Some Say the World Will End In Fire (I Imagine Him Laughing)

For hours, it seemed, I stood out there on the runway with the other passengers—watching the fire crews, wondering if I might still make it home in time for the funeral.

She was a cute kid, I always liked her. At gatherings back on the island she’d watch me from the corner: two dark little eyes, at table height, following me across the room. Precocious, with a hint of the unworldly, maybe ten years younger than me—small enough, for a few years, that she could pounce and wrestle me with innocence. From the day she discovered this, I had nowhere to hide, no sofa was safe. Then, one day, she was a teenager: awkwardly, the pouncing stopped.

She became the sort of adolescent whose mother would disclose, quite matter of fact, that her daughter could bend metal spoons with the power of her mind. Standing next to her, the daughter would kick her feet, embarrassed—abashed, to have her talents and accomplishments sung in public, but she never denied bending the spoons. For this, of course, I liked her all the more.

Her death was sudden, unexpected. Sleepover at her boyfriend’s place, an unguarded fire that spread from the kitchen. They both died in their sleep—peacefully, it was said. When the call came I was living overseas, working as a copywriter. Within two days I was on a plane, heading home.

Then, rolling down the runway, the left engine burst into flame.

The air crew, bless their souls: barely out of their teens, girls off to see the world in cheap blue uniforms paid from their own wages. Ill-equipped to deal with the prospect of 50,000 liters of burning oil engulfing their human cargo. Struggling to contain their own rising panic, never mind ours, they shuffled down the aisle waving their hands: “Evacuate! Evacuate! The plane is on fire!” Disregarding all instructions, I grabbed my laptop—a sturdy 90Mhz of gray brick, no CD drive but it had a floppy, that is how long ago this happened—and headed “for the nearest exit.” At the cabin door I hesitated. Boots on, boots off? Never mind, I jumped. And landed, sliding down that yellow chute.

Standing on the runway, watching the fire crews, I felt eerily dislocated. What if I had died on that plane, consumed in a fireball, on my way to the funeral of a girl who had burned alive? Some say the restless dead bring others into the mode of their own death: eaten by a jaguar, you become the jaguar that hunts your family. She did bend spoons, after all. Shaken, I called up my mother to let them know I’d be late. Soon enough we were escorted back into the terminal.

In The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938), Bachelard tells us fire is the most intimate of elements. It takes hold and enraptures, demanding “malign vigilance” of its observer. It smolders in the soul, Bachelard says.

The aftermath was awful. Her mother never fully recovered: too often, in years to come, her face would cave in like a black hole, hollowed by sudden grief. The grave was tended with desperation. Walking past the graveyard, you’d see the flash of color among the gray stones. Favorite toys, lined up one after the other, guarding the tombstone: a pony, some dolls, stuffed animals. Later, with the rain and shifting seasons, the stuffed ones began to fall apart. The plastic ones, I think, are still there.

This happened at the tail end of the bright northern summer, when the air turns cold and crisp and the world grows vast around you but the sun still warms your skin, from far away. A day like any other, in late August 2001. Not two weeks later, the twin towers fell. Fireballs of airplane fuel; human smoke rolled across Manhattan and a hundred million television screens, the world changed. Wars were launched that still run red today.

The Aztec god of fire has two faces: an old man, wrinkled with time, and a fiery young warrior, fed by the blood of lizards and the young. Huehuetotl and Xiuhtecuhtli, the double god: ember and flame, lord of warriors and of new life, renewed through the sacrifice of blood.

I still fly. Yes, I did slide down one of those yellow rubber slides, and I have yet to meet anyone else who has. But this happened in another country, strange and far away—a country of the ancestors. In hindsight, like many of the things that happened back then, she seems unreal. The film of an apparition: crepuscular mist, dispelled by the fiery dawn. I resort to guesswork. I remember those tickling fights, laced with nascent... Of course there was something smoldering there, in the play-fights. Any excuse to wrestle that older boy. You see, back then we didn’t have to take our shoes off. We were allowed to travel with liquids. Laptops stayed in their bags. None of these forms that have crystallized around us, taking shape to prevent things that already happened, doors closed after bolting horses. Is it tamed? It smolders in our petrol tanks, and smoke darkens the skies.

Passing through security, every time, I sense the vastness that enfolds me: the unthinkable worldwide machinery of wells, factories, governments, mines, flight schools, supply chains, catering operators and architects, glass and steel and concrete, plastic trays and microwaves, pilots and guards and scientists and building crews and border controls and traffic controllers and legislators and security guards and air hostesses and baggage handlers, chain upon chain, layer on layer—meshed together in a world system of human labour that converges, time after time, to produce that perfect instant where I surrender myself into the hands of strangers and pass through, get a coffee, sit down at the gate with a book.

To sense its scope is to see it exposed, fragile and contingent, spider-work of a thousand delicate links—and to smell, at the heart of it, the burning oil: precious, finite, dwindling in a million engines. Sitting there, I wonder what ancient Huehuetotl would make of it all, sat under his incense bowl, presiding over the flame. I imagine him laughing, gaunt and old, face lit red by the flickering embers. Then I turn off my iPad, buckle my belt, watch the videos. Offer polite but nominal attention to the stewardesses, in their blue uniforms, and brace myself for the ascent—cloudbound, in a tinfoil hull. How long can all this last? Somewhere, at the back of my mind, a small troupe of stuffed animals holds vigil on an island graveyard, growing moldy in the rain—decomposing toys, guardsmen, mourning a world that was cut short by fire.


Hugo Reinert works on migrant birds in a former Soviet-bloc country. The story happened just as it was told. The night after he wrote it down, he dreamed of a strange, sad woman in his kitchen. She cheered up after he gave her a hug, then they cooked a meal together.

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