Sometimes the things I receive look old, covered in ash. Sometimes it looks brand new, with mounds of dust covering it. There’s always a layer to whatever appears to me. It has history. It’s meant something to someone.
I never receive people, or anything that is alive. Their place is meant for somewhere else that I’ve only read of, and as far as I’m concerned my placement is unbeknownst to me as well. I always was, and never seemed to question why. I was always too busy sorting out the things that would appear to me.
I mostly receive small things: jewels, clocks, wooden statuettes, pictures (framed, naked, exposed, group, solo, and destroyed) clothing, tools, children’s toys, and letters written for Johns and Janes. My favorite are books, where I get most of the things I know from. I read almost every single time I sort through my findings because it never has to take two hands to have to pick up things from the ground.
Measuring time at this point is pointless. I mostly see how much time flies by the books I’ve read. I’ve so far completed about close to 80 books, with just about a stack quadruple of that left to read. I categorize the piles of the things that have been burnt in past lives as well: things that have moving parts, things that stand still, and things that could be of use to me eventually.
Where I live is very curious as well. For a place that contains dirty, ashy, and grimy things, it is very clean. White walls, floors, and ceilings surround me with no stains in sight. Sometimes I receive mirrors, which creates even more white walls. Beyond the piles of burnt is white, never-ending.
I don’t call it my home on purpose. There is no sense of belonging on my part. The objects I collect belong there, I felt as if I never have.
The three piles lie scattered, almost about 30 feet tall each. The objects appear to me randomly away from the already set piles. I pick them up, I look for the pile, and then I set them down in the correct pile that correlates to where it belongs to. While I wait, I read. Sometimes I look at myself read and I sit in front of mirrors, it almost makes me feel less alone. I wish my reflection would look up to me and ask me what I thought of a specific part of the story I’m reading, but it never happens. My reflection never had an opinion for A Clockwork Orange, he just mimics me; mimics the burnt.
I talk to him sometimes, my reflection. His hands are always covered in ash. His leathery skin hangs off his bones, laminated with dirt and grime from his findings. His fingernails and toenails never grow, however his lemony thick hair has grown down to his chin. He only wears a tattered cloth over his body, he learned to wrap it around himself after reading a book entitled The Third Eye, a book written by a Tibetan Monk. He never responds to what I have to say. I do most of the talking in our relationship.
“Do you read any books?” I ask him. I wait patiently for a response. A blink that is not anticipated. Nothing.
“Alright, you want to play the silent game?”
I get up and walk away from the golden, chipped mirror when suddenly I hear a sound from behind it.
I look into the vast white, not knowing what to think. What to expect. The only sound that has come out of here has only been the clatter of metals, papers, and wood that I would gather and place. I’ve never heard this sound before, nor would I even begin to decipher what it could be. The sound itself is alien to my ears.
Bark! Bark! Bark!
It goes again. I begin to walk toward the mirror again.
“Reflection, is that you?” I ask him, with much hesitation.
For the longest time, I never knew what my reflection would sound like. After all, this is the first time he’s ever said anything back to me. I wish it sounded like me, so that I could find some familiarity in this place where everything varies. As far as I’m concerned, I have never made this noise in my life so I’m a bit curious as to why my reflection would want to make this sound as his first impression of himself.
I turn toward the mirror only to see my reflection staring back at me. His deep blue eyes surrounded by white, and the two other piles of ashy objects that I have made are behind him. He does his usual silent game once again.
“Can I help you?” He mimics my mouth.
It’s only until now that I discover that the sound is coming from behind the mirror. The clatter of metal objects indicates that this sound is coming possibly from a crank or automatic machine that somehow managed to keep its speaker intact. I’m a little excited given the fact that I haven’t received any objects that move in quite a while.
My footsteps cause more noise around me as I begin to look behind the mirror, and what I find behind it almost makes me jump all the way back into the white infinity.
Behind the mirror sits a furry creature, shaking with curiosity, its big black eyes staring up at me. For the longest time, I thought black only existed within the ash that would cover the treasures I would receive. The creature is small in size, no bigger than the candelabras that would find shelter inside the white. It has two eyes, two ears, but four legs.
The hair that covers… him is an off-orange, brown color that resembles the cover of Orwell’s Animal Farm, with just a dash of beige from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. He has speckles of white that looks as if he plucked them from the white room itself. His immense amount of hair is drooped over his body, reaching carelessly to the floor. He has also found a language of his own as well, which I find concerning since what’s the point of communicating if I can’t understand him.
Upon further observation, the creature does not look threatening in the least. He has trouble keeping eye contact, and within the first minutes of seeing each other he never once showed his teeth or any other signs of aggression. He didn’t give me a reason to be afraid, so I wasn’t.
The creature starts to become excited and starts to look up at me, panting, with its tongue out, which seemed strange to me since I never have to do that whenever I’m excited. I keep my tongue in my mouth. His furred end begins to wave back in forth, and he begins to pounce toward me. I take a couple of steps back which send many metal objects clattering to the ground, I even trip backwards onto the pearly floor, which pains my head and my backend.
I groan from my slight pain, and rub my head with my rough, thick palms from the fall. The creature slowly makes his way over to my side and begins to sniff my face, which makes me back away and rise to my feet, quickly. At this point his tongue goes back into his mouth and he begins to look at me in a puzzled and confused look, head tilted.
I see this creature amongst the piles of burnt artifacts, and I finally realize that this creature was sent here from the other world. It seemed strange to me because this was the first time I’ve ever received something that was living and breathing in front of me.
People in the other world get burnt. They are birthed, they live, and then they die. Sometimes they are burnt to ashes, and sometimes they are buried, untouched, but I have never been around to see someone die. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen another person at all. My reflection has been the only thing I’ve known since I’ve started collecting. Never once have I questioned if I’ve been birthed, mostly because I never knew if I was a person or not. I always felt as if someone had to tell him if I was.
I see the creature begin to stand on its two back legs and begin to reach for the milky ceiling. It couldn’t quite reach it, but I did notice a clang of metal coming from his neck. It gleamed from the white hue the room emitted. The creature was wearing a neck brace of some sort with a golden pendant attached to it. I looked closer to see the word Nico engraved neatly on its shimmering coin.
”Nico?” I finally say to him.
He looks up at me with recognition.
“Is that your name? Nico?” His tongue sticks out again, and he begins to stride forward to me with delight. Each one of his legs working together like cogs in a grandfather clock, clicking and clattering amongst the blank floor beneath him. I don’t move and stay still just in case he attacks me. Nico slows down his pace to a calm walk before nuzzling his head against my naked ankle.
In that moment, I felt his hair brush up against me and I feel as if I have read a thousand books at once. His eyes are closed, which confuses me because mine were still open. He nuzzles up against my leg and I could feel a thousand capacities rise above me. All my life I have been around objects that were lost and forgotten, and for a while I believed that I was the same way. That I have been just placed here to rot amongst these objects that appeared to me. But never before have had I felt so alive. I feel tears rush down my cheeks, and for a moment I finally feel my heart. It felt tremulous and ignited. As if I was going to burst all at once, and come back together again.
For a second, I stretched my hand out to Nico’s head but in a second he quickly opens his eyes and I see him. I quickly back away and start running away. Away from the heartbeats, the quivers, the euphoria, everything. I don’t look back to see if Nico is following me, and I dodge all the piles of the burnt until they all become dots to me, out into the white infinity. I stand there frozen, panting from running, tired from all the feelings that came rushing in at once from nowhere, and I begin to hate them.
Never has any book, any letter, any photo make me feel this way. For a while, the only thing I’ve felt was curiosity. I would pick up a new object and place them in with the correct pile. Sometimes I would wonder what its origins were, and sometimes I wouldn’t. But in the end I knew what it was, what they all were. They were dead. Burnt. Abandoned. All these things that I receive are just skeletons of things that had a purpose. I would pick them up and feel no pulse, no electricity, just ash.
I’m a gravedigger. I care for the dead, and feel no life inside my chest. I am just as alive as those piles of metal and paper.
I never worried about any of this until Nico came along. I was content with living among the unmoved, the stoic, and the burnt. Only because I was the same.
I stare off into the distance long enough to the point where I wanted to become lost. Maybe soon I can just keep walking and forget about everything I’ve left behind. Maybe I can live within the color white. I could finally find home.
I hear a crackle of paper below my feet. The paper slowly unfolds itself to me. I pick it up, to see that it is a letter. I quickly flatten the crumpled paper and begin to read:
I’m sitting by our fireplace right now. Mama is cutting vegetables in the kitchen, and I’m very mad at you. I’m mad that you’re going to have to make me eat the asparagus mom is about to prepare for dinner. Remember how that was your job? To eat the things I didn’t want? I could tell myself a thousand times over that that is the one reason why I want you back, but it isn’t.
Mama said that the only thing that’s guaranteed in life are goodbyes. “Hello again” is hard to come by nowadays. I can only hope that I can say hello to you, because the word “goodbye” has become so stale in my mouth after passing through my lips so much.
I miss you. I still see the holes you’ve buried near the oak past where the school buses would pass. Your fur still lingers around our house, and you’re still making Mama’s allergies act up.
Wherever you are, I hope that you’re with an angel. Maybe they can take care of you now. Hopefully the both of you can still find that even when it seems like you’ve been given the worst, you can still find the best in each other. Because I know I have found the best parts of me in you.
I fold the letter halfway, and flatten it. I keep it tucked in the crevice of the cloth that is tied around me. I look up to see Nico sitting some distance away from me. His light auburn head tilted to its side. Waiting for me to call his name again.
Nico’s pile is almost 10 feet tall now. It sits beside the pile of moving objects since he enjoys hearing the clanking, and he enjoys the tolls of grandfather clocks when the hands reach a new hour.
My piles reach to about 35 feet now, and Nico helps me every once in a while. Whenever he sees something that he doesn’t want to put in his, he simply grabs them by his mouth and gives them to me. Although the objects still come in ashy and dusty, it seems to not bother Nico too much.
Sometimes Nico and I sit in front of mirrors and I try to converse with my reflection, but so far he still hasn’t responded to me. No matter, I instead talk to Nico before I read a new chapter in my book while we sit together on the floor between our piles.
“Nico,” I say to him, while he lays down chewing on a small brass candelabra. He looks up to me.
“I’m reading this book about stars.” His coal eyes gaze longer.
“Stars are those things that are in the night sky that shine once this thing called night occurs every day, somewhere.” It was at this point, I wish Nico could talk that he describe to me what a star really looks like.
“They say that once a star burns out, they implode and become light that travels across the galaxy, aimlessly.” I try to pause in-between my sentences just in case Nico wants to respond to what I say, most of the time he doesn’t.
“While travelling around the galaxy at night, people look up and still see them as stars but the stars are so far away from them they can’t tell whether or not they’re still alive and burning.” Nico sits still, staring at me. We both hear new objects appearing to us, but we both ignore them.
“That idea is so beautiful to me. A life that is still bright, even after it has ended. A life that continues, doesn’t stop, not even for a second.”
“That’s what I think we are, Nico: stars that burnt out too soon. But we still continue to travel boundless, limitless, and ferocious.”
Nico and I sit there for a while and we hear clatters of new treasures appearing, but both stay sitting together. I continue to read while Nico sits quietly next to me, waiting for me to get up and begin collecting.
For once, I sit and watch. Each object appearing on the ground, how brightly they come to us. I think about far they’ve all travelled to come here, how each item once belonged to somebody or somewhere. I look down at Nico, and I scratch the top of his head and I feel his fur between my fingers.
We are free.
We are ignited.
The story for BURNMAN came about when I was sitting in my Intro to Fiction class in the beginning of this semester and we were reading a short story entitled Bullet to the Brain, following the death of a man in real time where readers saw a bullet travel from the barrel of the gun to his brain. Eventually the bullet hits a certain part of his brain that triggers a memory before he dies which reveals a lot more to the man than we expected.
The idea of what happens after something dies came into play, where from there things being burnt never really have an afterlife, so to say.
BURNMAN is a self-realization story and a tribute to my dog Bo who passed away from bone cancer in early 2012.