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On Fire – Short Story

On Fire

Ben Jacoby


My daughter is lying on the yellowing plastic table. The delicate pleats and folds of her paper hospital gown gather the shadows and hide them away.

My daughter is an angel.

This ward is filled with angels, all emaciated from hunger and from flame, there are the faint smells of gasoline and mildew and burnt hamburger in the air. My daughter is crying because she cannot see, her eyes are gray encrusted with black.

And my daughter screams agony.

She calls out, she calls for me, she calls for anyone, she cannot cry because she has no tear ducts anymore, she cannot hear because the poor little bones in her ears have melted away. I reach for her forehead, my arm quivering, and the nurse touches my wrist with her callused fingers.

“You can’t,” the nurse says, because there is no skin on my daughter’s body to touch. There is only a bloody rawness, a leaky yellow and rust red patchwork of the human interior, and it glistens in the lamplight. My daughter cries out again.

I remember her, and everyone, on the burning grass, little angels stumbling and falling, hazy napalm halos spilling from the clouds, sparking tiny fires on thin bodies. I remember hearing the thumping of the big flak guns nearby, the rumbling of the earth, I remember looking up and seeing the sharp bolts of flame shot into the sky, toward the planes of the enemy. And I rushed to my daughter then, when the fires on the ground and on the children subsided, and I wrapped her in my jacket and held her close, looking into the charred gray ghostliness of her eyes while she screamed, her voice faint and useless while all the world unraveled before us, and I wept for the first time in a long time.

But now, in the ward, my daughter cries out because she can no longer hear her own suffering, can no longer see her own suffering, and her nerve endings have been snipped like piano wires so she can no longer feel her own suffering.

She is an angel. On every yellowing plastic table in this place lies an angel. And the angels are scattered on the floors too, where bloated rats peel away the parts the angels no longer use: blackened fingers, earlobes, slabs of skin, once held together by the warmth around them and the muscle underneath them. The tables too, are stained with the blood of angels and the sorrow of war, and they are crowded and crooked and cracked.

The nurse shakes her head and looks at me. My daughter’s hospital gown is soaked with pus and her raw flesh clings to the thin paper. Her blood drips to the ground methodically; with each moment she slowly disappears, and she will soon be gone. More little angels are being carried into the ward, endlessly. I reach for my daughter again, and again the nurse holds me back with callused fingers. But I look at the nurse now, at her damp, wrinkled face, and I remove her fingers from my wrist. I lift my daughter, she is light in my arms, and I carry her toward the door. I look behind me, and the nurse pulls her hands to her chest and begins to cry. Another angel is placed on my daughter’s table. This angel is also screaming.

I cradle my daughter in my arms as I walk away from the ward in the cold. And as she screams, I tell myself that this is no longer my daughter, who once knit the gloves I am wearing, gloves knit from love and sopping with blood. I tell myself that my daughter has been stolen from me, like everything else, and is with the angels now. And this thing I carry, this body, built of bone, muscle, and everything profane in the world, is only a body.

It is not my daughter.

Blood leaks through her hospital gown, through its hospital gown, and I place the rasping and choking thing against the tree I used to lie against when I was young, and where my wife lies now, underneath the dirt, entwined with the roots in the soil and nurturing whatever life this place still feels it can sustain. My daughter screams.

But she is not my daughter.

My daughter has been stolen from me.

Beside the tree, there is a rusted toolkit. I reach in and take a wrench. It is cold in my hand, and I rub away the frost with my fingers. My daughter’s body is shaking, spilling warm blood onto the dirt. My daughter has been stolen from me. I grip my wrench. My hands tremble and I observe the shivering body.

This is no longer my daughter.

I believe that until she screams.

She screams at the setting sun, she screams for her soul, left in shreds by incomprehensible horrors, she screams for love, or for God, or for anything else that has the authority to take life, and I wonder if I have that authority. My daughter gasps and coughs and inhales deeply.

She screams again.

I swing the wrench and the screaming ends, and I fall to my knees and weep for the second time in a long time.

But it hasn’t actually been a long time. It only feels that way, because there are days when I see more death than I can remember and more death than I can forget.

Today would be one of those days.

●         ●         ●

And what happened in Los Angeles? What happened in Seattle? Where now the dead stand as statues of petrified dust, with shadows of cloth and jewelry emblazoned on their bodies like prison tattoos? Where the living are the dying, and the dying must bear witness to the failure of both a nation and a god? Where the cities themselves are broken tombstones in a graveyard, where at dusk, the fallout settles on crowded graves like falling snow?

●         ●         ●

We are running over the hard-packed sand, my skin dripping sweat, my eyes sting from the saltiness. My clothes do not absorb the perspiration, and the space between them and my wet skin is a convection oven. The world is dry, and heat is everything. My knee pops in rhythm with our step and rusty nails rattle beside my heart and rip shreds in my core. The inside of my body is sticky with mucus and plaque and congealed blood. I turn my head and vomit onto the sand.

“Keep pushing, old man,” the boy to my right says. The left side of his face has been mutilated by fire; whorls of twisted, purpled flesh spiral outward from his chin, and the sweat from his shaved scalp pools in their swollen crevices. Our squad calls him Raisin. He spits on the ground, and would smile if he could, but he can only smirk. To my left is a man with dark skin, which is black against the dry sunlight; he shines under its glow, and his body is strong, powerful. I see the thick tendons in his arms bulging under tight camo.

“Where you from?” he says.

“Portland,” I say, as I exhale.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You?” I say.

“Los Angeles.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“We shouldn’t be the ones saying sorry,” the man says.

“I know.”

“We got nothing to be sorry for.”

“I know,” I say.

“We got too much to cry about.”

“I know,” I say, and I cough.

“How about you, Raisin?” the man says.

“Portland, too,” Raisin says.

“Yeah?” I say, huffing, “What part?”

“Does it matter?” Raisin says.

“I don’t know,” I say, “Maybe we were neighbors. Though I bet I would have remembered you.” The man to my left laughs. Raisin shakes his head, and I feel his sweat hit the side of my neck.

“When the bomb hit,” Raisin says, and he waves a hand in front of his disfigured face, “I got off easy.”

I hear Raisin as he runs, his rapid breaths are punctuated by sharp wheezes. He begins to cry; he’s only a kid.

“Hey, we’ll get them,” the man next to me says.

“For all the little kids who’ve ever been hurt,” I say, and Raisin’s wheezes are louder now, soft gurgles sound from his throat, tears and sweat run down his face.

“Raisin,” I say, “What good are tears when there ain’t a fire?”

“What good are tears when there ain’t a fire?” the man to my left repeats.

“What good are tears when there ain’t a fire?” Raisin says, hesitantly, and the entire squad begins to chant our anthem together for him:

What good are tears when there ain’t a fire?

When there ain’t no flames for the funeral pyre?

And when they cut our brothers down in line,

light a fire for yours and mine.

And when your broken hopes won’t stack no higher,

all flaming fuel for the funeral pyre,

when they cut our sisters down in line,

light a fire for yours and mine.

When they cut our brothers down in line,

light a fire for yours and mine.

But our pace slows as we sing, imperceptibly. I feel it, in the plodding of my feet, the tightness in my chest, in the power of our stride. Raisin stops crying. He looks at me, smirks, he shouts for attention and begins to sing, and this time the squad all laughs and sings with him:

Oh! The men of the Atlantic,

Fuck so frantic

Like romantic dandy rats (like rats!).

And their restless wives (Oh!)

touch themselves and try (Oh!)

to pretend they were a Western bride!

Oh! The men of the Atlantic

Fuck so frantic

Like romantic dandy rats (like rats!)

And their wives in bed’ll

screw us instead (Oh!)

We’ll give it to them, give it to them

Till we’re dead (Oh!).

We’ll give it to them, give it to them

Till they’re dead!

“Till they’re all dead!” Raisin shouts and laughs, and we all laugh together. I hear this, I hear the breathing and the footsteps of the men behind me, I watch the footfalls of those in front, and the nails rattling inside me hurt a little less. My dog tags are slapping my chest. My shirt is tattered and dusty. My pack digs against my spine, and we still have so much further to go.

I turn my head and vomit onto the dry sand again, and I wipe my mouth on my sleeve. I will keep pushing.

●         ●         ●

And what happened in San Diego? What happened in the valley?

Could we believe that men, created in God’s image, were responsible for such things?

Could we believe we were fighting something remotely divine?

●         ●         ●

I remember my only trip out east, with my wife, to New York City, before everything started, before they started speaking in hushed and worried tones on the news and before they discontinued cross-country air travel because we weren’t a country anymore. Back when we were newlyweds. We were making a scrapbook together, with crooked photographs of where we had been and where we had made love and who we wanted to be together.

I remember: we are standing before Central Park in the heavy rain. We are drenched and dripping and my wife embraces me, my arm is around her too. She kisses my cheek and her lips are the falling rain. A middle-aged New Yorker walks in front of us and we ask him to take our picture. His stomach protrudes over his waistband and his face is large, wrinkled, and paunchy. My wife looks at me, I nod, and she hands him our camera, and he holds it up to take our picture. She embraces me again. There is no sun out today; there are only the streetlamps, reflecting some diffuse essence of the city, of the city’s people, they glimmer, and the pooled rainwater on the edge of the street shimmers with the glow of passing headlights, and the camera’s flash seals this moment for eternity.

“That’s real cute, let me get one more,” the New Yorker says.

“We only have a few pictures left,” my wife says, and she looks at me.

“Trust me, it’s worth it,” the man says. I force a smile, my wife does not bother to, and the man snaps another one as the rain lessens to a drizzle. The man looks at the camera, and my wife releases me from her embrace, takes a few steps closer to him, she extends a slow, tentative hand.

“Thank you,” she says.

“Oh it’s no problem,” the man says.  He looks at the camera again and brushes his finger across it and then gives it to her. “It’s a nice camera. Haven’t seen the brand before.”

“It’s a Western brand,” she says.

“You from out west?” the man says. My wife fingers the black strap of her purse, and I move to stand between the two of them.

“No,” I say, “Bought it in a pawn shop down the street.”

“Yeah? Surprised they sell that shit here,” he says, “Did you at least get it cheap?”

“You bet,” I say. The man scoffs, he blinks and then opens his eyes wide and looks straight at me. He points at the camera.

“Knowing Western shit, that camera won’t break ‘till you’ve taken the best picture of your life. Then it’ll crap out.”

“Tell me about it,” I say, scratching the back of my head, “I’ll get a new one once I save a few bucks. Like that can ever happen, married to her,” and I elbow my wife gently, and she looks at me and rubs her side. The slow rain now ceases. I look up and see only gray.

“I hear you,” the man says, grinning, he flashes his wedding ring. And we thank him for taking our picture, he nods, and I catch him studying us as we hurry into the park together.

“I’m sorry,” my wife says, “I forgot, I completely forgot.”

“It’s alright,” I say, and I hold her close to me. We pass a woman in the park, her umbrella still open, her high heels clack on the pale pavement, she sees us watching her and she glares at us. An old man brushes water off a bench and sits down. He looks at us through his sunglasses.

“This is a scary place,” my wife says, “It seems nice at first, but it really isn’t, it really isn’t.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“I think that man who took our picture wanted to hurt us. And he seemed like a nice one, remember? That’s why we picked him to do it. He seemed harmless. But we had to lie to him.”

“I know.”

“So what do the bad ones do? Are they worse?” she says, “Didn’t we try to understand them?”

But I don’t say anything, and she snuggles closer to me. People pass us on both sides as we hustle through the park.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I say, “I’ll take you somewhere when we get home. Do you want to take a trip down to Napa?”

“No. I just want to go home,” she says. She is shivering and I feel the temperature dropping, the wind picking up. A lantern hangs on a post and burns with a cold fire. My wife looks at our camera.

“I don’t want these pictures in the scrapbook,” she says, “I don’t want any of them in the scrapbook. I don’t want to remember this place. I don’t want to remember this trip.” I rub her shoulder. “It’s horrible out here,” she says.

“Do you believe that because you’ve seen it,” I say, “Or because that’s what everyone back home says?” I say.

“But you’ve seen it too, right?” she says, “You have,” and she looks at me, her eyes pleading for something I don’t know. I rub her shoulder again and shake my head, looking out over the park, at the sparse and barren trees, at the strangers surrounding us, at the camera in my wife’s hands. I feel my heartbeat and I know I am irrational. But I don’t want any of these pictures in our scrapbook either.

●         ●         ●

And what happened to my wife? Our daughter? Our scrapbook?

Could I truly believe we were all the same people? Back home, our friends asked us, “Is the East as bad as they say?”

“No,” I had said, “They’re the same as anyone.” But that was a lie, and I held my wife close and whispered to her, “We don’t need to spread more fear than there is already, right?”

But she looked at me, her eyes again pleading for something I didn’t know, and she said,

“I know we shouldn’t be scared of them. But aren’t we allowed to be afraid of monsters?”

She nuzzled her head to my chest and I felt she was right but knew she was wrong, and I knew everyone else would feel and know the same things I did.

So it did not surprise me later when all the bombs fell, on us, on them.

●         ●         ●

Our unit is moving across the country now, along dirt roads and through brown fields of dry straw and hay, dustings of frost draining their life in the cold. We avoid the cities, or what remain of them, and we give the few chocolate bars we have to the children who come out to greet us in the towns, begging and cheering in tattered clothes and broken skin, tugging on our pants and jackets and staring at our rifles and our rusted jeeps, our creaking tanks, with a horrified joy.

“You’re going to get them!” they shout.

“We’re going to get them,” we say, “For you.”

And as we move through Nebraska, sitting on the sides of tanks and in the backs of covered transports, we are alone and it is beautiful and we are the righteous. There are mushrooms growing in the dead forests. There are wildflowers too, and cragged scraps of metal and plastic on the sides of highways. My face is numb in the cold, but I can feel the sweat running down my back where my pack presses into me, and my hands are hot within my gloves, the gloves my daughter made for me.

We find a deserter from our unit hiding in a ditch on the side of the road, so we decide to execute him in a crumbling farmhouse. He hadn’t even changed out of his uniform when we found him, but before he died we made him strip naked and give it to us.

“You would really do this to us?” we say. He whimpers, sitting naked on his knees, tears rolling down his face, stuttering madly, as if he could somehow redeem himself. But he can’t. “There’s nothing you can say,” we say, and our sergeant hands me his pistol and tells me to shoot him. I stare at the back of the deserter’s head and raise the gun to it. And I hold it there.

“Do it,” someone says, and a cheer reverberates through my head, ‘When they cut our brothers down in line, light a fire for yours and mine.’ I think of the deserter’s face, and I remember who he is.

“I can’t kill him,” I say, “I taught him how to shoot.” There is a groan.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Raisin says.

“Shut up Raisin,” the sergeant says.

“I taught him how to shoot,” I say.

“It’s all of us together,” the sergeant says, “We’re just little fingers on the trigger of a gun.”

I turn and look at the sergeant and lower the gun.

“Who’s guilty then?” I say.

“None of us,” he says, and opens his hands, gesturing to the soldiers, “You killed Easterners before, right? It’s the same thing.”

“I never killed an Easterner before,” I say, and the younger soldiers widen their eyes, imperceptibly, tilt their heads, glance at one another.

“Well hell,” he says, “I figured you had, you’re the oldest one here. Give me that.” He reaches for the pistol.

“No,” I say.

The soldiers around us begin to murmur, I can hear them. A crow’s squawk echoes in the farmhouse. The sergeant raises his eyebrows, but in one motion, I hold up the gun again and pull the trigger.

The gun clicks, the deserter winces, and there is a silence as the soldiers hold their breaths.

“You idiot,” the sergeant says.

He takes the handgun, cocks it, and shoots the deserter in the back of the head. We leave his naked body on the dirt when we drive away.

There are no more deserters after that, because we are reminded of all those little kids, all those angels. And in the jeep later, the sergeant shouts back to me, “I know it’s hard, you just got a little nervous. Just think about it rationally. He was a traitor. We had to do it.” I nod my head, as if I understand.

I do not know what rationality is anymore.

●         ●         ●

Farther east, in Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania, we move through ramshackle towns with white flags and fearful faces in the windows. All the towns are ramshackle now, broken Hoovervilles in a Great Depression of decency. Their cities are empty and broken, something they brought upon themselves.

Something we all brought upon ourselves.

And we are fired upon from an empty supermarket, so we stop our convoy and take defensive positions. And this resistance is not surprising: our vengeance is the consequence of their sin. And no sinner truly believes he is evil.

We radio for air support and wait and watch the entrenched supermarket and the rest of the town tumble down over itself, and then we watch the ashes smolder. And while the amount of death in this place horrifies me, I am elated when the last building falls, and when we sing, my voice is the loudest, echoing in the distance above the crackling of the flames.

●         ●         ●

We hear they are assembling in the ruins of New York City, so we keep walking, and the rain begins. In thick, viscous globs it falls from the sky and soaks our uniforms. Oily water droplets cling to my rifle; I shake them off, but they continue to accumulate, sticking together in bigger and bigger wobbling puddles until they become too heavy, and they stream to the ground and fall apart.

I am wheezing, I feel as if my insides are a swamp. I look down, the earth itself is muddy, and we are a wretched group of soldiers, plodding through the muck and hoping they are waiting for us when we arrive. A bony white hand peeks through the dark filth on the ground. A gray corpse lies in an open grave and gray bodies lie sprawled on the gray, gravel roads.

And as the city draws near, I imagine it all: broken gray buildings, skulking gray murderers, deserted gray alleys, bloody gray matter, bloody gray walls, and all the hopeless gray people knowing their destruction has come.

“You really haven’t killed any of those bastards?” one of the younger soldiers asks me.

“No,” I say.

I had done something much worse.

I tilt my head up and the rain patters against my face. It is cold, and I feel like frozen tears are hardening on my cheeks. The world is absent, I find Polaris in the sky through the clouds and smog and dust, but I remember we will have a new North Star someday anyways. That is just the nature of things. Physics and inevitability and death. And the clouds and the smog and the dust and the smoke are all the same now too, intermingled in the air, the consequence of eternal fires raging across the country, and what must the world think? What must they wonder as our country destroys itself?

The same things we would, I think, if it were any other nation committing suicide.

“Why God,” I say aloud, “If we are the righteous?”

“It wasn’t God, old man,” Raisin says, after a time, trudging next to me, “It was the devil.”

“You can tell them apart?” I say.

“Can’t you?” he says, and he just looks at me as the rain continues and the water pools in the crevices of his mutilated face.

●         ●         ●

Once, my daughter and I sat together in the kitchen of our community center. We were drawing pictures of an apple orchard. This was before she vanished, before the center, too, vanished, and soon after my wife already had.

My daughter asks me, “Do you think we will ever stop fighting?”

“When all the bad people stop being bad,” I say.

“When will they stop being bad?” she says.

“When we stop being good.”

“When can we stop being good?” she says.

“When they are gone,” I say.

“Why?” she says.

“This is just what we do,” I say.

“Will they die?” she says.

“Yes,” I say. And she pauses and looks at the ground and swings her legs back and forth in her chair.

“Good,” she says, “I won’t feel sad when they die.”

She colors in the apples on her trees. We sit in silence for I don’t know how long, until I take her in my arms and for a long time I do not let her go.

“Daddy?” she says.

“I’m so sorry for everything,” I say, and she begins to cry.

●         ●         ●

My daughter was an innocent child. But she was not innocent.

She was beautiful though, while she lived.

●         ●         ●

New York City is broken, like all our own cities are. Like the rest of their cities too. When I was here, with my wife, it really was a city. But now it is a ruin. And should I feel remorse? Do I remember the rockets flying overhead, do I remember when we did this to them? No. I do not remember. I only remember what my wife said to me when we heard what had happened in California. I found her slumped on the floor, in the corner of our house, her body wracking with deep sobs, and our daughter, only a baby then, began to cry too. And I cried too as I held them.

“Oh God,” my wife said, “Oh God.”

And if my wife had been alive when I helped our daughter die, I know she would have stopped me, and said, “Oh God, oh God,” and she would have wept with me. And when I joined the army, she would have wept, too, and told me to not to go, and I would have listened.

But my wife is dead, and my daughter is dead, and I have no love for anything anymore, and I will not cry.

Planes overhead, our planes, screech and roar as they fly over New York, and now the corpse of that broken city is burning, a lonesome beacon on a dead island.

“When they cut our brothers down in line,” Raisin says, and he chokes on his saliva, “Light a fire for yours and mine.”

●         ●         ●

We are innocent people, but we are not innocent.

And is this what it means to be human? To blame our own humanity for the flaws and passions that will inevitably condemn us to hell?

●         ●         ●

The world is on fire. We are surrounded by flames, the heat is brutal, my face is hidden under an oxygen mask, connected to a tank in my pack, the oily rain does nothing to stop the inferno. We run down the avenues and avoid stepping in the pools of liquid fire. Blackened corpses are jumping out of windows, bodies are burning in the streets, and this is no place for life.

I suppose that is why we are shooting at each other.

Rifle fire barks in my ears, and I raise my gun and shoot through the flames at no one and crouch behind a rusted car. The smell of sulfur seeps through my mask and the landscape shimmers in the heat. There is shouting from behind as a building to my left collapses. I hear the rushing of air overhead, the shrill roar of jets, engines burning hotter than this hell, and a distant boom shakes the pavement. My throat tightens and I smell gas. A body drops onto the car in front of me and dents the roof and shatters the remaining window glass, a fallen angel crashing to earth.

Raisin, his whorled and purple face concealed under his mask, screams and charges forward and I cannot let him go alone, so I lunge after him and scream along with him and continue to plow forward. We are rushing through the firestorm together, he fires his rifle at a shadow in a doorway, I hear his squeaking war cries, halted by the spastic contractions of his lungs as he sobs and wails in his mask, and the side of his head bursts apart and he plummets forward and hits the ground and his body catches on fire, I hear the distant crack of a sniper rifle and I can’t stop now, so I continue to sprint and I leap over his flaming corpse. I hear the sniper rifle crack again, I hear the shrill whistle of death rush past my head, and the building ahead is so close, fifty feet away, the top floors are on fire and the bottom floors are filled with smoke. I hear crying from inside, amidst the thunder and the screaming and the self-destruction of the world, and I slam my shoulder through a cracked ground floor window and leap in, and all sound recedes.

●         ●         ●

I am an innocent man, but I am not innocent.

●         ●         ●

There is an Eastern soldier, and he is weeping over a dead body. He looks at me, his face wet with sweat and tears and his eyes are pleading for something I don’t know. And he sees me behind my mask, my face furious and desperate, red, bruised, bleeding and hungry for death. The body next to him is a little boy, roasted by napalm and kerosene, his arms spread apart and flimsy like some holy martyr, an emaciated angel.

I can only think of Raisin, and all my crimes in love and war.

The soldier raises his handgun, his eyes alight with fury, his mouth tight and cauterized shut with hatred, and I feel my own teeth grinding together, scraping each other into dust, and everything is on fire. The building rumbles and ash sifts and falls to the floor. Part of the ceiling crashes behind the Easterner and I see the raging flames above us.

I see the sun and the stars and the earth on fire, and everything flowing between us seethes with savage disgust and pity, we look up at the shattered ceiling together and pray the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

But then the rumbling stops.

I look down and the Easterner’s gun is quivering by his side. I raise my rusty rifle and my hands clench and burn within my gloves, the gloves my daughter made for me.

The Easterner raises his own weapon, and my mind is frantic:

I hear the weeping of my wife, the screaming of living men and lifeless cities, and the howling of an angry God.

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