House on Fire

(First published in bahasa Indonesia in Koran Tempo, 15th October 2006. Here translated and presented with revisions.)

A door slams shut and I awake to this fire.

The bedroom a corner of hell: flames scorching every inch of the walls, worshipping the dresser, crackling and spreading, fluttering with the curtains they eat away. The air is heavy with dust and smoke, the heat stings like a swarm of bees.

Somehow I knew this fire would be here when I wake up, the same way I knew you would not. We are each other’s mirrors, but we break too in the end. Faintly I’ve sensed your retreat, like a distant smell of gas in the wind, now all around me. Ghostly breaths of grey fill up the room like great inverted waterfalls, but I only feel the emptiness you leave behind.

Skipping on each uncharred spot, I see the door across the living room. I can run to the lake, fetch water, and save this house. This dream house, modeled after my dollhouse and filled with choicest furniture and sweetest memories, now feels strange. By the half-roasted sofa, my doll stands in front of her house—her face peels, her eyes drip melted wax. Yet her smile stays on, her body stays erect.

My beloved doll! Can it be that she cries? Or are those tears of joy? Is she facing the fire with courage, or too afraid to run away?

All these years I thought I understood her. She was made with supreme craft, and I’ve clothed her in flowing dresses and adorned her with jewels that glow like embers. I thought she could stare at tragedy right in the eyes and would not blink, go through the lashing alley of life and come out unscarred.

But she couldn’t even move! She couldn’t nod or roll her eyes or run away to save her life. In silence she accepted everything we assumed about her. Now she burns. Go, and forgive me.

I turn away from the door. Now what? I can rescue a few things, wrap them in my arms like a baby, and burst out of here. I scan through the blazing brightness of the room. What shall I take with me? If you were here, what would you take? You who know me so well, what do you think I will take?

Diplomas, identity papers? They are locked in a desk drawer beside the dollhouse. But why should I save them? They were always too noisy. How exhausting, to go through life with those papers speaking for me, my name’s carved on their cold, somber surface—a tombstone. Let them burn.

Cell phone then? Not one number there would recognize my voice if I cry, if I say I’m scared, I’m falling apart, I don’t know what to do, they would simply say, “Is this really you?” and hang up. Let it go up in smoke.

Money! But it never filled my belly the way this blackened air now fills my lung. I empty my wallet to the greedy burning claws. The sheets curl and sparkle like green fireworks, then crumble. Who ever cares?

Your letters! They are arranged neatly in a folder on the bookshelf. I know the content by heart: you said you’d always have faith in me, no matter what happened I could always rise again, like a phoenix (but you never said you’d still love me—would you?); you said you could paint me even with your eyes closed (and then you did paint me, and you turned to love the girl in the painting); then you said the girl you knew was dead (but you’re wrong, she stays alive for you, I’m the one who is fading). Those letters have become ashes before this fire touches them.

Misery roars for a moment. There is nothing here that I’d like to save.

I look back at the door. With a quick dash I can still get out. Go back to the streams of “how-are-you-today” and “see-you-tomorrow,” meeting the same faces who greet you with the same goods in the market, mumbling the same jokes over and over, putting back on the roles we play, back to being your lover, your best friend, who always loves ABC and dislikes XYZ, who aspires to this and not that, who sees the world in this way and not that way— I am grateful for this fire.

I love you and know you love me. But what love’s arms bruise, this fire’s tongues liberate. You once told me, “There are wounds that can only be cured by fire, Hippocrates said.” I hope you’re right.

Perhaps you’ll accuse me of giving in, of destroying everything, like Medea. Don’t you understand? This is my only way out. You who see hope everywhere, even when life was flapping like a fish on a cold rock, can’t you see what I see, the beauty of this pile of ashes? Look! Look! How free it is. How full of possibilities. Now you can rebuild it into something entirely new.

I sit on the window frame as the fire rages on, the house crackles on, like the chatters of a loyal friend. If you are right, that I am as strong as an iceberg, then I won’t feel a thing. And I don’t feel a thing. Doesn’t mean I can’t curl like a caterpillar and burn. I’m just no longer waiting.

In the distance, through the brilliant wavy screen, I can make out a silhouette of a person that looks so much like you (or me?), holding a torch, standing in the dark. Is he the arsonist, waiting for someone to come out, or merely watching the spectacle of a falling house? Is that you (or me)? Or are there many people? The entire village? Have I got your attention now?

So why don’t you tell me: what do I look like to you now? What do you think of me now?

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