The Words of All Our Fires By Stephanie Dupal

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The pandemic raged on in blue and red states alike, and our youth watched mountains burn and burn, while the year reigned as a colossus risen from hell: it brought deaths and the cloister of quarantine, riots and protests to ignite and incense bodily fires through sleeplessness and troubled starts. Breathing became a privilege for those on ventilators and for those whose necks we pinned to the ground. Gunfire rang in Chicago. Gunfire rang in Louisville and Portland and Minneapolis. All along the west coast, wildfires. Newsreels filled screens with the light of terrible things and, always, the youth of this country watched.

*    *    *

It had been nearly six months since Ollie had seen his closest friends, the ones who’d flown the coop of their small town for larger universities north and south of Front Royal some two years before. They’d been sent home unexpectedly in March, but now they were surfacing from their quarters like cicadas after a long period of dormancy. His friends had been close by, yet they’d be leaving again without as much as a going-away party.

Once, they parked in the high school lot, seven of them, sitting on the roofs of their cars and trying to talk, but they felt foolish shouting at one another like that, so they’d gone home, frustrated. Ollie had never felt so alone.

When he FaceTimed his best friend, Trey said he couldn’t hang out because his grandmother was now living with them to avoid proximity to strangers. He’d be back at James Madison soon—pandemic or bust!—on a modified schedule of online and in-person classes, and he couldn’t wait. “I’ll catch you later, Ollie,” he said before hanging up. Trey’s Snap stories highlighted his glorious return to campus and football practice, his living quarters on Greek Row, and his funny captions of professors’ faces frozen on Zoom.

Months before, at the end of spring, Ollie decided to take a gap year after four semesters at the local community college. He’d been a star runner and swimmer at his high school, yet he’d lost interest in his final year, dreading the departure of his friends and the void of the unknown. His mother, Sylvie, though disappointed, rallied. She loved having her son to herself longer. She’d raised him alone. They belonged to each other in ways both intrinsic and sometimes toxic. She watched him face the boredom of his college classes and his retreat into his bedroom, unable to sway him to activity. Long gone were Oliver’s early-morning runs, followed by his twice-daily swim practices. She couldn’t force him to compete anymore.

In the early days of the pandemic, when shops were closed and they couldn’t eat out or catch a matinee at the theater, he huddled with his mother on their couch and watched marathons of TV shows, entire series devoured in the space of days. His favorite: Love Island, the inspiration for the gap year, which was such a British thing to do. Her favorite: Black Mirror. They joked the producers had gone too far by putting their viewers inside their program. They were all living the episodes now.

Every time they went out, his mother whispered, “There’s another sign.” A line of customers wrapped around the exterior of Home Depot, six feet apart, waiting up to two hours to purchase bags of mulch or gallons of paint; doomsdayers whose faces were covered in masks ransacked big-box warehouses for toilet paper and hand sanitizer; pizza delivery places promised a safe ordering experience, while everyone hailed grocery-store baggers as prototypes of new heroism. Everyone watched these details unfold, powerless as the next person in line.

“There, see that guy?” she’d say.

“Yeah. Virologist in disguise,” he’d reply.

“Russian?”

“Lithuanian.”

“Yes.”

*    *    *

Their neighbor Mr. Olson was dying of cancer. Ollie could not remember his childhood without a glimpse of that man, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and inveterate smoker, hosing his lawn with a Camel pinched between his lips.

Hullo, hullo, my boy.

The sound of his voice still clear in memory.

The invitations to come inside the house for ice cream.

The days spent playing backgammon and chess when his mother was working.

The hours pored over trigonometric equations Ollie couldn’t solve.

All snapshots of the goodness of one man.

Mr. Olson was reduced to his bed and would soon be moved to hospice. Ollie sat by his side and held his hand. He wanted to hear his stories once more, but the rattling in Mr. Olson’s chest was too deep. Ollie didn’t want to cause him pain.

Mr. Olson removed the cannula from his nose and pulled on Ollie’s hand. “Come closer,” he whispered. Ollie bent his head to hear him. “It was…full of wonder.” He squeezed Ollie’s hand. “Life…should always be…full of wonder.” He breathed in long, and then exhaled. “I’ll be with Doris soon. It doesn’t get…better than that.”

Ollie nodded. He held Mr. Olson’s hand a while longer. Then it went slack, and he let go.

*    *    *

The history of the world is rife with pleas to save humankind. One believes himself to be the reincarnation of Er, Plato’s hero, gone down to the five rivers, searching for meaning in the astral planes. Another proclaims himself the son of the living god and dies on a wooden cross, forsaken by his brethren. A young girl leads French armies with the guidance of her visions. Her countrymen burn her to the ground, and the pyre of her ashes releases a white dove, a symbol of her martyrdom. Much later, she is made a saint, but before her, the carpenter’s son resurrects into the Christian God.

And, yet, for all our scientific advancements—human ears growing on the backs of mice, cars hovering in the air, or devices bringing hundreds into virtual conference rooms—no one can say with certainty what awaits on the other side of life. No one can promise to return.

*    *    *

“Ollie?” She called him Ollie now.

He couldn’t stand the sound of those three syllables, O-li-ver.

“Can you hear me?” She pushed the grass around the stone, dug up clumps of soil, the richness of loam filling her senses with longing. She remembered something different each time she planted his flowers: the sight of his arms wide at his side, wheeling about like a combustion engine from the joy of lapping waves at his feet; the sound of his laughter as a child, tinkling, and, later, as a man, cavernous, yet golden and infectious; the smell of his infant head; and the softness of his downy toddler hair. He was always all of his ages at once, the conglomeration of layer upon layer of all the people he had been. His entire life compressed into this single moment of planting the ball roots of potted marigolds.

*    *    *

“Ollie?”

There he was with a sandwich stuck in his mouth, thin slices of turkey hanging out like a wide tongue. He was opening the catchall drawer in the kitchen and rifling through a bowl holding her bills. He removed the sandwich from his mouth and said, “Keys.”

“Retrace your steps,” she said. That’s what she always said when he couldn’t retrieve his belongings—his wallet, his sunglasses, the keys to his beloved pickup truck, which he’d purchased with his own money from lifeguarding at the community pool.

“Dunno.” He took another bite. “I need to pick up Nilou and drop her off at work.”

“Why you?”

“What can I say? She needs me.”

*    *    *

On television, they observed maps of the United States dotted in red, concentric circles growing large and wide over the city of New York, then up and down the east coast, as though the country were bodily plagued with pustules of chicken pox. Americans did not have the pox. They had been immunized years ago. This disease was more complicated, more virulent.

They subscribed to lists and refreshed their browsers, watching the number of cases on multiple dashboards rise through triage: active, deaths, recovered. The correct word should have been dead, but there was something aggressive in both the adjective and the noun: here are the bodies of your dead, lying in the morgues of your towns and your cities.

The word deaths assuaged our beliefs in our collective multiplicity while replacing the singularity of grief—because these deaths are not us, are not you. You are not yet a statistic on the map.

*    *    *

Oliver stretched behind the starting block, flailing his arms and twisting his torso. He adjusted his goggles, pulled on the cord of his briefs, and slapped his thighs: this was his pre-race ritual when he heard the cheers of the crowd, clustered on bleachers and waving foam hands bearing his name. Sometimes he could distinguish the voice of his mother.

He stepped on the block and took his mark, then waited for the flash of the light and the blip of the horn. He lunged into a dive and a long pullout, his body a perfect bullet underwater. His head surfaced farther than his competitors, boys trying to match his rhythm and the beauty of his breaststroke.

During his junior year of high school, he nearly won every race for which he was registered.

*    *    *

“Ollie? Hello? Did you send a message on Snap? Is that what it’s called? A message? A story? Do you even listen to voicemail? Where are you coming back from? I didn’t get to read the end. I’ll text you. Call me when you can.”

*    *    *

Ollie drove through Thornton Gap and parked at the trailhead, then climbed his way to Marys Rock, passing boulders and brambles through switchbacks. Deciduous leaves turned yellow and orange, the color of lapping flames. When he reached the summit, no one was there. He dreaded having to wait for hikers to leave, yet now that he was alone, he both feared and welcomed the solitude.

He sat at the edge of the stone face, which fell away sharply below his feet. He could see the rolling green of the valley—the peaks of Pass Mountain and the Marshalls—and opposite the yawning abyss of the Shenandoah, the range of the Blue Ridge breaking the horizon to the west.

Up there, he could almost forget the world as it was now: the parade of masked faces, the constant nagging of shop associates who asked everyone to spread out or wait their turn or stand elsewhere, away from the cash register and the credit card machine needing to be sprayed and wiped and disinfected after each transaction.

Up on Marys Rock, bushes and birds and bears remained unchanged.

He’d seen videos of spaces cleared of their usual pollution: Venetian canals, blue-green as polished agate, suddenly filled with schools of fish swimming along old foundations residents had not seen, they said, in over a century. There was a strange rejoicing in the early days of the quarantine: Italians and Spaniards opening the shutters of their cobbled buildings and singing to one another across the way, some lingering on their balconies to glimpse at grandchildren standing below, waving.

Yet that rejoicing for animals and fish returning to the wilderness of far-off fields and to seas previously blocked by the waste of human consumption diminished with every passing month. By fall, in the Unites States, electoral ads and the great political divide eclipsed the pandemic, the wildfires, and the pronouncement of tornadoes looming near. A photograph of a black fly atop the vice president’s head heralded the nation’s new intellectualism. A meme transformed into a thousand different jokes.

Ollie longed for his high school years, when he and his life had been important. He’d once found purpose in his athletic competitions, in championing his friends through difficulties, in being that kid on whom everyone could count.

What was left of those years? He had deleted his Facebook account. No one his age used that platform anyway. His mother had insisted he join because she wanted to tag him in her photos and the small updates she sometimes posted. Nowadays, social media was a paltry stage for the hatred of strangers—friends of friends who attacked wayward posts landing on their timelines like bombs. He hated their memes most of all. He’d almost deleted his Snapchat account as well, but that was how he kept in touch with his old friends.

They seemed less perturbed than he was by the onslaught of plagues washing over the country. Even Trey dismissed the words of sympathy sent to him after the shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the verdicts of grand juries. Trey had sent a photo of himself taking the knee in his football uniform with the caption: Blessed. He’d received an onslaught of comments and deleted his story. And then he’d asked everyone to stop sending their white-guilt shit his way.

“Wassup?” Ollie Snapped a week before his hike to Marys Rock.

Trey hadn’t answered.

*    *    *

In Moral Letters to Lucilius (“Letter 78: On the Healing Power of the Mind”), Lucius Annaeus Seneca, sometimes known as Seneca the Younger, wrote brazenly of his physical troubles and mental health.

Nearly two thousand years later, an excerpt from that letter, taken out of context, emblazons memes in a variety of fonts, transcribed onto t-shirts and bumper stickers and email signatures: “For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.”

Yet Seneca did not survive with the force of his courage alone. Caligula, cruel emperor, suppressed a mandate to execute Seneca because his writings revealed that he would soon die anyway. His words—and not his mind—saved him, if only temporarily, until Nero—Seneca’s former pupil—believing him an actor in the Pisonian conspiracy, ordered him to end his life, which he did.

*    *    *

Ollie said, “Isn’t it strange that every year we pass the anniversary of our death and don’t know it?”

“I’ve never thought about it, really,” his mother said.

“Unless we choose or discover that date, at some point.”

“Like that dating episode with the breakup countdown clock? On Black Mirror?” She paused and then asked, “Were you thinking of a dystopian future?”

“No. Not like that. When you just know it’s time. A feeling takes over because there’s nothing left to do here.”

“There’s always something left. I can’t imagine a day without a task list. I’d welcome it. No one ever feels like all their boxes have been checked.”

“What about Mr. Olson?”

“Maybe Mr. Olson.”

“The bell tolls louder these days.”

“Things will be back to normal soon.”

“And if they aren’t? What if we’re on the cusp of the end-all? It’s a self-conflagration to watch it all burn to hell like this.”

“Oh, my,” she said, “I’m raising quite the philosopher. Have you been reading Heidegger? The novels of Kafka and Dostoyevsky?”

“Nietzsche.”

“Well, then. That explains your mood. Make us some popcorn. When life gives you nihilism, turn on Netflix.”

*    *    *

These are the last photos he took: a bird perched in a crevice of rock. A little bird, curious, its head roving. Also: a sweeping view of the valley. Before that day: photos of his friends sitting atop the roofs of their cars, in the school parking lot, a conference; one meal, on his lap, in his truck, while driving, a burger from a drive-thru, yellow paper holding the bun, a consecration. Mr. Olson, waving from his bed, smiling even with the cannula fogging at his nostrils, a commemoration; self-portraits in various facial poses, eyebrow lifted, lips tucked, the bulging eye of disbelief, a consternation. Humans in their collectives.

Here are the objects of his room: on his bed a stuffed bear. No, not a bear, but a well-worn dog, ears curled with age. A brown dog he received when he was just a boy, from his mother’s best friend Grace, an aspiring writer and artist, after the passing of her Leonberger. Identical stuffed dogs, mementos distributed to neighborhood children, in remembrance of the gentle giant she used to walk on their streets. How they loved to scratch his back and watch that fluff of tail wag and wag.

On his bed: nothing else. Bedclothes tucked in place.

On his desk: a mug from his childhood swim team filled with pencils. A laptop.

On his walls: medals and medals hooked on thumbtacks. More than one hundred orange heat winner and blue first place ribbons glued neatly in rows. Racing bibs from cross-country and track and field races. Photographs: his mother, his friends, himself. A dried boutonniere from a dance.

In his closet: rows of clothes, piles of shoes. The odor of a person, boy and man.

*    *    *

They came to her weeping. Grace held her to standing. She could not remember all of their faces: acquaintances and near-strangers who had come to this gathering for her and for him.

Then his friends, the boys from his teams: Jacob and Nick and Sung-ho and Chris, among so many others, their heads bowed. Then the girls, some of whom were ex-girlfriends: Cassandra and Maddy and Jilly, red-faced and crying.

Trey dressed in a dark suit, wearing one of Ollie’s ties. At the lectern, he faltered and crouched to the ground. Trey’s father read the last paragraph of his speech.

Niloufar and her parents had brought platters and platters of Iranian food Ollie loved.

His teachers and coaches, now docile and tender-voiced, wondered how and when they’d faltered. They spoke of his greatness, his compassion, his steadfastness. They spoke of his ability to encourage others to be their best selves.

They could not quite believe it was true. He was gone.

She was overwhelmed by their attention and kindness, yet it would never be enough.

*    *    *

Next to Ollie, a little bird pecked the rock for scraps. He tossed a cracker, which the bird nipped before retreating to a crevice. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and snapped a picture of the bird and then the view before him. There was a breeze cooling the beads of sweat on his neck. He felt light and floating. He was filled with a temporary sense of reprieve. Perhaps he was meant to live as a hermit in the woods for some years. He would become a trail legend, the bearded man-bear spotted by hikers and ultrarunners combing the area. Perhaps he was meant not to live at all. He had come to this place for this, at last.

He looked at his cell phone. He understood his infliction of pain, yet he felt removed from it. It wasn’t death he courted as much as disappearance. He wanted not to feel the world and its every heartbeat. Every day, he woke with a sense of dread that wouldn’t dissipate. Every day, fresh news of calamity and hatred. And, now they were, as fellow citizens, living separately in a country of disparate people. Stores and schools and theaters shuttered. Faces half-hidden. Bodies distanced. He never imagined the years of his young adulthood this way. Soon he would wake from this nightmare. Yes, he would awake himself from the nightmare the only way he knew how. Then the episode would be over, and he and his mother would turn off their television, at last.

He remembered the night he drove home in the dark. He hit a bear cub some miles from where he was now, and it died. He’d moved the body to the side of the road, out of cars’ way, and his mother had come for him. Grace dropped her off, and she drove his truck home. They arrived well past midnight. She hated technology, but she’d Snapped him, in those early days of that platform, when messages disappeared in the space of seconds. She’d written I love you in multiple installments, words that appeared and disappeared with every contraction of her heart. He’d felt her then—the pulse of her that bound them together—his body borne of her body.

He pressed the icon of the little ghost wavering on yellow. He scrolled and scrolled to find his mother’s avatar. Then, he sent her his last message.

*    *    *

This story is too long. It’s not the word count, per se. There’s a certain tedium and exhaustion that rise from these pages—perhaps the point is belabored. While the writing is, at times, compelling, the jarring shifts between—what?—journalistic flashes of this terrible year and the life of one young man seem incongruous. (And notice this section here and here and here where the POV suddenly shifts to the mother—that’s asking a lot from our readers. Are you familiar with our magazine? We like stories that pop a bit more, that are urban, and that focus on the grittiness of the American experience. Where’s Front Royal?) These sections feel like separate vignettes: rushed and unformed. We understand what you’re trying to do here. We do. (We read with great interest your note concerning the life of the young man for whom you wrote this story.) We appreciate your effort to say something meaningful about our youth and their despair, and the culture at large. Please know that your piece generated much discussion among our editorial board and made it to the final round of consideration. Your story didn’t quite resonate with us the way we hoped, so we must decline its inclusion in our pages, but we wish you the best of luck and hope you’ll think of us in the future when submitting your work.

*    *    *

Ollie had tried to date Niloufar, who played the trombone in the marching band, but her parents were opposed because he wasn’t Muslim. In turn, Ollie’s friends expected him to date members of the cheer squad or the dance team, but he’d been attracted to girls who talked of climate change and immigration policies. He’d been raised by a strong woman with whom he’d discussed the state of the world since he was a child. His mother had once been a corporate lawyer in D.C.

Nilou also wanted to study law. She received top marks in their Principles of Government class, where he’d first noticed her.

During her presentation on the necessity of adequate treatment for mentally ill prisoners, she tucked her hair behind her ear and blushed from nervousness. She discussed the story of Jamycheal Mitchell, who’d died in a Virginia jail cell while awaiting trial for stealing a Snickers bar, a Mountain Dew, and a Zebra cake. She’d brought those items to class and placed them before her. Sheathes of paper trembled in her hands while her words rang through the classroom in lilting syllables. A sophomore clucked his tongue and swayed his head because he believed her to be from India. Two girls rolled their eyes at him and yet smiled at the entertainment. Together, the three of them snickered. Ollie pointed his pencil at the boy and made a face that shut him up. No one laughed at Niloufar in class again.

*    *    *

Sylvie’s friend Grace wrote a short story for Oliver, so he might live on the page, but no one wanted to publish it: all these words lit by the fire of their loss were left unread.

Sylvie sent messages into the void, words that disappeared before her.

Words consumed her now.

She opened her Snapchat, his last message long gone. She hadn’t known how to capture it, and it vanished. She hadn’t known. She’d called him immediately. He could no longer answer.

Those reading her Snap story wouldn’t understand her grief. They would only see letters separated into small signifiers, singular syllables trying to uphold the weight of her burning world. She typed her message and sent it out again. And again.

He was my son.

He was my son.

He was my son.

glasses

Stephanie Dupal

Stephanie Dupal is a Franco-Canadian writer who teaches composition and literature in Virginia. Her work most recently appeared in Stonecoast Review, Eastern Iowa Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Maryland Literary Review, Broad River Review, and Orca, a Literary Journal. She is the recipient of the 2017 Best Prose Award from TNVR and she was named a finalist for the 2019 Ron Rash Award in Fiction from BRR, for the 2019 Sonora Review Essay Contest, and for the 2019 New Letters Publication Award in Fiction. Two of her short stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA in fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also an assistant editor for The Literary Review. She hopes to publish her novel and her short story collection, and she’ll begin querying agents this spring.

Links: Most of Stephanie’s stories appear in print only (forever lost on dusty bookshelves), but these three serve as short samples available online:

“A Death in the Lord’s Country” in Eastern Iowa Review (This is the chapter “Peter” from my novel In This Age of Hard Trying): http://www.portyonderpress.com/stephanie-dupal—a-death-in-the-lords-country.html

“The Things You Wear” in Maryland Literary Review: https://www.marylandliteraryreview.com/fiction/the-things-you-wear/

“Jude and Mary’s House of Love” in The Northern Virginia Review: https://blogs.nvcc.edu/tnvr/files/2020/07/Jude-and-Marys-House-of-Love.pdf

Website: www.stephaniedupal.com

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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