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Various dangers

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in McSweeney’s Quarterly No. 4, 2000

The Dangers of Intercontinental Travel

One morning she woke up and found she couldn’t remember why she was in Munich. She climbed clumsily out of the large bed; it was cold. She stood at the window. There was the street; there were buildings with copper roofs; there were trees; and was that a sky behind them? She opened the window to get a better view and, despite the hard biting wind, she climbed out onto the ledge. Fifty feet below a few passersby stopped, gasping. They screamed warnings in German and a few even tried French but to no avail.

The Dangers of the Parcel Post

On the morning of what was to be that fateful afternoon the post arrived earlier than usual. He noticed a warm, kindly scent in the early air as he strode barefoot down the path to the letterbox at the gate. Two letters from friends and a postcard from an aunt, but what was this large bulging blue envelope? No return address; he ripped it open; and out poured a great cloud of butterflies, golden and green, which made a tipsy spiral round his head. He was delighted; he laughed out loud; who had sent them? No way to tell. The butterflies followed him up to the house; the sense of thrill lingered for hours. How could he know they were venomous; that they soon would grow bored?

The Dangers of Linguistic Inadequacy

He knew one word of Russian, and hoped it would be enough. He was a hopeful man that way. He dressed carefully, laced up his best boots, found a clean handkerchief. It was a warm leafy day, so he walked. It was only three miles. He whistled, and thought about the weather, and the sweet air. He arrived smiling, and unnerved them with his cheerfulness. They were cautious; he was jovial. He opened his arms and laughed; and then spoke. They listened, squinting. They grew angry. His accent was unpardonable. He realised his mistake. They killed him not out of malice or greed but out of love for their musical tongue.

The Dangers of Reading Poetry

He had read too much perhaps and was too susceptible to flawed ideas, and one morning with his head too full of Whitman and García Lorca he decided that he too wanted a beard full of butterflies. He discarded his razor and applied various tonics and lotions to his youthful chin; and when there were whiskers capacious enough for lepidopterous feet to perch, he baited himself with nectar and sat out in the garden day after day. His beard grew down to his stomach but the unpoetic butterflies showed no interest; still he was hopeful. But one afternoon he woke from a doze to find a trio of exploratory hornets nestled beneath his nose. He hurried indoors for his scissors and took to reading histories and manuals of cartography.

The Dangers of Nominal Egotism

He was obsessed with his name: the richness of its vowels, the sharpness of its consonants, the taste of its sound in his mouth, trickling warmly down his throat, sometimes spilling over his chin. Whenever he was alone he sang its syllables, and it was to him the most heady of lovesongs. He was enthralled also by the beauty of its orthography, the swooning and swelling and sweeping shapes of its letters; he went out daily to buy new pens and ink of every hue, and the floor was littered with pages filled with signatures.

Other people had names: this was a fact he knew objectively but could not accept in his inmost heart. This made friendships difficult, and gradually he became a recluse. Then one day he thought of a solution to this problem: every person and thing in the world should share his name; then its sublime beauty would be universal and absolute. It was a fearsome quest he set for himself, to assail the nomenclature even of Heaven itself, but he armed himself with pencils and labels and a small bundle of nominal food and went forth.