Light flickers warm and orange on our faces. We walk from one blaze to another, from fire to fire. We walk and listen to the melody at the heart of each bonfire.
One fire sings the wind, rushing at various pitches and strengths, ebbing from frantic to mild, then back to tornado.
Another sings in paired frequencies, dissonant humming we feel in our chests.
The bonfires sing songs like none we’ve heard before, following no musical patterns we recognize.
We move on, carrying marshmallows on sticks and wood smoke in our throats, heading for the next pinprick of light in the distance. Bright sparks meander overhead. You walk ahead of me, a silhouette against the glow of the next bonfire.
The only silhouette.
We are alone.
A choir burns from the next fire, soft and angelic, soaring, reverberating as though under vaulted ceilings. The one after that has a looping, burbling melody, rising and falling like a river singing its journey to the sea; and the next one buzzes with angular motifs, spiking from low to high seemingly at random.
We approach yet another bonfire, twirling our marshmallow sticks. But it doesn’t feel right to roast marshmallows over an aria of hummingbird wings, so we move on once again.
A quiet sobbing comes from the bonfire up ahead. We turn around, but we’ve lost the trail of fires behind us. There is only one bonfire left, the only light.
We walk toward the last bonfire and earth becomes dust, grass worn away by all those who have come before us.
Closer now, we hear a thin whimper deepen into moaning. Sparks tinkle like windchimes around a nucleus of wailing, plaintive and high, flames licking, wood keening, misery flooding into our bones until we crack each other open and find nothing
3 Questions for Tara
What was your process for creating this work?
This is part of a series of stories I've been writing in the "In the City of" format. I have the amazing Matt Bell and Michael Moorcock to thank for the inspiration. Matt Bell writes a fantastically helpful newsletter, and in one of them he mentioned Michael Moorcock's suggestion for prewriting a novel of creating a list of "deliberate paradoxes" with the example "In the City of Screaming Statues." I was fascinated by the impossibility of that idea, and broke the strategy down one step further—not making a list of paradoxes, but making a list of nouns and verbs. At the beginning of each writing session, I would pick one of each at random and create a world in which they exist together.
What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?
At the time I came across this idea, I was in one of those floating-about stages most writers experience, where you're not consumed by any one project. I work best when I'm thinking something through, or answering a question, but I didn't have one particular question I was working on at the time. This prompt gave me mini daily tasks: to pick a noun and a verb and explain how they could possibly work together. It was the small, concrete thing I needed at the time.
What is the significance of this work to you?
Even though my first published book was a novel, I don't consider myself a novelist, and I didn't consider this series of stories as prewriting for a novel--I was just answering one question at a time. Now, however, I'm starting to get ideas for what might just be... a novel? I never thought I'd even consider writing another one, but I suppose if I can imagine singing bonfires, I should be able to imagine writing another novel.
Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University. Previous publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Booth, Strange Horizons, CRAFT Literary, and Escape Pod/Artemis Rising. She's the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and four collections: Circe's Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, Political AF: A Rage Collection, and Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her at www.taracampbell.com or on Twitter: @TaraCampbellCom or IG: @thetreevolution