A story about our house burning down

March 26, 2019

Maryam A offers an analogy for the experience of being in a political organization going through an intense period of crisis.

THE HOUSE felt like a mansion when we lived inside. Or maybe a packed house where too many of us lived in triples and quads. But it was our house. Over the years, people moved in and out. For most of us, it was home when we were there.

After years, wrestling the house away from our landlord-housemate, we made it a co-op house. We told the landlord-housemate they could stay, but they couldn’t make executive decisions for the whole house anymore. (This would prove too much to ask of them.)

Making it a co-op didn’t change our feelings about the other housemates. We love some of them; others’ dirty dishes still drove us up a wall; you still can’t stop thinking about those who made you want to break your lease all those times. But it was actually our house now.

The walls were full of mold. The electrical wiring was completely frayed. Sometimes, the door hinges were abnormally creaky. Some of us had asked the landlord to fix one or more of these things, or asked each other if the ceiling was supposed to be that color, or why the lights flickered when it thundered. There was a gas leak that only a few knew about.

Maybe someone dropped a cigarette in anger or to celebrate the co-op. Maybe a match was thrown. Maybe someone lit the stove, to brew a kettle for tea. Maybe they knew that if they lit the stove now, right by where they knew the gas leak was, then everyone would realize all the other things wrong with the house. Maybe they loved us when they wanted to make us tea.

The house is burning down now. Or maybe it’s already burnt to the ground. I can’t tell because there’s ash in my eyes.

I’m kneeling on the lawn with nothing but the shreds of my own shirt to stay the blood and wipe off the soot from the people running out from inside the house. I’m working with only a rudimentary knowledge of first aid, stuff I learned when I was 13 and trying to get a babysitting license. We have little to no real supplies, but adrenaline is pumping through my veins and my tunnel vision is on the burn victims, the ones with their lungs clogged with ash. We are untrained and unskilled, but we have our shirts, vague memories of what someone once told us, and love for these people with whom we shared a home.

THERE ARE people running in and out to save things from the house. Part of me wants to yell, “Not now, you will get hurt; not now, we need you on the lawn for first aid; please!”

I don’t yell. I know they need what they’re running back for. I know that there are things in that house that kept us alive when we lived there. Some only bring back an inhaler, some frantically pack large suitcases, some try and carry out our favorite sofa together. I am still holding my makeshift rag. I think I will go back for what I need when the fire has run its course.

I am not the only one holding tatters of shirt like this. Sometimes, the ash clouds the corners of my vision, and I don’t see them, but they are there and running and kneeling and sometimes holding their rag to the burns I barely feel on the backs of my legs. Others are offering the inhaler they ran inside for to anyone who needs it. Others have the bottle of water they happened to be holding when the fire started; they offer it now, rationed to wash off the rags, or as inadequate salve on raw throats.

There are some who ran from the house, across the lawn, and kept running. My mouth falls open as they cross the lawn and keep going down the street. I don’t stop any of them. Some just need to get away from the fire. Some run to an EMT training. I wonder if I would be better right now if I went to EMT training, but more people are running out of the house and collapsing on the grass.

I look over my shoulder at those running and I miss them already, but my feet are glued to the ground, and my shirt-rag-blood-towel is clutched tight in my hand. I turn back around to the house, to my housemates on the grass, gasping for air. I kneel beside them again, and say a prayer for all of us.

I know the house is going to burn all the way down. I know that I don’t have enough water, that the gas and the electrical wiring and the damaged walls meant we were vulnerable, that it is nigh inevitable the house won’t be there when I look up, not the house I loved. But as I run around with the rag, I whisper prayers over and over. I pray for my housemates. I pray for burn cream and bandages and a magic wand to heal us. I pray for the opportunity to hold hands with those that I love. Even, especially, the ones who ran away.

I want to walk through the ashes. I want to mourn. I want to sit in the wreckage to remember all that I’ve lost. I need to walk slow. I need to sift the ashes in my hands; and if there’s a pearl necklace left in the wreckage, it will be my lifeline.