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Fear of Height  David Ryan

The fear is that your impulse to jump will take over. There were insects flitting in mad circles in the lamp. Moths, gnats, fruit flies, dirt valences, wings moving light around, swept around like dust. Punching frayed designations and traced shadows. They were gathering mass. I was imagining their mouths so small they each held an electron like a charged gem.

This friend appeared over there in the dark. The light creased his face like he was smiling but it was just the shape of his face and the cresting of the lamp. Of this friend, I knew that his dad had died a couple of days ago. I was thinking about what someone becomes after they lose someone like that. How they become that thing—like a piece of dark space—for a while, and only that. Later you might see them and they’ve changed, too. The exponents of years. It was a quiet night. I was sitting on a concrete ledge under the lamp. I had been watching those insects and thinking about that feeling of jumping from height. Jumping, not falling, but just disappearing. I was thinking, how clean. Everyone might try it at some point then. The first time I realized I had a fear of heights I was in France. I had gone up into the Eiffel Tower and emerged from the cage-like elevator onto the cage-like platform and thought: so this is how it feels. I recall I smiled, backed away from the ledge. Earlier that night, a fox had appeared just like this, fully formed from nothing, like that sudden fear of heights. It stopped and watched me. It rose into reality and once it had done this, it cantered off and disappeared into the dark. 

I'm sorry about your dad, César, I said. César is my friend’s name. He took a breath like someone was about to jump. He sat next to me and said, Yeah. He said: I was thinking about the balloons scientists put in the Antarctic sky to try to catch neutrinos. The receptors are pointed up at the universe, waiting for something to come back from the stars. One day a neutrino reading rose up from the earth, from deep inside it. It didn’t make sense to them. And then they saw that no it hadn't come from the earth; what had happened was the neutrino had passed completely through the earth from some galaxy on the other side. César and I were watching the dirty lamp flickering. An enormous royal moth lifted as if just born from the bulb, a terror torn up in the air.

I was listening to César but I was also thinking of that terror between how we say things and then how we think things. Sometimes there’s no resemblance between the thought and the words that come out. The locutionary act. But sometimes they came nearer, were almost alike. That the words and the thoughts and the act of a locution all lined up; it seemed impossible. That this would cause some erasure of the whole thing. I was thinking that this might be a phobia. I was thinking about heights again. The fear is in that your impulse to jump will take over. But I always felt like the wind has its own incentives, that God would just as soon murder you anyway with a flick of his finger. I was thinking about the shape of a face in fear, how it could be mistaken for a smile. The way hyenas express their laughter.

César was talking about an experiment he read about where they shot photons up into two completely different galaxies. But the readings they got back were exactly the same. Apparently this would not be possible—ciphers were coded into the message that couldn’t be duplicated. Every signal was unique. Do you know what that means? he asked. And I was thinking about how I write story after story like this. Like I think each one is encoded; but it's the same information; as from any star in a constellation every other star looks suddenly foreign, even if you're writing from within the same bear or ladle or half-man.

César was suggesting a burden of loneliness in his relationship. I was thinking about how brave you’d have to be to disappear. To anticipate that silence—that kind of terror. And then I was thinking about those cans of snakes that say Mixed Nuts. My dad had one of those cans of snakes. You can be young and laugh at a joke like that more than once. At an explosion of fake snakes from a can. Some of that is fear. My dad played the string bass. This big beautiful thing. It sat in the living room. I never saw him play it, actually, but we always knew he had once. It stood there, as if looking back at us: like a taunt, a regret, I guess, when I was a kid. To help frustrate him about what he’d done to his life. His fear of rising up above the commonplace. It means, César said, that this exact same conversation is happening somewhere else, some parallel place. You and I are talking and thinking and, like those photons that got shot up to different galaxies and come back the same, we're somewhere else, talking and thinking. And César made his head explode with a gesture and that sound. My dad was a brilliant man, he said, a difficult and complicated human being. He was bitter and unkind.

I was listening to him describe his complicated dad and I was thinking about how I was a dad now; how it’s not something you want to mess up. You’re the replication of so many variations of failure. An infinitude of fucking up. I was thinking about how everything feels so perpetually late. That's how it seems, late. Not too late. More like you ran and just barely made the train but now there aren’t any seats left because the train is full of people who look nearly exactly like you.

Once, my friend Polly showed up at a nightclub wearing a wig that was the same color and style of her own hair. She came up to me and smiled and I smiled back at a stranger. I didn't know her. I was smiling more like you would at another person you absolutely didn't know. There was this strange veil I only accepted later: that the difference had been so infinitesimal that my brain couldn't resolve her. The wig had estranged her in my brain. And so I didn't say, Hi. All I could do that night is wonder who that woman was. Until later when I realized. But by then I’d gone back to my apartment. A beehive moved just a foot or two will so confuse the bees that they'll no longer know where to go. They'll believe they've lost everything. And right now Polly smiles and I smile. We’re strangers again. And the moths are performing some pagan ritual in bright artificial light elsewhere, exactly as they are here. And my dad is reading a story I'd written that resembles him so closely, and just now realizes I was writing about him, a facsimile of him at least, some other time ago. He doesn’t recognize me.

My dad is reading in this story someone who is a father just like him. He’s wearing a wig just like his own brown hair and a fake beard just like his own beard. My phone buzzed. César, quiet now, watched me. I regarded the message, the subject line. It was from my dad. The subject said, Is this address still valid? A moth emerged from the lamplight and ticking with the face of a man, swelled up, smiling as if drowned that way. I thought about all the voices that would gather up at once if what César was saying was true, and how some kind of pure tone might be produced from the choir of vibrations. A tone so pure maybe you'd die hearing it. César was watching me. We were thinking about the ultimate failure a father arrived at in death, of what falling from so great a height of lost potential could mean.

We were watching the moths. I was thinking about metaphors. I was thinking how there were none: so long as you kept looking straight, so long as you kept your hallucinations riding the thin line of the real and didn't look down.

David Ryan is the author of Animals in Motion: Stories. He has work forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Juked, Fence, and the O. Henry Prize 2022 anthology. There’s more about him at