But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance . . . Qualities that would have saved a ship’s company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water— endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then—what is R?
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
The act of being taken. Away, perhaps.
In Greek mythology, abduction precedes violation. For example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, woman after woman is removed from a place of safety and transported elsewhere for violation, by ship or chariot, sea or land, or the ethereal machinations of the gods. Blossoms and baskets are dropped by these maidens, life interrupted.
The Metamorphoses are tales of violence and resulting human change: to trees, to animals, to birds. When I read these tales as a young woman, I imagined transformation as both punishment and safety. When the gods shape-shifted a person from human to nonhuman, it might be punishment; however, that transformation made further violence less likely.
When I was in seventh grade in Chicago, a girl in my class who had moved to the US from Spain, Paloma Larramendi, stood up one day and gave her full name. Maybe we all had to do it—I don’t really remember. I just remember her doing it.
What she recited was:
“My name is Paloma María Eugenia Gabriela González de Fernández de Mutis de Larramendi.”
In my memory I hear these names rolling out with rolled Rs and rounded vowels for something like several minutes. I’m sure it did not take Paloma nearly that long to say her name, but as an American kid I was used to people having just a first, middle, and last name, and that was all. I had never heard of anything more than three names, except in very rare cases when someone had a second middle name because of a dead grandparent.
The asphalt stuck to my sneakers as I walked through the parking lot toward a squat, concrete building. It was midmorning in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela, and hot. Inside the waiting room was a single wood laminate desk. Two men, one young and one middle-aged, were shuffling through a stack of papers while an old woman waited, her palm slapping quickly, unconsciously, on the surface of the desk. A sign on the wall behind her read MALARIOLOGIA in dark green letters.
“You have to come back after lunch,” the older man told her. “Her test isn’t in here.”
The woman passed me on her way out, her face tight.
“Name?” The younger one was looking at me. He seemed no older than sixteen.
“I already have our test results,” I told him, and thought back to the moment they had arrived. I was at home, trying in vain to bring my husband’s fever down with wet T-shirts and a small bowl of ice water. We had been without running water since the drought started in October, and it was April. The results had come in the form of a text from my brother-in-law. “There are two strains of malaria,” he wrote, “the nasty kind, and the deadly kind. Benjamin has both.”