Image by Theophanes the Greek (1378)
Image by Theophanes the Greek (1378)

Full of Eyes Within

The scars on his back might be from wings, but what kind?

Isaiah doesn’t remember the wings, but he believes in them because of the knots of flesh on his back: six scarred, lumpy outgrowths of muscle left by a surgeon with shaking hands. 

His mother dresses him in loose-fitting clothes to hide the abnormality, and even after he is taken from her and put into the foster system, he keeps the habit. It’s easy when all of his clothes are hand-me-downs, when nothing fits, nothing is really his.

The new house is painted a sickly yellow, and there is a crabapple tree out front that rains rotten fruit late in summer, attracting crows. The new mother and father fight a lot. Isaiah picks the raisins out of his oatmeal and wads them together to create a dark, dripping, inedible mass.

A few of the neighbors are going to Hell.

From a young age, Isaiah is painfully aware, though he doesn’t have the vocabulary to express what he knows. He has only the fire licking at the tips of his fingers. He has visions. He checks beneath his bed and within his closet every night, during the time that he is supposed to be saying: “Now I lay me down to sleep…” 

A girl in his class, cheeks and chin smeared with jelly, looks to him like she has just drunk her fill of blood. 

He wets the bed, wakes sobbing, body burning hot. The new mother calms him at first, but quickly loses patience. She says he’s too old for this. Is he trying to torture her? 

He’s not.

She asks him again and again what his nightmares are about, sometimes gently, more often with agitation, but he can give her no answer. He doesn’t dream in scenes or images, only in agonized, ecstatic music.

Other children are instinctively frightened of him. His face is a boy’s face, his body alike enough to any child’s, but his eyes are those of a snake. In the schoolyard he speaks to snakes, and they respond in silken voices, their bodies rustling cold through the grass. He stains his clothes playing limbless animal games with them. Boys his age and older call him names and throw stones at him, marking him with fist-sized bruises. 

Their laughter gives him hunger pangs. His fingertips smolder.

When he tries to show his new mother the marks, to explain what had happened, she hits him reflexively, as if in defense. She hates his deformity, can’t stand to see his unclothed back. Her fear weighs heavier in her body than any other emotion, her capacity for compassion already taken from her by the flat of somebody else’s hand. Isaiah can feel her suffering when she beats him, as if it is a part of them both.

He forgives her instantly, implicitly; it’s his nature. Forgiveness doesn’t stop the fire, though.

It leaks from him in sleep. He can’t contain it. He wakes bleary to a blackened building, a firefighter’s encompassing grip. It’s winter, and the crabapple tree is bare and sullen. At the hospital, nobody will tell him until he asks outright: yes, all of the rest of them are dead, mother and father and little sister. The fact that he’s unharmed is a miracle. An unasked-for gift.

He warns his social worker not to place him in another family, but she misunderstands his caution for misprocessed trauma, and has him see a child psychologist. They question him, diagnose him, try to force him into boxes that break beneath his weight. Has he ever harmed an animal out of curiosity? Has an adult ever touched him anywhere that made him feel uncomfortable? He zones out, picks the dirt from beneath his fingernails, and keeps picking even when there is no more dirt. When he’s asked to draw himself, he draws six golden wings, but they are mistaken for three yellow birds.

He is traded from doctor to doctor and from family to family. Nobody can stand to have him around for long. He makes them nervous, induces paranoia. He sees them all clearly, children and adults alike, but he has no wish to do anything with his knowledge. He doesn’t want to purify by fire — it’s simply a tendency latent in him, a function of his body. 

His body held together by light.

A cult forms around him eventually, without his intending it to. He’s in freshman year of high school, and in him his foster father has struck gold. The family has land already, has a plan for the end of days, conspiracy theories, a basement full of semi-automatics, and a Facebook page. What they need is a mascot, an easily controlled messiah whose eyes flicker and crack when they look at you.

You’re going to Hell, Isaiah says to whoever he’s told to say it to. He says: Repent! Donate!

He radiates heat on command, like a furnace. Otherwise he stands during the sermons, bored and impassive, projecting an aura of sacred mystery. 

He likes the forest that lines the property, the black dirt and the smell of wood rot. Mushrooms, fat with rain, climbing logs like pale tumors. He baptizes himself in the river twice a week. People come from all over the country to have their sins burned away, although he tries to explain, again and again, that it is not that easy.

A garter snake tells him, “Just go along with it. This is your ticket, kid.”

Another tells him, “Get away from this place before you destroy it, too.”

He doesn’t listen to either of them, and one black and moonless night the old farmhouse goes up in flames, the tall grasses around it catching easily in the dry depths of summer. Some animals flee the fire, skittering away through the forest, and others burn. The family burns.

Isaiah’s social worker is distraught, quiet, businesslike. She asks if he set the fire, and he refuses to answer. The police question him, ask if anyone in the family abused him. 

Did anyone smoke? We see here on Facebook that it says that you can “burn away any sin with just a touch!” Care to elaborate?

“That’s just some crap my foster-dad made up to sell merch,” Isaiah says, and they believe him. There is nothing else that they could believe.

The case dries up. There’s nothing to go on. No physical evidence, no charge that would stick. They suspect him because it’s the second fire that he has been the sole survivor of, but two is only a line, not a pattern.

Isaiah gets placed in a new home. By now he’s stopped bothering to protest. He’s long realized that every kid in the system protests, every time. He’s no special case. He’s a number, a file, a slim police record. 

His new high school is violent, derelict. Adults ask him how he’s doing, but don’t listen to his answers. Kids call him names, slam their shoulders into his, show their teeth. He accrues detentions, suspensions, overdue library books. When he meets a snake, he covers his ears, averts his eyes. His fingertips simmer, and sometimes he wakes with holes singed in his sheets, sweat coating his skin.

He googles “How to stop starting fires” but none of the results are applicable to his situation. He’s not a pyromaniac, not a sadist, just somebody formed of fire, breathing, sleeping, dreaming fire. He’s a hellspawn, one of Rosemary’s babies, a devil child in sweats and a hoodie, earphones in, eyes on his feet. He googles his birth mother’s name, but cannot find her among the morass of faceless birth dates and death dates, endless offers for free trials in limitless databases.

He goes to a Catholic church, but is too frightened to approach the confessional. Light falls through the colored glass in the windows. Old women mutter prayers to their palms. Isaiah just stares at the hulking, black-curtained box and feels his pulse quicken. It looks like a cell, like a place you are strapped into while a magician saws you in half.

He looks forward to aging out of the system, but once it happens, he finds he has only graduated into a larger and more unnavigable system. He gets a job as a dishwasher, then loses it. Takes a class at the community college that he can never make it to on time. His rent goes up, his credit cards max out. 

Within a year he’s sleeping on sidewalks, in public parks. In summer it’s not so bad, though there are heat deaths, mosquitoes, fist fights. Anything of value that he owns when he falls asleep is missing when he wakes. He grows used to the smell of himself, his unwashed body, singed as if on the edge of sparking. If he sleeps in the woods, snakes coil around him in the night, so he keeps to the streets. 

The main thing is to have water, something to eat.

Autumn brings rain and a false sense of reprieve. By late November Isaiah is spent, delirious, freezing. People walk by him with their faces pointed away. They will do anything not to meet his eyes. They will do anything to convince themselves that nothing is mysterious.

For the first time in his life, he stops trying to suppress the fire. It’s too cold for him to stay coy. He feeds it, lets it grow until his hands are scalding, his tongue hot in his mouth. Raindrops turn to steam when they hit his flesh. He burns trash, newspapers, old books. Anything that anybody will bring him, he’ll burn. The other campers under the overpass gather around him with folded cereal boxes, the legs of chairs, warming their hands and their faces, talking and laughing, drinking, staring into the flames. They’re wary of him, as everyone has always been, but they’re drawn to him like moths to you know what.

A smiling woman with sores on her face—a friend, if he’s ever had one—claps him on the back in thanks, then winces, snatching her hand away when she makes contact with one of the knots of hard flesh that border his spine. 

Isaiah doesn’t begrudge her that fear. It’s a human instinct to cower from whatever he is. He knows that much by now.

The fire grows. Instead of satisfying themselves with keeping warm, they want a bonfire, a ritual. He grants it to them, though he knows the ending already: charred bodies and unanswered prayers. He’s spent so long trying to hold in the fire, to be a temperate 98.6, to keep home after home from disappearing in a cloud of black smoke, but whether he burns them away or not, everybody goes. Nobody stays. 

A corpse is like a social worker in the way it looks right through you. A mother is a fistful of ash. Did his mother know that he was cursed? Or did she have her own wings? She flew away. She slithered off into the valley.

Isaiah sweats, grows thirsty, but doesn’t stop. A fire is the only thing he knows how to build. When he starts to lose control, when the flames spit from him like rain from a storm cloud, he tells them to run. Yells it, screams it, holding the eyes of that woman, his friend, who would bring him loaves of bread and fistfuls of waxy yellow flowers, and talk on and on about the sea, and the paintings she’d done but lost, and the child she’d lost, and the afterlife she imagined. 

The word is on his tongue when he loses consciousness, and it’s still there when he wakes.

The hospital glows white. He’s unharmed, so they discharge him quickly into police custody. The cops hold him for the fire under the overpass, and question him about the earlier fires. The first one, from when he was in elementary school, is outside of the statute of limitations, but the second isn’t. Isaiah puts his elbows on the table, head into his hands. There is nobody to call. The detectives talk over him, encircle him, show him pictures of burned and unrecognizable bodies, elicit a confession. 

At his arraignment, he pleads insanity on the advice of his publicly appointed lawyer, but the subsequent evaluation deems him sane enough to convict. They admit that he’s plagued by a few morbid beliefs, but he’s aware of and in control of his actions. The six amputated deformities on his back are noted in the physical, but seen as irrelevant to the case at hand.

“No, sir, it’s not a compulsion. Nothing like that. It’s just me. Fire comes out of me.”

His lawyer had advised him not to say that at the trial, but he does anyway. They convict him for arson and several charges of murder in the first degree, and plaster his photo all over the local news. 

He’s sure the people sitting in their homes with their families like looking at his face and thinking: yes, that’s a killer if I’ve ever seen one; yes, you can see it in his eyes.

The prison is violent, derelict. When Isaiah is hit, he doesn’t hit back, but he manages to get himself a dangerous reputation, anyway. His back is the subject of ridicule, his life a broken thing he’s no longer bothering to hold together. He wakes, sleeps, eats, works, checks out library books. 

This isn’t the place for him. Not just the prison, but the whole world. He belongs somewhere else. In sleep, he can almost hear that place approaching. Night after night, it crawls closer.

When he burns away a whole wing of the prison, choking the halls with seething smoke and giving rise to several temporary inmate escapes, he can hear singing rising from the flames, a chorus of agonized voices. Angels are playing trumpets somewhere within the fire. They are laughing with their many mouths. He feels the phantom flutter of wings at his back, and then the ground below him recedes, growing distant, disappearing. He rises.

He wakes in another hospital bed. Another officer tells him that he had committed a federal offense.

He nods with many heads, blinks his many eyes. He thinks: This is his first. His first federal offense.

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Jaye Nasir

Jaye Nasir

Jaye Nasir is a writer from Portland, Oregon, whose work blurs, or outright ignores, the line between the real and the unreal. Her poems, essays and speculative fiction have appeared in many small publications, both local and international, including Moss: A Journal of the Pacific Northwest, Santa Clara Review, and Antithesis Journal.

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