Autobiography of a Flame

Rheim AlKadhi

Artwork: Rheim Alkadhi, 2022

When I arrived to the so-called upper epochs, it’s not as if I knew where I was going. I’d been underground for a while—years likely passed before I’d surfaced. Now I was scaling the hinterlands from their disproportion. The way they’d been trampled and debased, made worthless and dead—enough to make you grind your teeth flat. That’s why I looked at everything so close, enlarging each aspect in my mind, making sure to sear every detail hard onto my inner eye. ‘To the degree that nothing was left’—the words they use to describe the aftermath. But it’s not that meaning was stripped from everything; meaning had changed. I was here to deliver myself out from the narrative.

Start off by forgetting names. I’ll lose my own name, for what it’s worth. As to the soil particles packed in sliding shifts: that’s the terrain I assume is firm enough to support my footing. Moist on the soles. But try rolling it around between thumb and forefinger: what’s left isn’t really moisture. It’s an oily residue, a viscous sludge; something like combustible mire, or else whatever recently grew a flame. I try making a cross-section with a long strip of metal I find by the wayside; cut through till it hits a clay bed one or two hand-lengths deep. Calls to mind a craze from times before: digital hawking of exotic edible mud—marsh clay in particular: ‘slightly sweet, yet bitter, with hints of petrol’.  

Geography gave us names. But surfacing is only possible if you’ve forgotten the names—this could be anywhere, and that’s the point. When I try and spit them out, I hardly muster syllables: buh, ben, bah, bei, ber, buf…just can’t get past primordial utterances. Because time, you know—so temporary when it was ‘on’—is since inert. Then, later, when geography loosened off of the planet—it was glorious, but short-lived. I mean, we could fly: is that something or what! We had to get devices, sure—in most cases, secondhand worked like a charm—but for an unbelievable minute, we—all of us—rejected the lines they gave us, rejected the lines they drew around us.

Rheim AlKadhi, 2022

Dry reed splinters strew the surface of this little island. I’d gather them into a heap and cushion my repose if it weren’t for flames popping up here and there unexpected. Just like those long disaster days, never felt easy bedding down for sleep; had to be ready to pick up and run—I mean, you get used to that. But these piddle flames don’t bother me; not compared to back then. You’d transit sleepless over scrap oil fields, hold nothing back—subconscious junk would just flood out. Some called it madness: dreams replaced by impulses. Militaries itched for that ‘paradise’: that our uprisings would unleash behaviors they could destroy or imprison; no, we were just evolving our collective ethic.

Not all flames burn the same; each has its own special temperament. The flames around me—including the flickers snuffed by slack footing—they spark up at the tiniest vibration sent through the ground. Friction of shifting particles will ignite spontaneously, like flint. I was spooked when I noticed the flames following or leaping ahead of me—to the rhythm of my steps. Then, I played along. I’d jump, and three tall flames would appear. I’d step back: they’d vanish, but others would crop up behind me. Wasn’t long before I took a liking to them; more I got to know their character. Might’ve been loneliness for my part, but there’s an undeniable kinship between all our subsurface wounds.

I’d resist naming them, of course—even if by now I’m accustomed to the disposition of each. I’d go stock-still, eyes fixed on switching spectrums of constancy and transience. I’d watch, try and adapt when one or other’d take over or get unwieldy. At water’s edge, one flame only smolders; I feed it some dry reed kindling and flotsam. It becomes my cooking fire and I set a scrap metal retainer at its rim. When I harvest the young shoots growing in the shallows, I move too quick and frighten some warblers—they scatter upward into the ethers. Back at the fire, I grill the reed stems; I peel off the outer layers to get the soft insides. I wolf them; and raw leaves I chew for hydration.

The flames are all consuming—staying with them makes me feel like a flame myself. I don’t manage to recline, possessed by the thought that flames don’t burn horizontally. To try and make sense of this, I build a raft from reed stalks tied together by their fibers. So that it doesn’t catch fire, I lay it down on the soggiest embankment, not far from the warblers’ patch. I stretch out on top of it and try to doze, watching the earth spit flames that flit and quiver, grow and recede. The warm air doesn’t move; haze blurs the sun. Warblers dart around singing, “Chrrr Irrrrr you arrive Chch Rrrrt displace us from our fragile habitat Wchrrrr we barely survived the last five catastrophes Trrrr Rrrrt Trrr Rrrrrr.”

Rheim Alkadhi, 2022

Before long I am upright again, walking. I measure the span between opposite banks to be about fifteen hundred steps. At its narrowest jut, this tiny continent is just ten steps wide. I trip over flames, especially the vaporous, ribbony ones; my thick-skinned heels are fine, but my fallen arches are scorched again. Leg hairs are singed and the long hem of my dress shows signs of having caught fire. I look for a way out, but haven’t yet located the narrative reprieve. I see revolution in each fiery blossom rising from the dirt: mudden mouths speaking an elemental language—flaming tongues rehearsing a rebellion against the aggressors that turned us all inside-out.

Underground, we’d chosen our hormones at will. Treatment got so fine-tuned that you could adjust your gender day by day, if that’s your thing. I’d always opted for androgen blockers; part of my belief system—that what brought us to this degree of ruin are substances flooding the drive for competition, penetration, weapons, war, profit, death… you get my drift. My cycle was regular, but shedding blood went obsolete ages ago. Here, as I emptied my bladder into a hole dug from the mud, I see a few drops of blood and feel a sharp pain in my abdomen. All those petrochemicals turned this water mostly untouchable, certainly undrinkable. Nothing would survive here very long.

Rheim Alkadhi, 2022

By now I skirt flames pretty well. I head to the reed cluster where the warblers nest, and pull myself down onto the raft. I lie on it sideways—this time, facing the water. I stare through the reeds at the long-defunct petrol fields pockmarked by giant leaning stacks that sputter ghost-flares. Thick chemical gel oozes and bubbles up from the ground. How our labor was devalued—multinationals never’d hire locals—to kill the very land they inhabited? No way. My stomach hurt like hell now. I bear down as if detaching my torso from my lower body: pain pushes through me like a drawn-out electrical spasm. With that feverish jolt, a baby slips out from between my legs, onto the raft.

Long intervals just staring, cupping my hands around a flame that somehow grew inside me. But listen: if every flame is an uprising, this one would also grow. I kiss rebellion on the lips before throwing her into the sky, where she joins the ranks of winged warblers. Then, I look for the spot where I’d first surfaced. I find it, and put my mouth to the breach, screaming as loud as I can: to waken the rage, rattle unrest from the jinx of underground captivity. One or two flames just like me surface. And, even if we’re few, we begin stirring our storm. Ten more wake up, surface; then fifty, a hundred. We begin marching across continents, fueled a bit more by every enjoining flame.

We move together in synchronized strides toward the sealed enclosure: that last parcel of habitable earth annexed by whoever has exploited our pain and invisibility—the profiteers of war and devastation. Here, there is no gate or entrance, no way in along the endless walled perimeter. No reason, mind you, for the privileged to set foot onto fields they made dead grossing their gains. Several of us draw back for running leaps. Then, all our multitudes fuse, producing a collective force of atmospheric pressure that only escalates, culminating in an eruption of such brutal strength and speed that our climatic vibration sends the cosmos ringing into several subdivisions of infinity.

The violence of our weather pulverizes every vestige of separation into mounds of dust. No time lost before entering the arena: this time as wildfire proceeding across the terrain from which we’d been so long excluded; burning through fortified zones with neither mercy nor selfish desire for vast accumulations of capital, stopping only for rivers and aquifers—humbly deferring to the absolute sacredness of water—otherwise consuming as if to try and mirror the inimitable blaze of the sun. Later, as we subside, reclining in the form of live glowing embers, we receive the new era: a hallowed age after the planet is bathed in fire, purged of its wickedness.