*Featured Image: The Year of the Fire By Stephen Ground
One Year After the Fire
By Kevin Taylor
In the dark, first hours of November, All Souls Day, I set my house on fire, expecting it to be the last thing I’d ever do.
And now, nearly a year later, a slim, small dragonfly appears, motionless, on a bit of gravel in a sidewalk crack. I love dragonflies and had not seen one this slender, this delicate, speckled black and wings so fine as to be invisible in the sunlight of a mild, cloudless Sunday in October.
At the outdoor table of the coffee shop, greens were fading in the trees. yellows and reds bursting forth after cold nights. A dragonfly was unexpected this late in the year, especially one so seeming young.
I opened the small journal to write something about it but when I looked up, the dragonfly had gone. A small moment, but the brief appearance of the slender dragonfly cracked open a place within where I had gathered darkness for a decade-and-a-half.
It was in this darkness one year earlier when I set the fire.
The worst thing I did was obsess over her departure, insisting in letters and emails that we get back together and going on and on and on about it in a flood of unwanted, unanswered desperation for at least two years, maybe longer. To acknowledge that I treated her, someone I had loved and held in high regard, with such disrespect is awful. Being so obsessive for so long and carting around the sense of bearing an open wound was not why I tried to kill myself, but it set things in motion.
Stalking behaviors and obsessive behaviors often have the same root — a poorly developed sense of self. Growing up Irish Catholic in Chicago, eldest in a family that had been in America less than 40 years when I was born, selflessness was praised as a virtue.
I have never been easily, comfortably open, and with no clear understanding of self, I was often silent, waiting for cues.
Years ago, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, a place so hostile it was said to be empty even of insects, a dragonfly zig-zagged its body around mine when I was setting up my tent on the bright playa at the Burning Man festival.
Minutes earlier, I’d encountered an acquaintance from my city who was deep in discussion with a tall and statuesque young woman calling herself Odonata, after the dragonfly, because, she said, it was a totem of change and transformation.
I was in the desert in search of transformation, still raw from this love that had ended, and carrying materials to construct a small altar of wood and copper. I had driven some 1,036 miles through the night to be there. Each day during the week of the festival I sat in the company of others at the lamplighters’ camp and spent some time building an object of memory and gratitude. Lastly, I wrote upon its surfaces the happy memories, my thanks that we had met, my sorrow that it had ended.
A dawn peaceful and silence, erasing the wild, fiery night the Man burned. I walked into the pale sunrise with the finished altar and a jug of kerosene the lamplighters had given me when they learned the purpose of the thing I was constructing among them. One of the origin stories for the festival tells that the first Man was constructed and burnt as an act of grief for a relationship that had ended. Whether truth or fable, people were invited to bring their own objects to set aflame on the playa within the outstretched arms of the semicircular Black Rock City.
The city was sleeping off the climactic celebrations of the night before so the sound of the struck match was distinct and sharp. Slowly, shifting balance from foot to foot, I went through the 108-move Yang Style traditional form of tai chi. It takes most of a half hour, long enough for the altar to become ash. Its gratitude released to the sky.
Riding a bicycle in the empty desert afterward, a dragonfly zipped past and I gave chase until losing it in a whiteout as the playa dust stirred with the wind. For many years I continued that chase, and in the whiteout lost my way.
I had come to the desert carrying a profound sense of sadness and loss. Burning an altar constructed from those feelings would, in an ancient Irish way, release the past, the fire would also clear the way for the new.
Though I did not realize it then, it did neither. Some of it is with me even now.
Fifteen years after the quiet offering in the Black Rock Desert, I struck another match in a silence. I’d piled up wood gathered during my flirtation with cabinet making. I mounded years of books, journals, notes from hundreds of interviews. I was setting fire to my house, intending to die in it.
Does love, does hope, does life flit away as does a dragonfly? Was it the arc of my life to see the dragonfly, to reach out a hand, to look away and it’s disappeared? To stare dumbly at where it had been? This is why I lit the house fire one year ago, a fire of surrender. My house, my spirit, filled not just with the detritus of a life, there was an accumulation of despair.
For the purpose of this suicide narrative, there were no dragonflies. Not one.
Oct. 26 – WTF is wrong w/me? I am full of story ideas. I have notes and interviews. WORK! WORK! WORK! Get out of the suicide cocoon. Life matters. There are things to say, stories to tell! WRITE WRITE WRITE HURRY — My journal, five days before the fire.
I was broke. More than broke. In debt. Confidence was gone. Great story ideas would take shape and I’d email or pick up the phone to talk to a source, and then everything crumbled into sand and I’d kill the email, hang up the phone because I could not think of what questions to ask. I was a not-writer. I would sit motionless at the desk. I would lie down on a mattress on the dining room floor and sleep. The house fell into neglect.
By that summer I was living in Old Man Johnson’s house.
Old Man Johnson lived in a forest-green house two doors down from mine as a kid in Chicago. He’d murdered his wife and buried her in the basement while he sat upstairs getting drunk every day. Giddy with this neighborhood fable, my friends and I would dare each other to go up onto Old Man Johnson’s porch and bang on the door, or to cut through his yard or peek through his basement windows looking for the bones. Out of all the close-packed houses on that long block of Kilpatrick Avenue with the factories and freight tracks behind, there was always a shadow over Old Man Johnson’s house.
Nothing and nobody ever went into or came out of Old Man Johnson’s house. Same with mine. Hedges grew tall and tangled around Old Man Johnson’s house, giving a dark, creepy look even on a sunny day. The privet hedge around my house grew taller and taller and wilder and wilder. I never once set eyes on Old Man Johnson. He probably looked just like me.
There was a recurring dream: Sitting in a wooden chair in an otherwise bare room, encircled by a ring of friends from all parts of my life — the neighborhood, school, work. Everyone was smiling, expectant. I dared not break the silence. I spoke in a different voice with each of them, echoing their cadence and accent. Which was my voice? The dream left me rattled.
The thing of it is, I liked who I was with her.
Awakening every half hour to write another feverish passage in a bedside journal. Orating persuasively in a courtroom to prove — prove! — we should be together. It never ended. I could not stay in this house, this small house where we held each other, laughed together, washed dishes together, my daughters happily eavesdropping upon this simple act of domesticity from their bunkbeds. Sleeping on the futon where we’d been together.
I went to Kodiak Island to work on a purse seiner. I went to the Bering Sea in winter to toil three months on a factory ship. I drove to Burning Man.
A repressed Irish-Catholic boy, I was a virgin until 23, then I got herpes the first time I had sex. As the blisters came on like fire, I could hear old Beer Belly Burke, the monsignor of my parish, in his thick Irish brogue, “O! And it’s carnal relations now is it? Well try this for your penance, boy.”
A sinner, a leper. Incurable, herpes felt like the mark of Cain and the weight of it was smothering. I married the first woman I had sex with, thinking I could not possibly risk inflicting the disease on anyone else. A selfless act in the worst way, for I said nothing of this aloud. Built on so secretive and flimsy a foundation, the marriage did not last.
I was celibate for years after, focused on being a divorced single father, when I met the woman I could not let go of. Even after she had gone.
I had little experience with previous relationships to lend perspective. So I wrote her and I wrote her and I wrote her and thoughts of her never left my head. I had become one of those men; the unwanted men who will not go away.
The shame from my actions created a silence, a darkness within. I felt I could not speak honestly to friends or family who were shaking their heads, rolling their eyes that could I not stop, move on, get over it. So the extent of my obsession became a secret I never shared, neither while it was happening nor after.
The place where she went has distinctive license plates and for years I spotted every single one in my city, even from half a block away in the side-view mirror. To each of those cars I’d whisper, ‘Say hello for me.’
Again and again I turned to fire. Burning Man was only the first. Every New Year’s I would write things of the old year to be shed of, and things for the coming year aspired to. And burn the writings. At every lunar eclipse where, after the shadow crosses the face of the moon we exist in a new world, I’d burn an index card that carried the old on one side, new on the other. Finally I wrote letters of appreciation to her, to a sister who’d committed suicide, to a dear friend. I read these letters to three of my closest friends in a city park under tall conifers and autumn starshine, and one by one fed the pages into flames I’d kindled in the park’s outdoor fireplace.
I worked, and was good at what I did. I fathered two strong daughters. There were other relationships, though none for long. With the departure of my youngest daughter to college, I risked becoming a full-time, freelance journalist. A desk, a laptop, a telephone in a house that had become silent.
Suicide: Mid 17th century: from New Latin suīcīdium, from Latin suī of oneself + -cīdium, from caedere to kill — Collins Dictionary.
After years of increasing isolation, there wasn’t much in the way of goodbyes. Telling no one, and with no one to tell, I drove across the state to see two journalists I’d worked with and greatly admired — for the quality of their writing and as people — who were going to be at a science-essay presentation in Seattle. I said hello after. As people gathered at the iconic Sorrento Hotel bar for a social after-session I sat apart in a lengthy conversation with the woman everyone had come to see. I don’t remember what was said just that, in retrospect, my selfishness was rude, weird, odd. I left.
It was raining throughout the long, night-time return drive, and I was accompanied by the feeling that my death was close. It wasn’t a bad feeling. Shortly thereafter came the preparation. I’d written about death many times as a journalist. I knew that all unattended deaths are autopsied. I’d read those coroner’s reports, recoiling at the exhaustive, intrusive assessment of every body part. I’d talked with firefighters about extension — how a fire spreads — all the while constructing, mentally rehearsing and refining an elaborate plan for my own death, that would leave no corpse.
Step One—Identify the likeliest places in the house to ignite a destructive fire. Identify major support beams and posts for weakening.
Step Two—Use the circular saw to cut openings in the floor above the ignition points and also the ceiling to speed the spread of flames.
Step Three—Pile flammables. In the basement, hardwoods on the south side, the bin full of furnace pellets on the north side. On the main floor, heap books, journals, bins and boxes full of story notes near the holes in the floor.
Step Four—Weaken posts and beams to help the house fall in on itself
Step Five—Cover all the windows from the inside. Block the basement door from the inside.
Step Six—Shut off the water supply. Open the drain on the water heater, disconnect its power.
Step Seven—Snapshots of the daughters and very little else went in the truck. The title from the truck went into an envelope addressed to their mother with a short note that it could be sold to cover debts. No mention of suicide. It would be done by the time the envelope arrived.
Step Eight—Put the envelope in a curbside mailbox, go fill the gas container.
Step Nine—Gulp down the bottle of pain meds I’d stashed away for the last year.
I hadn’t awakened that morning intending to enact this plan. The decision came on with alarming suddenness late that night. There’d been another in a series of infected foot wounds, one after another, for the previous two years, and the weary image of amputations nibbling me away bit by bit is what pushed me over the edge.
It was so sudden that I did not saw any holes or weaken any beams, but did everything else and I did not pause when it came to lighting the match. It felt out-of-body to watch my hand toss it onto the piled wood. The gasoline ignited with a whoomp. As the flames took hold, I lay down on the dining room floor to die.
Dragonfly. Transformation. Burning Man/burning man.
I’d imagined dying in an awful, terrible and beautiful fire. Cinematic deadly flame. Like life itself.
The actual fire was smoke. Toxic smoke. The flames, as they took hold, showing as a dim, orange glow. Smoke banked at the ceiling, coming lower and lower until reaching the floor. It was the smoke that saved me. I have no idea how long I lay in it, starting the fires around midnight, a little after? I didn’t note the time. The radio was on and every half hour there’d be a BBC news bulletin. Several hours passed before the radio melted and still I lay there. Eventually, my coughing and choking drove me to blindly crawl out to the front porch, where I collapsed until getting herked up by the armpits with somebody yelling, “Your house is on fire!” at around eight the next morning.
The very first thought? Fuck, it didn’t work. The very next thought? I am alive.
It’s still October at the coffee shop, but the outdoor tables are in storage. The sun is like a beaming smile lighting up the brilliant, multi-colored foliage. Bare trees and shrubs bend and dance to a sharp, cold wind that tumbles sun-yellow leaves across the parking lot and sails them through the air. There is no dragonfly. How could there possibly be in this wind?