My father lets his fears grow wild and tangled, even though the neighbors have asked him to trim them down at least twice already. They’re wheat-colored and thick, gleaming with a vicious sort of health. “Don’t you touch those,” my father says firmly, “you hear?” His voice is so soft but I still close my eyes against it; his fingers twitch on my shoulders.
There’s a different crop the next morning, heavy enough to press against the house and bend the walls in. They lean against the windows, where I sit and watch them wave forward—less like a threat, more like a visitor who doesn’t know when to leave. They speak loudly and not very well, their voices catching uncertainly and only ever half-formed. The neighbors’ fears are more articulate, and wail about specific things: another miscarriage and no chance of promotion. My father’s fears are more anomalous and untamed, turning into shapes during the weekend afternoons. They have, so far, been these: a tall woman striding out of the door, her mouth a jagged line; me, wrapped in white and very still; a roiling ocean; Pompeii, repeated twice; two antique pistols going off at once and leaving a cavern in my chest, showing no heart, not even a slice of it.
“It isn’t safe,” they say, when my father is at work. I am sitting in the living room, watching the neighbors surveying their culled fears with satisfaction. There hadn’t been any screams during the harvest, no mention of unpaid electric bills or relatives dying in hospice care: they had all gone quietly, been ground into the dirt without any ceremony. The neighbors look calm and accomplished. One of them wipes his forehead and laughs, the sound ricocheting around the block.
“What isn’t?” I ask them. My father doesn’t explain the fears, doesn’t even like to look at them head on. He never asks me to cut them down, the way the neighbors do with their children, egging the boys on and clapping when they turn limp and defeated. He leaves me swaddled in the house, always in bright colors, a lamp nearby that he tries to shine towards my face as gently as he can.
“He keeps you just to keep you,” the fears snipe. They are still growing jagged in the yard. Outside, the neighbors ask each other loudly if they should consider moving. They say they will write a letter to the senator. They say they will write a letter to the president. My father laughs, but another fear grows: this one young and delicate-looking, but still present.
I don’t know what else it is that you do with a person. The neighbors seem like they keep each other. I have seen them kissing on the sidewalk before, trowels in hand, fears bundled together, their heads bowed. “Is that bad?”
The fears rustle. “Don’t know,” they admit. Sulkily, they curl back some, settling next in with the dandelions and thinking hard.
“Stifling,” the fears say, triumphantly, when my father has gone to work. I trace the window with a woolly thumb. The fears have grown so ungainly that they have begun to sink the ceiling in. They are daffodil-colored now and gigantic. They block out the sun; I have to squint to see among them. My father paces when he sees them leaning against all the corners of the house. He reminds me every day not to touch them, not even to look if I can help it. He buys mittens in cornflower blue and burnt orange and lime, fits them over my hands and ties whatever skin could be seen with leftover yarn.
More often than not, the scope of it all annoys me. The mittens itch and leave my hands clammy, and my father skulks around, barking at me to get away from any of the weak spots of the house, areas where the fears could sneak through and consume me, quick as anything. “You understand,” my father says, and wraps me in a blanket that he swears is the same shade of the grass I have never seen.
The fears stretch themselves smugly and say, “No room!” They’ve learned to sing, haltingly and without much tune. In the evening, they’re silent because they know it makes the hair on the back of my father’s neck creep up. In the daytime, they crow: “No room! And yet keeping to keep. Just to keep.”
The fears laugh. “To keep. To be kept."
There’s a delicate fracture in the window pane, where I press my finger against it. The fears coil themselves and then wind out slowly to touch me. It is like being kissed or being hit. It is like going into supernova: wondrous, horrific—then, quietly, nothing at all.
Imaani Cain is a writer who was born in California, raised in Connecticut, and currently lives in Massachusetts. She appreciates magical realism and watercolors.