creative nonfiction by D. L. Logan
Oh, but the fire went wild.
I never wanted to watch the world burn. But most people can sympathize with someone who does. There comes a point when we all feel that human decency is nonexistent, darkness is consuming, and all hope seems lost. Firestarters, however, don’t appreciate the fire itself, only the chaos, turmoil, and destruction it causes. Fire’s true beauty shines in controlled settings, like church candles and bonfires. It is within these controlled moments that we find the peace and warmth we know it provides.
Scientists at The University of Alabama have discovered that watching a fire is relaxing to the point of reducing blood pressure. They attribute this trigger in the human psyche (and particularly in humans prone to prosocial behaviors, like empathy and altruism) to evolution.
It is something akin to dogs howling like wolves when they hear a specific musical key or cats jumping away from snake-shaped objects. Fire, heat, fever, light—there are many forms, each with their own molecular peculiarities, sociological developments, and psychological effects.
It is biologically ingrained in us to know that life is tied to fire. But perhaps it is even more humanistic than that. Maybe we know or hope that at some point in history, someone who was as sad and scared as we were also stared into flames and somehow survived their own suffering.
Our response to fire is embedded in our DNA; we’re predestined to find harmony in the flames.
The first memory I have was a smell. I think. Hospital disinfectant. Definitely. The next memory is not waking up in a hospital bed, so much as coming into existence there. I had no knowledge of anything prior to that moment. I lost years, everything that shaped me, my personality, rudimentary skills—nearly a decade of a life—gone.
As the memory continues, I know my body was inclined to a sitting position in the hospital bed and in view of a large circular nurses’ station. I always know which way is south and assign the other directions accordingly. As an adult, I have come to find this peculiarity of mine ironic, as I confuse left and right more often than not. I translate body-relative directions into cardinal directions in my mind whenever possible, just like a foreign language. My internal compass only fails me at high elevations, like on a plane or in the mountains of West Virginia. My flying anxiety comes from the absence of my navigation rather than fear of the airplane crashing. It’s as if I am standing outside of myself in these moments, looking for a way back in. Find a distraction. Breathe. Focus on anything other than the loss of control. Usually, I only find absolute relief when I am back on the ground at—or slightly above or below—sea level.
In the hospital room, without a doubt, I was facing west, but it is not something I understood (or even realized) then. My heart was racing and someone was panicking.
Ah. It was me. Not because I didn’t know where I was. Not because I couldn’t really hear anything. Not because I didn’t know me.
I didn’t have time to contemplate or realize any of that. I panicked because I was in pain.
I looked from the busy nurses’ station to the source of the pain. My left arm was purple. I was not certain what kind of grunt/howl/scream came out of me that day, but whatever it immediately summoned a legion of hospital personnel to my bedside.
Within moments, one of them found the source of my agony when they lifted the sleeve of my hospital gown: a phlebotomist had left a rubber tourniquet tied on my arm after a blood draw.
This is my first permanent memory. Perhaps the pain and fear I felt in that moment helped solidify it and burn it into my subconscious. I spent a long time in that hospital, during the coma, and after waking from it. My first memory is a bittersweet one. I was afraid and in pain, but I felt relief and joy when a group of nurses came to my rescue—my fleet of antiseptic angels.
Spinal meningitis is an infection of the fluid and membranes around the spinal cord and the brain. A doctor would later try to explain it to me in a way I could visualize: “You had an infection that caused such a high fever your body started to shut itself down and you went to sleep for a long time. It’s as if your body was on fire, and some of that fire burned away your eardrums and some of your brain.”
Surprisingly, the complete and permanent retrograde amnesia, the partial anterograde amnesia, and the hearing loss would be least among my immediate problems after my Rip Van Winkle stint.
Aside from the amnesia, waking up from a coma is nothing like it is in the movies. I couldn’t just stand up and walk out of the hospital with my bags and the hope of one day regaining my memory. I was far too old to be wearing large diapers (because I could not control my bowels) and far too young to need a rickety walker to steady the legs beneath me (because I could not remember how to put one foot in front of the other). I would spend a long time relearning basic human functions. But I was alive.
At some point, I figured out which one of the hospital visitors was my mother. It was the one who smelled like cigarette ash and Jontue perfume. I longed for her when she was gone, but when she was there, I longed for the strong disinfectant smell.
I had been in a persistent vegetative state. The doctors told my mother I would remain that way for the rest of my life. Once my body and brain decided not to stay comatose, I became something of a sideshow exhibit. They called my regaining consciousness a “miracle,” and my mother enjoyed the attention.
For years, with her friends, family, and strangers alike, she would recount my miraculous near-death experience and somehow take credit for the fact I was not mentally deficient. Each time the listener looked at me with pity and looked at her with admiration, it became all the more important to keep this part of my life as much of a secret as possible. What’s one more in a drawer full of them?
Surviving a near-death experience would only buy her patience for so long. I would learn to be extremely well-behaved. I would be the best
at pleasing my mother to earn her love, or eventually just to avoid
I loved and hated the nurses. The nurses smelled clean and would pat my hand, beam kind smiles, and slip me extra pudding cups. I was often malnourished throughout my childhood; I imagine after waking from a coma, I looked even more pathetic and sickly. As a mother now, I understand the smile was not only meant to comfort me, but it was also likely a self-satisfied reaction to fulfilling the common human instinct to nourish young creatures.
As nursed as I felt in those moments of care, I felt just as much betrayal at others.Those same nurses would hold me down while I wildly kicked and screamed at the doctors, respiratory and physical therapists, and phlebotomists that came in to perform various frustrating, embarrassing, and painful tests, or place IVs in my feet or thighs.
If she was there, my mother would join in the struggle to hold me down. Her face always contorted in anger at my behavior. I would come to understand disobedience was not something she typically tolerated. Surviving a near-death experience would only buy her patience for so long. I would learn to be extremely well-behaved. I would be the best at pleasing my mother to earn her love, or eventually just to avoid upsetting her.
The most nurturing moment I ever witnessed from my mother was in that hospital, though it was not directed toward me.
That moment is my second permanent memory.
I opened my eyes. I was lying on my left side, facing south. The lights were off in the room, but the wash of bright lights from the nurses’ station illuminated everything except the dark corners. My mother was rocking a Black child back and forth in a nursery glider-style chair.
She rubbed his head tenderly. I imagine I must have been jealous, or perhaps confused, but the only emotion I associate with this memory was hope. It was a moment I would cling to for decades as proof to myself that my mother was not a monster. Proof she wasn’t cold. Proof she wasn’t racist.
The boy’s name was Samuel. I cannot bring myself to change his name. Not for the sake of privacy or for the sake of holding a little something back, tucked in close, like a precious locket. So long as this memory was held tight, but out of sight, I wouldn’t have to face it.
His name was Samuel.
He would become my first best friend. He would sleep in the bed with me at night and share meals with me by day. I like to think that two lonely and scared little children became lights for each other.
According to my mother, Samuel was a permanent resident of the hospital, because his mother had abandoned him there. The nurses were his caretakers. I have no idea if that was true.
My repeated requests for her to adopt him were rejected, usually in a harsh way, but sometimes with a kindness—tinged with sadness. I later realized on my own that he was never going to be my brother and I would never again see that purely tender side of my mother.
Samuel was never going to leave that hospital.
But I buried that. Deep. I also buried the betrayal I felt when my mother did not bring him home with us. It never even crossed my mind that our precarious living situations and our severe poverty would have precluded any such adoption were it even possible. And it wouldn’t be terribly long before I would come to understand that I would not have wished my prolonged misery and questionable survival on any other child.
My mother’s tenderness regarding Samuel might have been tied to the loss of her own son—another brother I would never get to know. I would have never known he existed at all were it not for the loose lips of a relative. Everyone who knew anything about my brother seemed to have a different theory about what happened to him. The only consensus among them is that my mother got pregnant and had a baby boy when she was fifteen. She did not leave the hospital with my brother. My lost brother.
Another lost brother.
It is heavy and heartbreaking to think about him. If he did survive, I hope he was adopted by a kind and loving family. And the universe spared him the same fate and horrors as his siblings. But I try not to think about it too much given the likelihood of something good getting away unscathed from the firestorms that enveloped my young life.
Samuel, though, I remembered warmly throughout my life, occasionally flashing back to the tender moments I spent curled up with my temporary twin in the womb of my hospital bed. I knew him. We breathed in the other’s air. That is why he is more real to me than my biological brother.
I smile when I hear the name Samuel, or when I see a young boy that looks like him. I understand now, however, that I did not bury Samuel’s probable prognosis as deep as I thought because I never imagined what Samuel looked like as an adult. In my mind, even now, he is alive and well. But he is still a little boy, running around our floor of the children’s hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, making the nurses laugh, warming cold hearts, snuggling up to some little brunette until they both drift off to sleep.
Samuel’s skin smells like pink baby lotion.
One of my early post-hospital memories involving fire was of an indoor wood- burning stove. It mesmerized me.
When I think of that fireplace, my mind doesn’t automatically think of the terror and suffering that occurred in that house. I think of playing Monopoly and Clue in front of that fire with other children. I think of warming our chapped faces in front of that fire after spending all day taking turns riding down the steep hill near Firetower Road in an old ratty wheelchair we found in someone’s trash pile. I think of exploring those country woods while collecting twigs to go into that fire.
I stared into that fire and saw rhythm, controlled chaos, some kind of peace.
Was your childhood brief and littered with flashes of everything that was overpowering, and all the senses, the smells, that accompanied them? Burnt ash and clinical disinfectant. Hot pain and cold comfort.
If that was your childhood, then you grew into a culmination of feelings and circumstances that were sometimes beautiful and hopeful, and moments that were simply overwhelming. Some of your empathy was the byproduct of an awareness necessary for survival.
It is still the kind of overwhelming that knocks the wind out of you.
There is a sinking and shocking energy that moves through you based on the mood and pain of those around you.
When you see someone’s open wound, your heart twists, then falls, seemingly swallowing you from inside-out as it plummets.
You will think of a moment of your life, your own wounds or your own relief from them, and instantly empathize.
You think of the burning from split skin on the backs of your thighs from a belt buckle. You will smell blood and sweat.
A memory of the cool relief on hot tear-stained cheeks pressed against a cheap linoleum bathroom floor will wash over you if you are lucky, and you will exhale. Or you think of air conditioning, a never-ending pitcher of ice water, and every other reprieve a place of healing can offer.
Sympathy for the injured soul who bears the mark will morph into a want, a wish, a prayer, for a clean, cold, safe space for the wound to heal—for a fleet of nurses to make everything better.
You smell pine cleaner and ointment.
Fireplaces still mesmerize me. Warmth—I think of the welcome refuge from a cold snap. I think of drinking hot cocoa fireside with my children. I think of laughter over the firepit while we make s’mores.
The smell of a struck match is cathartic.
But not all fire is good, and not all comfort is cold. Nothing is so absolute.
Cool healing salve on top of the etchings of a hot tattoo needle. Burning sage and cold baptismal waters. Snowflakes on my tongue and fevered chills. Heat from passion and heat from embarrassment. The cold hand of death and the cold relief of iced tea on a July day in South Mississippi. Warm snuggles with Samuel and the cold pain of a spinal tap.
Sensations from every season.
The high fever that spread through my body was a fire. I was ablaze.
I burned until some extraordinary and unexplainable cold doused the flames; the embers shaped my life.
The warm cinders are still at my core.
D.L. Logan is originally from Pass Christian, Mississippi, a small city located an hour east of New Orleans, Louisiana. She holds a BA from The University of Alabama, an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College, and a JD from The University of Alabama School of Law. Her work has appeared in BULL Magazine, Slash Pine Festival Anthology, and Law & Psychology Review; she has also presented fiction at two conventions. Logan lives in The Woodlands, Texas with her partner, three children, and giant dog.