Ring of Fire

May 2, 2023

Flames and smoke have always coated my field, even when I’ve tended to it. When will I learn that nothing grows in burnt soil?

We’re given open fields when we’re born.

We’re expected to make something of them, to fill every nook with something of our own. Some create gardens that stretch toward the horizon. Others decorate with extravagant blooms. No one can touch your field but you.

I had to burn mine.

Aimlessness has suffocated me since before I can remember. I was molded with a heavy hand that crashed down on wrong decisions. It seemed like every decision I made came with a crash. At six, I discovered writing, and my thirst for words could not be quenched. I showed my garden blueprint with pride, but I was met with cocked heads and furrowed brows. How are you going to pay for all that land? I lost care for my field, myself. I didn’t bother exploring other options; I was young, stubborn, and immediately discouraged. To an outsider, I was easygoing, go-with-the-flow. In reality, I was lost. It was only natural. My lack of a green thumb and the world’s worst allergies left me unable to grow anything substantial. I was an actionless visionary, wandering in a lavender haze.

Soon, wandering stopped being cute. No one tended to me, but I was suddenly expected to grow a stunning array of foliage, perfectly placed, with little room for error. At thirteen, I charted an acceptable life and tried everything I was supposed to. I thought it would be easier to place the foliage given to me than to try to grow my own, but ill-fitting career paths and personality traits shriveled up faster than lilies in a Texan summer. At eighteen, faced with college, the implications of my choices became too imminent, too real. I couldn’t fake it anymore. On a whim, I plucked everything I’d worked for and started anew. Everyone had thriving meadows, blossoming with lilacs and recognition, while I was obscured among dead grass.

I spotted smoke dancing in the distance. Cackles filled with glee pierced the air, and I followed them.With every self-deprecating word my friends uttered, the air bloated with the stench of burned grass. They reveled in the smell, running with torches of self-hatred. These supposed gardeners were wrecking their fields, but they were at peace. In giving up, they abandoned their anxieties about the future. They frolicked as if they weren’t moments away from incinerating themselves. I realized it might be better to point out your flaws before others noticed them. Their free spirits were enchanting, and they offered me a hand. For a little longer, I didn’t have to figure out my place in the world. If I couldn’t create myself, why not destroy?

For a year, I picked flames instead of flowers. My blistered skin bubbled with every bridge burned, every charred petal. My plot was ablaze, and all I felt was bliss. It was destructive, but it was perfectly placed. I no longer wandered but ran. Time was still, and I let my self-loathing envelop me. It filled my insides, and the spillage tethered me to others. The reasons they were here were unimportant to me. We were united in the insecurities we wore like badges of honor. People on the other side didn’t get it  – their gardens were too pristine. They were wound so tight that they were bound to snap. We were free! We were real!

After a while, it felt like I was running in circles. It was harder to convince myself that I wanted this. I told myself that this was who I had to be, but I realized that I shunned who I wanted to be: a dreamer. I walked towards my first field and smelled a familiar perfume. I forgot how the satisfaction of achievement felt. Deep down, I admired the painstaking effort it took to grow orchids, the beauty reaped as a reward. Now, blackened grass stabbed my blistered heels, and it was even harder to envision my future. I was afraid of failure, but now didn’t feel good enough to deserve anything else.

Starved for success, I spent the next year turning into a voracious gardener. Walking past my burned field, I tilled fresh grass and found the girl I used to be. It was easier to dream miles away from authority, but I would make sure they saw how great I could be. This new me attracted genuine friends – people that actually cared about me. But with genuineness came realness, and soon my actions were psychoanalyzed with surprising accuracy. Their understanding smiles at my overwatered succulents were off-putting. I was insecure about how late I was figuring myself out, but I couldn’t let anyone know that. I couldn’t risk regressing into old habits. So, I surrounded my field with what I knew best – a ring of fire.

The ring of fire protected me. I could garden in peace without worrying about anyone getting close and hating what they saw. I was oblivious to everything but my gardening. In becoming consumed with progress, I neglected my emotions. Months passed, and I didn’t cry. After a year, I couldn’t. I wore my coldness with pride. My desperation and inadequacy singed my heart, but I ignored them. Nothing would stand in the way of my dream garden.

Trails of smoke crept into my nose. Soil blackened in the distance, but I didn’t remember burning it. I spotted burns on my lilacs, and I turned to see the ring of fire creeping up on me. I almost had everyone fooled, even myself.

Fire’s volatility makes it a shallow defense. One day, you’re invisible. Next, you’re burning. I thought I could keep my friends at a distance and become successful on my own, but the fire that I used to keep them at bay soon blew back on me. Everything on my plate suddenly became too much to swallow. Blinded by an influx of emotion, sparks lunged for my ankles, and I winced as they blistered. Tears trickled and then drowned my cheeks as I wept in agony. I wept for the growth I self-destructed, the growth that was never there to begin with. I hyperventilated on the smoke that blanketed me. I swatted at my flaming thighs and scalp, hating how human I was for burning. I had to isolate myself for a weekend to recuperate, and my plants slowly died around me. That one night left me shaking, unable to tend to the progress I had so carefully cultivated. I was stagnant, and my dream had turned into a nightmare. In obsessing over the end goal, I sacrificed my sanity.

What happens when we don’t live for ourselves? Hellish characters are created in our incompleteness, and we’re forced to bear witness to their inevitable destruction, no matter how much we try to control them. I faced my plot to see a familiar wreckage. Was it worth it? It all came to the same end. With all this effort, I still didn’t get what I wanted. These roaring blazes were nothing but performances. I either ran or hid because of someone else’s rules. Flames obscure us until we let ourselves reach for what we want.

As I stare into the spitting fire, I realize that I want to keep gardening, even if I don’t quite know what I’ll grow. I gather a bouquet of the few flowers alive and extinguish the ring of fire. I spot the hellish character on the other side, but I don’t run or hide. She glances at my bouquet, and her face softens.

Shrouded in smoke, I gaze into the eyes of my maker. I stare at the arc of singed grass beneath my calloused feet. Her snarl eases into lips that look like mine. Ringlets of hair bury her now disintegrating horns. She lifts my heavy hand and guides me through the smoke, but on the other side, I am alone.

The grass is pristine. ■

Layout: Ainsley Plesko
Photographer: Thomas Cruz
Stylist: Yousuf Khan
HMUA: Leah Teague
Model: Morgan Cheng

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