The Shape of My Name

“The Shape of My Name” by Nino Cipri is a time travel story about what it means to truly claim yourself.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.

 

The year 2076 smells like antiseptic gauze and the lavender diffuser that Dara set up in my room. It has the bitter aftertaste of pills: probiotics and microphages and PPMOs. It feels like the itch of healing, the ache that’s settled on my pubic bone. It has the sound of a new name that’s fresh and yet familiar on my lips.

The future feels lighter than the past. I think I know why you chose it over me, Mama.

 

My bedroom has changed in the hundred-plus years that have passed since I slept there as a child. The floorboards have been carpeted over, torn up, replaced. The walls are thick with new layers of paint. The windows have been upgraded, the closet expanded. The oak tree that stood outside my window is gone, felled by a storm twenty years ago, I’m told. But the house still stands, and our family still lives here, with all our attendant ghosts. You and I are haunting each other, I think.

I picture you standing in the kitchen downstairs, over a century ago. I imagine that you’re staring out through the little window above the sink, your eyes traveling down the path that leads from the back door and splits at the creek; one trail leads to the pond, and the other leads to the shelter and the anachronopede, with its rows of capsules and blinking lights.

Maybe it’s the afternoon you left us. June 22, 1963: storm clouds gathering in the west, the wind picking up, the air growing heavy with the threat of rain. And you’re staring out the window, gazing across the dewy fields at the forking path, trying to decide which way you’ll take.

My bedroom is just above the kitchen, and my window has that same view, a little expanded: I can see clear down to the pond where Dad and I used to sit on his weeks off from the oil fields. It’s spring, and the cattails are only hip high. I can just make out the silhouette of a great blue heron walking along among the reeds and rushes.

You and I, we’re twenty feet and more than a hundred years apart.

 

You went into labor not knowing my name, which I know now is unprecedented among our family: you knew Dad’s name before you laid eyes on him, the time and date of my birth, the hospital where he would drive you when you went into labor. But my name? My sex? Conspicuously absent in Uncle Dante’s gilt-edged book where all these happy details were recorded in advance.

Dad told me later that you thought I’d be a stillbirth. He didn’t know about the record book, about the blank space where a name should go. But he told me that nothing he said while you were pregnant could convince you that I’d come into the world alive. You thought I’d slip out of you strangled and blue, already decaying.

Instead, I started screaming before they pulled me all the way out.

Dad said that even when the nurse placed me in your arms, you thought you were hallucinating. “I had to tell her, over and over: Miriam, you’re not dreaming, our daughter is alive.”

I bit my lip when he told me that, locked the words “your son” out of sight. I regret that now; maybe I could have explained myself to him. I should have tried, at least.

You didn’t name me for nearly a week.

 

Nineteen fifty-four tastes like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in fresh milk, delivered earlier that morning. It smells like wood smoke, cedar chips, Dad’s Kamel cigarettes mixed with the perpetual smell of diesel in his clothes. It feels like the worn velvet nap of the couch in our living room, which I loved to run my fingers across.

I was four years old. I woke up in the middle of the night after a loud crash of lightning. The branches of the oak tree outside my window were thrashing in the wind and the rain.

I crept out of bed, dragging my blanket with me. I slipped out of the door and into the hallway, heading for your and Dad’s bedroom. I stopped when I heard voices coming from the parlor downstairs: I recognized your sharp tones, but there was also a man’s voice, not Dad’s baritone but something closer to a tenor.

The door creaked when I pushed it open, and the voices fell silent. I paused, and then you yanked open the door.

The curlers in your hair had come undone, descending down toward your shoulders. I watched one tumble out of your hair and onto the floor like a stunned beetle. I only caught a glimpse of the man standing in the corner; he had thin, hunched shoulders and dark hair, wet and plastered to his skull. He was wearing one of Dad’s old robes, with the initials monogrammed on the pocket. It was much too big for him.

You snatched me up, not very gently, and carried me up to the bedroom you shared with Dad.

“Tom,” you hissed. You dropped me on the bed before Dad was fully awake, and shook his shoulder. He sat up, blinking at me, and looked to you for an explanation.

“There’s a visitor,” you said, voice strained.

Dad looked at the clock, pulling it closer to him to get a proper look. “Now? Who is it?”

Your jaw was clenched, and so were your hands. “I’m handling it. I just need you to watch—”

You said my name in a way I’d never heard it before, as if each syllable were a hard, steel ball dropping from your lips. It frightened me, and I started to cry. Silently, though, since I didn’t want you to notice me. I didn’t want you to look at me with eyes like that.

You turned on your heel and left the room, clicking the door shut behind you and locking it.

Dad patted me on the back, his wide hand nearly covering the expanse of my skinny shoulders. “It’s all right, kid,” he said. “Nothing to be scared of. Why don’t you lie down and I’ll read you something, huh?”

In the morning, there was no sign a visitor had been there at all. You and Dad assured me that I must have dreamed the whole thing.

I know now that you were lying, of course. I think I knew it even then.

 

I had two childhoods.

One happened between Dad’s ten-day hitches in the White County oil fields. That childhood smells like his tobacco, wool coats, wet grass. It sounds like the opening theme songs to all our favorite TV shows. It tastes like the peanut-butter sandwiches that you’d pack for us on our walks, which we’d eat down by the pond, the same one I can just barely see from my window here. In the summer, we’d sit at the edge of the water, dipping our toes into the mud. Sometimes, Dad told me stories, or asked me to fill him in on the episodes of Gunsmoke and Science Fiction Theatre he’d missed, and we’d chat while watching for birds. The herons have always been my favorite. They moved so slow, it always felt like a treat to spot one as it stepped cautiously through the shallow water. Sometimes, we’d catch sight of one flying overhead, its wide wings fighting against gravity.

And then there was the childhood with you, and with Dara, the childhood that happened when Dad was away. I remember the first morning I came downstairs and she was eating pancakes off of your fancy china, the plates that were decorated with delicate paintings of evening primrose.

“Hi there. I’m Dara,” she said.

When I looked at you, shy and unsure, you told me, “She’s a cousin. She’ll be dropping in when your father is working. Just to keep us company.”

Dara didn’t really look much like you, I thought; not the way that Dad’s cousins and uncles all resembled one another. But I could see a few similarities between the two of you; hazel eyes, long fingers, and something I didn’t have the words to describe for a long time: a certain discomfort, the sense that you held yourselves slightly apart from the rest of us. It had made you a figure of gossip in town, though I didn’t know that until high school, when the same was said of me.

“What should I call you?” Dara asked me.

You jumped in and told her to call me by my name, the one you’d chosen for me, after the week of indecision following my birth. How can I ever make you understand how much I disliked that name? It felt like it belonged to a sister whom I was constantly being compared to, whose legacy I could never fulfill or surpass or even forget. Dara must have caught the face that I made, because later, when you were out in the garden, she asked me, “Do you have another name? That you want me to call you instead?”

When I shrugged, she said, “It doesn’t have to be a forever name. Just one for the day. You can pick a new one tomorrow, if you like. You can introduce yourself differently every time you see me.”

And so every morning when I woke up and saw Dara sitting at the table, I gave her a different name: Doc, Buck, George, Charlie. Names that my heroes had, from television and comics and the matinees in town. They weren’t my name, but they were better than the one I had. I liked the way they sounded, the shape of them rolling around my mouth.

You just looked on, lips pursed in a frown, and told Dara you wished she’d quit indulging my silly little games.

The two of you sat around our kitchen table and—if I was quiet and didn’t draw any attention to myself—talked in a strange code about jumps and fastenings and capsules, dropping names of people I never knew. More of your cousins, I figured.

You told our neighbors that all of your family was spread out, and disinclined to make the long trip to visit. When Dara took me in, she made up a tale about a long-lost cousin whose parents had kicked him out for being queer trans. Funny, the way the truth seeps into lies.

 

I went to see Uncle Dante in 1927. I wanted to see what he had in that book of his about me, and about you and Dara.

Nineteen twenty-seven tastes like the chicken broth and brown bread he fed me after I showed up at his door. It smells like the musty blanket he hung around my shoulders, like kerosene lamps and wood smoke. It sounds like the scratchy records he played on his phonograph: Duke Ellington and Al Jolson, the Gershwin brothers and Gene Austin.

“Your mother dropped in by back in 24,” he said, settling down in an armchair in front of the fireplace. It was the same fireplace that had been in our parlor, though Dad had sealed off the chimney in 1958, saying it let in too many drafts. “She was very adamant that your name be written down in the records. She seemed . . . upset.” He let the last word hang on its own, lonely, obviously understated.

“That’s not my name,” I told him. “It’s the one she gave me, but it was never mine.”

I had to explain to him then—he’d been to the future, and so it didn’t seem so far-fetched, my transition. I simplified it for him, of course: didn’t go into the transdermal hormonal implants and mastectomy, the paperwork Dara and I forged, the phalloplasty I’d scheduled a century and a half in the future. I skipped the introduction to gender theory, Susan Stryker, Stone Butch Blues, all the things that Dara gave me to read when I asked if there were books about people like me.

“My aunt Lucia was of a similar disposition,” he told me. “Once her last child was grown, she gave up on dresses entirely. Wore a suit to church for her last twelve years, which gave her a reputation for eccentricity.”

I clamped my mouth shut and nodded along, still feeling ill and shaky from the jump. The smell of Uncle Dante’s cigar burned in my nostrils. I wished we could have had the conversation outside, on the porch; the parlor seemed too familiar, too laden with the ghost of your presence.

“What should I put instead?” he asked, pulling his book down from the mantle: the ancient gilt-edged journal where he recorded our family’s births, marriages, and deaths, as they were reported to him.

“It’s blank when I’m born,” I told him. He paused in the act of sharpening his pencil—he knew better than to write the future in ink. “Just erase it. Tear the whole page out and rewrite it White it out if you need to.”

He sat back in his chair and combed his fingers through his beard. “That’s . . . unprecedented,” he said. Again, that pause, the heaviness of the word choice.

“Not anymore,” I said.

 

Nineteen sixty-three feels like a menstrual cramp, like the ache in my legs as my bones stretched, like the twinges in my nipples as my breasts developed. It smells like Secret roll-on deodorant and the menthol cigarettes you took up smoking. It tastes like the peach cobbler I burned in Home Ec class, which the teacher forced me to eat. It sounds like Sam Cooke’s album Night Beat, which Dara, during one of her visits, told me to buy.

And it looks like you, jumpier than I’d ever seen you, so twitchy that even Dad commented on it before he left for his hitch in the oil fields.

“Will you be all right?” he asked after dinner.

I was listening from the kitchen doorway to the two of you talk. I’d come in to ask Dad if he was going to watch Gunsmoke, which would be starting in a few minutes, with me, and caught the two of you with your heads together by the sink.

You leaned forward, bracing your hands on the edge of the sink, looking for all the world as if you couldn’t hold yourself up, as if gravity was working just a little bit harder on you than it was on everyone else. I wondered for a second if you were going to tell him about Dara. I’d grown up keeping her a secret with you, though the omission had begun to weigh heavier on me. I loved Dad, and I loved Dara; being unable to reconcile the two of them seemed trickier each passing week.

Instead you said nothing. You relaxed your shoulders, and you smiled for him, and kissed his cheek. You said the two of us would be fine, not to worry about his girls.

And the very next day, you pulled me out of bed and showed me our family’s time machine, in the old tornado shelter with the lock I’d never been able to pick.

 

I know more about the machine now, after talking with Uncle Dante, reading the records that he kept. About the mysterious man, Moses Stone, who built it in 1905, when Grandma Emmeline’s parents leased out a parcel of land. He called it the anachronopede, which probably sounded marvelous in 1905, but even Uncle Dante was rolling his eyes at the name twenty years later. I know that Stone took Emmeline on trips to the future when she was seventeen, and then abandoned her after a few years, and nobody’s been able to find him since then. I know that the machine is keyed to something in Emmeline’s matrilineal DNA, some recessive gene.

I wonder if that man, Stone, built the anachronopede as an experiment. An experiment needs parameters, right? So build a machine that only certain people in one family can use. We can’t go back before 1905, when the machine was completed, and we can’t go past August 3, 2321. What happens that day? The only way to find out is to go as far forward as possible, and then wait. Maroon yourself in time. Exile yourself as far forward as you can, where none of us can reach you.

I know you were lonely, waiting for me to grow up so you could travel again. You were exiled when you married Dad in 1947, in that feverish period just after the war. It must have been so romantic at first: I’ve seen the letters he wrote during the years he courted you. And you’d grown up seeing his name written next to yours, and the date that you’d marry him. When did you start feeling trapped, I wonder? You were caught in a weird net of fate and love and the future and the past. You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday, I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.

 

At first, when you took me underground to see the anachronopede, I thought you and Dad had built a fallout shelter. But there were no beds or boxes of canned food. And built into the rocky wall were rows of doors that looked like the one on our icebox. Round lightbulbs lay just above the doors, nearly all of them red, though one or two were slowly blinking between orange and yellow.

Nearly all the doors were shut, except for two, near the end, which hung ajar.

“Those two capsules are for us, you and me,” you said. “Nobody else can use them.”

I stared at them. “What are they for?”

I’d heard you and Dara speak in code for nearly all of my life, jumps and capsules and fastenings. I’d imagined all sorts of things. Aliens and spaceships and doorways to another dimension, all the sort of things I’d seen Truman Bradley introduce on Science Fiction Theatre.

“Traveling,” you said.

“In time or in space?”

You seemed surprised. I’m not sure why. Dad collected pulp magazines, and you’d given me books by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne for Christmas in years past. The Justice League had gone into the future. I’d seen The Fly last year during a half-price matinee. You know how it was back then: such things weren’t considered impossible, so much as inevitable. The future was a country we all wanted so badly to visit.

“In time,” you said.

I immediately started peppering you with questions: How far into the future had you gone? When were you born? Had you met dinosaurs? Had you met King Arthur? What about jet packs? Was Dara from the future?

You held a hand to your mouth, watching as I danced around the small cavern, firing off questions like bullets being sprayed from a tommy gun.

“Maybe you are too young,” you said, staring at the two empty capsules in the wall.

“I’m not!” I insisted. “Can’t we go somewhere? Just a—just a quick jump?”

I added in the last part because I wanted you to know I’d been listening, when you and Dara had talked in code at the kitchen table. I’d been waiting for you to include me in the conversation.

“Tomorrow,” you decided. “We’ll leave tomorrow.”

 

The first thing I learned about time travel was that you couldn’t eat anything before you did it. And you could only take a few sips of water: no juice or milk. The second thing I learned was that it was the most painful thing in the world, at least for me.

“Your grandmother Emmeline called it the fastening,” you told me. “She said it felt like being a button squeezed through a too-narrow slit in a piece of fabric. It affects everyone differently.”

“How’s it affect you?”

You twisted your wedding ring around on your finger. “I haven’t done it since before you were born.”

You made me go to the bathroom twice before we walked back on that path, taking the fork that led to the shelter where the capsules were. The grass was still wet with dew, and there was a chill in the air. Up above, thin, wispy clouds were scratched onto the sky, but out west, I could see dark clouds gathering. There’d be storms later.

But what did I care about later? I was going into a time machine.

I asked you, “Where are we going?”

You replied, “To visit Dara. Just a quick trip.”

There was something cold in your voice. I recognized the tone: the same you used when trying to talk me into wearing the new dress you’d bought me for church, or telling me to stop tearing through the house and play quietly for once.

In the shelter, you helped me undress, though it made me feel hotly embarrassed and strange to be naked in front of you again. I’d grown wary of my own body in the last few months, the way at how it was changing: I’d been dismayed by the way my nipples had grown tender, at the fatty flesh that had budded beneath them. It seemed like a betrayal.

I hunched my shoulders and covered my privates, though you barely glanced at my naked skin. You helped me lie down in the capsule, showed me how to pull the round mask over the bottom half of my face, attach the clip that went over my index finger. Finally, you lifted one of my arms up and wrapped a black cuff around the crook of my elbow. I noticed, watching you, that you had bitten all of your nails down to the quick, that the edges were jagged and tender looking.

“You program your destination date in here, you see?” You tapped a square of black glass on the ceiling of the capsule, and it lit up at the touch. Your fingers flew across the screen, typing directly onto it, rearranging colored orbs that seemed to attach themselves to your finger as soon as you touched them.

“You’ll learn how to do this on your own eventually,” you said. The screen, accepting whatever you’d done to it, blinked out and went black again.

I breathed through my mask, which covered my nose and face. A whisper of air blew against my skin, a rubbery, stale, lemony scent.

“Don’t be scared,” you said. “I’ll be there when you wake up. I’m sending myself back a little earlier, so I’ll be there to help you out of the capsule.”

You kissed me on the forehead and shut the door. I was left alone in the dark as the walls around me started to hum.

Calling it the fastening does it a disservice. It’s much more painful than that. Granny Emmeline is far tougher than I’ll ever be if she thought it was just like forcing a button into place.

For me, it felt like being crushed in a vice that was lined with broken glass and nails. I understood, afterward, why you had forbidden me from eating or drinking for twenty-four hours. I would have vomited in the mask, shat myself inside the capsule. I came back to myself in the dark, wild with terror and the phantom remains of that awful pain.

The door opened. The light needled into my eyes, and I screamed, trying to cover them. The various cuffs and wires attached to my arms tugged my hands back down, which made me panic even more.

Hands reached in and pushed me down, and eventually, I registered your voice in my ear, though not what you were saying. I stopped flailing long enough for all the straps and cuffs to be undone, and then I was lifted out of the capsule. You held me in your arms, rocking and soothing me, rubbing my back as I cried hysterically onto your shoulder.

I was insensible for a few minutes. When my sobs died away to hiccups, I realized that we weren’t alone in the shelter. Dara was with us as well, and she had thrown a blanket over my shoulders.

“Jesus, Miriam,” she said, over and over. “What the hell were you thinking?”

I found out later that I was the youngest person in my family to ever make a jump. Traditionally, they made their first jumps on their seventeenth birthday. I was nearly five years shy of that.

You smoothed back a lock of my hair, and I saw that all your fingernails had lost their ragged edge. Instead, they were rounded and smooth, topped with little crescents of white.

 

Uncle Dante told me that it wasn’t unusual for two members of the family to be lovers, especially if there were generational gaps between them. It helped to avoid romantic entanglements with people who were bound to linear lives, at least until they were ready to settle down for a number of years, raising children. Pregnancy didn’t mix well with time travel. It was odder to do what you did: settle down with someone who was, as Dara liked to put it, stuck in the slow lane of linear time.

Dara told me about the two of you, eventually; that you’d been lovers before you met Dad, before you settled down with him in 1947. And that when she started visiting us in 1955, she wasn’t sleeping alone in the guest bedroom.

I’m not sure if I was madder at her or you at the time, though I’ve since forgiven her. Why wouldn’t I? You’ve left both of us, and it’s a big thing, to have that in common.

Nineteen eighty-one is colored silver, beige, bright orange, deep brown. It feels like the afghan blanket Dara kept on my bed while I recovered from my first jump, some kind of cheap fake wool. It tastes like chicken soup and weak tea with honey and lime Jell-O.

And for a few days, at least, 1981 felt like a low-grade headache that never went away, muscle spasms that I couldn’t always control, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing. It smelled like a lingering olfactory hallucination of frying onions. It sounded like a ringing in the ears.

“So you’re the unnamed baby, huh?” Dara said that first morning when I woke up. She was reading a book, and set it down next to her on the couch.

I was disoriented: you and Dara had placed me in the southeast bedroom, the same one I slept in all through childhood. (The same one I’m recovering in right now.) I’m not sure if you thought it would comfort me, to wake up to familiar surroundings. It was profoundly strange, to be in my own bedroom but have it be so different: the striped wallpaper replaced with avocado green paint; a loveseat with floral upholstery where my dresser had been; all my posters of Buck Rogers and Superman replaced with framed prints of unfamiliar artwork.

“Dara?” I said. She seemed different, colder. Her hair was shorter than the last time I’d seen her, and she wore a pair of thick-framed glasses.

She cocked her head. “That’d be me. Nice to meet you.”

I blinked at her, still disoriented and foggy. “We met before,” I said.

She raised her eyebrows, like she couldn’t believe I was so dumb. “Not by my timeline.”

Right. Time travel.

You rushed in then. You must have heard us talking. You crouched down next to me and stroked the hair back from my face.

“How are you feeling?” you asked.

I looked down at your fingernails, and saw again that they were smooth, no jagged edges, and a hint of white at the edges. Dara told me later that you’d arrived two days before me, just so you two could have a few days alone together. After all, you’d only left her for 1947 a few days before. The two of you had a lot to talk about.

“All right, I guess,” I told you.

 

It felt like the worst family vacation for those first few days. Dara was distant with me and downright cold to you. I wanted to ask what had happened, but I thought that I’d get the cold shoulder if I did. I caught snippets of the arguments you had with Dara; always whispered in doorways, or downstairs in the kitchen, the words too faint for me to make out.

It got a little better once I was back on my feet, and able to walk around and explore. I was astonished by everything; the walnut trees on our property that I had known as saplings now towered over me. Dara’s television was twice the size of ours, in color, and had over a dozen stations. Dara’s car seemed tiny, and shaped like a snake’s head, instead of having the generous curves and lines of the cars I knew.

I think it charmed Dara out of her anger a bit, to see me so appreciative of all these futuristic wonders—which were all relics of the past for her—and the conversations between the three of us got a little bit easier. Dara told me a little bit more about where she’d come from—the late twenty-first century—and why she was in this time—studying with some poet that I’d never heard of. She showed me the woman’s poetry, and though I couldn’t make much of it out at the time, one line from one poem has always stuck with me. “I did not recognize the shape of my own name.”

I pondered that, lying awake in my bedroom—the once and future bedroom that I’m writing this from now, that I slept in then, that I awoke in when I was a young child, frightened by a storm. The rest of that poem made little sense to me, a series of images that were threaded together by a string of line breaks.

But I know about names, and hearing the one that’s been given to you, and not recognizing it. I was trying to stammer this out to Dara one night, after she’d read that poem to me. And she asked, plain as could be, “What would you rather be called instead?”

I thought about how I used to introduce myself after the heroes of the TV shows my father and I watched: Doc and George and Charlie. It had been a silly game, sure, but there’d been something more serious underneath it. I’d recognized something in the shape of those names, something I wanted formyself.

“I dunno. A boy’s name,” I said. “Like George in The Famous Five.”

“Well, why do you want to be called by a boy’s name?” Dara asked gently.

In the corner, where you’d been playing solitaire, you paused while laying down a card. Dara noticed too, and we both looked over at you. I cringed, wondering what you were about to say; you hated that I didn’t like my name, took it as a personal insult somehow.

But you said nothing, just resumed playing, slapping the cards down a little more heavily than before.

 

I forgive you for drugging me to take me back to 1963. I know I screamed at you after we arrived and the drugs wore off, but I was also a little relieved. It was a sneaking sort of relief, and didn’t do much to counterbalance the feelings of betrayal and rage, but I know I would have panicked the second you shoved me into one of those capsules.

You’d taken me to the future, after all. I’d seen the relative wonders of 1981: VHS tapes, the Flash Gordon movie, the Columbia space shuttle. I would have forgiven you so much for that tiny glimpse.

I don’t forgive you for leaving me, though. I don’t forgive you for the morning after, when I woke up in my old familiar bedroom and padded downstairs for a bowl of cereal, and found, instead, a note that bore two words in your handwriting: I’m sorry.

The note rested atop the gilt-edged book that Grandma Emmeline had started as a diary, and that Uncle Dante had turned into both a record and a set of instructions for future generations: the names, birth dates, and the locations for all the traveling members of our family; who lived in the house and when; and sometimes, how and when a person died. The book stays with the house; you must have kept it hidden in the attic.

I flipped through it until I found your name: Miriam Guthrie (née Stone): born November 21, 1977, Harrisburg, IL. Next to it, you penciled in the following.

Jumped forward to June 22, 2321 CE, and will die in exile beyond reach of the anachronopede.

Two small words could never encompass everything you have to apologize for.

 

I wonder if you ever looked up Dad’s obituary. I wonder if you were even able to, if the record for one small man’s death even lasts that long.

When you left, you took my father’s future with you. Did you realize that? He was stuck in the slow lane of linear time, and to Dad, the future he’d dreamed of must have receded into the distance, something he’d never be able to reach.

He lost his job in the fall of 1966, as the White County oil wells ran dry, and hanged himself in the garage six months later. Dara cut him down and called the ambulance; her visits became more regular after you left us, and she must have known the day he would die.

(I can’t bring myself to ask her: Couldn’t she have arrived twenty minutes earlier and stopped him entirely? I don’t want to know her answer.)

In that obituary, I’m first in the list of those who survived him, and it’s the last time I used the name you gave me. During the funeral, I nodded, received the hugs and handshakes from Dad’s cousins and friends, bowed my head when the priest instructed, prayed hard for his soul. When it was done, I walked alone to the pond where the two of us had sat together, watching birds and talking about the plots of silly television shows. I tried to remember everything that I could about him, tried to preserve his ghost against the vagaries of time: the smell of Kamel cigarettes and diesel on his clothes; the red-blond stubble that dotted his jaw; the way his eyes brightened when they landed on you.

I wished so hard that you were there with me. I wanted so much to cry on your shoulder, to sob as hard and hysterically as I had when you took me to 1981. And I wanted to be able to slap you, to hit you, to push you in the water and hold you beneath the surface. I could have killed you that day, Mama.

When I was finished, Dara took me back to the house. We cleaned it as best we could for the next family member who would live here: there always has to be a member of the Stone family here, to take care of the shelter, the anachronopede, and the travelers that come through.

Then she took me away, to 2073, the home she’d made more than a century away from you.

 

Today was the first day I was able to leave the house, to take cautious, wobbling steps to the outside world. Everything is still tender and bruised, though my body is healing faster than I ever thought possible. It feels strange to walk with a weight between my legs; I walk differently, with a wider stride, even though I’m still limping.

Dara and I walked down to the pond today. The frogs all hushed at our approach, but the blackbirds set up a racket. And off in the distance, a heron lifted a cautious foot and placed it down again. We watched it step carefully through the water, hesitantly. Its beak darted into the water and came back up with a wriggling fish, which it flipped into its mouth. I suppose it was satisfied with that, because it crouched down, spread its wings, and then jumped into the air, enormous wings fighting against gravity until it rose over the trees.

Three days before my surgery, I went back to you. The pain of it is always the same, like I’m being torn apart and placed back together with clumsy, inexpert fingers, but by now I’ve gotten used to it. I wanted you to see me as the man I’ve always known I am, that I slowly became. And I wanted to see if I could forgive you; if I could look at you and see anything besides my father’s slow decay, my own broken and betrayed heart.

I knocked at the door, dizzy, ears ringing, shivering, soaked from the storm that was so much worse than I remembered. I was lucky that you or Dara had left a blanket in the shelter, so I didn’t have to walk up to the front door naked; my flat, scarred chest at odds with my wide hips, the thatch of pubic hair with no flesh protruding from it. I’d been on hormones for a year, and this second puberty reminded me so much of my first one, with you in 1963: the acne and the awkwardness, the slow reveal of my future self.

You answered the door with your hair in curlers, just as I remembered, and fetched me one of Dad’s old robes. I fingered the monogramming at the breast pocket, and I wished, so hard, that I could walk upstairs and see him.

“What the hell,” you said. “I thought the whole family knew these years were off-limits while I’m linear.”

You didn’t quite recognize me, and you tilted your head. “Have we met before?”

I looked you in the eyes, and my voice cracked when I told you I was your son.

Your hand went to your mouth. “I’ll have a son?” you asked.

And I told you the truth: “You have one already.”

And your hand went to your gut, as if you would be sick. You shook your head, so hard that your curlers started coming loose. That’s when the door creaked open, just a crack. You flew over there and yanked it all the way open, snatching the child there up in your arms. I barely caught a glimpse of my own face looking back at me as you carried my child self up the stairs.

I left before I could introduce myself to you: my name is Heron, Mama. I haven’t forgiven you yet, but maybe someday, I will. And when I do, I will travel back one last time, to that night you left me and Dad for the future. I’ll tell you that your apology has finally been accepted, and will give you my blessing to live in exile, marooned in a future beyond all reach.

 

“The Shape of My Name” copyright © 2015 by Nino Cipri

Art copyright © 2015 by Richie Pope

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