The sky was a slate of electric indigo. We were sitting in the bath, my year-and-a-half-old son and I. My wife popped her head in the door. He looked at her, giving her a smile I will never get, and then pointed to the painting of a magenta fish on the wall.
“Sheesh,” he said.
“Fish?” She said.
“Sheesh!” He said.
It was, perhaps, his eleventh word. He had dog and ball and duck and bubble and mama and (mysteriously in our lesbian household) dada and nana (for banana) and vroom vroom (for cars) and hah-hah (for hot) and (the root of so many of our evils) what’s dat? What’s dat? What’s dat?
And then, there it was: fish.
It should have been a tragic moment for me. I, of all people, should have sensed the danger in it. I had just spent the last ten years of my life working on a book called Why Fish Don’t Exist, arguing that the word “fish” is symptomatic of our human inability to see the world as expansively as it is. In short, scientists recently discovered that many of the creatures we typically think of as “fish” are in fact more closely related to us than to each other. And when you accept this fact you will see that the category of “fish” is a bum category—an act of gerrymandering we perform over nature to make it line up with our intuition. But it’s a lie, this category of “fish,” a mistake, a meaningless group that hides incredible nuance and complexity.
And “fish” is just one glaring example of this thing we do all the time—group things together that do not belong under one label in the name of maintaining our convenience, comfort, power. My book, in large part, is a plea to approach the world with more doubt—more doubt in our categories, more doubt in our words, more curiosity about the organisms pinned beneath our language. The reward, as I promise in the book, is a more expansive world, “a wilder place,” where nothing is what it seems, where “each and every dandelion is reverberating with possibility.”
And so, as the word “fish” rolled off my son’s tongue for the very first time, I should have felt that hot burst of fricative air as a puncturing of his innocence—sheeesh. His fall from grace in real time, his ejection from a Garden of Eden I had just spent a decade trying to hack a path back into. I should have squeezed my palm to his lips and pressed hard so no more words could spill out.
Instead, I tested him. I pulled up a photograph of a goldfish on my phone. “Sheesh.” A salmon. “Sheesh.” A mottled blue coelacanth, fleshy and finned. “Sheesh.”
“Yes!” I squealed in the highest octave I could reach, cementing the mistake with my glee.
Over the next few weeks, he revealed to me that fish were everywhere in the city of Chicago. Fish along the mosaicked wall of the pedestrian underpass to Lake Shore Drive, now barricaded with yellow tape to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fish inside the library books we could no longer return. Fish in the windows of the shuttered nursery school on Clark. Sheesh, sheesh, sheesh, he would point his little scepter-finger, stunning the former confusion into mastery. In his care, a snake was also a fish; a turtle, a fish; and one morning as we opened the window to let an April breeze roll through the apartment, the potted banana palm became a fish, her fins suddenly paddling the air.
As our world was closing in, his seemed to be exploding. The word “fish” turned out to be a sacred key, one that granted him access to the entire animal kingdom. Suddenly, no creature was unknown to him. If a dog walked by, it was “dog.” If a bunny hopped by, it was also “dog.” The cows, bears, zebras, kangaroos, giraffes, and elephants stuffed inside our children’s books—all “dog” to him. As for birds—the robin roosting on our porch rafter, the cardinal in the bush, the pigeons flying with a new woodblock elegance across the quieted sky—all “duck.” Everything else was “fish.”
It was Aristotle’s same system of classifying animals into three groups—land, sea, or air. One morning, he called an ant a dog. His chest began to puff just a little bit. Mine did, too. I did not yet sense the threat.
In late April, we learned of one of the few nature preserves still recklessly open and we plunged in. We walked through archways of naked underbrush, brambles holding in their buds, carpets of moss stealing the show. “Dirt,” our son said. “Yeah! Dirt!” We said, pointing to the infinitely complex swirl of mineral, mycological, entomological, and electrical matter beneath our feet. That very same day came “wawa,” for the small creek at the end of the hike and, later, for rain and baths and thirst. Next was “stick.” “Yellow” bloomed for one day, then left us. The tiny black dogs that crawled along the cracks in our porch became “bug,” then “ant.” We cheered with every word—two women waiting upon the doorstep, giddy to welcome him into our world of language.
And then, five weeks after he first said the word “fish,” it happened.
We shouldn’t have gone to see my in-laws. But … they’re young. Not even sixty. They don’t play tennis, but they could.
We wore our masks and sat at the other end of a long rectangular table. They served mushroom risotto, cooked in an instant pot. Mango and strawberry and yogurt in tiny crystal glasses, because why not. We put our son to bed in their guest room.
Around 10 P.M., we were all still up, still chatting, when our son started screaming. Not crying. Screaming. It was a sound we’d never heard. My wife went up, but after a few minutes, the volume had not lowered. I leaped up the carpeted stairs, worried he was sick, worried he had a fever, worried he had—but my wife shook her head, puzzled, “He isn’t hot,” she whispered. I tried to take him into my arms, sure I could settle him, but he recoiled. He looked up at me with no recognition.
We tried everything. Rocking him, showing him a book, the one with the penguins who like each other so much. We tried warmed milk. Nothing. Finally my wife took him over to a framed photograph of Coptic tapestries. Various trees birthing goat-like creatures with curling horns, and snail-like creatures with spiraling shells, and maybe snakes and definitely vines all coiling into one another in such a hallucinatory way that it would have caused me to have a psychotic break if I’d been as disoriented as my son. My wife got him up close to the glass and started whispering the names of what she thought she saw. “Goat,” she said, tapping the glass. “Flower. Snail. Duck.” Thud. Thud. Thud. And slowly, through shaking inhalations, he settled enough for us to pack him up and drive home.
Once upon a time there was a German psychologist whose name I am forgetting—which will, itself, become relevant in just a moment—who argued that when you don’t name a thing it stays more active in your mind. Specifically, he found that you have better recall for the details of an unsolved task, an unfinished puzzle, an unnamed psychological phenomenon, than a solved or labeled thing. “Loose ends prevail” could have been the name of his law, but it was—I’m checking my notes—the Zeigarnik effect. The man’s name was Zeigarnik and she was a woman not a man and she was Russian, not German. But still. It has stayed with me, this idea with a hard-to-remember name about how unnamed ideas are easier to remember. This rabid little law that suggests that unlabeled things gnaw and tug at you with more vigor, their parts and powers somehow more alive when they are left to roam wild, outside of the confines of our words.
With the name comes a kind of dormancy. The name, in this metaphor, is a trap. It’s the lid on the jar that extinguishes the firefly.
The next morning, our son was fine.
My wife and I weren’t.
“What was that?” We said to each other, shaking our heads over coffee prep and neglected dishes, glancing back at him, merry in his high chair.
My wife went into work that morning at the hospital where she is a psychologist to kids who have come into contact with Chaos’s whims—amputations and paralyses and premature birth. She took her supervisor aside and asked if she had any thoughts on a night terror like the one we’d seen. Her supervisor told her not to worry, said it was a common occurrence around eighteen months, a by-product of all the neurological growth that happens around that time. I pictured a lightning bolt discharging from the growing ion storm of his mind.
I had done my own half-hearted investigating. Some fruitless googling and a serendipitous phone call with a colleague who mentioned that his toddler had had her first night terror the very same night. We joked that there must have been something in the air. “That’s reassuring!” I heard myself saying, un-reassured.
I left them for five days. My book tour had been canceled. I needed nature. I needed something. I drove to West Virginia. I hiked on a ridge trail and saw a lady’s slipper orchid, whose name I only learned weeks after I saw her. This, well, vagina on a pedestal that lives on mountaintops. She was covered in dewdrops, she had pastel veins. I thought I was hallucinating. I missed my wife.
I listened to Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity on tape while I hiked. He told me that the root of all our problems is the desire to hold onto anything. Life is inherently flowing and our grasp to possess it makes us sick. I nodded and tried desperately to capture each beautiful thing I saw: I took a picture of the mist, of a toad, of a cairn; I took a time-lapse of a sunset, an audio recording of a grouse bleating for her chicks, six photos of the lady’s slipper orchid; I ripped up a tiny bouquet of meadow flowers—purple, yellow, and white—and stuffed them in an envelope to mail home.
I returned home to new words: apple and help. To the killing of George Floyd. To a city-wide curfew. I awoke one night to my wife saying, “Lulu. Out. Now.” She beelined down the hall to get our son. Our bathroom window was sunset-orange with fire outside.
“This is a communication,” I thought as I wondered what to take. I chose our laptops. And the scrapbook I have been making of my son’s life—his inky footprints, his finger paintings, his words.
The garage one plot over from us was razed. It was declared arson. No one was hurt. My son’s eyes gleamed at the fire trucks, five of them, the best night of his life. I thought about everything he didn’t yet know. I wondered how on earth we could raise him to be a good white man, to not think of himself as sitting on top of the hierarchy society continues to maintain for him.
In June, he began saying the word “up.” He began rejecting his beloved blueberries, throwing them on the floor. And I would—what would I do?—pick them up.
In July, we visited our sperm donor, a close friend who we’ve decided to call “uncle.” Our son’s face is his face but he has no word for him yet. His new word that month was “bus.”
In August, a tornado pushed through Chicago. Flying saucers of roots rose from the cement as the tree trunks fell. I sat in the bath with my son. The thunder was so loud it shook the car alarms awake. My son looked at me with “WTF?” eyes. I said, “Thunder.” “Hummer!” He said. And, I said, “Yeah. Hummer.”
In September, the wind rolled through, bearing cicadas and a chill. He turned two. His hot grew its t, his banana its b. He spoke his name out loud for the very first time. And no and corona.
And now it is October. The mysterious white creature I hung from the porch, my son quickly learned to call “ske-le-tah.” He calls the giant orange orb sitting below it “apple” and tries, in vain, to bite into it. Over the ridge of this month lies a greater unknown than we’ve seen in a while. How will the votes get counted, will the votes get counted, and if the president loses, will he stay? Will he even be there to refuse to step down? Will the social order hold, and wouldn’t that actually be the worse fate of all—if it did? Will there even be a month called November?
I am alone again. My wife and son are both asleep. I slip out onto the balcony. I can’t see the stars between the breaks in the clouds but I trust that they are there, because I have been told they are there. In honor of a more expansive world, in paving the path to progress through doubt, I let myself consider, for a moment, that there are no stars. I try to slip the word “star” off the stars, or to unscrew it, leaving just the sockets somewhere above me. I try to take down the word “above,” and consider that the stars might be below, or inside me. I roll my eyes at myself, while trying not to all the same.
Suddenly, the words of this essay melt into paint. Or maybe to felt. To wooden waves of green and blue. The colors are muted but deep. The fish curl into the stars, which curl into the wind, which forms a kind of tornado, at the center of which, you can see, is the soul, engulfing the earth, re-engulfing the soul. There is the sound of laughter. Which is rendered as a tiny bouquet of droplets off the tip of Antarctica. The word “Antarctica” is crossed out. The word “Antarctica” was never there. Ice melts from the brass pole around which the globe spins, then freezes. Then sublimates.
I would like to stay here. In the wordless place. After all these years looking closely at words, I have come to mistrust them. So often they are used as the sober blades to scale selves away from the group—its protection, its warmth, its assurances of justice. But something desperate in me still wants to hurl a handful of them out into the air, still believing that they could catch and tame a terrible thing.
“With a rising sense of mastery comes the fear of the unknown” is the pompous phrase I want to toss out into the night.
That night, back in April, when my son screamed out in terror, one might theorize that the reason for his fear was that he had awoken to an unfamiliar room, my in-laws’ guest room, and had become disoriented and afraid.
And yet, prior to lockdown, we had dragged that child all over the place. In his short life, he’d lived in three different homes, two different states. He’d awoken to countless unfamiliar rooms, inside friend’s homes and hotels (remember those?) and cars and bars and tents, and never before had it frightened him.
So what was different about that night? It was the first time he had awoken to an unfamiliar setting after the advent of words. For 569 days before that, he had lain with the unknown each night and it had never bothered or frightened him. Instead he had curled into her, this hulking, formless shoal of uncertainty and confusion, because it was all he knew.
It was only with the advent of words, with the illusion that he could name the whole world, every last corner of it labeled and known, that the unknown became an enemy, became a threat.
She’s flexing her wings this year, the unknown; she’s showboating around. She’s waving from the horizon in a coat of flames, she’s lingering on metal surfaces. There’s the same amount of her there always is, of course, but she’s making herself felt. Her presence can be seen in the whittling down of our teeth, the spikes in suicides, the surge in demand for therapists. Uncertainty, it has been shown, is more painful than certain physical pain. For some reason, the neurologists say, we are wired to fear the unknown. There is a thumbnail-size soldier in the brain, they explain, who they’ve named the Locus Coeruleus, who is charged with tracking uncertainty. He’s useful for a bit, they say; when faced with uncertainty, he puts the brain into a fluid state so it can better run through strategies to keep you safe. But when the uncertainty won’t let up, that fluid state starts to wear on the body; such extended vigilance leads to exhaustion, to a measurable increase in stress. “The strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” declared H. P. Lovecraft, nearly a century earlier.
But what if they’re all wrong? What if we are not, in fact, fated to fear the unknown? What if that fear only starts with the advent of words, with the false belief that a named thing is a known thing? Perhaps it is our words that transform the hulking unknown from friend to foe.
It is a tidy theory.
It allows me to explain away the fear that something’s wrong with my child, that his anguish is unsolvable, unknowable. If I can name it, I can swat that haunting look in his eyes—when he no longer knew who I was—away forever.
With fish came every last creature on earth. The ducks are still ducks, but now owls are hoo-hoos. Both curbs and boulders are stone. He’s got fern and mushroom and umbrella and bus-truck. His chalk is cock, and the neighbors can’t stop laughing. The porpoises of the sea have all sprouted ruffled collars. “Doll-fish,” he says, animating the world with his wrongness, shaking them all temporarily awake.
A few weeks ago, I sat in the park, under a heavy beam of wood that could kill me in an instant. But I trusted it wouldn’t, because I had named that thing branch. In that same park, I watched a man, face twisted, run hard in my direction. But I trusted he would not kill me, was not running from a thing that might kill me, because I named him jogger. In that same park, dozens of ten-ton death machines whizzed by. I named them truck. I named the flat ribbon of asphalt road, and in road I trusted. With each word comes a false set of assurances. That now you know how it will behave.
“We have [the coronavirus] totally under control,” said the president the day after the first case was discovered in the U.S.
My friends, who are nurses, and married to each other, once told me a story about a woman who lay down in a hammock and felt the cinder block into which the hammock hook had been drilled slip out from its wall and land on her face and kill her.
With fish came the entire animal kingdom. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe there are a few left. He’s still got no word for cicada. He’s never named a firefly.
That night in the bath, so many moons ago—the same moon ago—the light gave off its last sparks of day, and he spoke his eleventh word. I heard it only as a mother. I clapped at all the finned creatures he had just caught in one syllable. I believed that he was drawing closer, each word a stepping stone thrown to walk him nearer, nearer to me. And yet the truth I knew even then, maybe, is that each word was another brick in the wall being erected between us. An experience named instead of shared.
I pulled the plug and watched as he watched, delighted, the water drain away. By the time it was gone, it was night. I wish, now, that I had lingered just a little longer, in the warmth of the water, in the waning days of wordlessness, when confusion was still everywhere, when confusion was still nothing to fear.
Lulu Miller is the co-host of Radiolab, the co-founder of NPR’s Invisibilia, and author of the book, Why Fish Don’t Exist. Her writing has appearing in The New Yorker, VQR, Orion, Catapult, and beyond.