Early Men Make Fire
by Theadora Walsh
Your leaving started in the café. I was watching you play the saxophone. You were almost not there, mostly brass, the space around the brass. That’s the music, the blowing, but blowing alone is not enough. It’s also what you look like while you play, that’s what you said, how you think about the shade of blue just before the sky goes black. Not the blue from “all blue skies from here,” and not blues, plural, “I’ve got the blues,” but a less talked about blue.
If asked how the café looked, I’d have pretty much no idea what to say. I spent most of my time looking down at myself, trying to see you through the music, or sometimes looking up at the light, which came from a broken chandelier. The hard-plastic crystals all slumped along the vertical, constantly slipping off and over each other. I’ve only ever seen it broken, maybe they bought it broken.
I reached my little arm around the bar and took a beer. The staff doesn’t mind if you steal, just as long as you don’t bother them about opening the bottle. Forcing the cap off with my lighter, I poured the muddled taste into my mouth.
I pointed at myself and said “Everyone seeing me is seeing something I can’t!”
Someone heard me; hands, eyes, an interest. I looked across the room for you, but you were still indistinguishable from your instrument.
The someone smiled. He was an unremarkable man.
“Where do you live?” I needed to know first.
“I live far away, in a different city. It’s nothing like Berlin, more of a town.”
He wanted to watch me be like the lost generation he’d heard about. The kind of wayward girl he imagined when he read missing children announcements.
“You are visiting?”
“So, you have a hotel?”
“Yes, a nice one.” I checked his wrist for a watch. Silver.
“Okay, let’s go there. Her too.” I pointed to where I thought you were, towards the pleading horn. We did this all the time. Free drinks, free food, drugs, somewhere clean to sleep, it never seemed worth it to me. I would rather have just not eaten.
“You like this band?” He probably couldn’t believe his luck.
“I love it.”
The singer’s voice made the lyrics seem like they meant noises instead of pictures, or whatever a word means when we read. His mouth was a series of frequencies. I could see the notes on his lips like guitar strings or the reverberation of a snare drum. His exhausted
I imagined him dragging the instruments around, dragging you too. You bowed to the music, made yourself a dedicated space for the sounds to live. I missed you talking. Missed watching your soft hands hold each other, enjoying their own dexterity.
At the hotel we did a lot of speed. The man wanted a tattoo from us, thought we were an exotic location he read about in a travel magazine, thought we had ancient symbols and scarification rituals. I didn’t hate him yet, I was too distracted by the happiness of having you back from your music.
You told me to do it and gave a violent smile. Once I started stabbing at his arm you rushed to his lips, kissing.
With a needle and a splintered ball point pen, I tried to draw a picture of fire. When most people draw fire, they make a flame. But I don’t think of it that way, I imagine an entire building burning. Pillowing black smoke, falling broken walls, interior unearthing, expansion in all directions.
It looked bad, wasn’t recognizable, but he didn’t care. He was kissing you, ripping at your shirt.
Falling asleep, everyone wanted your heavy resting body. That’s when the hating started. The girlishness of his lips, the way he draped his arm around your waist.
You told me, remember, that you wanted to spend the day with the man. You needed new clothes you said, needed a slice of princess cake from the bakery with gold trim windows. The man wanted to eat and have you too.
I told you that I wasn’t hungry and I hope you know I meant that in a totally hateful way.
A long empty moment followed in which I was supposed to leave but didn’t.
“Here, go pick up more speed.” He wadded bills in his fist and you put your hands on my shoulders, steered me out of the room. I remember that your nose was very close to the nape of my neck.
When I first got to the city, followed you months ago, we walked all around looking for a building to steal back from squalor. I had brought you clothes from your parents’ home, things of yours left behind. I hoped that forgetting the clothes, like forgetting me, was something you regretted daily.
That first day we were back together you looked mostly the way I remembered, just a little darker around the eyes, and thinner. I wanted to freeze us both in space and commission a photograph, a containment, a permanent instillation.
When we finally found our cave, a rotting walkup, we barricaded the front door and I put candles everywhere. I was too afraid to ask where you’d been living before, then the days filled up with other questions.
On the train I sat across from a dad teaching his son how to pronounce “entitlement.” The boy was doing a shitty job getting from the t to the m sound. Patiently, the dad repeated the word over and over, parsing it into two beats. Entitle. Ment. N title. Meant.
I wanted to go stand with them and shut the kid up. I’d shake him, get him scared and attentive, make him sure that if he didn’t say it right, there would be a punishment.
There are certain things we lose when we try with all our hearts to join the card-carrying club of 20th century solitary men and find, still find, that we are incomplete. That we have not moved beyond our “i am just a wound my mother left on this earth” quality.
They saw me, glaring. It required a happy mask smile.
You can buy speed at the zoo, by the polar bear. You walk around the cage and you keep pointing and saying “The polar bear is boring, I wish it would do a trick.” If this bear, a bear that dies and gets replaced all the time, secretly, as the nation loves the bear, if this bear isn’t slumped beneath its hard-plastic igloo, waiting for death, or thumping its head against the reflective glass of its container, plotting its suicide, then it’s impossible to buy speed.
I traded the man’s money for drugs, all the money. I didn’t want to hold anything that had been gripped by him and then I walked around the zoo dipping my finger in the powder. Not sure why, I kept imagining the animals disassembled and laid out, bone by bone, flat.
There is an archeological restoration process which insists that reconstructions should be arranged horizontally, bit by bit, rubble strewn precisely across a flattened plane. My father took me to Pergamon in Turkey and I read plaques there about this theory, Anastylosis. It’s the idea that the archeologist should not construct a hierarchy of materials. Despite some effort to understand the rubble, I thought the ancient Greek capital just looked broken.
The rhinoceros in the zoo is ugly, judgmental, has chalky inorganic knees. Looking at its enclosure, I blankly turned my lighter over in my hands. It’s a trope, an overused action. A girl, seventeen, striking a lighter, is a staged character. I’m so easy to read when I act like this, like an old man closing his eyes and pausing to listen to church bells or a mother opening a bedroom door to look at her sleeping child. If I took the lighter to the Rhinoceros and held the flame to the nape of its neck, I don’t think the skin would catch. A heat blister, maybe, but otherwise unaltered.
I lit a cigarette and let it get old. More than I liked to smoke, I liked to burn things, small things, paper cups, leaves, pamphlets, cloth—that’s harder.
I tried to ask you about fire once.
“Are you afraid of fire?”
“I’m going to wear my new shoes to the show.”
“Or do you like it, actually?”
“The gold ones.”
“Do you like the colors?”
“Will you braid my hair?
At the offer of stroking your hair, partitioning it, letting my fingers touch the back of your neck—a careful accident—I decided that you were choosing not to respond. I decided that you did everything intentionally.
I walked, directionless, and ended up at monkey island. It was the new enclosure at the zoo, where spider monkeys, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other lesser known monkeys lived together in palm tree huts clustered around makeshift fire pits.
If one of the monkeys caught aflame, there would be the chance that, in panic, it would throw itself against a tree or a shrub and set the whole patchwork facsimile ablaze. I liked the idea that maybe when the monkeys, in their monkey city where they become monkey cultured, exchange monkey goods and skills, when they saw the fire they might run to it, inspired. They might entertain ideas about enlightenment as they threw themselves down towards the flames, start hypothesizing potential.
I can say lots of true things about fire. It is always hot. When temperature falls, it just doesn’t exist, doesn’t register, doesn’t get called anything. There is nothing indistinct about an element. I wish something could force me into definition like that.
From the zoo, I went back to the hollow building where we lived. I was afraid to be there alone, afraid to sleep—couldn’t remember why people slept if not to have you hold them.
From windows gaping out of the concrete, I pulled down over grown ivy and brought my lighter to the leaves. It’s a patient burn, one which must slowly convince the plant’s oils to dry and dissipate. The liquid barrier must be tricked into abandoning the body of the plant, opening up a plane for consumption.
The building is more than just the color gray, it stinks of gray, floats gray into the air, alloys us, encourages our skin to turn to stone.
I touched the walls compulsively. They were so empty, I thought they must be wet, that any decoration that ever was must have slipped off and away. Walls like a throat, every time we are home, us at the edge of digestion.
An ostensive definition is when you define a word by pointing at something. What is “son”? You point. What is “father”? You point. What is “disappointing”? You point, you have to circle your hand around, pointing to both sides of a conversation. What is “gone”? That’s harder.
I wanted to be a jagged rock tugging you encased in my form, lived in fear of a King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. Weird, how you find a person, and then right away you start to keep them. You feel the heaviness of care. You notice the parts of your body which have changed in relationship to theirs, how you find a way to walk together, take steps in turn, pace yourself.
In the morning I went back to the hotel. The concierge asked for the last name of the guest I wished to contact. Couldn’t remember, I must have seemed as strung out as I was. I watched their face concern itself with my unslept state, maybe do a calculation about my dilated pupils.
The nervousness, the paranoia part of speed, I always get it bad when I’m alone.
I haven’t been eating, technically I’m “starving,” I guess.
Stretching my fingers out and in front of me, I wrote death on my five fingers, wrote arson on the others, thought that was really funny. I laughed, too loud and then tucked my thumb and pinky in my palm to read “EAT” on the hand that said d(eat)h. With the other hand I hid the A, R, S got “ON” from ars(on). Eat on. I dipped EAT into my little bag of speed.
I imagined putting something like that in a movie for people who’ve seen too many movies. They would watch and say, oh this is nothing, this is just like the other movies.
I went into a large empty park close to our building. No one’s ever there, a hole in the city.
There is a pond in the park hole that I liked to walk circles around. My thing was to look down at my reflection ambulating and try to fix it to be more like you. When you walk, I’ve noticed you throw your feet out in front of you like a march. I reprimand myself over each glance downwards, you always look straight ahead.
What I had thought would be an early summer night turned cold and autumnal. I lay down, exhausted, woke up surprised to have fallen asleep.
It was that worst part of the night, where the stars and moon are gone but the sun still hasn’t come up. Fresh to consciousness, I stood and lit the corner of the park bench where I had been sleeping. It took 17 matches for the flame to penetrate the bench’s lacquer. Even then only the edge burned, very clear at first and then it folded.
You can make ashes, just burn anything down.
I haven’t lived here long and I barely ever look at the city, forget all the time that it was bombed, bisected, slapped. Maybe that’s why it’s easy for me to burn up corners of park benches, sticks and garbage without being caught. Destruction is already traced, I’m acting naturally.
I used to light candles and watch them burn all the way down to the wick. The flame would collapse the waxy body until greed extinguished itself, left only a wick abandoned, charred. I used to love seeing things change.
My dad told me that when the German-turned-French-writer Paul Celan was a kid, he liked to draw burning candles. My dad isn’t in this story because if he was he’d be the narrator. He’d be the hero, a respectable literature professor searching for his teenage daughter, trying to save her from a world of drugs, sex, and decay.
Instead I should just say: The writer Paul Celan was preoccupied with sketching the successive phases of flame and extinction. “I did not love it, I loved its burning down and you know I haven’t loved anything since.” He said that. I repeat it all the time. I did not love it, I loved its burning down.
The next day, I was back at the café. It isn’t much, but at least it’s somewhere to go back to.
I stood outside. As long as I didn’t go in there were two versions of the future, one where you are playing the saxophone, wearing red, just one wall away from me. And then there is the version of the future where you are not. To open the door is to kill one of those realities.
I smoked and licked fingers powdered with speed that had nested in my pockets. I probably looked just like an advertisement, like the neon sign for the café, so young and so vibrant and also so angry. I felt sorry for us, lit up and constantly restrained.
There is a flattened building on our street. The first floor still stands, doorways, a shop’s frame, a sign that reads GALLERY, but on top of that three floors of fallen apartments. It looks like everything and nothing. First glance: debris, but more carefully: an ironing table, wall paper, a sink bowl, a woman’s red shirt, the frame of a rusting car.
I was staring at a broken picture frame when you first talked to me about speed and music and fuck the police fuck our dads. I had nodded while you talked, when you shouted I could see each one of your perfect teeth.
The idea of fire being used by prehistoric men fills me with hate. It’s not the men, or their stage in the evolutionary process, it’s fire being contained to a pit, a receptacle for hunted meat, enclosed in a perimeter of hairy hands grabbing for warmth.
Whenever I see a staged scene of early men making fire, I imagine one leaning too close to the embers and catching his ragged animal hide clothing. It would consume the dried leather with polite appetite, table manners, and then slurp appropriately as it devoured the man, stomach hairs first, savoring the last charred embers.
You and I never talked much, and when we do, it’s about nothing, really, but a nothing made from years of practice. I bet you’d wonder why I like you so much, you’d push me to list reasons, demand an explanation for my pining.
But listen, it just sounds good, our timing, the syllables.
A flame is indifferent to everything besides consumption. It is sure about consumption, wants anything outside to be a part of its body.
It feels badly when it is burning, probably. That’s what I forget. It hurts when you are eating, it’s exhausting and you have to keep convincing yourself to maim and shred. The whole time you are biting, also gasping and spitting for oxygen.
And where is the fire’s body after the houses are burned up? Gone.
When my mom left you were the only one who wasn’t afraid to talk about it, we’ve got that memory. You cradled my face in your perfect arms, knelt in perpendicular light. I can see you now, your long brown hair and sharpened eyes. A mom is a woman too, you said, we were ten.
The last time you stayed with a man, you came back with a necklace for me. I stood very still, unforgiving, as you fumbled with the clasp at my neck.
“You should sleep with the men too.”
“I’d rather not.”
“If you tell them how old you are they’ll feel guily, do anything you want.”
“I-I wish we could just play with each other like we used to.”
“Why?” Arms around my waist, you curved your neck over my shoulder and admired the line the necklace was making across my chest.
The words weren’t working, I watched them not work, watched them shutting down everything. Pain was communicated to the “I,” me, floating, trying to stay heavy. I wish you would just let me have you occasionally.
It was imprecise, the moment my sadness caught up with my rage.
I’m broken open and calcified. Add that I’ve run out of speed. Now I’m fucked up and full of holes and sleepless and starving. Add the city street. Now I’m shaking with cold and snarling and its mostly men out at this hour rushing to get jobs done. Add history. Now I’m vomiting up nothing and all around me people are still looking for homes.
This man, with his hands and his eyes and my tattoo must have been full of guilt. I’d like to light him on fire and then watch the fire slowly turn all of him the same color, same texture. An extreme way of spinning someone around and around and then holding them up, not allowing collapse.
Past the breaking point which demands the body fall to the ground, I would not let him stop being destroyed.
When I left home, I had my chin on my knees the whole train ride. I was going towards you.
Instead of longing for your return, I longed for my death. I wanted you strewn across my coffin weeping and pulling out your hair. I wanted you haunted by images of me like the Virgin Mary surrounded by hot white light.
On the third day of your absence I kept starting to walk and then not arriving anywhere. My body was made of unassigned movement. Stuttering, I went back to the park hole.
“Why do you like it?” I remember asking.
You composed yourself, decided to say something true.
“I like the smell, the sweat between bodies, how I can’t recognize parts of me.” You put your hair behind your ears, put your chin in your hand. “I like watching myself, after, very awake and feeling, and watching the man, spent.”
Angrily, you concluded, “It feels like I’m taking something away from the other person.”
Burning a tree is allegorical. That was the thought, catalyzed by a chemical assurance, that led me to build a small nest of dry twigs around the base of an old oak. It was a dry summer day and the air was ready to give itself over to oxidation.
The heat pushed me away from the tree, demanded privacy for the yellowness of the trunk emblazoned. The ochre had a demure quality, shrouded beneath intermediary colors of heat.
I’m jealous of fire for how unafraid it is to enter other bodies.
It would caress you, lap colors, have you as a home. A little death. Me, I can’t even think words about expanding into you. Can’t think about the men inside you either. I make black censor bars over names for body parts. He puts his —— in you. Your body on the bed, splayed. His hands on your ——- as you make crude movements. ——. No.
Beneath spitting ash and extending plumes of heat is the tree, the building where the fire lives. I’m watching the fire take the elevator up and down the barky spine. Everything is laughing, crack cleek clack, a throathy laugh. Me too, I’m beaming, wishing someone, anyone, was in the park.
I let myself imagine you by the fire I’d set. Sometimes you liked to talk about us when we were little. If you had been by the tree, like I wanted, I’d want you in one of those moods.
You’d say, remember how we used to meet between our houses and throw pieces of the destroyed buildings into the creek? And I’d say, yes, I remember how you could have made them skip over the water if you wanted but you preferred to watch them sink.
There was a forest between my house and yours. It terrified me.
Quiet, placid, repetitive. I used to count trees while I walked through, give a number to my solitude.
“142 this time.” I’d make a report when I reached you.
“You get a different number every time.”
“I always take the same path.”
“It’s dark in there, hard to see lines around individual trees.”
That’s a funny talk to remember because now the burning tree is so bright that reds and oranges are getting stuck in my eyes. And the outline is decaying with the light’s intensity.
The tree—which was probably a hundred years old, maybe older—started to end. It was my fault.
I am at the cafe again, waiting for the music to start, hoping you might come out unexpectedly and be the music. I’m forgetting how to think, how to have thoughts if I can’t pretend I’m saying them to you. This is loneliness, no conversation, not even a direction to send silence.
My dad always used to say that he was glad I was born after the war, that I’ve never known devastation.
I wonder if that’s true, “never known devastation.”
Everywhere still looks bad, everyone still feels bad, the future isn’t very long, people can’t seem to stay sure of anything. Conviction is rare.
None of this is true for you. You are certain. Without you, this idea of you, I’d still be in the country house, very still, like my dad. Father by daughter, we’d sit and get old studying language.
Theadora Walsh is a writer from San Francisco currently doing an MFA at Brown University. Her work has been published at Cosmonaut Avenues, Entropy, UnBag, The Electronic Book Review, and Apogee. She is writing a book about work.
Image source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons