It started after the fire, on a cold night with rain pelting heavily against the mouldy windows. I shot up on my bed from a dream I could not remember, and found sweat trickling down my forehead. Even though the air around me was bone chilling, I felt an intense heat inside my body. Desperately wanting to cool myself down, I headed to the window, ready to let a gust of cold air in. But it was then that I saw it.
Even though it was pouring outside, the moon was still peaking from behind the dark clouds. It shone directly at my room window, and when my left hand reached out, I saw a name on my forearm. At first I thought it was a stain, but after attempting to rub it off with my skin turning pink, I knew it was not. Thinking I was still dreaming, I returned to bed only to wake up the next morning with the same name on my arm; my father’s.
Not knowing what to do, I wore a long sleeved shirt to hide it from others. That was the best I could do while I cracked my brain on how to remove it. In this world of mine, having inked skin is not a good sign. Those whose skin are covered with inked symbols and names are thieves and raiders; the bad kind of people that terrorised smaller villages. To have ink on my skin might end badly for me and I knew I needed to do something about it fast. Unfortunately, I was too slow.
As the nights went by with me contemplating burning and cutting my skin, more names began appearing on my arm. It started with my father’s name and spread on with my neighbour’s name and the name of the little girl that used to sell me oranges every morning. The worst part was, the names that were appearing on my skin belonged to the dead… the ones that died in the fire that wiped out my whole village.
When I realized what was happening, I became desperate. I started acting strange and I snapped at anyone that touched me. The people in the neighbouring village, that took me and the other survivors in, thought I was mourning for the lost of my family, but my cousin saw right through me… somehow. She knew something was not right and she kept asking me about it. One afternoon, when she attempted to find out what was wrong, I ignored her and ran. I ran into the forest trying to get away from her, and when I thought I was far enough, I stopped at a small stream.
Pulling my sleeve back, I prayed silently that the ink would miraculously wash away. But when I dipped my arm into the cold water, none of the names came off. I began scratching my skin in anger, with my nails digging into my flesh, but when I saw fresh blood I quickly stopped. My hands were shaking and my body was trembling with fear. Why wouldn’t the names come off?
As I tried to compose myself, I heard someone coming up behind me. I did not need to guess as my cousin asked, “What’s wrong?”
I could not answer her, and without giving it much thought, I showed her my forearm. She looked at me with worried eyes, but she did not say anything.
“I don’t know how to get it off! Why are they appearing?” I asked in exasperation even though I knew she could not answer me.
Why the names were appearing made no sense, and I tried hard to deny the only reasoning I had at that moment. Was I cursed? If I was, what did I do wrong? And then I remembered.
I had blocked out what happened during the night of the fire the moment I found myself safe from the flames’ reach. It was not something I did intentionally as my mind always drew blank when people asked what had happened. That night, the blank canvas of my memory began to fill with colour.
It all started with a dare. I had challenged my friends to sleep in my father’s old barn on a chilling night. It was probably the stupidest idea I’ve ever had, but my friends took me up on it. So that night, we each found our own corner and shivered our way into a horrible sleep. A few hours into the challenge, I woke up to a flickering light a few feet away from me. Knowing immediately that someone was attempting to cheat, I crawled over to my friend and flicked the lighted match from her hand.
“You’re cheating,” I whispered angrily.
“I’m cold, alright? Spare me one match,” she replied.
“Go home if you’re going to cheat.”
“What difference will one match make anyway?” she asked.
Immediately after her question, we realized the huge difference one match could make. When I first saw the bright light coming from a stack of hay, I thought I was imagining it, but when my friend saw it too, I knew it was real. Within seconds, the flames leaped from one haystack to another and before we could fully wrap our heads around what was happening, the barn was halfway from being completely devoured.
Quickly, I scrambled to my feet and began calling for my friends. Because we had scattered ourselves around the barn, I had to find all of them before I could leave. By the time I yanked my last friend from his sleep, half of the barn had already caved in. We did not have to think twice as we both ran out of the barn, only to learn that the fire had caught on to the neighbouring wooden houses.
Almost instantly, my head began to spin; maybe because I inhaled too much smoke or maybe because I could not accept what I was seeing. Screams filled the air as people rushed out of their houses either in flames on in tears. And when I did not want to watch any further, my body did me a favour and shut down.
“I killed them,” I muttered, as the canvas of my memory began to fill with red.
“You didn’t,” my cousin said softly.
“I did. I killed my father,” I said, and when I looked at my father’s name on my forearm, my chest began to tighten as tears began to roll down my cheeks.
“You didn’t,” my cousin repeated.
She quickly got on her knees and reached for my hands. “You didn’t kill anyone. It was not your fault.”
“I did. I killed your parents too,” I choked on my words.
“The fire killed my parents, and the fire killed your father. You’re not responsible.”
“You’re lying!” I snapped.
“I’m not. You’re blaming yourself because you have no one else to blame. Even if it was your fault, it’s the past now.”
There were tears in her eyes and her gaze was as firm as my father’s. They had the same eyes and it was as though I was looking at my father for the last time.
“Forgive yourself, my sweet girl,” I heard him say.
And when I did, the names disappeared.
Two weeks ago I wrote about forgiving others and remembering those who have forgiven us. This week, I thought I should address the kind of forgiveness we struggle the most; forgiving ourselves.
When certain bad situations happen in life, we tend to unconsciously put the blame on ourselves. We don’t know we are doing it and we continue to pile on the guilt on our shoulders. When we finally feel the weight of it, we collapse emotionally because we firmly believe we are responsible. Yes at times we are actually responsible, but either way, living in guilt cannot turn back time. The only way to move forward and to carry on is not to keep calm but to forgive yourself. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.
I hope you enjoyed this story :) As always, let me know what you think of it in the comments below!
© 2014 Jeyna Grace
(For more short stories, click HERE)