No Name

Eleven years ago, I volunteered at a women’s shelter on the island of Leyte, in a town half an hour outside of Tacloban, the city famously ravaged and razed to the ground by Typhoon Yolanda a number of years later after I first set foot there. At the shelter, I met a number of amazing women and girls who had suffered through unimaginable trauma and yet displayed an astonishing amount of joy and hope despite everything they had been through. Together, we sang Christmas songs, did yoga, played games, did arts and crafts projects, and they told their stories, and ultimately wrote those stories down. All of their stories I have not forgotten.

Out of all the women, however, one particular resident was not there temporarily but had become a permanent ward at the shelter. She was dropped off at its doors by a concerned citizen. Little is known about this concerned citizen, about whether they were a neighbor, friend, relative, perpetrator, except she was suddenly left at the shelter. Everything about her – her name, age, and background – would remain shrouded in mystery as she was unable to verbally communicate. With no identification, she bore the signs of being deaf and never opened her mouth to make a sound except to eat. She was given a name upon her arrival, which in the Waray local dialect I was told means “no name.”

A therapist had been assigned who had successfully taught her a limited scope of sign language, but the lessons only went so far as to communicate basic information, never beyond that, not that the therapist didn’t want to help, but there had only been one therapist assigned to approximately a dozen other females at the same shelter, so focusing on this particular resident’s needs were limited to teaching her simple sign language, but no more in depth to get a sense of who she was or where she came from or whether she wanted to discuss her past.

I’ve struggled in sharing her story as I wonder what right do I have to tell her story, except her story is not one that anyone knows much of, and so I share what I do know of her from our short-lived time together. This poem is for her where her very humanity seemed denied wherever she had been before the shelter, and yet despite whatever unspeakable abuses she suffered, she is a person capable of feelings and thought with so much to say about survival.

Image: “Spark” by Patt Abutog, ink on paper and digitally colored, 2019


She doesn’t speak.
No one knows her name.
She’s been named  
No Name
by the women at Regional Haven.

She’s a small being:
small hands / small feet / small torso
but with eyes so large.

She is small
as if forced to fit
in a box.

She doesn’t make a sound.
Her mouth stays shut
as if her tongue has been cut out.

You will find her
lying on her side on the floor
not just any floor
but some quiet dark corner
of the hallway
or the classroom
and she’ll lie on her side
on the cool linoleum
staring sometimes sleeping
with eyes wide open
watching while sleeping while watching.

I once had to grab the giant wipeboard
from the classroom next door.
She had been sleeping on the floor
in the dark and I had almost
stepped on her.
She scampered away:
a frightened feline on quiet paws
and found somewhere else
to lie on her side.

She cannot hear
as I call her name
while she stands outside
among the camoté leaves
closely examining
a piece of treasure

she’s just discovered.

When I find her
lying on her side
on the cool linoleum
I kneel down to her level
reach out my hand
and invite her
to draw / to write
gesturing my hands
as if I were writing
on my own palm.
She takes my hand
follows me to the room
full of women and girls.

Her face has
no age
no gender.

No one knows how old she is
or where she came from
except she was dropped off
on the doorstep a year ago
by a concerned citizen.

She peeks her head
out of the screen door
and smiles
when she knows
I have arrived.

She copies my ABC’s
my teddy bears / my stars.
She copies my colors
when I draw a heart / snowman / Christmas tree.
She is not colorblind.

When she’s upset
she takes what is hers.
She cannot argue with words or screams
but wrestles away with her fingers
what she is not willing to share:

pen / paper / crayon.

Once she came running to me
turned around
and showed me the blood
soaking her shorts.

She had her period
and went running to take care of it.

She is not a little girl
but for most of her life
lying on her side
on the cool linoleum
is something she was trained to do
like waiting for her master
to come home
staring into the dark
but always sleeping
with eyes wide open
watching while sleeping while watching.

Categories Creative Nonfiction, PoetryTags , , ,

1 thought on “No Name

  1. This is such a moving poem, Elsa. I wonder what happened to her… Love the art, too. I’m not on Instagram or Twitter these days. Writing mostly on my blog at

    Liked by 1 person

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