldn’t even look at me. Couldn’t afford me either.”
“She had a job?”
“Couldn’t keep one. She was just too unstable. Whatever happened to her before I was born…it changed her forever.” He swallowed. “Without a name, the state wouldn’t help out, so there was no assistance. I’ve been working since I was twelve, but money was always beyond tight. It’s better this way.” There was no conviction in his voice.
“You’re 18 now, I said.” You can name yourself. It would certainly help you as an adult. You kind of have to, right?” He shrugged again, and looked out the window at a sparrow hopping around on a limb of a tree.
“I’ve come this far….might as well finish it.” There was a finality by his words, which left me with nothing to say. I left soon after. It was the last time I saw him alive.
I read about him in the obituaries. I just happened to catch the headline: NO NAME MAN KILLED IN MELEE. The details were sketchy. I rang up my contact once again, now a Lieutenant. He didn’t have much more.
“We couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He was talking on the streets like a crazy person for days. We’d arrested him twice already. He said something that night, don’t know what, but a fight started. 30 different versions, but bottom line; he’s dead and nobody’s responsible.
“They couldn’t find his mother—with no name where would you look?” My buddy continued, “So they are burying him in a public plot for the homeless and indigent.”
I went to the burial—I felt like our few encounters made me almost family. It was a cold and terrible day, the kind of day that makes you just want to stay inside, but I went anyway.
The chaplain read his piece quickly and got out of there. Then there was just me. I stood there for a bit and saw a man approach. He was older, in his 60s, distinguished, in a dark suit of old-fashioned cut. He had a bouquet of pinkish white flowers—what I found out later were hibiscus syriacus. The man placed the flowers next to the cardboard placard. There was nothing written on the surface. It seemed so empty and barren. We stood in silence for some time. Finally he spoke.
“Were you a friend?”
“No, not really. We ran into each other from time to time. You?”
“I knew him.” The words were simply spoken, but seemed to have great meaning. I felt the need to speak.
“To be honest, I heard about his birth several years after the fact. I was interested in the circumstances and so I tracked him down.”
“What circumstances were those?” The man asked me, looking at me for the first time.
“You know; no name. I met with him a few times, with the idea of writing a story about him, but none ever came to me.”
The man looked at me silently, for long moments, and then offered, “He had a name.”
“He did?” I said in surprise. “Well, what was it?”
Instead of answering the man reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a permanent marker. He bent down in the rain and wrote on the placard words in an unfamiliar language. I asked the man what the words were and he spoke. I still didn’t recognize it and told him so.
The man looked at me again, really looked at me, and down at the flowers, beaten by the rain. He looked back up at me, straight in the eye, and I felt weighed and measured, and left wanting.
He said to me, “His name means ‘Least of these.’”
December 23, 2005
© 2005 The Hyperion Institute. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
...in case you were a bit slow on the uptake.