This weekend’s story was guest-edited by previous contributor Cam Terwilliger, author of “Reply Hazy.” —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Kirk Nesset’s “Burn” takes a brief but intense look at the dicey world of male romantic fixation. Here we have a man more interested by the idea of women, and the perpetual romantic chase, than by any particular woman–which is to say, a human being who happens to be female. To make matters worse, he’s an artist, a writer in fact, a figure that reminds us at once of Lord Byron. That is, until his life takes a twist that feels more like the grim, unsettling pages of Kafka. I hope you enjoy the rich language and imagery of “Burn” as much as I did. It’s prose poetry shot in the arm with a plot twist straight from The Twilight Zone. —Cam Terwilliger
You pause for a week, here or there, or a month, setting this down or that on clean paper, aimlessly leafing through books. Each night you emerge from your room to find what you need to make you feel fuller. Each town, each time, she’ll appear, in the home of a friend or café where you gather—supernaturally pretty, unsullied, a thing not yet revealed in the world. You pretend not to see, which provokes; in her unsuspecting, unthinking way she will follow, or encourage, at least. You draw her aside, or vice versa. She listens, transfixed. You’re the kind of man beautiful heroines marry in novels. Monied, fine-featured, haunted, detached. So much danger and toil you have to recall, weary of the world as you are, and alone, carting your notebooks and box, year after year, through night and through wind.
Sooner or later, however, it’s over. The spun braid is cut, the standard torn down, the fruit shattered. You draw her in swiftly, taste of her, commit her to paper, imbibe her, destroy her. And then flee, fattened and flushed, slick still with slaughter, as the torches approach, sirens, the preposterous plans for revenge.
And yet somewhere, at some point, something happens. A shift, if you will. Slowly at first: so slow you almost don’t notice. The hunger is there, but not like before. There is hunger but also awareness of hunger, which wavers, which gathers like gauze. You float town to town, sipping and supping, feast after feast, girl after girl, adding husk after husk to that shadow of dry husks behind you. Gradually full begins to feel empty. Full feels stale, mismeasured; full feels like fever, autopsy. You grow skinny and sickly. You sit stuck before your blank notebook. The words you set down—after, before—no longer serve. They’re tepid. Lukewarm, untrue. If you look back a few pages, or skip back a hundred, you see the same words, same phrases, lines, word for word, you wrote two weeks, or two years, before.
So in this ongoing autumn you are not who you were. Your thinking is scattered, your functioning’s off. You’re self-conscious, anemic. Despite what you know, despite the rules you have set, you agree to meet this young person, young woman, girl, in your house, in these rooms you have leased: not at her mother’s, or churchyard adjoining. You sit waiting, hardly daring to breathe. And then she arrives, floating up in her silent white vehicle. A knock. And in she comes with her smile and blonde braids and satchel.
My, my, she says, easing onto the couch.
The cabernet is decanted. You pour her a glass, offer her black fish paste and kippers on crackers. Indeed she is hungry. She eats four or five crackers, gulping her wine. She’s shockingly lovely. An angel, a vision, a fragrant miracle in your tumultuous room. You stare. Beauty alone renders disorder tolerable, makes the ongoing burning worthwhile. She smiles, refills her wine. And sighing, undoes her braids. Hair spills on the gold garment she wears. On her neck, her bare shoulder.
Well, she says.
Well, well, you answer.
Want to see what I brought?
She rattles the satchel on the sofa arm—and plucks out a notebook, a new one, one like these that you buy to jot your things in.
You bought me a notebook.
No, she replies. This one’s mine.
I wrote in it.
You adore her, you want her, but something’s not right. You watch yourself watch her, and tell yourself, I will not give myself up to devouring, self-stabbing thoughts. Beyond her head out the window it’s dark, but not quite. You see silhouettes, a ragged imprint of fence, wisps of fog hovering. You write less and less lately yourself, actually. Writing is thinking and thinking is words and words become phrases, clauses, elaborate mazes spiraling in.
She flips the notebook open.
Want me to read some?
I want you to kiss me.
She leans, pulls gently, draws your lips to hers. You feel yourself easing in, into sensation, death and forever, which happens, unhampered, since you haven’t yet had her: you kissed at her mother’s and held her and later walked up the boulevard. The blood mounts in your face, if not elsewhere. And rather than feel yourself feel, you let yourself go, you let the blood flow as stars apprehend and the dead rise in the dusk to roam sleeping villages. But it’s odd. You breathe in her scent, ginger-persimmon, you kiss the tops of her breasts in their intricate casings. She’s guarded, but not in the way one would think. You will your hand to continue, unhook and unhasp. It doesn’t. It can’t. It’s you, surely, not a spell, forbidding this sweetness, this heaven keeping your dying alive.
She yawns, turns away. And picks up the notebook, since you stopped. She studies a particular page.
Read it, you tell her.
So in this ongoing autumn you are not who you were. Your thinking is scattered, your—
Where did you get this?
I wrote it.
You take the thing from her, feeling something like horror—skirting the abyss of yourself, about to tip in. You read the page she read from.
It’s your work. Your thoughts, your writing, cast in her long, loping hand. You flip back a few pages. Some of it you didn’t write, but could have, you thought it, impressed it, forsook it. You jump ahead a page, read what you haven’t yet thought—there is love and rage in you no one can imagine—and terrified, clap the thing shut.
The girl, meanwhile, slips off her clothes. The iridescent blouse and pale skirt, the stockings, the panties.
No, no, you exclaim.
Eat me, drink me, she says.
You drop the notebook. You’re dizzy, suddenly. She leads you to the bedroom, and bed, and because there is no choosing otherwise, you begin.
If your hand or head had in it what coal has, or ember, you’d act without question, no chasm, no vertiginous plunge. How far can you run before wilderness ends? Her blood and your blood intermix, the broken fruit seeping. Her heat sears, melts the sagging web you have spun, spinning, everything you’ve done or thought or will do or are thinking. The house begins shaking. The sky roars. The torches approach and encircle. In this moment, these hundreds of years, there is love and rage in you no one can imagine, unless someone does. Words are wounds, bits of debris on endless oceans of blood. What’s left to be done? Your thoughts unthink themselves, exposed to the sun; your head’s severed, your heart pierced by the fullness empty can’t give. The flames rise. You understand you have nothing to do in this world if not burn. Even these words that are thinking you now, which you cautiously offer, are the ash you consume, are caskets of bone and white dust.