Her name is Atela

Lisa McKenzie 2014

I don’t know what it means in English. It doesn’t really exist in Samoan. But in German, it means Eagle. Adler. Atela. The proud, imperial eagle of the Reich. Gold, shiny. Before it got painted broken black, white and red.

It is my aunty’s name and probably never anyone else’s. Her mother made it up, staring out into the hazy blue of Apia Bay. I can see her there, stroking her rounded belly. Out on the reef lay a ship.

Samoans do this, don strange names upon innocent babes. They make their own rules. My mother’s name is Societe. I found out it meant Society when I was 12. Her other sister’s name is Limasene. Five Cents.

And the story goes the Adler lay broken for years. A German man of war, trailing ripped sail cloth and sharp tooth spars with a snarl on its belly. I wonder if Grandma was sorry she named her daughter after this defeated ship. Gunboat diplomacy quashed by an island cyclone.

My husband’s family don’t say Atela, they just say aunty. Perhaps their mouths forget the lumpy Samoan sounds that don’t quite belong. Like a crooked pe’a tapped upon the pale buttocks of a sailor from Dusseldorf. Or perhaps they just enjoy the feeling they get calling her aunty.

I call her aunty. I always have. Warm, intimate. Like a dusty-skinned hug that smells of coffee and bread. Atela is cold and distant, like the faint call of drowning men, broken heads and graceful fingers, floating in the water.