The Roots of Phobia Lie in History

by David O’Connell

I hate their tiny hands, the silent-screen-villains’ way they have
of rubbing them together, chest-high, as they squat on countertop

or wall and stare me down with gas-mask goggle eyes.
Hate how they materialize from clear blue sky to picnic, to garbage,

to shit. It’s their disregard. Their monotonous, dull thudding—wings
to window—so persistent that it bullies my attention. As does

that intermittent buzz, somewhere in the house, taunting me to try
and stalk it down. In swarms, if possible, I hate them more. Despise

their ganged-up arrogance, the lazy way they rise—helicopters
from midtown—when I approach each mutilated victim of the cat.

But it’s more than that. If not a full-blown phobia, my aversion’s
on the spectrum. And I believe them, those psychiatrists

who guess true phobic hate (blistered, crippling) may indicate
that terror’s being leeched from something other than experience,

that, right now, somewhere in my genome’s mud, there lies
a clutch of rusting drums leaking grim ancestral memories: flies

inside the suppurating wound, flies on the gangrene rot, flies
alighting on the child too weak—or worse—to brush them off.

And if that’s true, wouldn’t it account for why I sweat
when I catch sight of one upon my pillow or hear its stuttering hum?

No. Not entirely. Terror’s well delves deeper. Its waters seep
from hollows in the Id infested with the blind, albino worms of nightmare.

And more than suffering, more even than the thought of the loved body’s
eventual decay, its stench a honey drawing clouds of flies to mate

and lay those eggs that, hours after death, make cold skin pulse,
then writhe—more than this, it’s what comes after that fuels phobia.

Millennia on, we’re still retelling stories of the fog cut by Charon’s
prow. How as he poles, Lethe’s waters wick and bead and

(even as his fare forgets all she once was) drip from the boatman’s hair
to trickle down his neck. . . Just the thought that all these myths

are false, that Death’s not this, or anything we’ve thought—and yet
still is—is enough to break dams, flood glands with adrenal fight

or flight. We’re seized. And, ages now, it’s been the common fly
alighting on our daily bread that’s pointed to as evidence

of horrors waiting on the other side. Presage of the devil: flies.
Beelzebub as fly. All the dread we symbol-making creatures

have foisted on its back, it’s carried effortlessly. Unlike us.
Consider the man with mysophobia, compelled to wash till raw,

then bloody, his fingerprints ground off by decades at the sink
that weren’t enough to bring him peace. Asked, he can’t recall

just when or how he signed this crossroads deal: for the illusion
of protection, giving everything, until he’d rather suicide

than live afraid of death. It’s rigged. Phobia, true Narcissus,
seeks itself, multiplies till legion and its swarm drowns all song,

chokes sunlight till submission’s no more choice than dream.
The exit, say experts, is through immersion in the very thing

that horrifies. The truth: you will die. You will, most likely, suffer.
You’ll never know what happens after. The man who couldn’t wash off

terror was luckier than most. To live, he had to face his fear. Germs
exist. As does the typhoid, anthrax, cholera brought to us by flies.

The lesser Hell—though Hell still—is choosing to accept
both horror and its limits. For him, it began with touching trash,

then going elbow deep: a minute (vomit), then ten, twenty.
And bit by bit, what gripped him let him go. It’s not the same,

but I spent the afternoon online, clicking through portfolios of flies:
Tsetse, Horse, and Deer; Blue, and Black, and Yellow; Fruit,

and Crane, and Sand. I would swat them still. Yet looking
at the sky tonight (December, Rhode Island, unseasonably warmed

by El Nino winds from half a world away) and thinking
of the fog of time, that cosmic background radiation, proof

of the ever outward rush of the universe, and of how the stars
outnumber all of us who walk the earth or who are buried

beneath it. . .though it isn’t the answer, or over, I can better see
the iridescence of flies, the wonder of those compound eyes

looking back at me.


David O’Connell’s chapbook, A Better Way to Fall, was awarded the 2013 Philbrick Poetry Award from the Providence Athenaeum. His poetry has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Lake Effect, and North American Review, among other journals.

Illustration by Courtney Bennett

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s