Sometimes, writing inspiration seems to come through you in a near-revelatory process. But what happens when you finish transcribing, but you still don’t know exactly what the story is trying to say? I’m about to find out, because that’s exactly what has happened with this first stab at my Writer In Motion short.
This story…whew. It GRABBED me, or at least the first few sections did. The voice felt really strong, even though I didn’t know anything about the character at all. I wrote it in Notes on my phone when I should have been sleeping. But I didn’t write the ending until about a week later, and in the end, I feel its true core eluded me, like trying to grasp onto…well, smoke.
I’m still not sure if I know what it’s doing, or if I like it. But it sure is doing SOMETHING.
Ironically, my WIM story from last year shares some imagery with this, although this one is…not so hopeful. There’s a theme of survivor’s guilt in here and a whole lot of climate anxiety, I think. There’s also a supernatural aspect. I feel like people are going to ask questions about it that I don’t know how to answer, because I literally don’t know anything except what got on the page. Like a smear of soot left behind after the fire has burned itself out.
Let’s have another look at the prompt, as a reminder:
And here’s what I wrote. Whatever it is. WHAT ARE YOU.
CW fire, death, spooks, and climate trauma, I guess?
He comes at dusk, the shadow man.
He hovers in the corner of my vision, dissolving when I look straight at him, looming when I look away. Sometimes he is indistinct, smudged at his edges like smoke, only the suggestion of a man’s shape and a man’s height. Other times, he seems almost solid. At those moments, I believe that if I turn just enough, if I squint just right, he might even have a face I could know.
But then I turn, and he dissipates. Then I remember he’s nothing more than a trick of the light, a quirk of my perception. It’s an artifact of my mind’s eye, my brain’s attempt to make sense out of the random and the meaningless, an optical illusion.
We coexist, my shadow and I. It’s not as though we can touch each other.
But there is one day, when the air scratches and chokes, when the sky outside lowers dark and angry as a week-old bruise. And because it’s twilight all day, he doesn’t go away.
It’s fire season. It’s always fire season now, and the burn scar rises inside me. It burns everything to ash.
I don’t try to look sideways. I stare straight ahead, and my voice scrapes hoarse and harsh in my throat.
“What do you want? What are you doing here?”
He doesn’t answer, and after awhile he fades back into the wall.
I never see his face.
He doesn’t do anything except linger. He doesn’t seem to mean me any harm. So I let him stay.
Maybe he’s lonely too.
There was a time we didn’t live like this, in the shadow of our own destruction. There was a time when things were different, before fire season came to stay.
I wish I could remember it.
If I could remember, I’d remember eyes as blue as the sky that I can no longer see. I’d remember a voice that went through me like a thunderclap, a laugh that chased away the shadows that lay heavy within.
But all of that was burned away. The fire took it from me. It took so many things, and not all of them were mine.
Fire doesn’t give back anything it takes.
And yet the shadow man is here.
He comes every day now. He’s always here in the dim orange day and the thick gray night that follows.
Maybe he’s come for me.
I’m the one who made it out. The fire didn’t take my life. It only scorched it. It passed over me like an angel of death and took everything else.
Fires are like that sometimes. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. It’s random, like the shapes my brain ascribes meaning to, the tall dark figure leaning against the wall.
There’s a polite air about him, I fancy. As if he is waiting for something.
Maybe he’s waiting for me.
When the fire comes for me at last, it doesn’t hurt like it should. It’s warm like a benediction.
He leans over me. He’s still made of smoke, dissipating at the edges. But when he wraps me in his arms and presses me to his chest, I breathe him in.
“You saved me that day. I remember now.”
He had eyes like a sky that no longer exists, and a laugh that dissolved me. He had soot on his face and his hard-muscled arms, soot under his fingernails. And when he guided me out of the blaze, he turned around and walked back in.
A fireman, or a man of the fire? But now he’s nothing but smoke.
“I knew you then.”
“Why did you save me?”
“It was my job. I saved what I could.”
“And now,” he says, “there’s nothing left to save.”
I look up at him in the flickering light. The flame licks at me like an old friend, and finally I can see his face. His eyes glow restless as the inferno around us.
“Are you a demon?” I breathe. It’s likely my last breath, more smoke than oxygen. “Or an angel?”
His laugh crackles and sighs like the fire. It dissolves the rest of my resistance. “A distinction without a difference, dear heart.”
His arms tighten around me, and I let him take me.
She goes easily, in the end. Most of them do, when it’s their time at last.
You see, once the fire touches you, it never really lets go. It lives inside you, glowing like embers, the way a blaze will go to ground, smoulder in isolated hollows, beneath the surface, deep within the blackened trunks of dead trees.
Holdover fires, they’re called. They get down in the roots of things and burn unseen, until fire season comes again and brings them back to life.
She flares up like a candle, fierce and beautiful, until there’s nothing left of her. Nothing but smoke and ashes, and the smile that dawns on her face when she understands what I’ve come for.
She feels no pain. I can give her that, at least.
When they find her, they won’t understand. They’ll look for a spark, a stray cigarette, a frayed wire. They’ll whisper the words spontaneous combustion, but they won’t believe it. They’ll explain it all away, their human minds searching for patterns, for meaning. Maybe one of them will note the irony in it, that she survived the firestorm of the century only to go up in sudden flame peacefully at home, leaving everything around her intact while she crumbles into ash.
Outside the little apartment, smoke curls in the air. It shapes itself for a moment into the figure of a woman, graceful as the first time I met her, walking untouched in the eye of a pyrocyclone.
Then the wind kicks up, arid and hot, the relentless Santa Anas driving down the slopes of the mountains and rattling the dead grass together like bones. Before its force, her form disperses, bleeding into the already smoky air, blowing away. Not gone but so diffuse as to be indistinguishable.
In the end, it’s a distinction without a difference.
I let the wind take me too, scudding over the scarred fields. I’m done here, but the work goes on without respite. There are lives big and little going up in smoke, a thousand hot spots in a world dry as tinder.
It is fire season, after all.