Ibak is my name.
It doesn’t mean anything.
Not in my language anyway.
It may mean something elsewhere.
To some tribe indigenous to the arid plains of central Africa, for example.
The sound could resemble a vocal expression uttered by Aborigines, or Eskimos.
It might be the epithet of some ancient deity, or the name of some lost language.
Surely it stands for more than me.
I know it meant something to my father, that it stood for some idea he believed in, some private notion (he thrived on those).
Idiom Begets Attributable Knowledge, for instance; a concept he would have been quick to promote.
He was big on word games and riddles.
He played with language like a child plays with toys.
While his mind was governed by concision (so he said), his demeanor was deliberately ambiguous.
He talked in circles.
If my name did stand for something, the meaning died with him.
It wasn’t that he never told me.
I never asked.
On account of my mother.
Your father is incapable of giving anyone a straight answer, she said.
My father was in the Secret Service.
He devised codes.
Made a living scrambling language, subverting meaning, upsetting the balance of things.
My mother couldn’t stand it.
He never said what he meant, she complained, and never meant what he said.
In a fury she ripped out random pages of every book in the house, murmuring under her breath, They are his kind of stories now.
Decipher this! she fumed.
Mother left soon after that with my baby brother tucked under one arm, Grandmother’s black bouclé handbag under the other.
It was Mother’s only possession.
Tattered and handleless, it was a valued by Mother as life itself.
It stood for something that could not be expressed in words.
Sentiment, Mother told me, is beyond the scope of language.
Even poets, however hard they try, however nearly they succeed, fail to transcribe language of the heart.
Moved beyond words, the poet yields to the signified to express himself, but words can only approximate emotive experience.
Poets and readers unite on common ground—a shared language.
The reader is moved by the poet’s words, but not beyond them.
Only if the reader is lucky—only if the thrust of his own heart, source of all sentiment, is powerful enough—does he stand a chance of being moved beyond words.
The stirring arises from within.
The weight of our soul moves us, she said.
Not the weight of words.
This was her conviction.
She clung to it the way she clung to Grandmother’s handbag now.
Mother left that day without saying a word, not even good-bye. We never heard from her again after that.
I don’t know what became of my brother.
When he was born, people in town would ask after Iy-ker.
I had no idea who they were referring to.
They would return my puzzled looks with a click of the tongue and a frown, turning on their heels in a gesture of dismay and, mostly, disgust.
Our family was, to the townsfolk anyway, the epitome of otherness: Mother, a flighty woman-child with two wild-haired children; Father, an enigmatic mole.
Head nods, whispers, pointed fingers, and such like were novel forms of greeting; that was my reading anyway.
Childhood affords such freedoms: assigning meaning according to one’s understanding of the world at any given point in time, or simply to enliven one’s fantasy.
In a child’s world, things can be whatever one’s young mind wants them to be.
A stick is a horse.
Two sticks, a bow and violin.
Adults do this too, only they call it something else.
For children, it’s play. For adults, it’s politics.
My baby brother’s name doesn’t sound like it looks but looks precisely like it sounds.
This confuses people.
His name is pronounced as it is spelled: I-C-U-R.
As in: I see you are. Why couldn’t people SEE that?
My mother’s name is impossible to mispronounce.
That is, for anyone familiar with the English language, or, at the very least, with its sound system.
Native speakers cannot help but be struck by its botanic charm.
My mother’s name reflected her persona.
Good natured, ambrosial, drowsy, unrefined.
She prized the simple pleasures in life, like lying down in the grass, face turned toward the sun.
She could lie there for hours watching the sky, undisturbed by any appeal that ordinarily might arouse a sense of urgency—a demand of conscience, for instance, or the persistent petitioning of a child.
Mother exhibited a carefree happiness, the idyllic kind.
It was evident in the dreamy way she talked and in the light-footed way she walked, as if she were preparing to skip but never did.
Her small frame resembled that of a child’s.
She had tiny hands and spindly arms, little legs and pointy feet.
Her round head was smothered in a wild mane of fluffy yellow curls.
Small russet-colored rogues freckled her pale face and a perennial smile hung like a hammock between her two cheeks, even when she was angry.
Mother’s unruly yellow hair accentuated excitable green eyes that danced like bees gathering pollen on a summer’s day.
Her eyes would alight on me only long enough to acknowledge my presence.
Then resume their wobbly flight.
Father saw something else in Mother’s name. (There is always more to words, he said.)
A concerned relative had once written the name Dandelion Idyll on a card and urged him to make the young woman’s acquaintance.
Father was getting on in years and, being that he rarely breaks a stare, it was highly unlikely that he would see a woman, let alone marry one of his own accord.
He spotted the anagram immediately: No lily did lead.
There was a time when an anagram based on a person’s name was thought to disclose significant information about that person’s character, or future.
Father upheld this outdated view.
The sweet-scented lily is no match for the common dandelion, he would say, to no one in particular.
When Father proposed to Dandelion Idyll, he reportedly addressed her acrostically: Delicate As a Nightingale, Demurely Exciting Love, Intimate Of Nature’s Innocence, Downy Yellow Lionhearted Lady—Marry me, he said.
Charmed beyond words, she consented.
It was the only time Father spoke to her in a manner she could understand.
Most of what he said was jabberwocky.
Uoy evol I, for example.
Mother could never decipher the meaning of his words.
People hold various opinions regarding the relationship between language and thought.
My father’s line of reasoning was that it was impossible to practice rational thinking without using language.
Others share this opinion; however, Father also believed language did little, if anything, to promote rational thought and that, more often than not, language subverted rationality.
Words mean what we take them to mean, he said.
Dictionaries are filled with objective meaning but the use of words is always subjective.
Take peace, for instance.
How can we give peace a chance when there’s no consensus on what peace means?
The absence of physical violence, sure; but beyond that.
To some peace means freedom to exploit others with impunity.
To others it means having the leisure to indulge in life’s pleasures without interruption and, more importantly, without shame.
War is waged in order to gain power, Father said.
Not to secure peace.
He defined war and power like he did so many things: acrostically.
War: Waywardness Authorizing Repression.
Power: Predacious Oligarchy Waywardly Eradicating Rivals.
There is no “w” in peace! Father declared.
These words were directed at me.
Father spat them out whenever I entered a room.
It was a riddle.
I was stumped by it.
Until the day Mother left.
Wayward, my father growled, face brooding, eyes vacant as always.
I looked at him beseechingly.
His nostrils flared and, without moving a muscle, he barked: The heart of power and the mind of war!
It was a clue.
I spent that first night alone in my room, fingering the meaning of Father’s words.
The full moon shone whitely in a blackened sky.
The wind was still.
Nothing stirred but a tiger moth pirouetting round the glowing bulb of my bedside light.
I watched the shadow play—its fluttering form performing onto the lampshade.
All at once I worked out the meaning of Father’s riddle: War is wayward.
Power is wayward peace.
War and power have waywardness in common.
Peace is never wayward.
There is no “w” in peace!
Father ceased speaking altogether after Mother left.
The next morning when, triumphantly, I announced I had solved his riddle, he stared back at me blankly.
Not a single discernible gesture betrayed his thoughts, which appeared to fully engulf him now.
He had always been a difficult man to read.
The churnings of his consciousness kept people at bay.
He lived in his head.
Those who knew him—or, rather, knew what there was to know of him, which was precious little—learned to contend with his dark countenance and impenetrable nature.
Years of cryptanalysis severely impeded his ability to communicate.
But there were certain detectible patterns in his speech that, if one remained attentive, provided clues which, on examination, pointed up the meaning of his utterances.
It was a timeconsuming process, but not without reward. (The elation of solving Father’s riddle is palpable to this day.)
When he said something endearing, for example, he spoke backwards.
Like when he told Mother he loved her, or gave me a compliment.
Yob doog a era uoy, was common, though he rarely conferred it.
When Father did speak intelligibly, he didn’t converse.
He would launch into speech, going on and on about some subject that apparently he had been ruminating about for days, weeks, years even.
Then stop abruptly.
Days, weeks, even years later, he would pick up where he left off the time before.
The trick was to train the memory to recollect certain key points voiced the last time, and to fit these into what was being said now.
It was like a sequel, with the exception that no part was ever complete in itself.
The listener was always left hanging.
This was due, no doubt, to the fact that Father’s words were spoken for the benefit of nobody other than himself.
It wasn’t because Father liked the sound of his own voice, as some people believed.
Rather it was because he had amassed such great quantities of words in his head, he simply had to dispose of some of them.
This was my interpretation anyway.
Mother never developed a feeling for words.
She was always looking to go beyond them, while Father resolutely looked for the meaning behind words.
It was the far side of language that engaged his interest.
Mother lived for the deeper meaning.
The things that really matter are impossible to pin down with words, she said.
Such things are of the air, not of the earth.
I wonder whether it was “such things,” as she referred to them, that captivated her attention for hours on end, prostrate on the grass, staring up at the sky.
Should we ever see each other again, I will have to ask her.
Father grew increasingly taciturn in his speechlessness.
Relieved of his job at the Secret Service—for obvious reasons: No code could break his silence—he took to sitting at the back window, staring out at the garden.
I watched him.
He never blinked.
I think he was afraid that, if he did, the scene might, in that split second, disappear, as Mother had with Icur.
Father had always taken meticulous care of our little landscape.
Cultivating flowers, pruning plants, shaping shrubs, weeding.
He was particularly fastidious about the grass.
He carefully pushed the hand-mower back and forth across the lawn, stooping down to clip back any tufts that stood higher than the rest.
Then combed the grass with a rake, so that every blade appeared to stand at attention.
Impressions of Mother’s small footprints and reclining form were the only markings on the lawn Father would tolerate. Icur and I played out front on the sidewalk.
The garden was entirely overgrown now.
Flowers had succumbed to plants weighted with weeds and hampered by thickets.
The grass was knee high and spotted with hundreds of sun-warmed dandelions.
The garden glowed.
It was a mesmerizing sight.
Especially at twilight when foliage dissolves into shadow.
It comforted Father, I suppose, staring out at all those yellow orbs suspended above the entangled greenery.
Maybe he counted memories with them.
Maybe he counted words left unsaid.
By the time my brother arrived the relationship between my parents had reached an impasse.
Father, ever inarticulate, had become exasperatingly unintelligible.
Jabberwocky gave way to gibberish.
Silence gained the upper hand.
Mother could be found more and more often lying out on the grass, staring up at the sky, regardless of the season.
Once I thought I heard her speaking with the wind.
Father had the privilege of naming us children.
When my brother was born, Father christened him Icur.
He pronounced the name movingly, earnestly, longingly.
He repeated it several times, each time more emphatically, though less audibly, until his voice was but a whisper and his whisper but a hush; all the while staring not at his newborn son but at his wife.
Mother never looked up.
Language, it seemed, had failed them.
No word could set right what had gone wrong.
Least of all the name of a child.
The dandelions in the garden grew so plentiful, clouds of small Cabbage White butterflies greedily partook of their abundant nectar.
A profusion of “blowballs” stood tall above the yellow flower heads, releasing their fruits with each passing wind.
The garden danced with life.
One afternoon, Father cried.
I see you are, he said tearfully, breaking his long silence.
Somehow I understood it was not my brother’s name he was pronouncing.
His words were intended for my mother’s ears.
Father died that summer.
Sorting through his things, I came across a small envelope with Mother’s name written on it.
It was in Father’s hand.
The letter was sealed, so I hesitated before opening it.
It was dated my brother’s birthday.
If only Mother could have comprehended the meaning behind Father’s utterance that day.
If only Father could have straightened out his words.
The message read:
Convention A l
pro N ouncements
ple D ging
ultimate L y
el I cit
aut O matic
respo N ses.
Herew I th
I D eclare
incontrovertib L e