Burn

From the author: “It’s a short piece on the chaos of war, but it’s really about the chaos of human experience and memory. I suppose how these moments define our lives, both deconstructing and rebuilding them.”

I look at the newspapers and the book I wrote. I count the years it’s been and I buckle at my knees. Time passed both with and without me. I think of my mother and the days spent burying through rubble in search of my baby brother. I think of my sister who never spoke again but who cried every night for years. I look at the scars on my body and I feel shame and fear. At my trigger, my vanity, my fragility – at my desire to hide it rather than be thankful for it. I pray now as I did then. Desperation in my voice and a willingness to induce a deliberate amnesia; pleading for my life as if I hadn’t done so already. The fire, the smoke, the terror in the eyes of strangers. I see it all so clearly. It blazes before me now. Just like those hot, ravenous flames that nearly devoured us all.

The drop of the bomb sent our village into slow motion; a stunted pause before the lightning echoed its spark. At first there was light: the blast illuminating the farmer in his field, a mother in her kitchen, children playing with ragged toys as they looked toward the sky, startled and scared. Everyone stopped momentarily from their work or families or task at hand. I dropped a bowl or water and cursed as it spilled at my feet. Ominous silence followed. Then a deafening explosion ripped through our lands for miles. I covered my ears and yelped, a strained and painful sound; something strange and unfamiliar to me. I was crying. What had they done?

I turned to my mother who was thrown to the floor by the rush of an invisible force. I had fallen too, rubble toppling above me as I covered my head. I looked at her, so delicate and small amidst this raging thunder, a look of desperation in her eyes as the smoke travelled into our home in thick, poisonous clouds. She looked towards the crib at the other end of our home but she could not see through the smoky haze. Our eyes connected briefly before a broad snap caused us to pull our hands over our heads again. A sickening crack sounded to the side where my brother lay. My whole body convulsed in fear. I cried, but mainly I prayed. Then it started to burn.

Clouds of gas met my skin as I rose to find my brother’s crib. Like flames on flesh, a burning rubber scent caught my throat as I howled in excruciating pain. But rather than revert from the acidic clouds in instinct, I remained confused and lingered unknowingly in my demise. Stalled by the pain, I would have collapsed to unconsciousness had my mother not grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the door. I looked at my arm as we ducked out to safety: melted flesh had burned my skin like tear wax on a candle. My arm was unrecognisable – I didn’t look myself anymore.

Outside people were distraught with destruction and fear. Most were running through the smoke while others simply prayed on their knees, rocking with the blankets of their lost babies or the rubble of what was once their home. Who did this to us, they cried. Why? Why? I scurried with weak legs to the collapsed side of our home, desperately searching beneath the wood for signs of my brother’s crib. As I scrabbled through the debris, pulling broken plates and bricks from the top in a daze, I noticed the colour of caramel and reached for what I thought was my beginning of my brother. It wasn’t: I had found a woman’s hand.

The faces of strangers have never been so familiar to me. I felt their terror and their pain as we were engulfed by flames of a fire not our own. So many ragged faces in terror. So much death splattered on innocent streets. They didn’t know then what they had done. They didn’t know it wasn’t them at all, but a conflict imagined by political greed and false boundaries. I dropped to my knees in the shadow of the fire, weeping alongside the remainder of my family and so many others. We wept together as we burned.

The feelings of that day remain vivid: the grief and fear, the hopeless desperation. But the memories are murky. My mind had become numb to the scenes of heartache and destruction. A whole nation of people burned. Some by flame, others by the searing pain of poison and gas. Some burned with rage, why did they do this to us? While others, like me and my mother and sister, burned with the aching pain of loss and grief. Our bones became black and brittle as we lost our hope to the fire. To rise amidst flames is a quest lifelong and demanding – the fall is deep and dark. The memory of what we endured toughened and defined us but it followed through our lives; entangling us in thick smoke, blinding lights and shades of ash. You can snuff out flames but the glowing embers will continue to burn. We don’t ever forget what burns.

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