Monday, June 21, 2010

The Naming of Things

We walk slowly.  Buying time. The studio is not far from here.

We are huddled close under one umbrella, shoulder against shoulder, hands stacked one on top of the other, gripping the handle. Rain is tapping and tapping just above our heads.  Henry, her English pointer, is in the lead, nose to the ground, pulling hard against the leash. We have been talking about family.  Heritage. Names. The naming and not naming of things. Testing our own resistance.  

"Counselor of Wolves," I say, "My name means counselor of wolves."  I can tell she has raised her head up from watching the sidewalk to look at me. 

"It fits," she says, still looking at me, still thinking about what I have told her.

"My dad had a book on the origins of Anglo-Saxon names," I continue, without looking up, answering the question that always follows at the announcement though she has not yet asked. "On hot summer days, my sister and I would to go down into the basement and lie on the floor in my dad's study to read to each other from his books.  Once, we looked up the names of all our friends and wrote them down and memorized them.  When we saw our friends the next day we called them by the meaning of their names.  We didn't tell anyone why we did it until the next day and we showed them the book. I don't know why I still remember that."  We walked in silence for a few more yards. "We tried to teach ourselves Latin, too."

She laughs.  I smile.  "It's true," I say, after a brief pause.

"I know it is," she says.  And I know she knows by the way she says it.  In earnest. It catches us both off guard that we have managed to come this far so fast. She laughs again, to break the silence.  To take our minds off what we've both been thinking.

She's been bottling things.  Mostly beetles.  A "friend" of hers sent her a bottle of Paris air for her collection. She keeps it in her purse.  She has her hand in her purse and is holding the bottle now.  I can hear her rings rattling on the glass as she moves her palm over it. A dream deferred, of sorts.

She stoops down to eye a beetle Henry is sniffing at on the sidewalk before us. She hands me Henry's leash and gets down on her hands and knees and nudges the beetle with her finger.  It takes a couple of steps away. The giant mandibles jutting from its head are menacing looking.  I stay standing. She rises to her feet, fists punched to her sides. 

"Still alive," she says, unable to mask her disappointment, eyeing the beetle intently, as if it might roll over on its back if we watched just a little while longer. She is considering taking it with us. But we have nothing to carry it in. I can tell she is thinking about the bottle in her purse.  

She's obsessed with Joseph Cornell. Compartmentalizing the world around her. It is a way to feel safer in the world.  To see how easily it fits in little jars. Her studio is lined with them.  The windowsills.  The shelves.  The desk.  The chairs. She's even begun to line them against the walls on the floor. Most of the jars are clear.  Some are light blue or light green. We stopped at a garage sale just a few blocks earlier.  She eyed some old mason jars but bought none.

Looking back behind us, in the direction of the sale, she fights the urge to take the beetle with us, and with the wave of her hand, she brushes the thought off, as if to say,  It's just as much about the jar as what's inside.

She turns to look at me, the rain beginning to mat her hair down.  She is smiling.   We are smiling.  I nod my head to the side, to usher us forward. Henry, anticipating my move, tugs on the leash, pulling my arm out before me.  She looks back down at the beetle then back at me. She pulls the jar from her purse, unscrews the lid and holds the jar upside down to let the air out, shaking it after holding it inverted for a second or two, to get every last drop out. 

She squats down, placing the container before her prize and nudges the black creature forward into the jar. I am amazed at her boldness. I always have been.  She holds the jar up for me to see, then fastens the lid, glancing at me for my reaction.  I am peering into the jar, turning my head one way, and then the other, watching the beetle try to climb the slick glass walls.

"Shall we?" she asks, slipping the bottle down into her purse. She takes Henry's leash in one hand and my hand in the other. It is the first time we have walked like this. "You don't think that was cruel?" she asks moments later, addressing my silence. She is looking at me.  Waiting. 

"No," I answer, after a moment's pause.  "I do not." Her hand relaxes in mine.  She swings our arms the rest of the way. 

When we reach the studio, we hang our wet things over the radiator to dry. The heat emitted is low because of the time of year.  She lifts the jarred beetle from her purse and sets it on the floor.  No signs of life.

The rain is finally letting up, the sun drifting cautiously across the floor to where we stand. Henry shakes himself dry, then sprawls his wet body out on the cot against the wall, urging us to rub his belly. And we do. Our hands touching Henry, our eyes fixed on each other.

"We will soon drift off the edge of the map," she says, nodding matter-of-factly, prophetically. "We will be insatiable."


  1. I really enjoy the emotions and imagery that is evoked from the text. The sense of nostalgia of childhood plays a big part, and I feel as a reader I can connect pretty strongly to that. The dialogue adds elements of both reflection and curiosity, connecting the characters and their emotions together in a beautiful way.

  2. thanks,

    i had a lot of fun writing this particular piece.

    many elements of the past and present interwoven. certainly emotionally charged.