Houston, Texas—March 2001
They said I’d be safe here. They lied.
As I hid in the back corner of my bedroom closet, my breath seized at the sound of approaching voices outside our apartment building. They scrambled over one another, pushing and shoving, wrestling for control of the conversation and straining to be heard over the raucous peals of laughter punctuating their dialogue. As they drew closer, the voices charged through the open window of the second-floor bedroom, where I hid, throwing themselves against the worn plywood of my closet door. I considered sneaking out of my sanctuary to peek through the window to see who was coming and assess any potential danger they might pose, but my muscles refused to budge. So I remained in my corner of the closet, paralyzed in fear of the unknown, as well as the known.
I closed my eyes and listened, straining to determine whether the muffled, male voices used English or Dinka and praying they did not come inside. They spoke English. I recognized only two words in the jumble of their laughter and shouting: no and home. Finally, the unfamiliar voices, speaking their unfamiliar language, moved past our building and dissolved in the din of evening traffic.
I took a deep breath before easing open the closet door. The apartment was quiet. I peeked out to check the digital clock sitting on the plastic nightstand squeezed between the two single beds that crowded the narrow room. It was 5:53 P.M., almost two hours since I’d arrived home from school. I’d been hiding longer than I’d thought. The others would be home soon.
He would be home soon.
Time was running out. I had to make a decision before the decision was made for me. Again.
As I closed the door, echoes of my grandmother’s voice whispered in my mind. “Not so fast, little one,” my koko had cautioned me when, at five years old, I had slipped my small hand from hers and run through the open gate of the wooden fence encircling the thatched-roof huts, fields, and gardens of our home in southern Sudan. I had wanted to follow my uncle Abraham as he led our family’s herd of cattle to drink from the lake outside our village. As I hurried after him, Koko scooped me into her arms before I accidentally startled a large black-and-white Ankole-Watusi bull, with long, curved horns and little tolerance for small children who did not heed their elders’ warnings. “Achut, you must think before you move.” She pressed a gentle finger against my forehead. “Good decisions take time and care. Always use both.”
A suffocating ache radiated through my chest, and hot tears escaped my eyes and burned down my cheeks. Even my happy memories were accompanied by pain.
They had called us Lost Boys when the others and I had arrived in Houston three months earlier from Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, but I was not a boy, and I was not lost.
I knew exactly where I was and exactly how I’d arrived here. What I did not understand was why. But the why no longer mattered. Death had taken so much from me over my sixteen years, but life had taken more.
Bit by bit.
Piece by piece.
It had stolen everything until there was only one thing left to take.
The first thing they took was my name.
It had been passed down in my father’s family for three generations to honor his great-grandmother, the first Achut of many. My great-great-grandmother had been the only child of seven to survive infancy.
“Let the name Achut be a blessing for all the children we have lost,” my great-great-grandmother’s parents announced when death did not claim their youngest child. Achut became revered in our family and village. Her name graced the lyrics of songs chanted at family gatherings in celebration of not only her life but, years later, the lives of her twelve children, including three sets of twins. For so much life to come after so much death, my great-great-grandmother Achut had truly been blessed. And so every firstborn daughter in our family to follow was given her name, including me.
Achut was the beautiful, vibrant note at the beginning of my song. A promise of life carried across the boundless blue Sudanese sky, on the voices of the Dinka people. It sang out with strength and clarity, sure of its place in the lyrics of my life.
Spoken in soft, loving coos by my mother, it called to me.
Its melody resonated through my soul with the echoes of my ancestors, binding me to my past and their future.
For the first three years of my life, Achut was my name. And then, one day, it wasn’t.
It was replaced by a strange, new name.
Discordant. Harsh. Off-key.
I tried to ignore it, but everyone in my family and village insisted on the new name. Everyone, except my koko.
Despite our family’s constant reminders, my baba’s mother, Abul Deng Goch, refused to call me Rachel.
“I am taking Achut to the garden,” she would announce to Mama.
“Her name is Rachel,” Mama would say for the hundredth time, but no annoyance or anger sharpened her tone. Mama loved and admired her mother-in-law. Mama and Baba had married in 1982, a year before Baba was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Baba was Koko’s firstborn child, and during his long deployment, Mama and Koko had grown close, working the land together, caring for my baba’s younger siblings, and maintaining the Deng family homestead in his absence.
At five feet eight inches tall, my grandmother was considered short among the Dinka women in our village, but she carried herself with the confidence and courage of a woman who would never permit others to look down on her. Like most Dinkas, she was a devout Christian. She attended mass, recited her daily prayers, and paid her tithes, but she had refused a Christian name at her baptism and insisted on calling her family members by their traditional Dinka names. Her short hair, bleached in the Dinka custom from cow-urine rinses, hugged her head in a cap of tight sunset-orange curls. Her dark eyes, glistening with intelligence and curiosity, missed nothing. One stern glance could silence children and men alike, and one warm, dimpled smile could thaw the coldest heart.
“Come along, Achut,” Koko would say, picking up her hand hoe and basket.
Copyright © 2022 by Achut Deng and Keely Hutton