It means laughter.
What I left
(I want you to imagine laughter without a beginning or an end. A laughter that is untethered and limitless. A laughter that is impossible to smother or cage.)
I got the name Reaškkas several weeks after I was born. Until then, I was munno bártnáš—our baby boy. My parents were waiting for my name to reveal itself.
And on the coldest day in January, I filled our home with my name. With eyes like half-moons, I mustered a thunderous laugh from the bottom of my stomach, launched from the widest grin. First, it hit Áhčči, who made funny faces. It bounced wall to wall in the living room and escaped into the hallway, and not long after, my name rang in every room of our house.
Eatni came running through the front door. “Is he laughing?” she asked, despite the walls still holding my name in an echo.
“Yes,” Áhčči answered, “I did this!” He made the same face, and I filled our home from wall to wall, floor to roof, all over again.
I laughed until the cold surrendered and the snow retreated. In the summers, my laughter competed with the sunshine to brighten the days. I put autumn’s colors to shame with my chestnut eyes when I smiled. And when I was six years old on my first day of school, everyone turned their heads after my name when the teacher asked what it was, and I answered: Reaškkas!
I laughed my way through the seasons and years, at home in the north. Until the day we moved to the south. From the airplane window, I blurred every snow-kissed mountain, pine-spotted valley, and frozen river with wet eyes.
“There isn’t work in the periphery,” Áhčči explained, even though I did not know what periphery meant.
What I left for
(Imagine the withering of laughter; a laughter lost in a storm, poured down a drain, fading like a memory.)
Each time a language dies, we lose a way to understand the world. My first encounter with that was the first time I saw the new place. “It is perfectly situated,” Áhčči and Eatni told me. And perfectly situated meant in the middle of the city, where nature—my playground back home—was nowhere close.
They were not liars, so my only explanation was that they understood the world differently. It happened at the same time we stopped speaking Sami in public—the day the airplane landed.
Sami was now a language we only used within the walls of our new house. With muted voices, we spoke as if we were back home. In those moments, the world made sense again—a sense torn away every time I walked out the front door.
Eatni and Áhčči were now mom and dad. And them becoming mom and dad changed them. It meant something else.
In the same way friends could not possibly mean the same thing in Norwegian and Sami. Back home, friends were children who looked like me, and talked like me. They wanted to be with me. Kids at the new place were none of those things. When mom and dad told me there would be friends to play with, they must have had a different understanding of what a friend was.
“Can I play with you?” I asked a gang of kids at the playground. I was nervous. At home, I was never nervous.
They turned towards me and measured me up and down.
“Where are you from?” one of the kids asked me. “You don’t sound Norwegian.”
“I’m from Norway,” I answered. “My name’s Reaškkas; what’s your names?”
They did not answer. Instead, one of the other kids yelled, “Liar! You’re not from Norway. What kind of name is Raska?”
“It means laugh—”
“You’re Sami,” the kid who talked first interrupted, “aren’t you?” The question hung in the air like the stench of rotten meat.
“Yes?” I answered like a question. I was ashamed because of it.
That was the ammunition they needed. Like bullets, their questions tore into me. “Do you have tails? Can’t you speak proper? Do you live in tents? Daddy says you Samis live in tents!”
I didn’t answer their questions. I tried to laugh them away, but I learned there are things my laughter couldn’t solve, and it wilted away into silence.
“Are you okay?” mom interrupted. She was there to bring me back to the new and perfectly situated house.
The kids looked at me, their eyes narrowed like predators. “Yes,” I yelled back, “I am fine.”
I am fine. Another thing that meant something else in Norwegian.
What I left for survival
(Every time you see the word laughter, cut yourself with a sheet of paper.)
It was the first day of school at the new place. At home, school was a place where laughter came easily, so I crossed my fingers that school here meant the same thing it did back home.
“Anders,” the teacher said.
The boy beside me answered, “Here!”
The teacher took attendance. He worked through the classroom and down his list with his pen, ticking off the names that were present. Lise, Erik, Benjamin, Kristoffer. Here, here, here, and here.
He stopped. He chewed on his pen. “Rea- Reas- Reaska?” he asked the classroom. Some of the kids laughed, but it was not like my laugh. How could laughter mean something else? Laughter at home embraced and warmed, laughter here was sharp and hurtful—the difference between a hug and a cut.
Next period there was a new teacher. She also stopped by my name. “Reas- Reask- Reaskas?” she asked. This question lingered for a longer time than the first, and the world stopped—like the seconds of quiet when the wind turns—before the laughter broke again. My whole body hurt with cuts. The laughter ate at me like piss in snow until only shame remained. It rang through me like an echo in an empty home.
It made me think of the home we left behind. Of the walls that once held my laughter; if the walls still held it in an echo. I whispered, “Reaškkas, he who laughs,” again and again, and wished myself back home. To the north.
When I thought I had survived my first day of school at the new place, a third teacher walked in. My head fell, and the pain—that had retreated to numbness—came back.
“Reas- Reask- Raska?” he asked.
An idea struck and, before anyone could laugh, I answered.
“Raska is fine.”
What I am left with
(Imagine silence. A silence without a beginning or an end. A silence born from shame, that which smothers and cages.)
My name is Raska.
It means nothing.