A Dream on Fire

This story won the 2012 Whispered Words Anthology Prize, and was made into a short film in 2013, with my voice narrating on the voiceover. Fans have translated it into several languages, and I have posted some of the translations so my international readers can check them out if they are interested!

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“旅に病んで夢は枯れ野を駆け回る。”

-Matsuo Basho

The miracle happened on the evening of October twelfth, 1976, in a small apartment of Buenos Aires Avenida Corrientes building 314. At exactly eleven thirty-three, the clattering typewriter of journalist Raúl Heliodoro suddenly stopped, and a masterpiece of twelve words and seventeen syllables blazed across the twenty-second line of a half-filled page. The sentence was so brilliant that it shone like a dream on fire, and after it was written Raúl’s hands fell limply from the keys as if they were a woman who had just given birth to the savior of the world.

It was a sentence so profound and intense that there could be no doubt that were it spoken aloud in public it could pacify the bitterest conflict, seduce the most beautiful woman, apostatize the most zealous opponents of liberty. He removed the page from the machine and cut the phrase out delicately with a pair of scissors. He spent the night reading and rereading it, and fell asleep with the paper held rapturously to his chest. The following morning he took it to be laminated, and every day from then on he walked with the little slip cached secretly in his pocket. Occasionally he would sit by the placid pools of the local botanical garden to take it out and gaze upon like a beloved child or the body of an especially submissive lover.

He passed his nights imagining the book that he would construct around the exquisite phrase. Any novel with this unique and glorious sequence of words would become an instant classic, he knew, and the quotation, his quotation, would be repeated in attentive classrooms full of rapt students across all civilized nations in the world.

Now, Raúl was experienced in the world of letters, and knew what it was to start and abandon a work of literature. This time he wanted to be sure he had the story fully formed in his mind before even beginning. So every day after reporting on the atrocities of the dictatorship he lived under, he sat on benches with the phrase in his hand, imagining dialogues, creating characters, crafting metaphors.

In February of the following year, Raúl Heliodoro was denounced as a socialist by a man who barely knew him. The informer had been an acquaintance beaten by the secret police with a lead pipe until he gave them names, and Raúl disappeared the following night, kidnapped by black-suited government agents who dragged him naked and screaming from his bed.

But the seventeen syllables still burned like a flaming barrel of gasoline in his mind, and the book progressed. As they twisted his fingers back until they splintered and hung loose from bleeding sockets, the plot was perfected. As they beat him with rubber truncheons around the face and neck and demanded the names of imagined co-conspirators, the characters were fleshed out with pasts and eccentricities. As they tied him to a chair and splashed boiling water in his face, the details of the love interest became clear in his mind. As they cut off parts of his ears and fed them to dogs, the astonishing climax that he would one day write was envisioned and revised.

The story changed and evolved, hundreds of pages orbiting the key phrase that kernelled its luminous soul. Then finally one day, as arbitrarily and inexplicably as he had been abducted, after nearly half a year of incarceration without trial, they decided to release him. On that day, as he walked out of the prison, he smiled with a satisfaction greater than freedom. For he had the entire book already finished in his head.

He returned home and sat down at his typewriter, feeding a fresh sheet of paper into the machine with trembling, bandaged hands. As he laid his crooked fingers across the waiting keys, however, he suddenly realized that he had forgotten the sentence.

He ransacked his apartment for the scrap of paper, but could not find it. He had left the laminated sentence on his desk the night of his kidnapping, and the illiterate Argentinean breeze had long since blown it out the window. He became desperate. He raged and sobbed and pounded the walls. He lay in bed and went over the whole story again in his mind. All the dialogues, all the descriptive passages, all the intricate twists of the plot. But the phrase had somehow disappeared.

Raúl went ahead and wrote the book anyway. It took three years and he never tried to publish it when it was done.

One rainy afternoon a few years later, Raúl Heliodoro died of a broken neck after falling five stories from his apartment window. The death was declared by investigators to be a suicide. A 396-page manuscript covered with scrawled alterations was found in a cobwebbed shoebox in a corner of his closet, and soon buried under a humid mountain of deteriorating garbage in the city landfill.

The laminated strip of paper blew through the darkened, rain-slick streets the night Raúl’s body arrived in the morgue, and was caught under the recently polished boot of a chief of police as he stopped to light a cigarette. The man reached down and picked it up, wondering absentmindedly what it could be. Squinting in the half-light, he held it up to his semi-literate eyes and read. He cocked his head, thought about what it meant for a moment, then crumpled it slowly in his hand and threw it in the gutter.

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