Without darkness, there is no light


Without darkness, there is no light


It was not the first time that the sudden sensation of impending doom or a future catastrophe affected Cora’s mood. That “nothing is really wrong, but something is not quite right” feeling. An internal communication from her to her. For no reason at all.

When she realized she was afraid again, she looked up the definition of fear in a dictionary. Because, as a teacher with more than 30 years of experience, she liked resorting to definitions. It was reassuring to rely on solid knowledge in black and white, exactly like she'd always done when she needed comfort.

Although her feelings were recurrent and unreasonable, she doubted it was a phobia because phobias were extreme, irrational, and responded to specific situations, animals, or objects. Phobias were weird because how could anyone be afraid of repetitive patterns of holes in honeycombs? Arachibutyrophobia, or dread of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one's mouth, was even more bizarre. While she had to admit that the sensation of something sticky plastered to her palate was unpleasant, she was sure it was not something she would ever be terrified of.

She’d witnessed this kind of irrationality with Janice, her younger sister, who was afraid of spiders.

“You have no idea what it’s like!” Janice once told her when, as teenagers, they had been asked to clear out the closet and pack their winter clothes.

“The mere idea of seeing that...that thing on the wall... Or putting on my shoes knowing it might be hiding there, ready to pounce!" Janice's chin trembled as she spoke. 

“Oh, get over yourself,” Cora answered.

“OK, so they might be there, and they might bite you, but so might mosquitoes. And there are many more of them than spiders. All around the farm, not only in the closet. But you are not scared of mosquitoes, are you?”

Janice had just shaken her head and kept taking things out of the closet, all the while clutching a can of Tanax like a medieval sword.

Fast forward forty-odd years, and there she was, looking up the definition of fear. 

“Fear is an intensely unpleasant emotion in response to perceiving or recognizing a danger or threat.”

It did not satisfy her in the least. An unpleasant emotion caused by the perception of a danger or threat. Where was the danger in being happy? She couldn't see any. Her feelings weren’t specific, like being afraid of getting sick or dying or having financial difficulty. It was utterly intangible—just a bivouac of butterflies dancing in her stomach.

But that meant her emotions were unreasonable, so perhaps it was a phobia.

She went back to the computer and typed: fear of happiness. In less than two seconds, chernophobia sprang up on the screen.

As weird as it sounded, there was a phobia of being happy.

“People with cherophobia believe that if they are happy, they invite something negative into their lives. The word cherophobia derives from the Greek word char, meaning joy.”

She was not entirely convinced that it was the correct picture of her life. She did, after all, enjoy doing all the things she had been doing since she retired. And since Clarise and John, her kids, had left home to lead their own apparently happy lives.

“I do yoga. I read. I write. I took that trip to Mykonos last year that I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’ll most likely take another one. The Canary Islands, perhaps. Or Eastern Europe. Clarisse said the Amber Museum in Gdansk was out of this world, and the sandy peninsula that stuck its long tongue into the Baltic Sea was more beautiful than many tropical beaches she’d seen.”

But, if that were the case, why did she sometimes worry that something terrible might happen if she enjoyed doing things, going places, and meeting people?

She switched off the laptop. Her two elderly beagles, Jason and Mickey, got up from the floor under the desk, knowing it meant they were going for a walk. They wagged their stubby tails at the stimulus. Looking at them now, she felt it again—fear, without a doubt. Every muscle and nerve in her body became paralyzed , as if all her subcutaneous emotions had surfaced.

The dogs yelped at the sight of the leashes, and Jason scratched at the door to hurry her up.

“Hold your horses, old boy,” she scolded him.

“And don’t you dare pee in the hall like the last time I made you wait!”

Forty-five minutes later, they were back, the dogs tired and panting.

It was time for lunch. She heated a bowl of tomato soup and grilled a cheese sandwich. As she shaved pieces of cheddar from the block, she experienced that silly pang again. Like an icicle stuck in her gut, melting slowly, drop by drop, molecule by molecule, until ten minutes later, it was gone entirely, replaced by the cozy feeling of a stomach filled with comfort food.

Why did she feel that on-again, off-again sensation of dread? There was nothing to be afraid of. She retired after more than thirty years of working, and she could rely on not an exorbitant but a comfortable income. She owned the house. She was healthy. She’d had a thorough checkup last month, and the doctor, an old foggy, told her in no uncertain terms, using an archaic cliché, that “her heart was as sound as a bell.”

So there, she had everything going for her. She was only sixty-one. Plenty of time to enjoy life. What did Sinatra say?

“The best is yet to come, and won’t that be fine? You think you’ve seen the sun, but you ain’t seen it shine,” she crooned in a soft contralto.

But no matter how hard she tried to convince herself that everything was fine, she knew she was lying. She knew that feeling. It had hit her when her mother was diagnosed with dementia. And when Karl, her ex-husband, filed for divorce.

She sat back at the laptop, the dogs under the desk radiating a pleasant warmth onto her feet. She typed again: fear of happiness.

“Cherophobia may or may not have one definite cause. Genes play an important role. Some people are more susceptible to acquiring phobias.

Cora was well-versed in genetics and inheritance. She was, after all, a biology teacher and was aware that members of the same family had similar, if not identical, traits, ranging from the color of their eyes to the shape of their noses and ears. In the case of gene mutations, they could also inherit conditions such as hemophilia or muscular dystrophy. On an even deeper level, genetic legacy frequently determined how people behaved and felt. Mental illness also ran in families. But, as far as she knew, neither her mother nor father had ever been afraid of happiness. They had both been sociable, even hedonistic, people who enjoyed life to the fullest. Regardless of her mother's condition...

According to the article she stumbled upon on Google, another contributing element was stress, which might lead to anxiety and depression and, in the long run, cause someone to become scared of happiness. 

“No, no stress in my life either,” she muttered, moving the cursor to another bullet point.

“An incident in the past, particularly in childhood, when a person experienced great joy or happiness only to be followed by a traumatic incidence such as death or trauma.”

Was it possible that a recollection was so deeply buried in the folds of her brain that she only recently managed to extricate it? She had her doubts. The only logical explanation was that her feelings were completely baseless or she was losing her mind... In any case, two unsatisfying explanations.

All her life, she had based her decisions and, consequently, her actions on facts. She’d chosen her profession because she liked teaching and because it meant a job for life. She’d married Karl, her high school sweetheart, because she loved him, of course, but also because she knew his family and his temper and thus could predict his limits, or so she thought. Early on, she’d rejected religion but didn’t become an atheist. Instead, she considered herself an agnostic who didn’t quite believe, but neither didn’t believe in God, leaving a teeny tiny possibility that there might be some divine presence watching us from the great beyond and doling out punishment and awards as they deemed fit. Just in case... All so carefully calculated, measured and thought out. Therefore, to fear happiness was entirely out of character for her.

She felt better now that she understood her feelings since knowing what was going on in her mind meant she could find a solution. Because learning to deal with and establish coping techniques for this mental health issue could help her manage her fears better and, in the end, restore the sense of security in her life. Because that’s what happiness was, right? A sense of security. Of safety. Of knowing that being happy was not openly inviting a calamity to fall upon her and her loved ones.

She resorted to her life-long experience and teaching training after admitting she was afraid of happiness. She'd confront her thoughts directly and put them down as questions since they could be answered once they were transformed into words. 

“Why am I having these thoughts?” she typed, then wrote an immediate rebuttal. 

“Because, as a human, I am unreasonable and experience arbitrary thoughts and emotions!”

The answer made her look down at Jason and Mickey. There was nothing irrational about these two. They took life for granted. They ate, slept, pooped, and demanded constant petting, but when refused, they held no grudges. Nothing absurd about that! All their worries, such as food being served later than usual or a larger dog chasing them, were firmly rooted in reality.

Unlike hers…

“Alas, I can’t become a dog and miraculously just ignore it. Too early to seek help?" Cora mused.

It dawned on her that she could try mindfulness, something she had practiced throughout John and Clarise's teen rebellion, which nearly drove her out of her head and out of the house. When conscious, one becomes naturally free of dread, which usually happens when one thinks about the fear. In a mindful state, the brain is fully attentive to what is happening and what one is doing.

“Start with deep breaths and think about something else,” she sent the instructions to her brain.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we are powerful beyond measure,” she repeated a verse from Marianne Williamson’s poem like a mantra.

However, it was not helping. Quite the opposite, the feeling of gloom grew stronger.

She could start listing everything she should be grateful for, including the two snoring beagles, her kids, and her financial security.

No use. She’d done it before. It led nowhere.

The inner biology teacher in her resurfaced.

"Perhaps I should smile more because smiling releases dopamine, and dopamine makes us happy," she said with a fake grin.

The phone began to ring at that point. Once. Twice. Several times. She reached for the receiver. Let her arm rest midair, not daring to pick it up.

She let it ring for more than two minutes. Deep down, she knew the call was announcing the end of something... Probably the end of her happiness. She was convinced now that the human ability of premonition, or maybe even precognition, manifested itself with force.  



J.B. Polk


Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. The first story was short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland 1996. She regularly contributed to Women's Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of   Virginia House Writers, Dublin, and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards.   Her creative writing was interrupted when she moved to Latin America, started contributing to magazines and newspapers, and then wrote textbooks for Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 53 of her stories have been accepted for publication.

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