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The Erie Fear Gorta: A Study of Kindness & Good Behavior

Introduction: The Plight of an Erieite

Current theories focus on personal characteristics (e.g. kindness, malice, altruism, dishonesty, integrity) and past and present deeds (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to explain how one might make it or might not make it out of the city of Erie alive.

 

In an informal survey, taken at the Tap House on State Street, professionals such as doctors, psychologists, and bartenders predict that only a very small portion of the city’s population would succeed in escaping: 1-3%. To be exact. They predict that only those who have reached a point of extreme desperation will even attempt to cross the borders. Extreme desperation, in the informal survey, is defined as the inability to carry on with daily tasks and the unquenchable need to live over the complacency of mere existence.

 

The theory that only those who reach a point of extreme desperation try to make it out, as well as the theory that acts of kindness might be deciding factors in who lives and who dies, will be tested and assessed.

 

The research questions are as follows: Who makes it out? Why?

 

Myths & Methods

To test these theories and to attempt to understand why some people are able to leave while most people aren’t, three case studies will be presented and evaluated. The bartender at The Fiddle and the doctors and psychologists who drink with him and trade stories proved to be invaluable sources in gathering these cases, which are connected through various attempts—not all futile—to leave the city and linked by the fear gorta.

 

The fear gorta, an apparition that looks, essentially, like a dead body, was first reported in Celtic folktales. It is said that, in times of great famine or drought, the fear gorta roams the hillsides and the boundaries of a city. Encounters with the fear gorta are unmistakable. One will recognize the abandoned corpse immediately.

 

Surprisingly, Erie is not in a state of famine. And it is certainly not experiencing a drought. Produce and product in bars and restaurants are not running low. Rather, supplies are mysteriously replenished day after day. This phenomenon is still under review, though one might deduce that the seemingly endless supply of goods help keep the residents alive and focused on the mundanity of their existence. The reason for the fear gorta’s presence in Erie, considering the residents are not, in fact, experiencing a literal famine, is unknown.

 

If the stories are to be believed, the fear gorta, a humanlike phantom of hunger, will present itself as an emaciated man or an abandoned corpse, in all its gray-skinned and brittle-boned glory. Many Erieites believe that the fear gorta is an entity that has possessed and re-animated one of the twenty-somethings who ventured the trails of Wintergreen Gorge for the last time before jumping from the gorge’s peak, dubbed the Devil’s Backbone, and lunging to their death. There are plenty enough to choose from. About twenty-seven. To be exact.

 

People say that the patches of grass near that part of Fourmile Creek, directly below the Devil’s Backbone, must be hunger grass—enchanted grass that grows around the dead. It makes sense, considering it often takes emergency personnel weeks before they are able to clean up the boundaries of the city. They’re bound to miss some bodies.

 

The belief in this hunger grass stems from the fact that, one week after a firefighter stumbled over an abandoned corpse blanketed in what could only be hunger grass, he began suffering from insatiable hunger and thirst. He sought aid from the bartender at The Fiddle because that bartender never charged him for a burger or a beer.

 

After all, the firefighter had saved the bartender’s life a few years ago by pulling him from a burning car. That firefighter had saved a lot of lives in his day, but according to his husband, he was never able to cope with the ones he lost. But even that bartender, the one at The Fiddle who gave him free beers and burgers and fries and onion rings and whiskey, couldn’t help him quench his insatiable need for more food and more drink. The firefighter, desperate and unsatisfied, died of alcohol poisoning still hungry and horribly, horribly thirsty.

 

Hunger grass might just as well be called thirst grass in Erie.

 

With twig-like arms, dirt-stained nails the length of a banjo’s neck, and a spider web of matted gray hair, the fear gorta appears before people to ask for alms. For food. For drink.

 

For kindness.

 

The stories claim that the fear gorta will reward those who demonstrate generosity, who show it kindness or mercy, with great wealth and prosperity. If this is to be believed, then the fear gorta must grant those people, the ones who are kind, leave of the city. That is, those people must make it out of the city alive. The ones who turn it away, the ones who are cruel and cannot spare it a glance, let alone food or drink or kindness, must then be condemned. Surely they would not be able to cross any of the city boundaries with their lives intact.

 

Perhaps true altruism only exists in the very few. 1-3%. To be exact.

 

Always dressed in rags, with rotting flesh hanging off its bones and fleshless cheeks…one might be prompted to explore why most people don’t just run away screaming from the fear gorta. The fact that there is not one case study involving the fear gorta in some way, but several, is a curious thing. But alas, that is not the point of this study.

 

Case Study #1 : Dr. Beaumont

 

No one in the class knows what to do when it happens. One moment, Dr. Beaumont is talking about the French conditional perfect, and the next moment the quietest guy in the room, the one who never talks but who you always know is there because he’s just so goddamn tall, goes into a full epileptic seizure.

 

His head slams against the desk before his body crumples to the floor, pulling the entire desk with him with a loud crunch.

 

Dr. Beaumont, with her pinched face, simply stares. Everyone has gone silent. The class watches for a moment as the student convulses on the hard carpet, before one student rushes to the HSS Department, under Dr. Beaumont’s stoic direction, to ask someone to call for an ambulance. Two other students stumble out of their seats and gently pull the desk off the floppy form and turn him over onto his side—like a fish, really. A fish foaming at the mouth. Wriggling and reeking. Like the ones washing up on the shores of Presque Isle.

 

The seizure stops and is replaced by light snoring. The rest of the class stares at their unconscious classmate in horrified silence before Dr. Beaumont demands their attention once more. They turn wide eyes and stunned faces on her now. She stiffens her shoulders and points to the whiteboard, Maintenant, faites attention!

 

Class isn’t over yet.

 

One week after this unfortunate incident, Dr. Beaumont, walking briskly from her office to her car late on a Thursday night, when the sky, shining dark purple and majestic blue, is beginning to fade into a blackness that contrasts with the snow covering the roofs of the campus buildings, encounters the fear gorta.

 

It approaches her boldly, stretching the quivering, empty cup clutched in its skeletal hands out to her. She pauses for a moment, drinking in the sight of this hideous phantom. She purses her lips at the rotting skin dangling from its chin and its elbows.

 

She asks it, “Que voulez-vous? De l’argent?”

 

Glassy eyes stare back at her. It says nothing. Simply stretches its arms so that the quivering cup is now pressed against the lapel of her coat.

 

She leans back as if the cup had scalded her. “Avez-vous faim?”

 

The words come out a bit colder than she means them, but that has always been her burden.

Still, the creature says nothing.

 

Dr. Beaumont contemplates stepping around the thing. Her car is only five feet away and she still needs to brush off the snow. Breathing in the chill, she thinks about how nice the heat is going to feel against her face when she puts it on full blast. A cocoon of warmth just waiting for her. If she could only get to her car.

 

The fear gorta hasn’t moved. The empty cup shakes.

 

Dr. Beaumont lingers, assessing the situation and considering her options. As a professor teaching at a college in Erie, she has no money. And even if she did…

 

She has food, but regardless…

 

She’s always considered begging to be unbecoming. There were much better, more effective ways to get what you want. Her father taught her that.

 

Avez-vous soif?” she questions, even though she’s certainly not planning on offering it anything to drink either. But she’s not past humoring it.

 

The phantom, still silent, leans toward her and she instinctively steps back. The quivering cup slips from fingers as thin as guitar strings and shatters on the ice. The phantom’s arms remain outstretched, waiting.

 

Well, even if she were going to give it something, regardless of such an atrocious display of panhandling, there’s no way for her to do that now. Those brittle bones wouldn’t be able to accept any of her potential gifts without that cup. Without the cup, it’s not like she can really offer it any food or drink or money.

 

And yet, it still stands in front of her, waiting.

 

All she wants is the warmth of her car and for this to be over.

 

“Je ne peux pas vous aider.”

 

Dr. Beaumont, fixing her gaze past the long, matted gray hair, the tattered remnants of what must have, at one point, been real clothes, and the icy, unwavering gaze of the emaciated creature, finally steps around it.

 

As she passes, the fear gorta reaches out to her again and rests a spidery hand on her shoulder. She stills for a brief moment, a sharp chill shuddering through her at the touch. But then the hand falls away and the fear gorta lets her pass.

 

When she finishes brushing off her car, she looks back at where she encountered the thing. All she sees is swirling snow tumbling to the ground, frosting the icy pavement.

 

 

 

Two weeks later, Dr. Beaumont is offered a job teaching at a grandes écoles in Paris. The pay is five times as much as what she makes teaching French to students who are simply looking to complete a language credit.

 

She takes great care in making a decision. There’s security in staying in Erie, of remaining within the city borders. But the draw of the money, of France, is so much greater. Ultimately,

Dr. Beaumont decides to make the gamble.

 

She accepts the offer and drives over one of the city borders. When she’s about to cross over, she finds herself holding her breath.

 

Others have “spontaneously combusted.” Others have been crushed by trees or have been trapped in cars.

 

Pressing firmly, deeply, on the gas pedal, she drives over the border of the city.

 

Nothing happens.

 

 

 

Dr. Beaumont now lives in Paris.

 

Case Study #2 : Richard

 

Richard prides himself on being a good neighbor, so when a heavy gust of wind blows over a tree that happens to fall on his neighbors’ cars, shattering the rear windshield of one and denting the bumper of the other, there’s only one thing to do. He has to let them know. Even if it is six in the morning. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

 

First, he knocks on the door of the neighbor who owns the car with the now-shattered rear windshield.

 

Even after his insistent banging on the door, his neighbor only opens it a crack. He’s rubbing sleep from his eyes with his left fist. “What the hell? Do you realize how early it is? What do you want?”

 

Richard takes a moment to collect himself. He doesn’t want to alarm his neighbor. Any more than necessary, at least. “Now, Adam, there’s no reason to freak out, but…”

 

“What?” Adam doesn’t let him finish. “Freak out about what? What’s going on? Why would you even say something like that? It’s too goddamn early.”

 

“Well,” Richard starts again, trying to choose his words carefully. “A tree may have fallen…”

 

“So?”

 

Adam clearly doesn’t understand. Richard takes a calming breath. “And that tree may have fallen…on your car.”

 

“What? Why the hell didn’t you just say that in the first place? That’s the kind of thing that you start with, man.”

 

“…and a branch from the tree that fell on your car may have shattered your rear windshield…”

 

“What?” The anger in Adam’s voice is unmistakable.

 

Richard shudders. “Okay, well, I’m going to go now…let other people know what’s going on. Just let me know if you need anything. I’m happy to help.”

 

“Yeah, a real help you’ve been,” Adam mutters before slamming the door in Richard’s face. So much for being neighborly, Richard thinks. But he moves on to his other neighbor anyhow. After all, it’s the right thing to do.

 

Richard only has to pound on the door for ten seconds before Jean opens up. She opens the door wide enough to reveal her crumpled pajama pants and the mess of sheets on her bed behind her. She doesn’t say anything, merely gazes up at him sleepily, waiting to hear the reason that he’s jolted her out of her slumber. “Now, I don’t want to alarm you,” he starts, watching her blink the sleep away as he talks. “But a tree fell…”

 

“Okay,” she tilts her head expectantly.

 

“And it may have—a branch, at least—hit your car.”

 

Her eyes widen and she stretches her neck as if to try to look past him and see if she can spot any potential damage.

 

“So, maybe,” Richard continues since she hasn’t slammed the door in his face yet, “you might want to come outside and check for any damage.” He pauses. “I mean, I’m sure everything is fine, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure.”

 

“Yeah…okay, thanks.”

 

Jean steps out onto the porch step just as a hefty wind pushes her door shut. Her head swings around to the closed door, and then swings around to Richard. She stares up at him with wide, terrified eyes. “I…my keys.”

 

Luckily for Jean, Richard prides himself on being a good neighbor. He goes with her to investigate the damage done to her car—minor really—and then invites her into his own apartment. He makes her tea and lends her a phone so she can call a locksmith, and they chat about weather and peeps jousting and how he’s sure all this not being able to leave Erie bullshit is some kind of government conspiracy while they wait for a stranger to let Jean back into her apartment so she can change out of her pajamas.

 

Days later, sometime in the evening, Richard hears someone knocking on his door. He can’t, for the life of him, figure out who it might be, as no one else in the neighborhood could really be considered all that neighborly. He figures it must be Jean, because they really bonded in those few hours where she found herself stranded, in her pajamas, and locked out of her place, so he answers the door.

 

What he finds is not Jean, but the fear gorta. He startles for only a moment as the fear gorta raises an empty cup, thin hands shaking.

 

Richard crinkles his nose at the stench of dead flesh, but he’s never been one to turn someone—or something—away. The creature—corpse-like or not—looks hungry. He figures that he could probably drop some food into the cup, assuming that this thing ate food and didn’t want his brains, but he always found simply throwing money at people or tossing them a sandwich so…callous.

 

“I can do you one better,” Richard tells the fear gorta. “Just come on in, get warm, and I’ll fix you up something real nice.”

 

He turns away from the door and walks toward the kitchen. He’s still talking, despite the creature’s silence, in an effort to be friendly. After all, that’s the neighborly thing to do, and you don’t have to be someone’s neighbor to be neighborly.

 

He never heard the door close, so he turns to ask the fear gorta if it would be so kind, but when he looks over, he’s met with a vacant doorstep.

 

Four weeks later, Richard is hiking the trails around the Wintergreen Gorge. He’s never paid much attention to boundaries, and realizes, perhaps too late, that he’s just stepped over one of those pesky borders. His heart skips and he sucks in a breath, waiting for the inevitable end.

 

How could he be so stupid? Why was he not paying attention?

 

Minutes pass and he still feels fine. He stands there stunned. He’s made it past the border.

 

He’s made it out of the city. He gazes out at the open space ahead of him and keeps walking.

 

Case Study #3 : Scheherazade

 

Night cradles the curves of an empty house. Scheri stumbles into her room and throws clothes into a small suitcase before rushing down the stairs. She hears his footsteps in the hall, sees his silhouette in the doorway. She doesn’t want him to leave without her.

 

But when she gets to the bottom of the stairs, he is already gone. She’s five. Waiting for him to return. With her knees tucked under her chin, she waits all night.

 

At twenty-two, Scheri is still waiting for him.

 

At twenty-four, Scheri finds herself, as usual, at the bar. The man behind the bar lets his eyes drift down. He looks up. Winks.

 

“M’a photographer, not a whore,” Scheri slurs. And an occasional escort, but she’s off the clock. And on her seventh drink. She’s often off the clock. There isn’t much work when all that’s left is a shell of a city and withering inhabitants who are more concerned with drowning their sorrows in fifty-cent pitchers of beer than finding companionship outside of a bottle.

 

“Brady,” the bartender says, his long fingers reaching out to Scheri from across the bar.

 

“Scheri.”

 

Brady tells Scheri that he’ll be right back.

 

“People always say that,” she tells him.

 

He offers her a small smile and drifts away, leaving her to finish her seventh gin and tonic alone. She’s been drinking alone for hours. Now, she bends the straw with her teeth, waiting. Always waiting. Brady comes back with a free drink, and Scheri aches for that slick whisper of skin on skin. But people leave.

 

 

 

The whisper of skin on skin that people leave lingers like the cracks that crinkle across the picture on her desk. Scheri often tosses it to the floor, thinks again, and retrieves the crushed image. She stares at the weaves of weathered lines spread across the aged gloss.

 

The man from the bar—Brady—can he see the cost of that crayon time that she can’t quite retrieve? Pastels, charcoal. No, it needed crayon.

 

Whatever it was—is. She still doesn’t know herself.

 

Brady runs his nail over the fleshy page. Blue wax splits.

 

He asks her, “What the hell is this? Looks like a picture a two-year-old would draw. A tangled web of crayon. You have a kid or something?”

 

She doesn’t have an answer. What the hell is that image? A square, a blob, the boundless void that lingers just past the city borders, waiting to be fed, waiting to claim another life? “A fucking blue rectangle,” she says. Then she sobers up.

 

It’s a memory, she wants to tell him, but even she doesn’t understand it.

 

Little lines frame the man’s eyes. “Let’s not.”

 

“Not what?”

 

“Not tonight. Not…” he pauses as if he’s trying to choose his words carefully “with you.”

 

But they always linger. The men. That’s what she’s learned. They take their chances.

 

And for now, she’ll succumb. She’ll choose this.

 

After, she’ll stand in the gorge and scream into rain that marks her skin.

 

 

 

Two days after her one night stand, Scheri encounters the fear gorta. She is screaming into a wind that cuts the sky and swallows her voice. She screams until she chokes on air as rain splatters her face and seeps through her skin. When she pushes forward, toward Wintergreen Gorge, the thicket of wind pushes back.

 

It’s been storming for days, feeding the months-dry gorge, and she’s been hungry to watch water slide from stone to nothing. So she sits on a rock and bends into a rising tide, listening to crackles of rain over heaving foam. Kneeling in the waves, she lets her fingers touch the surface. The here and now melts into her skin.

 

When she opens her eyes in the midst of the rain and wind, she sees the phantom. Her eyes widen at the thin frame and the rotting flesh. It’s holding a cup with both hands, and slowly, it pushes that cup toward her.

 

She peers inside. The inside of the cup is dry despite the pouring rain. The emptiness of it breaks her. Scheri forces herself to stare into the phantom’s glassy eyes as she swallows down her nausea over its withered state.

 

Yelling over the wind, she tells it, “I don’t have any money,” not that she could imagine a creature like this really having any use for money, but it might have use for other things… “But if you come home with me, I can give you something to eat and drink. A warm place to sleep. Whatever you want, really. Whatever you need.”

The fear gorta pulls its empty cup back to its chest, away from Scheri. Taking that as a sign of acceptance, she nods and motions for it to follow her.

 

She allows the wind to carry her home. When she finally turns back to make sure the fear gorta is still behind her, she only sees the large oak in front of her apartment building. She gazes up into the rain and looks through the gnarled branches that crack the sky and split the skin of the universe, before venturing inside and peeling off her soaked clothes.

 

 

 

Six months later, Scheri finds herself wandering the gorge in the rain once again. This time, though, she doesn’t encounter any phantoms. She’s decided that she’s going to try to leave. She’s sick of her life of waiting. If she can make it out, she’s going to try to find him herself. And then she’ll ask him why he never came back for her.

 

As she crosses the border, she takes her last breath. Emergency personnel find her body three days later.

 

Results: Inconclusive

1-3% of the city’s population may make it out of the city alive. In this particularly small sampling, though, only one of the three subjects did not manage to cross a border and live to tell the tale. According to all the sources from these studies, and all the bar patrons who’ve heard these stories, cases like Dr. Beaumont’s and Richard’s are incredibly rare. Some might even say unheard of if they had not heard of the stories themselves.

 

While the cases presented are only a small sample size, they are representative of the fact that personal characteristics and past and present deeds may not have any impact on some surviving a border crossing.

 

Dr. Beaumont exhibits malice and ill-will, yet she manages to leave the city and make a new life for herself in France. Richard’s case is suggestive of the initial theory—that an altruistic nature might save. Scheri’s case challenges this initial theory, suggesting that good deeds and callous acts are inconsequential.

 

Despite examining these case studies, the author has been unsuccessful in determining how and why those who make it out alive make it out alive.

 

As such, the results are inconclusive.

 

Discussion: The Questions That Linger

 

Having established that good behavior is inconsequential when it comes to who might make it out of the city alive, the true purpose of the fear gorta comes into question.

 

If not to weed out the good from the evil, if not to identify the altruistic and the selfish and deal out rightful fates accordingly, then why is it here?

 

While this question still lingers, even more questions mount.

 

Why is a fear gorta roaming a land that is not suffering from famine or drought? What is its purpose if not to reward kindness and condemn cruelty?

 

Could death be considered a kindness?

 

Is it better to die trying to leave a city or to merely exist in a dying city? And what has the city done—or what have the residents of the city done—to deserve any of this?

 

Perhaps, at its core, the fear gorta functions like a banshee of sorts. Perhaps it simply brings omens—whether good or bad—to those it appears before.

 

Or perhaps the fear gorta is a physical manifestation of the city itself, meant to communicate the hunger and rot and slow decay.

 

The author cannot accept either of these possibilities as the absolute truth, as these possibilities require extensive research that is, likely, impossible to conduct.

 

As such, these possibilities will remain working theories.

 

The author can only accept that the root question from which all these other questions stem is perhaps the most important. The only one truly worth further investigation. The only one that matters.

 

If the city is a body and its people are its cells, what happens to them when the body finally

starts to die?

[1] Notes and details for this case study were provided by one of Dr. Beaumont’s former students, a psychologist who served as Dr. Beaumont’s colleague while she taught French in Erie, and the invaluable bartender from the Fiddle. Each person’s story was cross-referenced. The infamous Dr. Beaumont was contacted and asked to corroborate. She refused to comment. Any specifics not provided by these sources have been imagined by the author.

 

[2] Notes and details for this case study were provided by Richard’s former neighbors, the general practitioner based in Erie that Richard is no longer able to see, and the invaluable bartender from the Fiddle. Each person’s story was cross-referenced and confirmed by Richard. He thought it was the neighborly thing to do. Because, as Richard says, you don’t have to be someone’s neighbor to be neighborly. Any specifics not provided by these sources have been imagined by the author.

 

[3] Notes and details for this case study were provided by Scheri’s psychiatrist and the invaluable bartender from the Fiddle, who got to know Scheri quite intimately. Both stories were cross-referenced and corroborated with Scheri’s personal journal, which her mother relinquished. Unfortunately, details could not be confirmed by Scheri herself. Any specifics not provided by these sources, in this particular case many, have been imagined by the author.

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Meg Sipos earned her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and her BFA in creative writing from Penn State Erie, where she served as a fiction editor for the literary journal Lake Effect. While pursuing her MFA in fiction at Mason, she worked as nonfiction editor for the feminist literary journal So to Speak before launching Bestiary, a podcast about humans and other animals, with her husband. She now acts as co-host.

Twitter: @meg_sipos