Short Story We Are the Flare
The house erupted faster than it should, but that’s the trouble with dancing on somebody else’s hurt.
تَّقُوا دَعَوَاتِ الْمَظْلُومِ فَإِنَّهَا تَصْعَدُ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ كَأَنَّهَا شَرَارٌ
Beware of the supplication of the oppressed, for it ascends to Allah as if it were a flare. Source: al-Mustadrak 118
There in the wake, we mourned and held ceremony.
We waited for the sun to stretch her arms across the horizon before spreading out our dinner. Although the pain in our stomachs was nearly enough to double us over, all sharp and new in our sudden remembrance, we didn’t mind the wait. We were slower than expected at cooking, anyway. It’s harder to prepare food on an open flame than any of us remembered.
The ash drifted like seasoning onto what we cooked. We fretted over how the smoke would change the taste; if it would at all be the same. We remember hunger, but the pain in our bellies was not because we needed to eat. We cooked because we yearned, and because our tongues lay fat and heavy from disuse in the bottoms of our mouths. We wanted to go back to whatever we remembered of home. We may have been in the same physical place, but there was nothing to fix the disorientation of being thrown into the wrong time. So we made do with chicken, rice, the little bits of spice we found. We’ve eaten better before, but we were satisfied with what we made. It was more about the adventure, anyway.
It seemed fitting to sit together as the sun and moon completed their transitions. We didn’t mind eating on the ground. There were no tables except inside and even if our bodies would allow us to go there, even if inside was more than just ruins by the time we finished, we never intended to step through that door. Some of us sat cross-legged as we ate, and some stretched out their legs. They were sore, not used to walking. The residual heat off the house behind us felt likes a caress.
We watched as those final flames, baby-like, danced around the house’s edges, its movements almost tender. The lack of aggression towards us was no surprise. What should have burned never harmed us, even when the fire’s dance was a lot less delicate, the flames arching and contorting themselves in shared spite. Before it ate enough of the house to calm, the fire took on faces; gnashing teeth, furrowed brows. Perhaps the fire wasn’t sated. Perhaps it never could be.
Regardless, all that smoke enveloped us and somehow soothed the throats that were struggling to swallow. We ate from the same dishes we cooked in, scraping up rice with our fingers, stuffing chicken into our cheeks. We didn’t mind the grease spread across our hands and mouths. We looked at the mess we made, the happy fire and the corpses it tap-danced on, and we were proud. We wiped our hands on scarves still wet from when we’d poured water on them and tied them across the bottoms of our faces. As we leaned back to survey our creation, our bellies felt uncomfortable and distended, but that was true from the moment we stepped onto the land.
We were aware of our reassembling before the process was complete. Where we lay broken deep in the ground, we could feel cells draw back to themselves again, stitching into bones, ligaments, muscles—all the things we’d long lost. Our brains came last, but honestly, they are mostly decoration. We are not human anymore. We don’t need brains to know we exist once again.
The moment we dragged ourselves from the mud, we were filled with questions. Why had we come back? For how long? And where were our people? But then we saw each other standing there, ashy and naked and all similarly confused, and launched ourselves at one another. We didn’t remember if we knew each other in life, but does it matter? We sprang out of the ground in four borrowed bodies, but we are a collective. We grasped not for strangers but the separated parts of ourselves, amazed by how we’d been stretched into this new capacity. Before it ate enough of the house to calm, the fire took on faces; gnashing teeth, furrowed brows.
Aminata had the idea for the four of us to head to that place. We didn’t go with the intent of celebrating. People often went there to marvel at the wraparound porch and big old house, but there would never be enough layers of paint for us to forget the blood. We gathered clothes that hung on a nearby tree, awaiting us, and entered the tree line already smelling of the forest. The further we went, the damper they grew from a combination of our sweat and brushing up against plants heavy with dew.
We must’ve walked for hours. Zuri fussed, said our mothers would worry. Aminata, who was sweating the worst of us, beads of it dripping down her chin, told Zuri to shut the fuck up. We all must’ve thought about our mothers as soon as Zuri mentioned them, but not one of us could remember a face. Even if we closed our eyes and scrunched up our noses in concentration, there was only the troubling realization that yes, we had mothers—or at least, somebody birthed us because we exist—but nothing beyond that. We could not tell you what they looked like, how they sounded, how any of them smelled. We could not tell you if they loved or missed us. For the sake of easing the aches in our chests, we believed that they all did.
About an hour into our walk, Jamilah murmured, “Maybe we should go back?” We thought about it, stopped in our tracks, and looked at each other to consider. The throb of our aching joints and muscles made her suggestion seem attractive. But somewhere in the distance, we swore we could hear the house groaning, anticipating, shifting in the way a person does when they are preparing for conflict. It should have made us afraid. Instead, we became settled, the way people do before a fight. Well, the good fighters, at least. None of that shaking from the novices; only the steady calm, an acceptance of what we had to do, even if we couldn’t articulate it to ourselves quite yet. Whatever it was we were here for, our bodies would not fail us in it. We knew that if we went back, the forest would not part the same for us. There would be no path, no way out, only the all-consuming vastness of the trees.
On that path, our chests heaved, and we stank from sweat, but nobody smelled of fear. It is a sharp and unmistakable smell. If you’re hunting, it is intoxicating. The smell of fear on yourself, however, is enough to make you want to remove your own skin. But in that path, we were warm-blooded all over again and no one was afraid.
It took us both hours and no time at all to reach the edge of the woods. There were no more trees beyond the line, only a wide stretch of grass and the house, whose beauty, as we surveyed it with clothes torn to hell, mocked us. The porch smirked. The wide front door flapped open and closed without a breeze, like a taunting tongue. The house dared us to come for it because it mistook us for children who were easy to strike down. Maybe we had been once. We first saw these bodies as borrowed, but the house’s familiarity made us realize they had been ours from the start. The aches we’d been feeling faded into something bordering on pleasure and pain, as if our bodies were rewarding us for it. The house had no respect for this reconciliation. Infused with the same entitlement as those who kicked and beat us, it did not see how we could defeat it and all it stood on. Didn’t we know, it asked. Didn’t we know that the house was untouchable to children like us? But we were barely children, and we did not care.
Beneath the grass, the dew, all those earthy smells coming from a mixture of plants, animal shit, mud, and ourselves, we smelled the bodies of our families, friends, and ancestors in breakdown. We all felt that, if we looked close enough, we would be able to pick out patches where the vegetation wasn’t quite right; where somebody must’ve laid to rot and, in recognition, the earth decided she would mark herself forever.
None of us are entirely sure about the place we’d reached.
We could not name the nearest town, but it also didn’t matter. We could tell you more than maps ever could—like that, at some unseen point, the ground here became water, and we were aware of every body within no matter how rotted they’d become. We touched our bare feet to the soil and had a family reunion.
For a brief moment, our bodies, who didn’t know or respect time, were afraid again—a new type of afraid. Maleeka turned on her heel as if she was now prepared to take Jamilah’s suggestion and head back. The trees arched themselves at her, a warning, and Zuri grabbed onto her wrists, rubbing soothingly at that little knob of bone to keep her there. All that old hurt came rushing into our stomachs from where it’d been locked deeper than our bones. None of us itched at our skin, even as the goosebumps arose. The cold in our bodies was a fire. The whispers made us shiver in those first few minutes, and Maleeka pulled her wrists back from Zuri’s grip. She didn’t move to run this time, just stared and wondered, “Am I gonna throw up?”
Our bodies, who remembered more than us, prepared for suffocation and, when it did not come, they prepared for the ripping open of legs, bellies, wombs, spirits—being. It was the sigh, the grasses twitching, the birds pausing in their flight, the litany of disbelief, You’re back, you’re back, oh, you’ve come back, that eased our bodies again.
The wedding party arrived at the house while we were making salah.
The sun didn’t budge from its spot high in the sky, as if it was doing a favor to let us watch the place without missing our prayers. Pray the grass urged, and so we did.
Zuri was the best reciter of all of us. The otherwise constant edge to her voice would disappear as soon as she called upon Allah. God. Whatever—it’s the same. We made tayammum because none of us found water yet. Dirt stuck to all the sweat along the edge of Maleeka’s face, so it looked like her own skin was a mask. She twisted her mouth up as if she realized it.
Aminata itched at her left cheek where the skin hadn’t quite come together right. “Would it be wrong to pray for it to die?”
“It’s a house.”
“And it can’t die?” Aminata snorted. She went to adjust her scarf. Zuri was still on her knees, head bent towards the ground. We had time. Aminata lifted the fabric off her head. In that split second, we all saw the concave space where skull should have been. We don’t know why it didn’t come back. Aminata saw it, too. She pursed her lips, frowning. “Hm,” she reached up to pat her head. “Hm.”
“Don’t mind it.” Zuri, who had risen to her feet, lifted the hem of her shirt. She turned so we could all see the chunks of flesh ripped from her back. “I don’t even think these are mine,” she said over her shoulder, trying to look at the lines. As she breathed, they seemed to wink at us. “But we’ve all got bits missing, I bet. It’s okay.”
Jamilah frowned and made a small noise that caught all of our attention. We all looked down at a spreading stain on the front of her skirt. Our nostrils flared at the smell of copper in the air. She said, mostly to herself, “I think I’m missing something inside.”
Maleeka yelped and started frantically patting at herself, trying to find where the holes would be. Her eyes were so wide that it seemed like someone was pulling the skin at the sides of her face taut for her. “Why would we come back if we’re not whole? Isn’t that the point?”
“Did you hear a trumpet?” Zuri demanded. She let her shirt drop and turned back around to swat Maleeka’s hands away. “This isn’t Qiyamah.”
“What else is it?” Maleeka argued. She gestured at each of us. “We’re all back.”
“I don’t know,” Zuri said. She frowned, tilting her head a little in consideration. “All I know is we’re here, and that’s good enough, isn’t it? To be here? What does it matter if you’re missing part of your skull or something you can’t even see? We don’t need that. Now c’mon. The sun won’t wait forever. It’s time to pray.”
In salah, nobody else opened their mouths but Zuri. Even then, she did not sound as if she was alone. Her voice rose and fell with twenty others. We could not identify them by name, but in our eyes, we could see them. Beneath our feet, we could feel them. The melancholy of the blues coming from Zuri’s mouth (because that’s what it was. Don’t you know that your music is always, somehow, descended from our prayer?) made those suspended bits in the earth twist and tremble in preparation.
So captivated by the uncertainty of our being and why we returned to it, we did not notice the commotion in the house. To us, our salah lasted minutes, but to the world we prayed for hours. As we rose, the once quietly mocking house was busy with teams of people setting up tables, decorations, cooking—hurriedly preparing for an event that we were now inviting ourselves to.
Inside, the people did not seem to register the house’s movement as anything more than little quirks. Bustling around, they dismissed the floorboards’ groaning as age. The drawn-out creak of the front door as somebody entered was, to us, like legs slowly parting, the house putting itself on display to tease us. But the person coming inside, a worker of some kind in a neat little apron, only paused to eye the frame, lips pursed, calling, “Should somebody take a look at this?”
“It’s an old house,” one of their coworkers said, coming up the front steps two at a time. Like the untied strings of her apron floating along behind her, we floated along as well, pausing right outside the door. We refused to ever go into that place. “Plantation, you know? Gotta let it have character. That’s the only reason the owners can even keep it booked now! People like being reminded that it’s full of history. This house has seen some shit.”
As she headed inside, probably to the kitchen, the first worker pulled a face, muttering, “I’m sure it has.” There was such an undertone of disgust in those four words that, for a moment, we felt bad.
We had not settled on our plans for this house, but it would not be pretty. The people inside, most of them white, would have to be a part of all that ugliness. No exceptions. We felt especially bad for the Black ones caught in the mix—the workers, that is. As the guests arrived, we stared down the handful of Black ones, watching them shiver beneath the weight of our scrutiny. How could they betray us? Did they not feel the bodies beneath them, pulsating in preparation?
Our empathy was momentary. We focused back onto the house. Aware our attention had returned, it once again relished in exaggerating its pleasure until Jamilah begged, “Can’t we go in? Can’t we hurt it?”
But what was the point of hurting the house alone? The house was only as alive as we were. Which is to say, barely—sustained on memories. The people in that house trampled on ours to feed it. They seemed to know the pain embedded here and yet did not care. Our toes curled into the ground, tearing at the grass. The missing pieces of us all throbbed, hurt radiating outwards until our entire bodies were sore spots, all connected by a nerve we could not identify or understand. We felt each other and we felt beyond and we felt a fury that we, as children, should not have been capable of carrying—but there we were anyway, breathing deep to unclench our joints, our muscles, so we could do what was being asked of us.
Soon, all the preparation stopped, and a second set of cars touched the drive. We tilted our heads, listening as their engines grew louder, the voices inside clearer. We stood like that until they all pulled up to the house. The bride looked beautiful, her skin multiple shades of a soft brown, tan lines clear where the sleeves of her dress slid down. We couldn’t tell you where she was from, but she wasn’t Black. Still, we wondered whose idea it was to hold a wedding here. Hers or the groom? Her gown was almost enough to make us jealous. We’d never dressed like that, even when taken to the grave. We felt each other and we felt beyond and we felt a fury that we, as children, should not have been capable of carrying.
The groom looked at the bride in a way that made the house sigh. Aminata shifted in a discomfort that we all shared. The house was so happy, and we hated it. Through the wedding, the house continued to live, and so we understood the solution. Besides, it was presented so easily to us; the gas someone must’ve forgotten from the last event, the water to coat our khimars although we were certain that the fire would treat us like Ibrahim, the matches—all of it was perched perfectly on a stump out of the house’s control. When we took the things, the stump shivered, the water-logged wood almost laughing.
Inside, the people danced, all jerky and without rhythm. The house had dealt with ghosts before but just individuals. It was cocky now. As we approached, we fully understood that our bodies and our names did not matter, were not relevant to what we had to do here. We were not whoever these girls used to be—at least, we were not them alone.
“Fuck you,” Aminata thrust her middle finger in the house’s direction and she was, for a moment, the boy from 1960-something who disappeared in the next town over and resurfaced in the river, bloated and almost unrecognizable, a chunk missing from the blow to his head. Jamilah’s snarl was the little girl who had been forced into a kind of motherhood too early by a man who hated her even as he touched her. Zuri and Maleeka screamed the prayers of all their mothers in a collision of languages that were understandable only to God. Their tears were the earth’s waters, the regrets of all it had seen and been forced to carry.
As the house swelled with the bodies of the wedding party in gloat, Jamilah blocked the windows from outside, and that was easy. Aminata found the fuel, and that was easy. Zuri barricaded the doors, and that was easy. Maleeka found the water to pour on our scarves. We came back together in front of the steps to light and throw the match. The house erupted faster than it should, but that’s the trouble with dancing on somebody else’s hurt. Hundreds of years had passed here since the last prayer, but what does that matter? We were not late. We came when it was demanded of us.
Inside, the wedding party wailed, and we wailed back for a moment. As the fire calmed into a dance, Jamilah rubbed her stomach, said, “I’m hungry. Do you want to try eating again? Before we have to go?” We weren’t sure how much time we had, but we understood that we would be allowed to relish in our task. What better way to celebrate than with a meal? We looked for the chicken and rice we’d seen workers preparing to cook and pretended we could hear nothing but the house crumbling around us. And that, too, was easy.