Our names started disappearing soon after the New Era of Hope people moved into our small town. We didn’t notice at first. Our existence is so much in relation to others that names didn’t crop up that often in our day-to-day conversation anyway. Big Sister. Daughter. My Little Piece of Gold. These are all me. Baba. Ma. Little Brother. These are all my family. Monkey, Little Devil—also me when I break things, clumsy as my fingers are. No one calls me —, not since school closed. Now no one ever will.
I only realized that my name was missing when I tried registering it for The Vote. I stood at the makeshift registration desk, flanked by golden silk tapestry to make it stand out in the crowded bazaar. The man at the desk, his hair oiled and combed to part in the middle, a thin moustache adorning his upper lip, looking important in the way small government officials take pains to, gave me the once-over. He asked me my family name first, to enter into his computer, and I was about to say —, but I couldn’t. I tried again, this time my first name, but there was nothing there. No, not a lost memory, but a feeling that it never was. Like never being born. A non-existence.
I stood there, blank and gaping, my mouth going gup-gup-gup like a fish trying to breathe out of water. I must’ve looked like a fool. The man smirked, said, If you don’t have a name you cannot register for The Vote. That much was obvious to me. I had heard rumors of something like this from the girl who lived two houses down the street. She had said her aunt’s friend’s family had all lost their names. I had dismissed it, thinking it to be a modern version of our old superstitions. Don’t play under the trees at night, or ghosts will possess you. Hang chilies and lemon in the doorway of your house, lest the evil spirits wander in. And now it was Don’t resist hope or you’ll lose your name.
There was great resistance against those of us who wanted the New Era of Hope people to leave. The townspeople from the upper hillside didn’t quite see what we were complaining about. They said, What’s in a name? They said, You are standing in the way of progress, besides it’s not been proven that the coming of the New Era of Hope people has anything to do with it anyway. The only people who thought names were not important were those whose names hadn’t been taken away from them. Those who never in a million years could imagine a scenario where their name could be in danger. We said, Our identities, our histories, our ancestral ghosts all lived in the spaces between the letters that formed our names. They said, Identities don’t matter, not in this modern world where everyone is equal, and laughed at our silly belief that we had histories to begin with. They said, If it bothers you so much, vote them out, that’s what The Vote is for. We said, We can’t register to vote without names, and they shrugged, and said without saying, That’s not our problem.
The young people of the valley decided that something needed to be done. We brainstormed about where we could find our lost names. We felt sad thinking of them, alone, untethered from their owners, lost in the wilderness. Maybe if we swam upstream a bit, we would reach the place where our ancestors had first settled, maybe we would find the roots there, shriveled but not quite dead. Maybe if we dug deep into the soil, we would unearth the milk teeth we had planted when we were younger, and inside them we would find a bit of our first selves. Someone said it still must be inside us, we just need to excavate ourselves, plunge a knife in, carve out our buried identities. This was met by general disapproval, mostly because some of us had tried it already and had barely survived. Eventually Little Brother said the only way to reclaim our names is to reverse whatever process had caused the loss in the first place. That we need to drive the New Era of Hope people away. We all murmured in agreement that it made sense, but we didn’t know how to go about it. What power do the nameless have? Did we even exist outside the knowledge of our own bodies?
Our mothers said we should let it go, that ultimately what matters is that we are together, that we did not need names to belong to each other. We told them—actually we didn’t say anything at all, too busy finding ourselves to pay attention. The plan was convoluted, but it’s the only one we could agree on: we would demand new identities from the Hope people, the dry numerics they used to refer to each other, every number unique, no chance of overlaps or homonyms or shared roots. No music to them. Then, once we had our new unique identifiers, we would vote them out. And when they were gone, we were sure our names would come back from the shadows where they hide.
The Hope people are happy we want to adapt to their ways of being. The Naming Ceremony is today. Hundreds are attending it. All the young from the valley who lost their names. I am given my number. I open my mouth. I say, I am ZP011876x. I roll it around with my tongue, let it sit at the base of my throat, warm. I feel it beat in my chest. After everyone is tagged with theirs, we all reconvene at our usual meeting place. Someone says, Hello, I am 3D908-A. I vaguely recognize the outlines of their face, the thickness of their whisper, a faint memory says, Little Brother, but I don’t really understand the words. We all look at each other, we all speak our new names, feel the sharp lines of our newly minted selves. We feel invigorated, we feel powerful, but we are not sure any more about what we are doing here, and what we are to any of the others.
Upasana writes fiction and poetry that blur the line between the real and the surreal. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and eats books and stories for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can find more of her work at upasanawrites.com.