By David J. Schwartz
16 August 2004
As a child, Wilma had a fear of ankle-grabbers.
"Ah," said her father when she told him. "Anklus seizerus." Until she was thirteen Wilma believed her father knew Latin. He had Latin names for everything; ice cream trucks were Lactosis relievus swelterus, and rude sales clerks were Minim wageii disgruntlus.
Naming the ankle-grabbers made them real, which was frightening. But it also made them knowable, and Wilma learned early in life that ignorance and fear were close relations. Before long she had a full taxonomic classification worked out. Anklus seizerus ranged all over the globe; their preferred habitats were shadowy staircases, thick patches of brush, and the undersides of beds. They fed primarily on hard candy and apple cores, but they also craved human ankles. They were small but had an array of long, sharp teeth. A more scientifically correct term might have been ankle-biters, although there was a difference. The sub-species were like brown bears and grizzlies—not all brown bears were grizzlies, but all grizzlies were brown bears. Not all ankle-biters were ankle-grabbers, but all ankle-grabbers were ankle-biters. Some just preferred to skip the intermediate step.
There were other things to grab, of course—hair and hems and bows and, later, bra straps—but ankles were the best. They were fragile and naked, a temptation to even the most refined Anklus seizerus. Wilma understood—how could they be expected to resist something so slender, so strong? But understanding did nothing to allay Wilma's fears. She took to wearing high-top sneakers and boots. She made running leaps at her bed—she went through box springs as quickly as some children go through shoes, and became so skilled that in school she excelled at the high jump. She raced up flights of stairs, always wary of tiny hands reaching through the balusters to trip her.
When Wilma read about Achilles she felt understood. She imagined herself the child of a nymph, except that in Wilma's revision of the myth Thetis simply dropped her in the Styx and fished her out with a net. She made her bed sheets into a toga and carried a curling iron for a sword. She killed endless Hectors and Parises and berated imaginary Helens. Wilma's version of the Iliad ended with the Achaeans and Trojans uniting to exterminate the menace of the ankle-grabbers. She waded into their hiding places, and they broke their teeth on her invulnerable flesh. But she always wore her moon boots when she enacted these fantasies, with two and sometimes three pairs of socks.
Her father, perhaps feeling some guilt for having named her adversaries, was indulgent. Instead of fussing over the cost of replacing her box spring every few months, he brought in a futon for her to sleep on. Wilma placed it in the center of her room, with a lamp beside it so she need never dash from the wall switch to her covers when she was up late reading Bulfinch's Mythology.
Wilma's mother, on the other hand, seemed to think that this went beyond the call of duty. Bad enough that she had a daughter who wouldn't wear a dress even on Easter and would rather learn to fence than dance. There was distance between them, though there was still love.
When Wilma went away to college it was more difficult to function with her fear. Her dorm roommate hired some juniors to build a loft in their room without consulting Wilma. Wilma didn't want to explain her misgivings, so she slept on the floor, and never did get along with her roommate.
The campus was rife with footbridges and staircases. The student section at the football stadium was a bank of aging bleachers. She stayed in often, and began suffering panic attacks. Her family doctor prescribed a drug that helped, but it made her tired.
But she loved her classes. She had known for years that she was going to major in Classics, and she found a kindred soul in a girl named Dorothy. They ate together in the cafeteria, speaking only Latin to one another, and later, haltingly, Greek. They joined the fencing club and developed simultaneous crushes on their Latin TA, a pale boy whose dark hair was forever falling in his eyes.
She and Dorothy shared almost everything, but Wilma kept her fear a secret until the day Dorothy said she wanted to show her something. She pulled up the leg of her jeans to reveal a thick metal anklet.
"You know about them, don't you?" Dorothy asked her. "I could tell by the way you check under the chairs every time you walk into a lecture hall. You're an ankluscentus."
"Is that what I am?" Wilma asked. "I thought I was the only one."
"I used to think that," said Dorothy, "but there are millions of us around the globe. There's an email list. You should sign up."
"But the anklets?"
"They're not cheap, but they'll give you peace of mind. The ankle-grabbers won't touch anything made of iron, and the ankle-biters would break a tooth on it."
Dorothy took her to a basement shop across town, where a black woman with breasts like a shelf took measurements and chose a pair of gray anklets from her stock.
"This may hurt," she said.
She wrapped Wilma's left ankle in gauze, clamped the two halves of an anklet around it, and lit a welding torch. Wilma felt the heat of the iron through the gauze, and the black woman asked if she wanted to take a break.
"No," Wilma said. It was uncomfortable but not painful, and a half hour later it was done. The woman took away the gauze and a month's worth of meal money, and Dorothy took Wilma home.
It took some time to adjust to the change. Climbing stairs was fatiguing, the walk to class serious cardiovascular exercise. Dorothy taught her to conceal the anklets with flared jeans or pants over boots, and the occasional long, trailing skirt. Socks were a challenge, and stockings were all but impossible. But she usually wore something under the anklet, because the metal bruised and chafed her skin, particularly after she had been fencing.
Wilma found that watching out for Anklus seizerus was not a habit easily broken. She was still checking under bathroom stalls and shying away from shrubbery weeks later.
Until one day she simply stopped thinking about any of it. The anklets were part of her. Her legs were stronger, and she no longer noticed the weight. She oiled the iron at night and tried to keep it dry. She bought short socks and long dresses, though she still preferred pants.
At times the anklets felt like a transgression. She would be in the library or on the bus and suddenly remember the ankle-grabbers, and pity would wash over her. She felt guilty, as if her fear had been part of a covenant, a codependence in which it was the part of the ankle-grabbers to frighten her, and her part to be afraid.
But guilt aside, Wilma's life was better. She got along better with her mother, and Dorothy remained her best friend. The two of them worked hard, graduated early, and applied to graduate schools.
While they waited for their acceptances they decided to backpack across Europe. Wilma worried about passing through metal detectors, but soon discovered that ankluscenti doctors had successfully campaigned to have the anklets recognized as medically necessary. The security people let them pass with hardly a glance at their documentation.
They went to Rome, to Athens, to Istanbul, and back to Rome again, never far from the Mediterranean. They grew tanned and strong from walking everywhere, and for the first time in Wilma's life men noticed her.
(Her father had warned her about European men. He told her that he trusted her, but to be careful. To say more, to tell her that even a decent man will sometimes say and do things solely in hopes of sex, was more than he dared confess, and something he feared she would not believe. When she left he held her too long, knowing she would be hurt, and he would be unable to prevent it.)
Europe was full of beautiful men, sculpted, tan, and friendly, and Dorothy and Wilma each fell in love in the hostels of Rome. Dorothy met a fellow American, a shy artist named Jeremy who had just graduated from Berkeley and whose hair receded further every time they saw him—in Palermo his baldness was hardly noticeable, but two weeks later in Karistos it had conquered all but the sides of his head and a peninsula on top. By the time they met him in Nice, the peninsula had become an island, and the exposed skin around it was red and peeling.
The boy Wilma met was named Herbert, but his traveling companions called him Dodge. He was an Australian carpenter who lamented the lack of good surfing on the Mediterranean. He had been to Rome before and spoke fluent Italian, so for five days he played tour director, guiding Dorothy, Jeremy, and Wilma to the best cheap restaurants and the hidden attractions.
The night before the girls left for Greece they splurged on hotel rooms, and that night Dodge and Wilma had sex. It was exactly that anticlimactic—there was little mystery about it for either of them. It had been understood almost from the first that this would happen, and despite her nervousness Wilma found few surprises—she had studied the act, after all, both on her own and in poets such as Catullus. There were names for everything they did together and many more besides. It was only after she and Dorothy were on the boat, single women once more, that she felt anything for Dodge. He had been kind, even tender, and she held onto his promise that he would meet her in Rome in a month's time.
He was not there, of course, and she never saw him again. Perhaps it would not have mattered, perhaps she would simply have forgotten about him, but Jeremy was there, and he was in Berkeley when Dorothy got into the Ph.D. program there. Wilma was accepted at Brown, and when she visited Dorothy over Christmas, Jeremy had already proposed.
Wilma was happy for her friend, but she couldn't help wondering what she had done wrong. She wondered if it was the anklets. Dodge hadn't said anything about them, only kissed them as he made his way up from her toes. But he must have wondered—perhaps he had traced the muscles of her naked calves, her lean thighs, and decided he would prefer a softer girl, one without fears or sharp edges. Perhaps he had thought about it while missing the train to Rome.
When she was not studying she spent hours online in chat rooms, talking to others among the ankluscenti. There were millions of others who knew about the ankle-grabbers, actuaries and lawyers and computer programmers, musicians and actors and web designers. They formed a sort of extended family, or perhaps a secret society. Wilma became friends with some of them, and visited them when she traveled. She dated one, a young playwright who worked as a pharmacist, but she always felt like he kept her at a distance, and eventually she told him she had met someone else. It wasn't true, and as time passed and more relationships failed she wondered if it was she who was keeping her distance.
It took her seven years to finish her Ph.D. When she started applying for jobs, she hoped to find one near her parents, but instead she ended up in Texas. Her father was proud of her, but he missed her—he never said it, but she could hear it in his silent pauses on the phone. Her mother asked if she was dating, and she always said "Yes," even when it wasn't true.
She didn't expect to make tenure, but there were ankluscenti in the administration, and they set her on the fast track. It wasn't until afterwards that she realized her life was locked in. It wasn't a bad thing, exactly. She co-taught the course on Homer, which was good, and she was a faculty sponsor for the fencing team. She got used to the Texas summers, for the most part, and there was music, and film, and interesting people to talk to. She often felt that she was not one of them, that the only thing that was interesting about her was something she wasn't comfortable talking about in polite company. The ankluscenti referred to it as the Straightjacket Conundrum—they wanted to warn the world, but they knew that road ended in declarations of mental incompetence. Besides, anecdotal evidence suggested that attacks by Anklus seizerus were down considerably, and rarely occurred among non-ankluscenti.
In her mid-thirties Wilma decided to get married—not, she insisted to herself, out of desperation, but out of curiosity. Peter was a nice man, with a self-effacing quality about him that made him seem more handsome than he was. He owned several rental properties near the campus, as well as a restaurant and two movie theatres. She laughed easily with him, and she knew he loved her.
The first time they slept together she was shy—not because it had been a long time, although it had, but because she was afraid he would see the anklets and ask questions. She turned out the lights before he could see them, and every time he tried to speak she cut him off. Once, when his fingers in traveling down her leg met the cold metal, she thought he was drawing breath to ask—but she laid first a hand and then her lips across his mouth, and it was forgotten.
After that it was understood that she would not volunteer explanations, and he would not ask. She was afraid his curiosity would grow out of control, but instead the opposite happened—he accepted it, and seemed hardly to notice it, until she forgot it again herself.
They were married six months after they met, in a quick ceremony with just a couple of Peter's friends, Wilma's parents, Jeremy and a very pregnant Dorothy. No one told her she was making a mistake, not that she would have listened if they had. They delayed the honeymoon so they could show her parents around Austin. Her mother flirted shamelessly with Peter, who handled it with good grace, and Wilma's father told her, "He really loves you." Only after they were on their respective planes, her parents headed north across the Great Plains and the newlyweds east across the Atlantic, did Wilma realize the question in her father's words, the one she didn't dare answer.
Three months after they returned from Greece her father died. He'd been just about to retire. All he talked about on the phone were the things he was going to do once he didn't have to work—the books he would read, the vegetable garden he would grow in the backyard, the woodworking classes he would take. He referred to retirement as "pre-death," and teased that he was going to cocoon himself. "I'm going to see how long it takes to drive your mother crazy," he said. Two days later his heart gave out while he was cutting the grass.
Peter was as solid and dependable as the rock of his name. He was there when Wilma needed him and made himself scarce when she wanted to be alone. He was good with her mother, better in fact than Wilma herself had ever been. Something about the way they got along bothered Wilma, something beyond the resentment she had to admit feeling against her mother for being the one that was still alive. After her shock had passed into hysteria and then into bruised acceptance, she admitted to herself what her father had seen from the first: she didn't love Peter. He was a good man, and he had been a good friend, but they had gone too far past that now.
She resolved to stick it out for a year, but a week after the funeral it all came out in a torrent. "I still love you," she told him finally, and it wasn't a lie. It was up to him how he wished to interpret it.
"You don't know what love is," he said, and she was speechless in the face of his bitterness. "You think falling in love is like being arrested—love throws you up against the wall, handcuffs itself to you and throws away the key. Then there's no choice in the matter, is there? You have an excuse to lose control. But that's not love. Love is shy. Love doesn't break out the bondage toys right away, it doesn't clap them on your wrist without permission, and it always lets you keep the key.
"You know what I think? I think you have doubts, and they make you feel like you're trapped. But doubts are part of the deal. There's a lot of doubt and a lot of work and a lot of time put in. And sometimes you think about using that key, but if it's right you never do."
She couldn't respond except in fragments: "My father . . . I've always . . . I never meant . . ." She felt grimy with guilt and shame, and only knowing that doing it again would be worse stopped her from taking it all back and trying again.
"What, is he some kind of Buddhist?" Dorothy asked. Wilma had driven directly from Peter's house to the airport and caught the first plane to Boston. Dorothy had just made tenure at Boston College, and Jeremy was sculpting scrap metal into lobby art for corporate spaces. Their first child, Cassandra, was a year old, and Wilma and Dorothy were walking her through a park near the campus. Cassandra rode in a specially designed stroller that kept her chubby little ankles safe from any ankle-grabbers that might be about.
"Jeremy doesn't understand," Dorothy had said. "He thinks I'm going to make her neurotic."
"Are we neurotic?" Wilma had asked, but Dorothy just shrugged.
Now, as they circled what the Boston National Park Service had optimistically labeled a lake, Wilma wondered if Peter had it all figured out. She said as much to Dorothy.
"He's thirty-seven and twice—soon to be thrice—divorced," Dorothy said. "I don't think he'll be writing any books about the perfect relationship."
Dorothy made Wilma feel better, but when she went back to Texas she was alone. She saw Peter in her dreams. He rarely spoke; usually he just shook his head at her and then walked away.
When her mother found out about the divorce she ordered Wilma to go back to Peter and apologize. "I'll never have grandchildren if you don't."
Wilma hung up on her.
A week later her mother came to visit. "Let's look at apartments," she said.
"This apartment is fine, Mom." Wilma had moved her books and a suitcase of clothes into a building walking distance from the campus.
"It really isn't, honey. But I was talking about an apartment for me."
"Yes. I'd have done it years ago, but your father wouldn't give up his garden or his ice fishing. Notice, however, that I never divorced him. We were taught to work out our problems."
Wilma didn't point out that her mother's method of working out problems had always appeared to consist of equal proportions of sulking and shopping. Her mother's move felt like a betrayal of her father, as if she were washing her hands of him, as if he had been nothing more than a phase.
Wilma recalled the last words her father had said to her. They had spoken on the phone two days before his death, and after they had talked he had told her he loved her and then said, "Here's your mother." The words were prophetic, though she didn't believe he had intended them to be. They signaled that he was about to exit the stage, and his wife would be starring in the next act.
Her mother bought a condominium six blocks from Wilma's apartment and proceeded to infiltrate her life. She insisted on—at a bare minimum—three lunches a week, and would often ask Wilma to take her to museums or films. At first Wilma felt crowded, but as she spent more time with her mother she realized that she had never really known her before. Her mother was funny, and insightful, and unexpectedly kind. She made friends easily and soon had a full social calendar, but she always expected her daughter to make time for their lunches, a fact for which Wilma found she was surprisingly grateful.
One day, walking home from her mother's condo, Wilma spied something in the hedges beside the sidewalk. She only saw it for an instant, but she knew exactly what it was. It stood two feet high, its legs short and thick, its feet wide and flat. It was pale, and its ribs protruded like the rungs of a close-set ladder. But its arms were long, and it had thick strong fingers. In the moment before it disappeared from sight, it squinted at Wilma, and its sharp teeth glinted at her. The skin beneath her anklets prickled, and she ran the rest of the way home, watching for its return—but she did not see it again.
Only after she was presented with empirical proof of Anklus seizerus did Wilma realize that their existence had always been an article of faith. Never in all the online discussion groups and newsletters had she heard an ankluscentus describe an encounter with one, and she hesitated to do so herself, as though to do so would be a denial of their community of faith. She did not even tell Dorothy of what she had seen.
Instead she did research. She circulated a survey among the ankluscenti, purporting to be part of a sociology research project. There were no names, and this gave the respondents a freedom that she had rarely seen even on the private bulletin boards. She asked their age, income, and education, but she also asked them to describe their experiences growing up, how their families and peers had reacted to their fear, and how they had discovered that there were others like them.
Two things became clear. First, none of her seven hundred respondents had ever seen a specimen of Anklus seizerus. Second, the ranks of the ankluscenti were thinning. Most respondents were over forty, and none were under twenty. Wilma wondered what this could mean. The creature she had seen had appeared malnourished—was it perhaps representative of the species? Was it endangered? If the ankle-grabbers were dying off, the fear they engendered might be dwindling as well. In sixty or seventy years would they be forgotten, the ankluscenti having died out along with their nemeses?
Or was this part of some population cycle? Perhaps the more humans who knew of their existence, the more difficult it was for the ankle-grabbers to prey upon them. Their ranks would thin, and the humans would grow unwary, allowing the species to recover, once again alerting the humans and beginning the cycle anew. Perhaps this had happened throughout history—perhaps Achilles' legendary vulnerability was simply a garbled expression of his awareness of the danger crouching in the undergrowth around Chiron's cave. Perhaps he had been the last of his day to recognize the danger.
Still, Wilma found she could not wish there was more fear in the world. She thought of Dorothy, who was trying to teach her daughter to be wary of the ankle-grabbers. As Cassandra aged, Dorothy grew more frustrated.
"She wants proof. When I tell her about them she wants pictures. She's terrified of snakes, but she told me that it's silly to be afraid of something you can't see. She's three years old!"
"Maybe you should stop trying to scare her," Wilma said.
"I'm not trying to scare her," Dorothy said. "I just want her to understand. Did I tell you she asked me to take off my anklets?"
"I told her I couldn't. She said I shouldn't be afraid, that she would protect me from the monsters. All except the snakes."
A week later Wilma was walking home when she heard some children in her neighborhood whispering. "There goes old Iron Ankles," one said, and the others laughed. Wilma, to her surprise, found she was smiling.
It took her the rest of the day to figure out why. The epithet had given her a sense of liberation—it had cemented her identity in a way that only one thing had ever done before. But fear had failed her, and now she saw her reflection in the children's words. She wasn't happy with what she saw.
The next morning she drove to a prosperous suburb and knocked on the door of a well-kept bungalow. A man covered with tattoos opened the door and led her to the basement, where he donned safety goggles and helped her protect her skin with strips of leather. Then, in an operation that took less than ten minutes, he removed her iron anklets and took them for scrap.
"Been twelve years since I had mine off," he told her. "Best decision I ever made."
"Weren't you afraid?" she asked.
"Yes. Still am. But not like before. Now I know what I'm afraid of."
She knew exactly what he meant.
She drove back to the city and parked on campus so she could walk to her apartment. Without the weight of the anklets she felt as though she were floating—each step was like a tentative attempt at takeoff. When she was a few blocks from her apartment she ran. Her pulse was in her ears, in her fingertips—she was no longer anchored, and her skin tingled as though it were waking up. She had never felt restrained by the anklets while wearing them, but she understood now that they had weighed her down, that she had worn one fear to shield her from other fears, like an inoculation.
She would go dancing. She would visit her father's grave. She would travel. She would fall in love. She would become the head of the Classics Department. She would tell her mother she loved her. She would learn to play guitar. She would be a bad influence on Cassandra. She would leave the ankluscenti to themselves. She would keep her secret. She would go to Troy and sing the Iliad to the ruins. She would let herself be afraid.