In stories where a powerful evil (see: witches, demons, nameless voices crooning from dark pits) sets out to control another (princesses, flutists, scrappy sidekicks hiding untold riches), always of extreme importance is that the evil never learns the name of its target. Once the evil knows what to call the tiny figure quivering at its lip, it will be vested with complete control over them. This has been well documented in fiction.
If I were to build off this with my own fairy-tale logic, I would guess that not all names are equal. For instance, when the voice from the pit rasps And just who are you? and you answer in despair, voice choked in agony: Dana, my guess is that the pit will feel slightly cheated. After leaving the mysterious cavern, you will likely receive a bill in the mail for a cable box that you did in fact return. Many will turn from you in disgust for returning their hellos with “What’s crackin!”—an inclination that before the pit you showed no sign for. Other than this your life will continue in utter banality. No greater evil can be accomplished (and no greater good besides, though the Pit has no interest in this).
This is why the Crooning Pit dreams of girls named Constance or Esperanza or Aurelia; Lydia and Ivy and Cassandra. In its greatest fantasies it has ensnared women named for stars and cities, rivers, luxury cars, empresses who committed suicide as the enemy horde closed in. These are lives imbued with more magic, more potential; these are the kinds of women who can be compelled to end up in books.
The pit subscribes to all baby naming blogs, stays up to date on the Social Security index of most popular names. It gobbles up handfuls of Alexandria and Gwendolyn and spits Sandra from the corners of its mouth like shells from sunflower seeds.
The Crooning Pit scoffs at alternate spellings. It is uninterested in any newfangled portmanteaus—perhaps save for JonBenét, a story morbid enough for its own depraved tastes.
Rumplestiltskin was one of its own; they trained side-by-side at Villain Academy, aced their group final on Maiden Manipulation. But both of them are stubborn, ungraceful in defeat, and since the whole firstborn child debacle, neither have been on speaking terms.
My mom wanted to call me Louisa. Dad didn’t. It was, and clearly remains, a source of unusual angst.
If I were Louisa, things would have been much different. I would have had an instinct for running through wide green meadows laughing and clutching my skirts, eyes shining in the brightness of the sky. I would have innate knowledge for jumpstarting cars, butchering pigs, weaving lilies into my hair. When I cried, it would be rare and profound, and the moment I turned fourteen all the world’s knowledge of flirtation and seduction would suddenly fall into my lap in a brightly-colored box.
When I was younger I asked Dad: Why not Louisa?
Dad’s name is David. Davids are truth-tellers but are very grounded, literal, always stick to their guns.
I knew you were Madisyn, he said.
Yeah, but what does that mean?
He peered at me over his glasses, confused why this was hard to understand. It means, I knew that you couldn’t be anything else.
What if I had been a boy? What would my name have been then?
I knew you weren’t, so we didn’t pick one out.
You mean you knew I was going to be a girl?
No, we didn’t.
So I would have been Madisyn if I had been a boy? That’s even worse than the y.
No. I knew you would be you.
One thing that Davids are not are prophets. They are not soothsayers or oracles; their dreams reveal no hidden doorways or celestial symbols. His insistence on this platitude—that I was always me, and me was always Madisyn—must have come from somewhere else. Normally, I would say my mom—Kathleens see faces in the clouds and feel cold spots floating down halls—but she didn’t insist on Madisyn. She would have chosen Louisa.
Mom’s eyes are always wide, slightly guilty, when we talk about this.
You can always grow up and change it, she says, even now.
But there’s something mystical about the fact that Dad, the truth-teller made of only earth, had such a vision. If there’s any magic in Madisyn, it’s that.
Aside from devouring the blogs of housewives, scouring book after book, registry after registry, the Crooning Pit is partial to celebrity gossip magazines. In them, it finds the most beautiful the world has to offer right alongside the most unspeakable evil, since the rich and famous always name their children without fear.
The Crooning Pit understands that once you reach a certain annual income, you evolve past the fear of meaning and become entirely devoted to syllables. It hovers over a page: Apple Martin, daughter of Coldplay frontrunner Chris Martin and actress/healing witch Gwyneth Paltrow. Ah-pull. Ah-pull. If you say it over and over again, the small red-or-yellow fruit on an outstretched bough disappears completely, converts itself to air, voice, the still unwritten destiny of a small blonde celeb-spawn. The same goes for Spike Lee’s daughter Satchel, Rick Ross’ son Billion, even the little girl named Audio Science, daughter of now-defunct early 2000s star Shannyn Sossaman—though the fading of her mother into obscurity has lessened the shine of these particular syllables, for the Crooning Pit at least. But still shine they do, since only the children of those straddling the world’s stage have the power to pry sounds from their meanings.
Of course the world of naming is more than just syllables. There is the beauty of defiance. There is Blue Ivy Carter, the twins Sir and Rumi, Ryan Reynolds’ daughter James, Hillary Duff ’s daughter Banks. There are the Kardashians and the Cruises and the Jolie-Pitts, but they won’t be explored further, since their progeny will one day make up entire branches of government.
The Crooning Pit flicks a page, licks its lips. Sage Moonblood Stallone. Aviana Olea Le Gallo. Seraphina Rose Elizabeth Affleck. Lily-Rose Melody Depp. The Pit laughs, gurgles, sneezes. The pages whir by in a flurry of Onyx and Ever, Lea and Luna, Sienna and Iris and Ivanka.
In fourth grade they teach us about acrostic poems and we all write one using our own names as a template. The teacher asks us to share.
Not nearly shakily enough, I get up before the class. I’ve written an excellent poem. It’s one of the best ever: I’m a superstar, a poet, a young icon. I begin to read out loud. It probably goes something like:
M is for Musical
A is for Amazing
and so on, just like the teacher wanted—I’m looking into myself and recognizing my strengths, my talents, the fact that I have some shred of confidence before puberty comes to snatch it away—and then I get to the y.
Y is for Yearning—
From the back of the classroom, Sean McDonald (future reverend, quarterback, breaker of musical props and Allie Claire’s heart) snickers.
Yearning? Isn’t that when you, like, pee everywhere?
To illustrate his point, he stands up, cups his tiny genitals and whirrs around the class-room in an unmistakable sprinkler motion: whoossssshhhhh! The classroom dissolves into laughter. I ball up my poem and throw it at him, storm back to my desk, never even get to the n.
Even if he was wrong, even if the word he was thinking of was urinating and it came to him in one of the many revelations of spite that would seize him throughout the years, it’s possible it was a blessing in disguise. Yearning is expected, cliché; maybe Sean recognized that I could do better, that one day I would have to reconsider and reinvestigate the value of y. It’s an ongoing process.
Y is for:
young at heart!
While my name was sacrificed in honor of trend, my younger sister Piper was named for a family icon.
Mom’s maternal grandmother was called Helen Piper, but the kids called her Grandma City. Growing up, Mom and her siblings waited for the weekends they could be whisked away from the sheep farm in Watertown to visit her in Minneapolis.
She golfed, bowled, spoke German, drove a pink-and-ivory car with a figurine of the Virgin Mary quaking on the dashboard. After her railroad worker husband died in 1961,
she used his benefits to fund solo trips across the United States, to Germany to meet relatives, to Italy to meet the Pope. Framed photos of her travels punctuated her home’s pristine walls, which she scrubbed without fail every spring. She wore bright-red rouge kept in a shiny gold ball in her medicine cabinet, and sometimes when Mom and her siblings pulled up to the neat little house, she would be there, kneeling in the grass, trimming the front lawn with a pair of sewing scissors.
Of course, no one would know until much later that Grandma City adopted Mom’s mother, that she wasn’t blood at all. If I consider my sister Piper’s wardrobe of exclusively track pants an affront to her namesake, it’s entirely imagined. There is no DNA linking my materialism to hers, no genetic predisposition for the women of my family to love pretty things and witchiness.
Piper is slightly taller than me, athletically built, has white-blonde hair that shudders at the thought of dye. At first glance you might not know we’re sisters, or even related. She goes to a school full of frats and jungle juice, always insists on hearing all sides before becoming emotional, once had a seizure waiting in line to win SNL tickets and returned to claim them some scant hours later.
But as she’s gotten older, I’ve begrudgingly accepted the fact that there’s probably no right way to wear a name. The Pipers in my head can’t take the form of batty great-grandmothers I’ve never met, no matter how independent their souls or polished their windows. Instead, a sea of white-blonde athletes raise their chins, quote an ancient Andy Samberg skit, ask if I’ll join them at the gym later.
I won’t. But I know, at least, it’s not because my name is Madisyn.
The Crooning Pit recognizes that while men are more proficient at the art of murder, they rarely have names interesting enough to meet the heinousness of their crimes. This must be why so many killers assert not two names but three—John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Leon Ridgway, Paul John Knowles, John Wayne Gacy—the Crooning Pit has been boiling beneath our feet for millennia. It knows firsthand that men and compensation is not exactly a new phenomenon.
The Pit could consider the pathology of their crimes, the misery of their childhoods, draw lines and find similarities between victims, methods—but it all comes down to that one extra name, the one similarity that makes all the difference. In some places, you get an extra name for acts of bravery or achievement. Schooling, if attended long enough, also earns you an extra title. And of course some people—not always killers, though just as audacious and perverse—go by their first and middle name (add two points to the tally of evil if it’s hyphenated).
So is the middle name tacked on in some kind of title distortion? Or, like the college freshman wanting to rebrand themself as Blaire, is it a grandiose stab towards individuality? Fewer women head Fortune 500 companies than men named John. Perhaps in order to stand apart from the herd—in order to make a name for themselves among all the Jameses and Kevins and Charleses—this extra name became vital.
In a surprise twist of fate, the Crooning Pit does not claim these killers as its own. It finds their crimes predictable, uninspired, lacking connection to any greater purpose—issues that an extra name couldn’t fix, no matter how glorious, not even if it was Edward.
But all those Johns in their high towers, with their exotic potted plants and floor-to-ceiling windows—those are men the Pit holds closest to its black and pulsing heart. At night, as they fall asleep beneath downy blankets and mistresses and sheets of stars, it creeps into their dreams and paints pictures.