Best of the Net 2008  

Sin Nombre

Sometimes the name they give you is wrong. Sometimes it comes out wrong because of the language, or because they do not like or cannot remember your name and so they change it, or they spell it wrong and then it goes on the record that way and they call you that wrong name forever. It happens that way here, sometimes. That is how I came to be called Afra. I am not Afra. That is not my real name. My real name is Klara Hitler—at least, I believe it is.

They brought me directly here from the ship. It had been raining and the roads were muddy and we had to get out and push some times. There was a stop on the way at the old hospital, a dilapidated building that reminded me of those that had survived the bombings of Berlin, where the doctor looked me over and despite my lip, gave them the all clear to bring me here. It was 1944. In the reception, two small children were crying and I stood by them as a fan rocked in the ceiling. The nuns searched through my satchel. There was not much in there: a letter from the Reichstag referring to me only as das Kind and authorizing my removal from Berlin to Rotterdam, a confirmation of passage further to Buenos Aires, and a small notebook containing a single entry. There was no birth certificate, no travel document, and nothing that would hint at my history. In order that I could be processed for acceptance into the orphanage, the nuns pinned to my chest a small paper tag that read, Sin Nombre.

At the orphanage after my head had been shaved and the man with the moustache and the scar across his cheek—as if to underline his gray, dead left eye—had washed me with his bare hands and the green soap, and had made fun of my lip and then washed me once more until it burned with his hard, bare hands and more green soap, and then dressed me in the orphanage brown-sack clothing and laughed aloud the way the soldiers had laughed in Rotterdam when they saw my lip as I left with my tears, I was taken to the office of the matron. The matron spoke no German and so the nun with the smiling eyes, by the name of Teresa, translated.

“I am to be called Matron,” she said. “What is your name, dear?”

“My name is Klara,” I said. “My name is Klara Hitler.”

“No, dear, that is not your name,” said Matron, “and I want that you never repeat that name to anyone ever again. Do you understand me?”

“Yes Matron,” I said. “I mean, no . . .”

“I will not tolerate your insolence,” said Matron. “Klara Hitler is the name of a white child who died in the hospital in Berlin where you were born. You are not white. That is not your name. A mistake was made and somehow you were given the name of the white girl who died. I want that you forget that name. Your name is Afra. That is the name of a black child. You are Afra Chaves.” She spoke with the sound of an air raid siren in her voice.

I did not know at the time that Afra Chaves was a name given me by Matron. I believed that it was in fact my birth name and that Matron had simply corrected an error that had been made in Germany upon the occasion of my birth. It was not until some months later, once I was allowed to mix with the other children at the orphanage, that I met Jesus Rodriguez, and through him, that I came closer to the truth of my name.

“Yes, but what’s your real name?” Jesus asked.

“My real name is Afra Chaves,” I said.

“I know that’s what you’re called, but it’s not your real name.”

“It is too. You can ask Matron. Mine is the name of a black-skinned girl.”

“That it may be,” he said, “but it’s not your name given you at birth.”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “Afra Chaves is the name given me at birth.”

“How can it be? You don’t even speak Spanish,” said Jesus.

“That is no matter. What has my name to do with Spanish?” I argued.

“Afra Chaves is a Spanish name. It’s a name given to Spanish children, not Nazi Germans,” he said.

“I am not a Nazi German!” I answered. I had no idea what a Nazi might be, except that by the way he had said it with fragments of spit on his thin lips and his eyes pulled almost closed, I knew that it was not to be something pleasant.

“Perhaps not,” he said, “but it’s certain that you are the child of a Nazi German, just like many others here.”

“I do not know what you are talking about, and I am sure, neither do you,” I said.

Jesus Rodriguez screwed up his mouth, he grunted and sucked hard through his nose, and then he exploded a shower of slime that landed in my face and he laughed the way the man with the dead eye had laughed when he washed me, and he said, “Die, Nazi!” and he ran away, still laughing, and I tried not to cry.

One night during the summer whilst readying for bed, I know not how much later, but since it was almost time for me to start attending the local school, it must have been a year or more on, I had pause to reflect on the matter of my name in earnest. Sister Teresa, the nun with the smiling eyes, had come to the dormitory to read the bedtime story, and with her she had brought a small, dirty-gray satchel.

“Afra—” she whispered my name so beautifully, as if it was a living part of her breath, “—this is the satchel which came with you from Europe. It is a bit small and old, but it will do for your first year. Be sure to wash it in the morning and hang it in the sunshine so that it is dry for your first day at school.”

I took the satchel in both hands. I held it close. I smelled from its familiarity and recalled it. It had the smell of a mothballed closet that had been left closed for years and as I pulled it to me, I felt that it was not empty. Sister Teresa sat at the foot of a bed on the far side of the room and began to read from her storybook. It was the story of baby Moses who had been hidden in the bulrushes and it made me sad, and I could not help feeling that perhaps I had known the baby Moses at some time. As she read, I peeked into the satchel and removed from it a small, brown, bound notebook from where there dropped to my blanket a square paper fragment. On the piece of paper was written, Sin Nombre. The notebook was otherwise empty except for the following entry, written in German:

Go my child
Angel of beauty only I see.
Seek me not
I have failed you.
I am gone
And you are the light.

Through the tears upon my eyelids, I looked deeply into the satchel again. It was empty now except for some writing beneath the flap which held it closed where the name of the owner would go. I turned it over and pulled the inside out: Klara Hitler, it read. Later, once I had started to read history at school, I learned more of the name that I believe to be mine.

-Wayne Shannon (blossombones)