An Index of Fears
by RACHEL MONROE
Today the girls are updating their index of fears. The previous index is, well, dated: moths, pop culture, earthquakes, facts, ex-boyfriends (theirs, other peoples'). But it’s 2012 and no one is afraid of these things anymore. The girls have earthquake-proofed their home, and they now keep ex-boyfriends as pets. The new index of fears will be alphabetized for easier reference. It will include more relevant, pressing fears: animals carrying other, smaller animals in their mouths; chimpanzees and what they might do to your face.
The smallest girl says something quietly. “What?” the other girls say. (Sometimes it gets pretty noisy in here.)
“But what if I fear having an index of fears?” she repeats.
The largest girl begins to hit her with the pages of the old index, the very large and heavy one from three years ago. The other girls join in. This is a good method for releasing tension, as everyone knows.
The brand new disease ravaged the village. "We've never seen anything like it," the elders cried. The disease had no name, and no cure, and hardly any symptoms. When you woke up the next morning, convinced that you'd caught it, I cried and cried and cried and cried. Stop crying, you said. What if it's contagious through tears, you said. Then you'd really be setting yourself up for something.
Like I said, there was no cure, and you lingered on for months. As far as I could tell, the only obvious symptom was that your sense of humor got much worse. You wouldn't leave a man with a disease, you said, You're not that kind of person. Due to the disease, it was unclear whether or not this was a joke. By now, just to be safe, I had figured out not to laugh at anything anymore. You're not that kind of person, you said again, more firmly, and I smiled at you sweetly from inside my quarantine suit.
The last time we met, you didn’t recognize me. I was welcomed into the antechamber, and your assistants anointed me. You were sitting in a large chair with your fingers folded. From the far end of the room, I thought you looked sad. Up close, though, I saw that you had just fallen asleep. When I showed you my wedding ring, you began to remember. “Oh yes,” you said. “There was a beach? And a hammock? Frozen drinks with twisty straws?” The acolyte who was washing your feet looked up, confused. “I tried to bring you a twisty straw,” I said, "But they confiscated it, your assistants." You refolded your fingers and your face turned stony. There were people - lots of people - who said that you were the Messiah.
I was in a canoe in the middle of a lake with my son. It was evening. The lake was ringed by lesser mountains, the kind that take only half an hour to climb, if you are moving quickly, which I usually do. I am fit; my son, less so.
My son believed that he had a magical talent for fishing - his mother was always whispering to him about his secret abilities, hidden royal lineage, magical gifts, all the ways he was invisibly set apart from other children. Three hours had passed and nothing was nibbling.
My son began to shout. Fish, I am your king. I command you to rise. A shadow of his voice bounced off the mountains, echoed back at us. And the water’s surface began to shiver.
My married friend tells me about her husband. I don’t have a husband, so I tell my married friend about my dreams. This week, they are full of small animals. First it was a tiny kitten, perched in my palm. The next night I dreamt of mice in the kitchen: one ran by my foot, a darling little mouse, and then a similarly darling mouse-sized chipmunk. The last small animal was a tinier mouse - he trotted across the dream-kitchen, holding something in his mouth, the way a cat will trot across the kitchen holding in his mouth a mouse he’s caught, and intends to take somewhere for torturing. In my dream, what this mouse was holding in his mouth was an even smaller mouse.
My married friend sighed. “It’s just that you’re ovulating,” she said. I sighed; she sighed. We sat together and considered the small things moving within us.
The government said that we should go down into the basement, so we did. Our family was having problems, but we could all agree on one thing: the government knew what it was talking about. We also agreed that the basement was the safest place. We had prepared it that way. Down there we had jars, canisters, casks, kits, jugs, trunks, racks, and other helpful things. Before we went down, we looked out the window one last time: the sky was wide, pale, wispy, innocent. But that's exactly what some threats look like, we decided. The worst ones.
In the basement, we felt it begin. Was the trembling from outside, or did it come from somewhere else? In the basement, we sat among all the things we'd saved, waiting for the shaking to stop, for someone to stop the shaking.
The three Russian men were in love. (Not with each other, though.) They jumped in the lake with their clothes on and kicked their way to the far bank; they picknicked on gooseberries, black bread, cheese, kvas. In the lake, after lunch, each one put his hand on his full belly, and pretended - for a moment only - that he was pregnant.
The girls were playing chess. Team chess! It involved cheering, extended narratives, emotional blackmail, kicks under the table, quadruple-crossing, the kinds of jokes that might also have been flirting. It was brutal, so the whole town came to watch. A fighter jet flew overhead, a spectating chimpanzee rested his head on his chin: from a certain distance, it was really quite depressing. The audience was sweating from empathy. This was the kind of chess that burned calories. Check! half the girls yelled; the other half cried. One did a cartwheel. The chimp knew something that no one else did: that it would never get better than this. That this was the absolute tops.
All day, near misses. The bird barreled toward your car but barely brushed the windshield with his wingtip. I almost drank the sour milk, but smelled it in time. You tripped and felt your body preparing for pain, then caught yourself. Still, your heart pounded. You sat on a bench to calm down, and I walked by, but I was on the phone. On the phone, a near miss: I almost told someone what I really thought, but then I was distracted by your face. Just to be clear: we had never met. When we were introduced two years later, I spontaneously hugged you. We both felt like we had been doing something wrong for a long, long time, and only now were we going to start to figure out what it was.
Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Baltimore. She tumbls here.
Wendy Zhao is an artist living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here.
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