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from the December 2010 issue

Delphine’s Illness

I don’t go often. Don’t stay long. Each time I tell myself it’s the last.

I was heading toward the gate, when a large tombstone caught my eye. It was a recent one, from this year: Delphine H., born Handshoewerckerten.

I thought back on what the man from the funeral home had said: you want gold-plated lettering for the engraving? It’s twenty euros a letter.” He plugged the numbers into his calculator. “I won’t count the comma.”

A precocious child, Delphine knew how to write before many of her classmates. Out of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, her name contained twelve, three vowels and nine consonants. She used to have fun making her name longer by using the remaining letters, inventing improbable, perfectly unpronounceable names.

While she was still little, people called her by her first name, as one does with children. Her last name was just extra technical information, like a zip code. It could be useful in dire situations, as her parents had explained to her, for example if she were lost in a store. On the loudspeaker it would be announced that the little Delphine Handshoewerckerten was waiting for her daddy and mommy at the information desk. On further thought, perhaps they’d settle for “a little girl in a red coat, pink scarf going by the name of Delphine.”

At school, they treat kids more formally, objectively. They list every bit of information right down to civil status, using their full name. They treated them like real men and women, with responsibilities.

Teachers never failed to mispronounce Delphine’s name. They would either drop a syllable, chop her name up, swallow half of it, or give up before reaching the end. The most determined ones asked the little girl for help, and she patiently broke her name into parts in front of the class. In the hallways, teasing voices shouted: "Hey, it’s watchamacallit" and, as if that were not enough, they would add “four eyes.” She didn’t understand how people could make fun of her name, just as she couldn’t understand why one would carry on about the color of someone's skin.

Then suddenly, at the age of fifteen, she caught a strange illness. Just as you lose teeth, Dephine began to lose the letters of her name.

It happened during her finals in English. Her registration form in hand, she waited her turn in the hallway. The student before her came out of the room all flustered and red in the face. Delphine watched her as she walked away, her head hung low. The examiner appeared in the doorway: “Mademoiselle Handshoewerckerte.” He’d almost gotten it! Not that much was missing! He must have practiced before calling her in. He had separated all the syllables so carefully.

He didn’t look easygoing. Delphine took her seat at the other end of the table.

—I didn’t mispronounce your name did I Mademoiselle?

—No, it’ll do. I’m used to it. The examiner looked upset, his eyebrows were furrowed, he had probably taken the time to reread the name several times.

—It’s Handtshoewerckerte?

— . . . ten, werckerten.

The man double-checked his list.       

—I have Handtshoewerckerte.

Delphine sensed that she’d best not insist or she might jeopardize her exam altogether.

—Do you have ID, please?

The young girl held out her ID card. The examiner took one look at it, and gave Delphine a menacing glare.

—Do you take me for a fool?

Delphine didn’t understand.

She signed her registration form, put away her ID, and sat for the exam. She got a six out of twenty.

In the hallway she took out her ID again, to check. Under its plastic cover, her name had lost a letter.

A few months later, Delphine was merely called Handtschoewercke. Three more letters had disappeared.

Delphine’s parents were at their wits’ end, they didn’t know what to do. Who could they turn to? On an off-chance, they took their daughter to a speech therapist, who sent them off promptly to a psychiatrist. They wrote to linguists, to a philologist, a grammarian, a genealogist, and a shaman. All, with the exception of the last, admitted they were powerless. The shaman invited them back. After the tenth session, the bonus one, he suggested a solution: Delphine’s name was bewitched, and she should change it as soon as possible if she didn’t want to drown in anonymity. To this end she should get married. He knew several possible candidates who could fill the role of husband. The shaman was thanked, and was told he could keep his friends’ phone numbers, she’ll be fine, thanks.

Nonetheless Delphine was beginning to understand her predicament. If things kept on going this way, in a few years she would have completely lost her last name. Then what would she become? Who would she be? She was born with one of the longest names on record, and now that name was shrinking, letter by letter, as surely as if it was being eaten away by gangrene. How not to be frightened? She could not help thinking that the disappearance of her name jeopardized her entire existence. When she was little, to get her to pick up her things, her father used to repeat to her, “every thing has a name and a place.” Now she feared for that place, for her life.

Delphine’s illness ran its inevitable course. The young woman lived in a state of permanent anguish, haunted by the countdown that was gouging the letters of her name. She dreamed about it at night, seeing herself in the hands of torturers who were pulling out all her teeth, one by one, using pliers: “R . . . E . . . W . . . O . . .” She would awake in a sweat and check the ID card on her bedside table. She always kept it at hand, either on her or near her; she glanced at it all the time, as one would glance at a watch. Each time she lost another letter, she would be catapulted into a state of terror and shock. . . She didn’t dare make a move or utter a word. Gazing down, she would hunch over, in a position of complete submission. She would stay this way for hours, until she gradually came back to life.

Delphine was studying to be an engineer. She fell in love with a boy in her school, a so-called Jean-Rémi Martin. This made her think back on the shaman. She knew this wedding was not wise. Under ordinary circumstances, she wouldn’t even think twice, and would freely give in to her passion. Jean-Rémi could get cold feet, and walk away. They’d only known one another for one year, and were only twenty years old. But time was of the essence—her name was now Handt. She went for it. And he said yes.

The wedding happened very quickly. It was a union based on true love. Nonetheless the young couple’s decision did puzzle some of the guests, and, strictly amongst themselves, they didn’t give it more than a year. Delphine was doubly happy. Happy to be united with the man she loved and happy at the same time to be taking on a new last name. Out of caution and for practical reasons she had hidden her illness from Jean-Rémi. In any case, she now felt certain she would recover. She filed for a change of status, and ordered an ID card. She gazed happily at her new name: Delphine Martin.

After five years of studies, Delphine received her engineering degree. She took a job with an automobile parts manufacturer, where she was in charge of an assembly line. Jean-Rémi worked for a new energy research firm. They lived an active and full life, had a devoted group of friends, and good wine in the cellar. Some day they would have children. Delphine began to believe in life again. She felt free and in charge of her future. She was no longer afraid of what tomorrow would bring.

One night, the phone rang. It could have been anyone: parents, friends, or a telemarketer.

“Madame Marti?” Delphine dropped the receiver.

Delphine asked for a divorce. Jean-Rémi didn’t understand why. She refrained from any explanations.

She went back to her maiden name, at least what was left of it. Some incident had shrunk it overnight down to two letters: Ha. She had to act fast.

She tried to reconnect with her childhood marabou, whose card she‘d kept. But he had disappeared. She listed herself on a Web site for Franco-Malagasy unions. Her goal was to get a paper marriage, as soon as possible. She met Denis Rasoamanahira, Claude Imanankoasaika, Joro Andriamampianina. But the one who won her favor was called Naivo Randrianampoinimeria—the longest name she would find. She came to terms with the young man, who, in exchange for his name, wanted only his permanent resident card and a little spending money. For Delphine, no sacrifice was too big. She traveled to Madagascar to help speed up the procedures. She discovered the joys and charms of the “red island.” She sat on benches for hours at the police station, the consulate, the mayor’s office in Maevatanana. Under the indolent blades of ceiling fans, she caught herself dreaming of Las Vegas, of the instant wedding with a justice of the peace disguised as Elvis Presley against the backdrop of slot machines in air-conditioned rooms: a few words in English, a signature, a stamp, and the deal was done. She felt unwell, and fainted. They took her to the hospital. The consul came by to check on the ailing French girl. They blamed her extremely weak state on the change of latitude. The wedding took place in the hospital room. Delphine recovered.

The newlyweds flew off together. Upon arrival in France, they parted, heading in opposite directions.

Delphine gazed at her new name, Randrianampoinimeria. Twenty letters: she had a little time.

There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it.  She could lose twenty letters in six months, just as she could wake up some morning with one syllable less. It was impossible to predict, to know how long this new name would last. Before divorcing Jean-Rémi she’d gone from Martin to Mar in the space of two months. She might also go through long periods without any change, especially right after taking on a new name. Years could go by. Then, from one day to the next, she’d regress.

Delphine married eight times in all. She was sixty-four at the time of her last wedding. She knew it would be the last time she said “I do.”

Translation of "Le Maladie de Delphine." From Selon toute vraisemblance. Copyright 2010 by Le Dilettante. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2010 by Helen Dickinson. All rights reserved.

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