content warning for alcohol, death, suicidal ideation, and implied suicide
In the language of the ghosts you carried across oceans, the word for flame is also the word for flesh. Back home, their electricity bills are always the most expensive and they say burned instead of died. Towns grow like teeth at the mouth of every river, and the cities are threaded with canals. They build their houses from brick, flood the gardens into lily ponds, and spend more money on smoke alarms than sports cars. When you were nine, your mother spoonfed the superstition to you. She told you of Mrs. Brant, who had purchased a box of matches and a pack of tarot cards from a fortune teller, and locked herself in the bathroom after driving home. How the match flared like a firecracker when she struck it, then fizzled out, barely burned. She had clawed scream after scream from her throat, the sharp sound wounding her words into something raw and bloody. Nine months later, her first child was stillborn and she buried the matches with the casket. She killed her grief, and she killed her grief, and she killed her grief. Here, your mother stopped speaking, and you remember holding your hands up to the light like it would pass through your body. Instead, ruby bloomed behind your eyelids like embers and you imagined yourself existing only in the uterus, only in the ultrasound images. Still and never born at all.
You never thought you would make it to eighteen. The day after your birthday, you dug your nails into the back of your hands like you could claw away this dream. Instead, Eden called and asked if you had picked up your paycheck yet. She and Tara had pooled their money to buy a box of matches and a bottle of vodka but they were ten dollars short. You gave her the money, and the three of you crouched on the rusty fire escape outside Tara’s bedroom window. If you douse the wood in alcohol, Eden explained, it will burn longer. She didn’t say, we’ll live longer, but there was a fire in her eyes as she told you that she was going to cheat death like Sisyphus. She had bought the kind of matches the soothsayers sold, which were as long as a stick of incense, hewn from ash trees, and marked like a ruler. When she flicked the lighter and lit the match, you heard as she held her breath, terrified that she would accidentally blow out the flicker of fire like a birthday candle. Tara tensed and Eden bit her lip so hard it bled as the flame neared the 1/5 mark. When it died, her limbs stilled and she stuttered down the steps and sprinted across the street. Neither of you knew where she was going. You rose, but Tara grabbed your arm. Give her time, she said, and laughter rose in your throat like bile. Time is the only thing she doesn’t have, you answered, but you didn’t walk away. After a moment, Tara exhaled then picked up the bottle of vodka and poured it over the rail. She struck a match, her hands shaking, and watched it burn until the flame licked her fingers. You said nothing as she dropped the blackened wood and crushed it beneath her heel like a cigarette. She looked away and apologized, and this is where they say there is a moral to the story. Except Eden’s eyes were red for two weeks, and nine months later, she was T-boned at an intersection. You were in the passenger seat. At the hospital, she was pronounced dead while you breathed beside her body, just a bed away as her father broke down. You looked away, watched through the window as Tara crouched on the curb and burned match after match, trying to change their ends. In your dreams, Eden braces herself behind a boulder at the foot of a hill. When she sees you, she says, why didn’t you light your match. It could have been you. Her voice like the rasp of flint and steel before anger gives way to emptiness. I was afraid, you said. You didn’t tell her why. In your dreams, Eden lets you drive.
It took you nine months to immigrate and start a new life. Your mother drove you to the airport and carried your luggage. Don’t forget to call me, she said, and you promised that you would. There was something vulnerable curled like a fetus in her eyes as she watched you walk away. In the language of the ghosts she inherited from her ancestors, the word for mother is also the word for mourn. She wanted to run after you, to sew her hands to your sleeve. Instead, she furled her fingers into a fist and pretended she could always protect you. After you left, she tensed every time the telephone rang and expected anyone
but you. On the other side of the ocean, she flinches every time you say goodbye, then echoes, bye. I love you. Sometimes, she says, wait. And you stay as she swallows and the silence swells. After a moment, she whispers, never mind. Every time you call, she tries to tell you that her maiden name was Brant, that when she discovered she was pregnant again, she lit another match and measured the span of your life because she needed to know when she would lose you. Instead, she says, call again soon and you answer, I will. Don’t worry. Her laugh scrapes in her throat even after you hang up.
In this country, every home has a hearth and lumber is its main industry. People gather like moths around bonfires when the days grow blue with cold, and matches are everyday necessities. Your first house is constructed from wood, and your girlfriend builds a jewelry studio in the basement. She solders silver into a bracelet for your birthday and tries to teach you how to use the blowtorch. You shy away from the flame, tell her I don’t–I don’t trust myself. Aisha just nods, says okay and turns off the gas. You follow her upstairs and she opens the cupboard, takes out the vodka. Do you want a drink? she asks as she pours herself a shot, the glass glinting like a bullet shell in the glow of the kitchen lights. You shake your head, and she hesitates, then empties the alcohol into the sink. Her hands look lonely without anything to keep them busy, and she holds them up to the light. I used to study palmistry, she says, dragging her thumb across her heart line. Can you read–? you ask, and she bites her lip. I used to. I don’t believe it anymore. But you open your hand anyway, and she takes it. Instead of tracing the lines unfurling across your palms, she folds her fingers around yours and does not let go. I don’t believe it anymore, she repeats. The silence swells into a pregnant pause before you say, in my country, there’s a superstition that burning a match will tell you how long you’ll live. Everyone is afraid of fire. Quietly, Aisha asks, do you believe it? and you try to answer but end up saying nothing. After a minute, she gets up to open the windows. The summer heat is heavy on your skin and the humidity thick after rain and sweat slides down your face like tears. You bring your sleeve to your cheeks and wipe them away.
Autumn arrives nine weeks later and the days are the color of ice. Aisha sets her alarm for five am and starts the fires so the house is warm when you wake up. The spindly skeletons of matches are scattered around the wood stoves and you gather them with gloves and bury them beside the perennials. The garden becomes a graveyard and Aisha pretends not to notice. Instead, she leaves every evening for the bonfires, bringing bottles of beer and bags of marshmallows with her. She always invites you and you always refuse. The ninth time she asks, you yank your coat off its hanger and find your keys. They rattle in your palms like dice and Aisha asks to drive. You hesitate. It’s okay, she says quickly. I don’t have to. But you shake your head and toss her the keys anyway, sliding into the passenger’s seat and biting your lip until blood blooms in your mouth. She pulls into a parking lot before a pyre, and you force yourself not to flinch when they light it. Instead, you close your eyes until ruby rages behind your eyelids. When you open them, you stopper your breath in your throat and do not look away from the bonfire until Aisha wraps her arms around your waist and rests her head on your shoulder and asks you to drive her home. In the car, you roll down the windows and remind yourself to breathe.
Your mother calls that night while Aisha is sleeping. You forget that it’s morning in her timezone and she forgets that it’s midnight in yours. She asks if you’ve spoken to Tara recently, and you shake your head, no, we’ve lost touch, and she says, maybe you should reach out like things were as simple as holding out your hand. You lie easily and say that you will when your mother tells you why she called. Tara’s pregnant. She burned a match. I told her not to, but– her voice dies. Her daughter’s going to die young, she says softly. Tara’s already mourning her. You regurgitate reassurances, don’t feel guilty. It’s not your fault, and she goes quiet. Is it anyone’s? she asks, then sighs. I’m sorry. I just–I miss you. She pauses, and you think that she’s going to ask you to come home again, when she whispers, do you think I could visit sometime? And you say, yes. Yes, Aisha would love to meet you.
When you were nine, your mother told you never to burn a match. Her words were weighted when she told you that it wasn’t worth it. Don’t you want to know when you’ll die? you asked. To say goodbye? She shook her head so hard that you never noticed she was trembling. No, she said, over and over again. No. She looked like she was talking to herself. You’re thinking of her when you kneel beside the hearth and slide open the box of matches. They’re practical, just a few inches long and paler than bone. In the glow of the fire, you roll one between your fingers like a cigarette and picture Aisha, exhaling into the embers in the early morning until they revive, touching a match to newspaper and setting yesterday aflame. A memory passes through you like light. I used to. I don’t believe it anymore, she said, and you strike the match, watch it hiss like a snake. Your breath ribbons from your lips like a garotte and strangles the spark before it can flare into flame. The fire dies, and the fire dies, and the fire dies. In the language of the ghosts you carried across oceans, smoke is a synonym for ghost.
Ai Li Feng is a young writer with work in Waxwing Mag