The Man on Fire by Noah Singh-Harris

Mar 15, 2021

Content warning: self-harm, suicidal thoughts

The boy dreams of fire. He dreams of pouring gasoline over himself and lighting a match. The dream does not leave his mind with the rising daylight; it sinks in deeper, taking hold of him and forcing him to view the truth of what he had been stopped from doing. 

Kabir had tried to slit his wrists the night before. 

His flatmate had found him bent over the bathroom sink, hacking at where he could spot the veins through his skin. When did he first hear the story of the man who burnt himself to death? Years ago? Decades? It matters little; from the moment he had heard the story, his fate was sealed. It had probably been on the news. ‘Local madman commits suicide by setting his house on fire.’ Yes, that sounds right, doesn’t it? So the boy who grew up next to the ocean dreamt of fire and knew he had to move away.

He wants to know who told him, though. Who told him of the man and the fire? Because then he would have someone to blame for it all: for his mind, for this tiredness, for being so dreadfully sick of it all. He wants someone to rage against, to set on fire instead of himself. Why should he be the only one to feel this way? No boy as young as him should feel ready to let go of the world. A boy his age should be exploring the world, seeking adventure. Instead, all he searches for is the next drink and a way to hide his mind from those around him. It would not be good for people to know how much he thinks of the man and the fire.

The next month passes with doctor’s appointments and quiet disapproval and drinking in secret. It’s cold the day he remembers where he had first heard the story: his mother had told him. The man who set himself on fire was his uncle, or his cousin, or a brother; it doesn’t matter. His family had always been a spread out and confusing thing to him, too tangled and wild to understand, too distant, brimming with secrets and carefully packaged grief. So it does not matter who the man had been. The man was family; that was enough.

Kabir chokes down the laughter and takes the matches out of the kitchen cupboard. His fate had been sealed a long time ago. Tradition is tradition, and a boy must follow in his family’s footsteps. 

After all, it’s in his blood.

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