I always dream when I’m unconscious, and this time I watch a young woman set fire to herself: a young, slender woman dressed in layers upon layers of the gauzy kind of robe that takes well to kerosene and matches. I never saw her face. There was a veil of thin lace just transparent enough to blur her features into a puddle of anonymity. I should have recognized some facet of her—the long brunette tresses, the boldly painted fingernails the same color as her wardrobe—but I could not match these familiarities to a name. Looking at her was like the memory of an old love affair, the brief and passionate kind that leaves you with vivid impressions of individual sunrises and specific shadows of firelight on hands, although you can’t remember the concrete things: dates, names, addresses.
For this reason you can never look back.
Was this why she wanted to immolate, I asked myself. Because she knew I had forgotten or was it so that I would never forget? I was being selfish, of course. I naturally assumed the bonfire she was making of herself was because of me. Or that it was only because of me.
“Don’t do it,” I begged her. “Don’t burn your life up.”
“Someone has to do it.” A casual shrug of her shoulders. “Might as well be me.”
“Give them a witness.”
“Us.” She held out the match booklet to me, as a duty I was expected to take. “Go ahead, do it. Strike the match. We have to show them we mean it.”
“I’m not going to burn you.”
She shook her head and when she spoke, it was with the kind of sad disappointment that a mother uses with a child who has said something thoughtless that she knows he didn’t mean. She knows he didn’t mean it because he didn’t understand what he was saying.
“See, that’s why you’re going to lose me someday.”
“Did I ever have you?”
“If you’re afraid to burn me up then you’re going to make me do it myself.”
“What’s the point? What will it prove?”
“If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result what-so-ever, you’ve beaten them.”
“But you don’t have to set fire to yourself to be human.”
“Sometimes you do.”
And she burst into flames.
You’ll never be able to remember it exactly as it happened because it is not a memory. It has never happened to you and it has never happened to her, but you aware that this is not the point. The point is that you are here and so she must be here, somewhere, and when you find her, both of you will be able to understand what you are seeing. There is nothing so simple as dreams and reality, but rather endless variations on the states between. Something is being shown to you; you don’t know what. The only key is the vague premonition that surrounds you with a sense of ominous invisibility, like the summer air before a thunderstorm hits. You are looking over your shoulder, waiting for the lightning.
The earth moves under you: no, it’s reverse. You move, too fast, and it makes it look like the earth is sliding out from under you like liquid. You watch it drain away outside the window: stubble fields where black rain falls in sharp hard pellets, brown trees that stand alone and naked apart from the gray soot that covers the branches. Somewhere in the world, the sky has burnt through and now it’s snowing ashes. You watch the child stand at the edge of the tracks and wave at you as you pass—a little girl in a dark blue polka dot dress. Soot clings to her hair and some of the polka dots are scorched brown instead of white. She smiles; do all children smile because they are oblivious, or sometimes is it because they realize everything and know that it is all they can do? What would you have done, when you were her age? Unsure, you determine to smile back, but she’s already gone. Liquid, streaming out from behind you in waves.
All you see is your face in the night window, smeared with the greenish-black glow of the ceiling lights. Two holes have been punched into your forehead and in these holes a dim black light is glowing: you realize that they are your eyes but cannot remember how they came to be so empty. The pupils reflect dark shapes of the liquid earth that rush past at breakneck speed.
You realize you are on a train.
No, you are not alone. You know because you hear her violin.
A melody that is clean, sharp on the edges, a song you have only heard twice before. Once by a lake, once in a concert hall. At first, surprise— she has convinced everyone that she no longer plays but this song is meant to be a secret. No one else will hear it but you. This is not selfishness on her part; she knows that you are the only person who needs to hear the song. Everyone else in the world has moved on to louder, brassier music: machine gun rattles in city streets, grinding machinations of tanks, screams in the night. But she needs something softer, something spun from glass instead of wire, something that will not cut the fingers when played. She needs it just like you do.
“She’s in the next car.”
Jacob anticipates your question, again, even though he is dead. The dead have that sort of habit; insinuating themselves into your subconscious until their voices well up all at once in your dreams. At times the roar can be quite deafening. Jacob, at least, has the courtesy to whisper.
You want to close your eyes and find her just by the sound of her magic, but you could not do this. The train is unfamiliar, alien to eyes and ten times more to touch. You have to peel back the eyelids, catalog every door and seat and window frame, keep on alert for the monsters. This is a dream, after all, and monsters are inevitable. You follow the melody towards the door that connects the cars. The aisle smells of coal, of stained upholstery, of cigarette smoke and stale bread.
A step, another step, and you open the door. She is standing in the middle of the car, feet firmly planted on either side of the aisle to brace against the rocking of the train; face crumpled inward as if she is fighting to remember the notes. She never had to fight before.
The song snaps in two the moment she sees you; her face smoothes out into a flat white sheet creased at the bottom with an odd grin. Like she has been here for some time already and has expected you.
“I knew you’d find me here. If I played long enough, I knew you’d come.”
“What’s going on here?”
“You’re dreaming, of course.”
Her eyes sparkle; she’s teasing you again.
“Wonder what made me choose a train. Not exactly a pleasant memory. If I’m going by memories.”
“Guess this is the only way to get where you’re going.”
“Didn’t think travel was safe these days.”
“Well at least I know I’m not getting boring in my old age.”
She walks towards you; takes your hand between hers and leads you to a nearby seat. Your ears ring with the beat of the wheels along the iron track, an oppressive rhythm, frantic like an out of control metronome. The seats are stiff and uncomfortable: horsehair bristles irritating the back of the neck, hard plastic armrests that grate against the elbows in all the wrong places. You are too hot and too cold at once, sweating and shivering, burning and freezing.
You turn her hand over, trace finger circles on her bare palm.
“I think I dreamed earlier, too. I watched a girl set herself on fire.”
“Anyone I know?”
“I think it was you.”
“I must have had a good reason for it.”
“You said you had to give them a witness of us.”
“Then there you have it. Justifiable sacrifice.”
“I never believed in that.”
Never when it came down to her. Your fingers wander from her hand up to her face, the curls of hair framing the skin, falling down over the eyes.
“Neither did I,” she admits. “Some things you can never justify; you’re not even supposed to try. Like what happened to us.”
“You mean what happened after I left you?”
“No, I mean what happened after I stopped wanting you to come back. And after you stopped wanting to live.”
You are no longer satisfied with the communication of fingers; you lean forward and plant a kiss on the side of her forehead, through her hair. Then another, then another. Morse code— does it spell out I Love You or SOS?
“In the dream you told me sometimes you had to set fire to yourself to stay human.”
“I was right. Something has to be given up, something has to be consumed.”
“What if they’re waiting for us at the station? What if they catch us again the minute we arrive?”
“Then we’ll be caught.”
“Do you want to jump the train?”
“I’d hold onto you; you’d be safe.”
“That’s not the point. It’s our stop; if we don’t show up then they’ll just find someone else. And no one else deserves it.”
“Doesn’t mean that you do.”
“No, it doesn’t. But neither do you and we might as well find out together.”
“Maybe they won’t be there. Maybe we’ll be somewhere that they can never go.”
“I don’t care where we end up as long as we end up in the same place.”
“Good, because I don’t plan on leaving again.”
“They could make you leave.”
“They could try. Maybe they’d succeed, for a while, but no one can keep me locked up forever. Not when I know you’re out there.”
“Because you’re the only thing in me that’s alive.”
She leans against you, her head on your shoulder, your hands on her face, covering her eyes. She doesn’t have to see whatever’s coming; you’ll see it for the both of you.
“Does any of this count since this is a dream?”
“Why should it matter?”
“Because I want to remember it when I wake up, and I want to know it was real.”
“You’ll remember it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m inside you, and I won’t let you forget. I’ll take care of you.”
And you hold her by the window while the earth pours itself out around you and you are both rushing toward the end of your journey, only you don’t know what it is. It is vapor, the future is, a shimmering iridescent vision that changes shape every time you think you’ve got it figured out. Only you’re not so concerned with prediction and prophecy. Or even with the more absolute things, like life and death and escape and capture.
You are with her.
She’s right; you don’t have to justify your sacrifices. You have her and she is more than justification or hope. When you are close enough to touch her and she is close enough to smile back, you both transcend hope. You are all that is left when it is gone; you are the light that glimmers from the void.
Without warning, everything around you disappears.
Your eyes fly open.