In a Name

Elizabeth Thomas Wenning

Oneida stretched out her graceful red-brown arm, shaking her doeskin fringes and feathers of red, blue, black, and white, and pulled back a great, shimmering silver drapery. We could now, by some power of this place (which I must spare an aside to say is no literal “place,” but still seems one to me), see the room where Vanessa had died. Further, we could see her there, still gasping for breath, even though she’d in fact arrived here decades before I did. Not only can time in this place be both the blink of a butterfly’s eyelash and the slow circumference growth of the giant red trees of the western New World, but souls adjust to their options and realities at varying rates. Thus, Oneida deemed me fit to serve as Vanessa’s counsellor, despite the nearly thirty earthly years between our most recent discorporation experiences.

So, strictly speaking, we did not view Vanessa’s real death, but merely a preservation of it, filed in the Akashic Records. Still, quite pitiful, to see her lying upon her deathbed, propped up with many pillows. We watched her in the last throes of consumption. Vanessa also ran a high fever. Around her bed, a few odd servants gathered, mostly women. One man, too–her gardener, and the poor boy happened to love her. Hopelessly, unrequitedly–aside from his being her social inferior, and aside from the fact that she was about to die, her heart is taken.

“Dear Miss Esther, it’s all right.” One of the women–older–tried to soothe her, brushing the limp brown hair from her hot, dry forehead. (Yes, I knew it hot and dry even though I merely watched–the Akashics are wonderful that way.)

“I’m Vanessa!” she protested, with much of the air then left in her body. “It’s what he calls me. Who I … always will be.”

“All right,” said a younger woman, holding back tears. “Just–please, don’t strain yourself.” The gardener sobbed openly into a coarse handkerchief.

Vanessa, however, stayed quiet for a few moments but for her horribly labored breathing. Then she whispered, “Jonathan?”

“The Dean’s not here, ma’am,” the older servant said gently.

“Will someone … try … to get him … to come?” Vanessa asked, her voice a bare thread.

“I will, Mistress, right away!” the gardener vowed, through his sobs. Touching, that–his willingness to go fetch his only rival. He promptly dashed out of Oneida’s and my view, not to return before the record ran out.

“I’m … sorry,” Vanessa said. “I shouldn’t … have changed … my will. Molly,” she whispered to the younger servant. “Go. Get my solicitor.” Off went Molly from our view. To the remaining servant, Vanessa explained, struggling for each word. “He will think … I didn’t love him … at the end.”

“No, no, he won’t think that,” the servant soothed.

“Jonathan,” Vanessa breathed. “I love you. Always.” After that, she began breathing the familiar pattern of death; within a short span, she breathed no more.

Oneida replaced the silver drapes. “She is essentially unchanged,” she told me. “Still, it has been a while, and it is definitely time someone began helping her prepare for her next growth experience, Judge Fielding. True, plenty of time remains–but I feel you may need each moment.”

I nodded my assent. “So, how long did they decide?”

“For self-annihilation, but not quite?” Oneida smiled gently. Her dark eyes held sympathy for Vanessa, even though their lives could not have been more different. “They named me before they named my people,” she had explained to me on our first meeting. Which would place her breathing the lush air of the forest primeval while my last body’s ancestors made rebellion against the Romans.

“Not the full five hundred, surely?” I asked.

“No, less than half that,” Oneida replied. “Two hundred and forty–forty of that already elapsed.”

“Sounds about right. Shall I go to her now?”

“Soon enough. I’d like you to look at some of the primary documents first.”

“Ah, yes! He wrote her some poetry, didn’t he?” I remembered it, somewhat, from my incarnation. Caused quite a scandal, too.

“Very good, Judge Fielding. Now, off to the library with you,” Oneida commanded. “You won’t need the full Akashics for this. Then, when you feel you’ve gleaned sufficient background, you may introduce yourself to Miss Vanhomrigh.”

I visited the reading screens in the library. I re-read the poem, the famous one–I had always loved the way he made Cupid’s arrow go through a book of his own writing before piercing Vanessa’s breast, thus winning her heart with his words. I scanned a few shorter verses as well. I looked, too, at some of the letters that had passed between them. I will admit right now that I know no more about the answer to the great literary mystery than anyone else. I certainly know why some people still argue that Vanessa had carnal knowledge of Dean Swift. I also know why some people argue she had not. In my humble opinion, it does not matter. Whatever Vanessa did have of her beloved, it was simply not enough.

Before I went to see Vanessa, I popped into my finest judge’s robes and wig. We can all do such showy miracles here, appear to others wearing whatever garments we can wish or imagine. Most of us tend to make our choices from our last incarnations, but one does see exceptions. I once caught Oneida trying on something she called a space suit. I mention this primarily because when I first entered Vanessa’s containment quarters, she still wore the same sky-blue dressing gown in which she had expired.

“Has he arrived yet? I must see him!”

“My dear girl, has no one taught you how to fix that yet?”

Our simultaneous queries tangled and garbled each other. Vanessa repeated hers, however, and though I was not supposed to reveal the information, my eyes must have betrayed me.

“Oh, no!” Vanessa cried. “My Jonathan, arrived here from the valley of the shadow, and I not there to greet him? He must think I never loved him!”

“Now, now, dear, I’m sure he thinks no such thing. I am sure the reasons for your necessary separation have been explained to him.”

“Necessary separation?” she echoed. Then, after a pause, she said, “Wait a moment, Your Honor. He’s not with that Johnson slut, is he?”

Again, perhaps I was too forthcoming. Vanessa had that effect upon me. “No,” I replied. “The Powers that Be felt it best they be separated as well.”

At first she appeared relieved at the knowledge. Then her face fell. “He cannot be with either one of us? How dreadful for him! He must be so lonely! What kind of Heaven is this, Your Honor, if–” Vanessa broke off, utter horror gradually possessing all her features.

“No, no!” I began, anticipating.

“No!” she shrieked. “We are in Hell, aren’t we? I understand my being here, but not Jonathan. Not my love!”

“You are not in Hell, Vanessa,” I told her firmly.

“What else would you call it, if I am to be separated from my dearest love for all eternity?”

“No, my dear, not for all eternity. Just until your next incarnation. Or, most likely, until after that.”

“I beg your pardon? Incarnation?”

Her chamber, though virtually blank (another indication she had been taught nothing), had comfortable benches coming out from the walls. I took one and gestured for her to take the one opposite.

“No one has explained any of this yet?”

“One woman has come in from time to time, and tries to talk at me,” said Vanessa, “but she looks like some kind of heathen savage, so I do not listen. She tried coming once in an elegant, hooped gown, but I recognized her. Have no idea what she does here, unless some missionary to America has converted her.” She displayed more honest puzzlement than disdain.

“The Powers that Be are more eclectic than you could ever have imagined in your recent life,” I told her. “You should have listened to Oneida.”

“She would not tell me the only thing I cared to hear.”

I realize now I probably erred to begin thus with her. What I hoped, however, was to make my way into her mind by stealth, and get her gradually to see reason. “Miss Vanhomrigh,” I said deliberately, “if you are to retain the slightest hope of seeing the late Jonathan Swift any time in the next millennium, you had better start listening to any of us who cares enough to speak to you.”

This produced the necessary effect.

“All right, then,” I continued. “Speaking of the Dean, did your tutor ever tell you of the Hindus?”

“If he did, I cannot recall,” she said.

“Well, they believe that we live many times upon the earth,” I explained. “They erred on a few points, but in that one essential, they have the right of it.”

“So, what you are telling me is that this is neither Heaven nor Hell, but some sort of coach stop?”

“No, it is Heaven–but you’re right. It’s a way station as well. There are rules, but there are choices.” I had her full attention now, so I progressed with her first lecture. “For instance, the standard time at this ‘coach stop’, as you call it, to reflect and prepare for one’s next life, is one hundred years. Now, if someone cut her own throat, or took poison, or otherwise did away with herself, they would have to wait five hundred years before being allowed to live again. Would you care to hazard a guess as to how long you will need to prepare?”

“Why–the one hundred,” said Vanessa, with little conviction.

“No, my dear. Now–let me soften this–you’ve already done forty years.”

“Forty years? I’ve been waiting around for forty years?”

“Time is strange here, to say the least. I’m glad the first forty years have passed quickly for you, Vanessa. You have two hundred more to endure.”

“Two hundred?” Vanessa leapt to her feet. “But why?”

“You didn’t exactly commit suicide,” I told her, trying for a gentle tone. “The consumption didn’t have to work terribly hard to kill you, however. It loves a broken heart, hates a will to live. You just let the pestilence right in, after that last scene with him, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she whispered, turning her face from me.

“It’s not a punishment.”

She sank back down.

“For your own protection, really,” I went on. “We don’t want to send you back out there while you’re still susceptible to that kind of thing happening again.”

She sat silent. I felt perhaps she now had enough to digest, and the time had come to end our first visit. I said as much, then added, “I will leave you these thoughts to ponder, Vanessa. You may change your garments merely by forming an idea of what you would like to wear instead. You may decorate your chamber to suit your whim in much the same manner. And, last but not least, though you are not allowed to be with Dean Swift, there are many worthy souls with whom you may pass time. Your mother. Your sister, Mary. My dear, you may even claim an audience with Our Lord Jesus Himself if you desire–only be sure to make an appointment, as He is blessedly popular. My advice to you,” I finished, “is to take advantage of what you are able. Think upon what you learn from these privileges, and upon what I have told you. I will see you again soon.”

“Wait, please, Your Honor,” said Vanessa, as I turned to leave her.

“Yes, my child?”

“What is your name? Or do you prefer that I continue to address you only as Your Honor?”

“In my last life, I was Judge Henry Fielding,” I told her. “In addition to settling disputes, I received some notice for writing novels. Oneida has even assured me that one of them will endure a while, dragging the others behind. You may call me Henry.” I bowed to her, and left her presence.

The next time I saw her, I could tell Vanessa had taken much to heart. She now wore a clean gown, though in keeping with the virtues the poet had lauded in her, a plain and conservative one of dark green. She had piled her brown hair in a neat, smooth bun, and pearls decorated her neck and ears. She had transformed the room as well. A magnificent full-length portrait of her beloved took a prominent place on one of the walls. Good news and bad. She had made large adjustments, but obviously still clung tightly to her most dangerous obsession.

“Hello, Vanessa,” I greeted her.

She stood up. “I saw Him,” she said, her face radiant. I started to protest that she could not possibly have done so, but then I realized she spoke not of Dean Swift, but of Jesus of Nazareth. An easy mistake with Vanessa.

“I am glad,” I finally said.

“He was so kind,” she continued. “And, Henry–please pardon my lack of subtlety, but–He gave me a great deal more encouragement than you have.”

“How so?”

She didn’t really answer me. After she also mentioned having visited her mother, sister, and other miscellaneous deceased family members, I realized I would not make significant progress just now, and bid her ponder some more until our next encounter.

I told Oneida about Vanessa’s meeting with Jesus.

“Oh! That is just like Him!” she huffed. She wore an alarmingly short skirt of shiny leather, with high white boots of similar sheen. Odd, but fetching. “Why He has to be so attached to the concept of free will, I’ll never …”

“Well, actually, all He did was tell her the truth,” I said, attempting to soothe. “We always do include a choice that could lead to–well, in Vanessa’s case–their meeting again.”

“One chance, as big as a spot on a fawn, in a whole meadow of spotted fawns,” said Oneida. She paced. “A chance, likely composed of worse superficial compatibility circumstances than she had this time, with similar obstacles! A chance,” she summed, “solely depending on Swift’s making the right choices out of all the spots of his meadow of fawns, twice over! And you know, Henry, from all reports, he is cooperating with his counselors. He’ll do what’s good for him, unlike some people we know. You’ve got to make her see reason! Jesus may think He’s doing her some kind of favor, getting her hopes up, but really, He’s just being cruel.”

“Or romantic,” I could not help thinking, though I nodded silently to Oneida before she walked away, still muttering to herself. The heels of her boots echoed on the marble floor.

When next I saw Vanessa, she wore an unassuming gown of soft dove gray, but I could scarce get out a greeting before she accosted me with questions. “How long have you been here, Henry?” she asked first.

“Roughly sixty years,” I told her.

“So, then, in forty more years, you will go back, and someone else will be discussing these matters with me? And that Red Indian lady, she has already gone back, has she not?”

“Do you think I might sit down?” I asked her.

“Yes, of course, Henry. Forgive my manners.” Then, when I had pulled up one of her new Georgian chairs, she added, “Well?”

“I can certainly see why you might make these assumptions, based on the information you have been given,” I began. “But some of us are deemed worthy of more choices. Some of us, such as Oneida and myself, have decided to stay longer before we next incarnate, and help to guide souls such as yourself. So I will be here with you as long as you need me.” I hoped the last would comfort her, but I sensed she only half-listened by the time I ended my speech.

“What about Jonathan?” she asked. “Did he get longer, like me, or is he staying longer to help, like you?”

“He is staying for the standard one hundred years,” I replied. Telling her that gave me a vague discomfort, but I saw no reason to lie. As long as I did not elaborate–i. e., Dean Swift had not died of a broken heart, but he had complicated his own life and those of Esther “Vanessa” Vanhomrigh and Esther Johnson sufficiently that he was not eligible for counseling duties–I would not tell her things she had no business knowing.

“About how much of that does he have left?”

“About thirty years,” I told her.

“And how much do I have now?”

“One hundred and fifty.” I paused. “Vanessa, I see what you are attempting here, and the odds against it succeeding are incredibly vast.”

“Jesus seemed to think it worth a shot,” she retorted.

“Did He tell you how many different elements can work against it?” I asked gently. I told her, then, exactly what chances were involved, and how much depended on the choices of her beloved, which we could not control. Predictably, her face fell. But only for a moment.

“Might you find out for me what his choices need to be?” she asked, studying my expression.

Fortunately, I could not. I say “fortunately” for me, because Vanessa’s passion and determination made me want to help her–or more accurately, made me want to gratify her every whim, even if in the end it did her more harm than good. “No,” I sighed. “I have no access to his files.”

“So, there would be no use in your visiting him–even were you willing and it were possible–and trying to influence his choice, if we don’t know what that choice should be.” She spoke more to herself than to me. Then she turned and fixed me with her dark-eyed gaze once more.

“Even so,” she said. “Could you visit him? Is it permitted? Is it possible?”

I thought. “Not permitted, but possible,” I told her. “But pointless,” I reminded her.

“Pointless,” she whispered dully. Then Vanessa dismissed me, and I allowed it.

When next Oneida asked me how I fared with Vanessa, I said, “fine,” hoping she would not call me on it. Clad in her customary doeskin, she merely gave me a long, skeptical look, but let the matter pass.

Vanessa had changed costumes again to a gown of deep claret, but whether for my benefit or not, I will never know. “Henry, I thought you’d never come back!” she exclaimed, and pulled me into her chamber. “Quickly, tell me! Is it too late? Has he gone back already?”

I kept track automatically by now. “No, he’s got about a year left. But what does it matter, Vanessa? We established the futility of contact last time.” I started to ease myself into my accustomed seat, but she jerked me back up to a stand. If I’d actually had a flesh-and-blood arm, she’d have wrested it from its socket.

“Perhaps you established it,” she said, the intelligence he must have found so terribly attractive shining slyly in her countenance. “Possible, but not permissible? Well, if it’s possible for you, Your Honor, then it is possible for me. Take me to him, Henry, please?”

“Vanessa, I cannot!”

“Why not? What will happen to you? A few decades added on to your term as a counsellor? Or your counselling privileges revoked altogether?”

Bizarrely, I realized I had not the slightest idea. I confessed as much to her, then said, “That is not the point. Even if I were willing–which I am not!–do you think you could get within a furlong of his chamber without ten thousand bloody angels streaming out of the very woodwork to stop you?”

“What can they do, kill me?”

“Very droll. Of course they cannot kill you,” I answered. “But they can certainly keep you dead a lot longer. And put further restrictions on your choices.”

She cried out in frustration, reminding me ironically of Oneida. “All right,” she sighed finally, “all right. But you can go to see him, can’t you?”

“Theoretically, yes, but why? What message could I possibly carry that would do any good?”

“When I ask you–and you know I will, Henry–you will tell me which life I must choose to have my only chance with Jonathan, won’t you?”


“So, if my beloved is thinking of me, he will ask his counsellor also, yes?”

“Possibly,” I conceded. “But you know him better than I.”

She knelt before me gracefully, and took my hands in her own. “Please, Henry,” she begged, “just say that I sent you, and that I ask him to think of me.”

I knew I should not. I knew Oneida would suffer a most unholy rage if she ever found out. Yet, I reflected upon the time I had spent in this place thus far, and the comfort I had derived from having been able to talk with both my wives. I had been able to discuss my decision to become a counsellor, and to assure them I would watch over of them during their next adventures. Vanessa had been afforded no such comfort. Even though she was supposedly better off, it seemed so unjust to deprive her in this way.

“You understand, it probably won’t change anything?”

“Yes, I understand. Please, Henry!”

I raised her gently to her feet. “All right, Vanessa, I will speak with him.”

“Thank you, Henry!” She hugged me. “Now, go!” she commanded. “You don’t have much time.”

I went directly and did as she bade. I gained admittance to the great man with no difficulty. He stood there while I introduced myself, and his blue eyes peered inscrutably at me as I told him who sent me and delivered Vanessa’s simple message. I thought, but could not be sure, that the corners of his mouth twitched in the briefest of smiles at the mention of her name–the name he gave her. Yet he offered me no answer, and I left before anyone else might discover me.

I know that shortly afterwards he began his next incarnation. I could have found out what choice he made, could have learned if he returned yet again early enough to even possibly fit with Vanessa’s hopes. But I could not bear to know, and for once, Vanessa agreed with me.

“What would be the point in knowing all was futile?” she asked. “I would still make the same choice, hoping against hope some vast error had occurred and I’d still end up in the arms of my love.”

I nodded.

Vanessa did not want to hear any other of her incarnation options than the one with “the chance,” as we had come to refer to it. “You will listen,” I told her, “so I can faithfully report to Oneida that I presented you with all your options and gave you good advice. You owe me that much, Vanessa.”

“I may owe you the world, Henry,” she said solemnly. She then at least put on a reasonable pretense of listening, while I told her of opportunities to return to green Ireland, or blessed England. I told her she could live in Amsterdam next time, and be a member of the nobility, with her last mother by her side. Or, if it was suffering she was after, she could be born in the great desert of Africa, and learn the value of staying alive, no matter who does or does not love you. I told her she would get more credit for this option, thus making yet another future life with the former Dean Swift much more apt to run smoothly. She could have been reborn as a male servant of the Dalai Lama, but Vanessa would have none of it. Naught would satisfy her but this piddling little incarnation as the daughter of working-class parents in some midwestern state in North America–a completely ordinary life except that she might, while living it, meet the soul who had once been Jonathan Swift. And this possible life was fraught with other possible perils as well.

“If,” I cautioned her, having brought her into the library to pore over probability tables with her, “by the smallest chance, you do meet him, the odds then become high that the former Esther Johnson will be involved as well. Not only might you find yourself with the same old problems and the same old despair, but–as I say, we are dealing with percentages here–wait a moment. Vanessa, do you remember your old gardener? Bob, I believe?”

“Vaguely. What has he to do with anything?” Her brows knitted with impatience.

“Well, you will know him if you see him again. Do you know he loved you hopelessly last time?”

“Really? How silly!”

“You won’t think it silly when you run into him, carrying a fat load of karmic debt. You must be careful–he may be dangerous to you this next time.”


“Vanessa, promise me you will take care,” I said.

“Oh, all right, Henry, whatever you say,” she responded. “I have made my choice.”

And so she had. Nothing to do but to wait, and to prepare. One day, very late in the process, I entered her chamber and could not find her. I knew the time had not yet come, and I guessed she was doing a brief bit of acclimating. A soul will frequently pop in and out of its future mother’s womb, not fully attaching, easily able to withdraw in case something goes wrong with the new body. Saves a lot of wasted incarnations, what with miscarriages and such. I waited, and surely enough, Vanessa popped back into the room.

“Henry!” she said, face shining with excitement. “It’s going to work, I know it is!”

“How so?” I queried.

“Just now, in my new mother–I heard the most beautiful thing through the walls of her body! This man, he had the richest voice–I think he was a Moor–he sang this song, asking Cupid to strike his lover with an arrow. It is an omen, Henry! You remember Jonathan’s poem, don’t you?” Apparently the woman carrying Vanessa’s new body had been listening to the vocal stylings of Sam Cooke.

“Yes,” I told her. I can never forget now, no more than she. I just wish I could be as sure as she was. Because only a short time after, she went to attach more permanently to her new body, hoping to be born into bliss in the year of Our Lord, 1963. Before she went, she stood stark naked in the center of her containment quarters–one wall still graced with the splendid portrait of Swift–and repeated, over and over, “I am Vanessa.”

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