When The Revolution finally succeeded and the last of the death squads were driven into the sea, The Revolutionary Council met in the old burned-out presidential palace almost before the smoke had cleared. They were in a real pickle, having to decide how the new society would be governed. The schools had been closed down for years; worse, many of them had been ammunition depots for one faction or another and had been blown up during the fighting. The port was unusable, lousy with scuttled vessels and the remains of exploded warehouses and a collapsed seawall beneath a ruined chunk of moon. The road around the island, though you could drive it for short stretches, had suffered years of benign neglect. Sometimes malign neglect. It was speckled with potholes the size of tidepools, and of course every bridge of any strategic importance had been blown up, along with every dam.
In the middle of all this shattered concrete and broken rebar that was probably covered in tetanus, The Revolutionary Council met. They all got downhearted pretty quickly, the former warlords with taped-together eyeglasses, the laconic peasant riflemen, the trade unionist saboteurs, the scrawny journalists with the scars that said they’d been through a lot: all of them, who had fought with real discipline and love for so many years, could now agree on nothing about how to govern the country.
Well, almost nothing: one thing everyone could agree on was the need for new names. The old regime, which aggrandized itself on every street sign and in the name of every mountain, had to be wiped clean in name just the way it had been wiped away in reality. The island needed names that reflected the new values, the equality and liberty that the revolution had been all about.
Colonel Hongo, who was a real superstar when it came to legislative motions, was the first to speak about the names. “I move that we convene a naming committee to identify appropriately revolutionary names for every street and town and landmark in the People’s Republic of Fridayland,” he said.
Brenda Lombrad, who during the war had been a union boss of the Fridayland Alliance of Textile Fullers, rose to object: “Mr. Chairman, I substantively object,” she said. She then reminded the assembly in her hoarse rabble-rouser’s voice that there was as yet no agreement about whether The People’s Republic of Fridayland was even the correct name for the new country. “At any rate,” she continued, and she launched into a tsunamic catalogue of the country’s pent-up grievances, disquietudes, privations and scarcities that deserved—though she did not disagree with the need for a revolutionary naming program—the more immediate attention of the Revolutionary Council.
Yet Colonel Hongo interrupted with the force of a parliamentary volcano before she had enumerated even 40 percent of her litany. “That is the very opposite of a substantive critique of my motion,” he shouted, “and anyway Revolutionary Council rules for debate clearly state—”
But Brenda Lombrad would not be shouted down, especially when she had been interrupted while offering the very definition of a substantive critique. Her unionist comrades had not suffered and died, she shouted even more loudly, to replace the fatuous narcissism of the old regime with Colonel Hongo’s self-satisfied windbaggery.
Amidst this hubbub two journalists, a unionist from the International Brotherhood of Geometers and Geometry Teachers, and the commanding officer of the Knights of St Brock began singing that revolutionary hymn “The Tireless Wheel.” Whether they were trying to disrupt things even further or to refocus the people’s energy was anyone’s guess.
Generalissimo Winston E. George rapped on his desk with a mace made out of the late dictator’s bronzed skull. “Comrades! This undignified hurly-burly is driving us apart more effectively than the old regime would have ever dreamed possible! In the interests of comity, I propose the following: that a poet of unstained revolutionary credentials and unquestioned artistic integrity be deputized as nomenclator, to name our new country and everything in it and related to it, eh?”
There were over a hundred people in the assembly, and not everyone understood what the generalissimo was saying. But once it had been explained, everyone from the illiterate machine gun squads to the nuclear physicist who headed up the Revolutionary Intelligence Services knew immediately the poet that Generalissimo George was talking about. There was really only one person it could have been. And even though Colonel Hongo’s proposal had been moved and seconded, and even though it was forbidden under debate rules for the chair to introduce proposals, the proposal was approved. In fact, everybody was pretty loud and unanimous about it.
The poet was a very old woman named Laurentia Digges Bottle. A delegation of colonels, majors, and chief editors led by Colonel Vincent Hongo visited her outside her shack on the outskirts of the capital.
“Comrade poet,” Colonel Hongo began, “we come on behalf of the entire nation to beseech you to take up the office of Nomenclator of the Revolution.”
Laurentia Digges Bottle, who was as gnarled and plump as some kind of root, looked over her smudgy half-moon spectacles. “I refused to be Richard Tower’s Poet Laureate twenty years ago, and his goons burned down my house. Now I’m going to be the Poet Laureate of the Revolution?”
Major Tomás Bouvée spoke carefully. “Honored Madam, I assure you that the position of Nomenclator of the Revolution, not Poet Laureate, is the honor and heavy charge we seek to lay upon you. For, rather than scribbling honorific doggerel to celebrate the dictator’s daughter’s sweet sixteen, or to commemorate the naval victory at Phalanxist Bay, you will have responsibility for the renaming—that is, the proper naming—of every street and park, every village and flood control dam, every hummock and drumlin and yardang, in short, of every thing which in the old regime labored under a propagandistic and narcissistic moniker.”
“What’s a yardang?” asked Laurentia Digges Bottle.
“It’s a kind of hill formed by wind erosion,” said Colonel Hongo, “but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that any yardang with a counter-revolutionary name—for instance, The Glorious Richard Tower Commemorative Yardang at the eastern edge of Lawgiver Tower Desert—would be given a proper name. By you.”
As Laurentia Digges Bottle wiped her glasses on her apron, Colonel Hongo added: “as you can imagine, Lawgiver Tower Desert will need a new name as well. Practically everything will need renaming. The office of Nomenclator of the Revolution will be influential in a way that few can appreciate.”
Laurentia Digges Bottle replaced her half-moon spectacles on her head and seemed for the first time to recognize the size of the delegation in the road outside her shack. Colonel Hongo, Major Bouvée, and several others were in dress uniform, or what passed for dress uniform in this new no-name country. And, whether this military delegation had been able to impress her in a way that Richard Tower’s goons had not, or whether she took pity on this delegation, because so many people were honestly dressed like riff raff, for whatever reason Laurentia Digges Bottle agreed to become Nomenclator of the Revolution.
The old woman was given an office in the palace itself, in what had been the old map room. While the original maps had been burned or cut up by child soldiers with cutlasses in a glorious juvenile rebellion against geography, there was plenty of wall space for maps, and within two weeks every wall was covered with maps salvaged from municipal offices, the long-closed schools, and the recently outlawed Richard Tower Geographical Society. She was given a large desk made of upturned orange crates, a scholastic dictionary to keep on the desk, and a high-backed leather chair which had once belonged to Richard Tower’s Minister of Flunkeys and Toadies.
As she sat at her desk with her fingers tented beneath her chin, looking over the map of the whole island, she roughed out a set of principles for the naming project. She would use only words which anyone on the island might be expected to know, using terms from good old English. She would not aggrandize any person, living or dead, by naming something after them. She would not resort to mythologies or superstitions or any other cultural propaganda for names.
She began with the country itself. The Tower Republic was out, of course. But what to replace it with? The ancient name of Fridayland was almost as bad, the name given centuries ago by pious, illiterate sailors because the island had been discovered on Good Friday. And anyway, to get nitpicky about her rules, Friday was named after a pagan goddess. In fact, she realized then, she’d have to see about re-naming the days of the week themselves soon enough, and the months of the year for that matter, once she’d settled on some of the more urgently pressing names.
“Home Island,” she whispered to herself, leaning back in her chair. “The Republic of Home Island. The Democratic Republic of Home Island.” She liked that version the best, though “democratic republic” might be a term beyond the understanding of most inhabitants, the schools having been shut down for the last 47 years. Perhaps just Home Island.
The capital, Towerville, was easier: the name Harbor Town (or maybe, for a bit more pizzazz, Harborton) seemed as natural a name as might occur to anyone. And now, she thought, on to the streets and parks.
The names came out thick and fast, every one of them easily spoken and apt in the same way that an antique tool sits in the hand: Zigzag Street, The Stout Hummocks, Lovers’ Square. As soon as the square—which used to be called Heroes’ Plaza—received its new name, aching teenaged couples and philandering office workers and wandering troubadours with hand-carved guitars began swarming the square every afternoon, as though the place had always been called Lovers’ Square, and in fact some of the people that went every day seemed to have forgotten that the square had ever been called anything else.
Weeks later, as Colonel Hongo strolled down the hall a couple dozen doors down from the office of the Nomenclator of the Revolution, Major Bouvée stepped out all of a sudden, as though he had been lying in wait behind a potted palm tree that had miraculously survived the revolution.
“Colonel, may I speak with you?” he asked.
“Shoot,” said Colonel Hongo.
“Colonel,” Major Bouvée asked in a low voice, “Mount Righteous Might of Tower was a horrible name, but can you honestly say that Mount Heap is any better?”
“I thought it was going to be Mount Compost Heap,” answered the colonel.
“That’s exactly my point! Do you think she’s, you know, all there?”
Colonel Hongo adopted a scandalized facial expression. He was famous for this facial expression on the Revolutionary Council. Sometimes council members even imitated the expression at happy hour. “Laurentia Digges Bottle is Home Island’s most beloved poet.” He said this with some secret anxiety: a lifelong army man, Colonel Hongo had spent far more time studying calculus and military histories than reading poetry. He wouldn’t recognize a Laurentia Digges Bottle poem if it appeared on the front page of the newly renamed Harborton Morning Tattletale.
“Respected or not,” Major Bouvée said, “I refuse to believe that the best name we could find for the National Palace is The Big White Hall of Rules.”
“Major, what can be done now? Bottle announces a bunch of new names in the paper and the people love them.”
“Perhaps we should talk to the editor of the Tattletale.”
Colonel Hongo scrutinized this proposal with his beautiful penetrating gaze. Then he nodded with that decisiveness that so far had smoothed his climb through the ranks of the revolutionary movement.
Meanwhile, Laurentia Digges Bottle had renamed every locale and feature on Home Island, so she turned her attention toward those more subtle props of the old regime: the days of the week, months of the year, and visible planets. Richard Tower had been a big lover of Greek and Roman history, a real Greco-Romanophile, if that is a word. He often appeared before the people during dictatorial addresses and in official portraits dolled up as the god Mars, or, more rarely, Jupiter or Mercury. Renaming the planets was mostly easier than she had anticipated: she smiled to imagine schoolkids—once the schools were reopened—memorizing Nimble, Twinsy, Homeworld, Rose, Portly, and Slowpoke. Uranus and Neptune could wait to be renamed: there were barely any telescopes on the island, and anyway those names were not nearly as bad as Mars and Jupiter.
The moon was a whole different problem. Richard Tower’s doomsday weapon had destroyed the moon during the worst fighting of the revolution. Whatever the moon used to symbolize—romance, insanity, womanliness—well, now it was just two jagged chunks in the sky. Laurentia Digges Bottle considered a long time whether to leave the chunks nameless, as a kind of protest against violence or something.
In the end, though, she took the long view of the moon’s destruction. There were children—actually, there were islanders shuffling into middle age—who had never seen the moon whole and unspoiled. So, to help people make meaning of their world, Laurentia Digges Bottle named the two halves Flotsam and Jetsam, words well known even to the simplest and youngest inhabitants of this island that lay at the edge of one of the great oceanic gyres of garbage that all the world’s trash sooner or later ends up swirling into. The old woman liked these names especially, though she never actually knew which half of the moon was which.
The next day, the Harborton Morning Tattletale pre-empted the day’s list of new names to announce the death of Generalissimo Winston E. George from natural causes. The Tattletale’s rival, The Daily Bigmouth, suggested that maybe the causes weren’t so natural, that what killed him wasn’t congestive heart failure but rather dynamite. Maybe some people would argue that sitting in a room where dynamite is exploding naturally results in death. Either way, most of the rest of both papers, besides the coupon sections, were devoted to a discussion of succession of leadership, which had been assumed on a purely interim basis by Colonel Vincent Hongo.
The people of Home Island loved the new names. Colonel Hongo and Major Bouvée realized that Laurentia Digges Bottle spoke to these ignorant islanders with names like Plop River and Stench Harbor. That is to say, she described their world at last in a language that they recognized as true, however undignified The Revolutionary Council considered the names. But even after the editors of The Tattletale and The Bigmouth had been re-imprisoned and the new loyalist editors stopped publishing Laurentia Digges Bottle’s new names (and had, in defiance of The Office of Nomenclator, renamed the newspapers The Harborton Herald and The Home Island Tribune) the islanders themselves still found out, who knows how, all of the new names as soon as Laurentia Digges Bottle cooked them up. They still called the papers The Tattletale and The Bigmouth, too, even though the papers had been named that way for only a few months. “Gimme a morning Tattler, man,” an islander might say if she had by some miracle taught herself to read.
“That’ll be handy loafies, fair madam,” the newsstand boy would reply, loafy being Laurentia Digges Bottle’s new name for the old Tower Republic Dollar (in the beginning one could buy a loaf of bread with a loafy). Laurentia Digges Bottle had also renamed all the numbers recently, with the number five being represented by handy.
Perhaps, thought Major Bouvée and Colonel Hongo, the people loved the new names simply because they loved the old poet. No one knew how old she was, but Laurentia Digges Bottle had clearly beaten the life expectancy for Home Islanders, which had been only 47 years at the beginning of the revolution and must be way shorter now. The islanders called her Nana, which Laurentia Digges Bottle had recently announced as the official word for grandmother.
“She’s simply ridden off the rails, colonel,” said Major Bouvée in the old presidential sitting room. “What revolutionary purpose does it serve to rename the numbers?”
Colonel Hongo grimaced, he hoped not too dramatically, that Major Bouvée kept forgetting to address him as Your Excellency. “You think I’m not aware of that, major? She’s gotten too big for her britches. But we must exercise extreme care in dealing with her: she is a hero to the island.”
But a while later something happened that made dealing with Laurentia Digges Bottle easy and inevitable. On the day of Fingy-fing O’Planting (that is to say, the second of May in the old calendar) The Revolutionary Council fell apart: a faction led by Brenda Lombrad, protesting the lack of progress in bringing back even the basic services that islanders had in the Richard Tower days, retreated to the far side of Mt. Mulish and took up arms against the Colonel Hongo regime. Colonel Hongo remobilized the army, the navy, the intelligence services which were so impressive considering Home Islanders were so uneducated. He even ordered Major Bouvée to fire up Richard Tower’s old doomsday weapon, not to shoot it at anything, but just to give the islanders a scare.
At the time, Laurentia Digges Bottle and her growing catalog of names was the last thing on Colonel Hongo’s mind. Then one morning Major Bouvée ran into the office waving a copy of The Harborton Harbinger before him. “Take a look at this, colonel excellent.”
On the front page was an open letter from the rebels to the people of Home Island, listing grievances, philosophical justifications for armed resistance, etc. Real Declaration of Independence stuff. At the end was a strange looking block of text, just a few lines long, with a weird cadence and a kind of ridiculous repetition of sounds.
“Hmm,” said Colonel Hongo, hoping that Major Bouvée would offer an interpretation to guide him. “Hmm.” But after a while the silence had become unbearable to him, and he asked kind of nonchalantly “What’s that thing at the bottom?”
“That’s a poem, Colonelissimo. A Laurentia Digges Bottle poem.”
“Hmm,” said Colonel Hongo again. He re-read the odd little block:
The Trout Seer
Overhead an osprey flew, waiting out
The trout it clutched.
The doomed fish shimmied as though free,
And, if only in that it had gone
Beyond the river where its elders hatched
Grew, spawned, and died,
It was for once the freest trout of all.
The world it saw, it could not tell
To fish or bird and least of all to me.
Colonel Hongo was reminded once again why he didn’t like poetry. What kind of counter-revolutionary movement, what kind of any movement, would imagine that nine lines about a bird eating a fish had some political utility, or any utility at all? Why couldn’t a poem just say what it was about and be done with it? Anyway, hadn’t trout been renamed slimfish? Or maybe that was minnows. And osprey—was that a new name or an old one? At any rate, Colonel Hongo wouldn’t recognize an osprey if it came flying at him along the shore of Plop River.
Colonel Hongo looked up from the paper at Major Bouvée, who was looking back with a kind of theatrical portentousness, arching his eyebrows and glancing at the newspaper. The look helped Colonel Hongo to realize, eventually, that he was looking right at the pretext for removing Laurentia Digges Bottle from the office of Nomenclator of the Revolution.
Nana was too well-loved to be tried publicly. The papers just said that she had died of old age at her desk of orange crates, an explanation which struck everyone as basically plausible. She was so old, after all. In fact, it occurred to Colonel Hongo, once they had decided on their course of action, that they could have handled her that way from the very beginning of the trouble. The poem was kind of a flimsy pretext.
When Major Bouvée arrived with two large soldiers at her office door one fine evening, Laurentia Digges Bottle knew why they had come, knew what they meant when they said they would take her for a drive. She had seen her share of goons before.
She had never ridden in a car before, however, since there were fewer than 100 private autos on all of Home Island. She wondered, as she sat in the back seat, what a good name for car would be. Brrrrrrrm…brrrrrrrm…brrrrrm? It didn’t matter. There wasn’t time enough to rename everything.
She knew in that moment that many, maybe all, of her names would go back to other names, less useful names, more euphemisms. But she’d named a lot of things. It had been a lot of work. On the horizon, Flotsam was rising, or maybe Jetsam. She felt that glow of weary accomplishment that you feel after looking over your own enormous garden. If she gave this last emotion a name, she kept it to herself.