Burning Monkfish

by Sage Kalmus

The crazy monkfish really went and did it. Not even he thought he would, but the proof is everywhere: the layers of gauze cocooning whatever he’s got left of a body; the trancelike pick-POCK pick-POCK of the machine breathing on his behalf; the tubes and wires protruding from every part of him like his viscera seeking mad escape; the pain, piercing the dense fog of sedation like white lightning; and then, of course, there’s his absolute incapacity to move. All proof that not only had he really gone and done it, but he had failed.

“Oh Thelonious,” the monkfish hears, though whether from inside the room or his head he’s unsure. In any case it’s right. It hurts too much to be himself right now. Better to just be the monkfish.

“Drew?” comes the voice comes again. This time in the room for sure. “Is that really you in there?”

And the monkfish thinks, Good question. How did they identify him anyway? Who could tell what anything was in all that smoke and flame? That couldn’t be a person in there. Certainly not little Andy Ballard. 

His crusted fishlike eye, the one not sealed shut, seeks the voice’s source, settling instead on a television hanging in a corner, angled down at him. And there it is: Times Square—which he honestly never expected to see again (nor anywhere else for that matter.) And there he is—or at least one would have to assume—no more than a flailing column of orange flare billowing black smoke across the sidewalk. COLLEGE STUDENT SETS SELF ON FIRE, the caption reads. Of course they wouldn’t use the proper term; not enough viewers know what “self-immolate” means.

It doesn’t bother the monkfish, watching it—and watching it over and again in replay. More than anything he’s shocked the doctors would even allow a patient’s t.v. to be on in circumstances like these. Did they let crash victims relive their trauma in endless loop on the cable news while they lay there helpless? Besides, he had expected all this coverage. Hoped for it, even. He just hadn’t expected to be around to see it.

“Well, welcome back you stupid bastard,” the voice mutters, closer now. And with an effort that ignites a whole new conflagration in his skull the monkfish swivels his head the slightest bit to the side—all he can muster and all too much—to set blurred sights on a silhouette that slowly sprouts features like night sprouts trees: a broken nose that never healed right, Vulcan ears too big for the head they flank, a permanent dusting of shadow over chin and cheeks and what’s visible of scalp beneath the brimless woven white cap with royal blue stripes resting atop it all like a halo. Only it’s no silhouette, the monkfish realizes in the next machine-assisted breath, and he tries to form his attending angel’s name but feels only the surviving nerves in his lips quiver, while what’s left of his tongue lays slack. 

“It’s me, man. Yusef,” his visitor says, sparing him the effort. “You recognize me, don’t you?” Leaning in over the monkfish he fusses with his kufi cap, finger brushing the blue stripe like it has texture. With great pains the monkfish slowly lowers his lone exposed eyelid, then tremblingly reopens it.

Yusef gives a small jerk of realization. “Wait, that was a blink, right? You blinked?”

The monkfish repeats the feat, this time with greater effort.

Yusef exhales loudly, stepping back and taking several deep breaths. “Oh thank God.” Then he chuckles, as though despite himself. “I’m sorry. It’s just…one blink for Yes, two for No. It’s all so Star Trek, you know?”

The monkfish lets the first hint of a laugh escape, fully despite himself, and a spasm of pain stills and silences him.

Yusef pulls a chair up close to the monkfish’s sarcophagus and sits. “So do you know where you are? Why you’re here? Do you remember…anything?”

No, thinks the monkfish. He remembers everything. Sitting down in the middle of Times Square. Pulling the gas can from his backpack and pouring it out over himself. Lighting a Bic. The flames and smoke subsuming him—reaching in through every pore, tearing through his clothes and skin like they aren’t even there…and then they aren’t. He blinks once again.

Yusef winces, hugging himself tight, and takes in a quavering breath. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

The monkfish slowly blinks once again…and after a pause, a second time. No point in them both feeling any worse than they did already.

Truth is his skin even feels like burnt fish: dry, shriveled, and scaly. Truth is the pain is the cruelest trick of this whole situation, thinks the monkfish. Long before Drew Ballard ever wondered if he’d have the courage of his convictions, he wondered what it would be like to burn alive. What he’s found is when you’re on fire, pain vanishes the instant it appears, as though in one moment the nerves fire on all cylinders and burn out entirely, like a surge through a breaker: the pain and relief almost canceling each other out, leaving only sensation. Whatever asphyxiation and shock don’t block out is fear, not pain. It’s panic, though when you’re ready for it, resigned to it, it isn’t so great. In any case, a dead nerve feels no pain; it’s when the fried fibers start stitching themselves back together, when a nerve is healing, that’s torture.

“Well, at least you didn’t immolate your brain,” says Yusef with his typical wry smile, disarming as ever, damn him. (Put that with his vow of celibacy and he had all the girls in the palm of his hand.) The monkfish blinks once, then shifts his gaze to the window, peering out at the visible stripe of city beneath the curtain, grotesque and distant, making the pale, sterile room feel all the more like some anemic limbo.

Following his gaze, Yusef says, “Yeah, it’s the next day, by the way,” adding with an ominous wiggle of the fingers, “The day after,” and caps it with a self-conscious snort. “In case you’re wondering.”

The monkfish hadn’t been, though now that Yusef mentions it, the passage of time does bear some measure of interest. It’s a new day, when he’d been sure all of them were behind him.

“You’ve been in surgery all night,” Yusef continues. “You only came out of critical this morning, which is also when they finally identified you…or I identified you, is more like it.” He stands up and starts pacing the narrow moat between the monkfish and the life support equipment surrounding him, keeping him tethered here. “Do you know what it’s like to tell the police you think you know the guy who just burned himself alive in Times Square? They tell you to bring down one of his personal items, like his comb or toothbrush. You ever collect a DNA sample for someone to identify your friend? Something tells me not.”

And the monkfish thinks, So that’s how they did it.

“You realize the entire ride over I was convinced that by the time I got here I’d be identifying a dead man?”

Not far off, thinks the monkfish. Why isn’t he dead? Not enough gas is his first answer. Damn do-gooders, his second. That’s the part the news reports keep focusing on now: all the Good Samaritans rushing to his aid, the hordes converging to smother the blaze with their coats, dial 9-1-1, clear a path for the rescuers—the anchors at the studio intermittently thanking the “Citizen Reporters” at home who sent in footage of the incident shot with their phones. Now those folks had the right idea, thinks the monkfish. They should’ve let him burn.  

“Well, I know it seems bad now, but you hang in there, man. You’ll pull through this. The doctors say they’ve done all they can now. From here on out it’s all up to you, you know. At this point, the power to beat this is all within you.”

He hadn’t, but that explains why he’s still here, swimming in the in-between: to make a decision. One he could’ve sworn he’d made already. 

“You just have to want it bad enough.” Just then the monkfish feels a strange pressure against his shoulder, sending a searing pain radiating in every direction throughout him. He trembles and Yusef withdraws like from an open flame. “Sorry.” He backs up, glances to the door. “Well, your family’s on their way. They should be here in a few hou–”

The monkfish flounders out two blinks. 

“Excuse me?”

Two. Blinks.

No? What do you mean, no? You think you can pull a stunt like this and they’re not going to come running?”

But they can’t! thinks the monkfish. They can’t come here, they have lives. Blink blink. They can’t see him like this. He can’t see them like this. Blink blink. What are they thinking? Mom can’t get off work, Ty’s got practice, and their dad would have to fly in from wherever the hell he is right now. Blink blink. Besides they can’t even stand to be in the same room together! How do they all expect to cram in here around him? Blink blink. It’s not supposed to be like this. This is all wrong. Blink blink. There’s no reason for it. Nothing to come of it. Blink blink. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep back, everybody keep back til they get this fire extinguished! Blinkblinkblinkblinkblinkblinkblink…

An alarm wails and the door is flung open and a blizzard of people in scrubs rush in and Yusef reels, receding behind them, as the monkfish flops and flails on his slab, as unsure as anyone whether it’s life he’s fighting for or its opposite.

*

The monkfish is greeted by three visitors.

The first is a strange spindly woman leaning over him with clasped hands and a sympathetic frown. She says she’s a grief counselor and wants him to know that what he’s going through is normal. She says death isn’t the only kind of loss we grieve. She thinks the monkfish is just another burn survivor. She says the symptoms of grief are: disbelief, sadness, sorrow, fear, vulnerability, anger, rage, guilt, impaired concentration, diminished self-concern, search for meaning, social withdrawal, sleep or appetite disturbance, decreased motivation, and spiritual confusion. By that reasoning, thinks the monkfish, Drew Ballard’s been grieving his whole life; but for what? The counselor leaves behind some literature.

His second visitor is a nurse there to change his dressings. She cleanses his burns with antiseptics, then scrapes off dead skin cells, old ointment residue, and a rancid pinkish pus with some archaic cheese grater device. It’s the most pain he’s ever felt; burning alive didn’t come close. She tells him someone will be coming in to do this every 6 hours.

His third visitor is a cop, staring down at him accusingly. He has some questions he’d like to ask.

Did someone put him up to this?

Did he have accomplices?

Any terrorist affiliations?

And for the first time the monkfish wonders if he could be in trouble for this. And the cop, as though reading the expression beneath the bandages, says he’s just gathering information…for now.

*

“I remember the first time I first saw that guy,” the monkfish hears beside him, and he opens his eyes—the covered and the bare—blinking once…twice. Three times. How long was he out? He looks to the window to see the dark sky edging through the curtain like so much smoke and ash.

“Day one of college and I open the door to my freshman dorm to find him–” Yusef is saying from the chair at the monkfish’s bedside, his gaze fixed on the t.v. where filling the screen is Drew Ballard—or ANDREW BALLARD JR., to go by the caption. His high school yearbook photo. Gold-flecked curls, piercing glare, cocksure grin. A young god.

A stranger.

“You,” Yusef continues, a bit defiant, senses the monkfish, “with your boxes stacked around you, practically to the ceiling. Wearing that same letterman jacket, despite how they kept it a furnace in those dorms. For a while I think you even slept in the blessed thing. And there I am with my one suitcase. You asked where I was from and when I said Jersey City I thought I saw your brain short-circuit.”

The monkfish remembers, the flush of embarrassment turning the heat up even higher inside his cocoon. How many photos like that had he seen before on the t.v. news in his lifetime? Did he ever think about the people behind those snapshots, even once? Were they any more real to him than the characters in the series’ he followed? How real was that kid on the screen now? The one with the perfect pearly whites and unblemished skin. How real had he ever been?

“And now look at you,” Yusef adds, as though feigning playfulness, though coming off only bitter.  

In the ensuing silence the monkfish believes he can hear the beeping of all the EKGs in all the rooms on his hall and the floors above and below. And he notices how they all seem to be communicating, as though seeking a consensus but never quite reaching it. 

“They didn’t find a note,” Yusef eventually continues. “What, did you leave it in your pocket?” He allows himself a half-hearted chuckle for that. “What kind of protest is that anyway? People don’t even know what you’re protesting.”

This shocks the monkfish almost more than the fact of his survival, especially coming from Yusef. Of all people. Why, in Yusef’s mother’s own native country women light themselves up through to this day in order to escape domestic abuse. While in India over the years thousands of young folks have been doing it to protest the class system. Across Eastern Europe people have been doing it to protest political oppression. While the “original” burning monk, and all those throughout China and Tibet who came after, have been doing it to protest religious oppression. Why does it have to be one thing, the monkfish wonders. How much can one body endure?

“The cops even asked me if you’re Buddhist,” Yusef says with a snort. “Don’t worry. I told them you’re about as spiritual as a peanut.”

The monkfish spasms with the effort to squelch another laugh.

“Of course as far as I’m concerned it’s all that damn poster’s fault.” Yusef’s face bears that same muddled distress the monkfish remembers from that day he stood there in the open doorway to their room gaping, not unlike that first time, at what his unlikely pairing from the Office of Housing was thrusting upon him now. A poster Drew was in the midst of tacking onto the wall over his bed—which meant directly across from Yusef’s—that showed a man in saffron robes sitting crosslegged in the center of an urban intersection with a moat of flames enveloping him around the waist, more flames shooting from him in sheets into the wind. “What is that?” Yusef had asked with disgust. 

“What, were you asleep this morning in Poli-Sci?” Drew shot over his shoulder. “It’s the Burning Monk.”

The class had been discussing citizen action, namely how a single individual could make a difference in this world. To help spur the conversation the professor had pulled up this image, explaining the Pulitzer prize winning photo was taken in 1963 in downtown Saigon of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolating in protest of persecution by the Chinese government. The professor had meant for it both to demonstrate how far one person could go to make a statement without hurting anyone but themselves (or at least ostensibly, as the subsequent student debate revealed) and to raise the question of whether even such extreme and terminal action was effective in producing any proactive results whatsoever.

“I know what it is,” said Yusef, grimacing. “What I want to know is what it’s doing in our room.” Then with a furtive glance up and down the hall, he stepped into the room and shut the door behind him, lowering his voice to add, “Please take it down. I don’t want to look at that every morning and night.”

“You mean you don’t like it?”

“It’s a man burning alive! What’s to like?”

At that, Drew paused to lean back and stare at the poster, squinting as though to check that he’d hung it straight, before replying, “You know, the first time I saw this was in high school. My friend Jason was a big metalhead and when he brought home the first Rage Against the Machine album the day it came out this was the cover art.” Stepping back off the bed without breaking his gaze he continued, “How do they put it? If I’ve looked at this picture once I must’ve looked at it a thousand times? That’s a fact. Yet in all that time I never really noticed it, you know? I mean, I’m not blind or stupid. It’s not like I couldn’t see it showed a man burning. I just thought it was sick, which was cool then. Beyond that I never gave it much thought.”

“So why now? What changed?”

Finally Drew’s gaze diverted from the poster to Yusef, across the room gawking at him. Drew returned the look, wanting to say, Hello? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Instead all he said was, “Forget it. The poster stays.”

“Even your idol left a note,” Yusef voice accuses from the monkfish’s bedside.

The Letter of Heart’s Blood, thinks the monkfish. That’s what Duc’s fellow monks called it, because after they cremated what was left of his body his heart wouldn’t burn. Drew Ballard’s heart had been first to burn, long before striking the match. So if any flames actually reached it, they would no doubt have found it already charred beyond any further burning. 

“You know why?” Yusef rails on. “Because he gave a damn about the people he left behind!”

And the monkfish thinks, How could he say that? Did Yusef really think he would’ve gone to all that trouble if he didn’t care?

“You realize they’re all calling you crazy.”

And this calls the monkfish’s mind the Indian man who self-immolated to protest the screening of a movie starring an objectionable actor. And the middle-aged Swedish actor—with Hitchcock in his credits, no less—who did it to protest taxes. The Bulgarian man who did it to protest the broadcast of Turkish news on his national t.v.. The German teacher who did it to protest nuclear policy. The young gay Iranian refugee who did it after the U.K. rejected his claim for asylum. The Chinese family who did it on the roof of their home the day of its scheduled demolition. And the monkfish wonders if crazy isn’t cause but effect. Not disease but symptom. 

“It’s the only way people can explain to themselves why someone like you would do this.”

Someone like him, thinks the monkfish. That’s precisely why someone like him had to do it.

Around campus his peers marked him a zealot, everyone calling him the Monkfish. And later, when his rabid grip on this nebulous proxy crusade refused to slacken, someone or other expanded it to Thelonious Monkfish, fancying him or herself witty. (It got to where some students—and one teacher, even—believed it to be his real name.) Like any of those brainiacs even understood their own reference, figuring it was probably just some random actor in some obscure movie. Never mind Drew’s only exposure to the jazz musician was through his father. What difference did it make now anyway? Did musician Monk even know about the burning monk? They shared the same era, but so do a lot of folks. And more importantly, why was the monkfish even bothering with this now? 

A few weeks after Drew put up his contentious poster, several of Yusef’s friends tore it down in a rage while Drew was out, and he came home to find it ripped to shreds all over his bed. Yusef, feeling responsible—despite wishing he’d had the nerve to tear it down himself—replaced it. As Drew was tacking up the new burning monk in its predecessor’s place, Yusef grumbled, “I still don’t see what the big deal is. Why you care about it so much.”

“And I can’t fathom why you don’t. Why no one seems to.”

“What makes you think no one else besides you cares about injustice? Because everyone’s not running around pouring gas on their heads and lighting a match?”

“It would make a lot more sense than what everyone is doing.”

“Which is?”

“Nothing!”

“And this is your alternative?” Yusef stabbed a finger at the restored horror scene on their wall. “What does this accomplish? Will you tell me that? What have those wasted deaths ever accomplished?”

Drew had no answer in the moment and only stewed, feeling misunderstood. But later that winter they both got their answer—or the seeds of it—when a Tunisian fruit merchant named Mohamed Bouazizi, fed up with the harassment and humiliation heaped on him by local officials, set himself ablaze in a public square, which several months later, and well into the current spring semester at Columbia, ignited a revolution!

If he could speak right now, the monkfish would tell his roommate (if the term even still applied to them) of the 17th century sect of Russian Christians called the Old Believers who practiced fire baptism to purify the soul from worldly sins. He’d say Drew Ballard simply became the fire that had been consuming him for so long that by the time he even became aware of it the blaze had razed him from the inside out and he had no choice left but to snuff it out. 

“Were you trying to kill yourself?” Yusef asks reeling beside him. “That’s what gets me the most about this. That in all the months I lived with you I never once dreamed you actually wanted to die.”

That’s where he has it all wrong, thinks the monkfish. Drew Ballard didn’t want to die. He just didn’t want to live in a world like this more.

“Do you still?”

And there’s the real question, isn’t it? thinks the monkfish. How would surviving this change the meaning of what he’s done? Hasn’t it already?

In the poster the strong backwind leaves half  the Burning Monk’s face exposed, half his chest, one arm, making him seem almost untouched. Pure. His body finally at rest as it receives its ultimate release. Deliverance. It seems so out of place, his sublime serenity as he submits to the elemental forces consuming him. Of course, deliverance is absolute. It’s final or it doesn’t count. 

“Well, now you get the chance to set everyone straight.” says Yusef. “You can’t tell me no one will listen to you now.”

The monkfish stares unblinking into Yusef’s hopeful expression, which drops before his fisheye in response. Yusef straightens and steps to the window. “Well, anyway, your family should be here any minute. Your mom and Ty texted from the bridge and said your dad just landed, so…” He turns with hesitation back toward the monkfish, as though reluctant to see the reaction. 

The monkfish blinks twice.

“That’s it!” Yusef pushes back from the window ledge and strides to the center of the room where he whirls in circles, staggering, and gesticulates wildly at the man-sized lump on the mattress. “I’ve had it with you! You’re a selfish prick, you know that? And I’d throttle you myself if you weren’t so helpless and pathetic right now.” The monkfish stares back unblinking at Yusef’s pupils bulging and temples pulsing. “I’m sorry but it’s true. I didn’t ask to be here, none of us did. You did this. You put this on us. And what have you got to show for it, huh?” The veins on Yusef’s neck tense like marine ropes and he seems about to cry. “What were you thinking?!” Then in afterthought his hands shoot up between them. “Actually, scratch that. I’m glad you can’t speak right now, because I don’t even want to hear it. You don’t get it. You…you…” He’s scratching so hard beneath his kufi cap now he seems sure to draw blood. “You used me!”

The monkfish blinks twice. 

“Don’t give me that crap! You made me complicit in this, without my knowledge or consent.”

Blink blink.

“You realize they’re going to find a way to hold me accountable for this, don’t you?”

Blink blink.

“Oh yeah? You saw that cop. He’s still out there. Has been since they rolled you in—he or one of his chums. Each took his turn grilling me. You can see them frothing at the mouth to nail themselves a bona fide domestic terrorist.”

Blink blink.

“Bullshit. They’re out there right now trying decide if I radicalized you.”

Blink blink.

“And how do you think my parents’ accents are going to play on American t.v.? Did you ever think about that? About the blowback on them in all this? No, of course you didn’t!” Yusef strides up to the monkfish’s bedside and leans in close over the rail, getting right in the monkfish’s face “You can do anything you want with your life, you understand? Hell, even go ahead and end it for all I care. Just don’t kid yourself you’re not hurting anyone.”

And with that Yusef stands aright and storms out. 

At last the monkfish lets his heavy eyelid succumb to its own weight—lowering as though to blink, then laying there at rest.

*

The monkfish stirs to the sound of voices surrounding him, familiar voices. Saying things like, “Oh my God, my baby!” and, “Is it something we did? Where did we go wrong?”

The monkfish keeps his fisheye shut, looking out instead from behind closed lids.

“Will you shut that godforsaken idiot box off, for Christ’s sake! It’s half the friggin’ t.v.’s fault we’re in this mess. All those news shows reporting on ten tragedies for every ten seconds of good news,” his father’s voice shouts from somewhere across a room that seems shrunken.

“What about the Internet?” his mother’s voice barks back from directly over the monkfish, clearly leaning over his slab, as though to shelter him. “All those websites the kids visit? I swear, we’re putting one of those parental blocks on our computers as soon as we get home. We’re not making the same mistake with Tyler, I promise you that.”

“And what are supposed to tell Ty about this anyway, speaking of? He’s out there right now in the waiting room sobbing on some nurse’s shoulder about he doesn’t know what. He just wants to come in here and see his big brother.”

“Absolutely not! Are you insane? Not like this. We’ll just tell him Andrew is sick. It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“Well, I sure wouldn’t call this healthy and normal. Certainly not your typical post-adolescent rebellion.”

“Clearly Andrew needs some serious help. And it’s up to us to make sure that’s just what he gets.”

“Of course we are,” his father says as though accused of something. “You hear that, buddy? We’re going to take good care of you.”

“Do you think he can hear us?”

“It’s worth a try. Andrew, buddy?” His father’s voice comes from over him now too, clearly each parent taking opposite sides and leaning in over him. 

“Baby?”

“It’s mommy and daddy.”

“We’re here now.”

“Everything’s going to be okay.”

And the monkfish wonders: What does that even mean—Okay? What does “okay” look like exactly? Like the two of them? Like the world they live in? Why would he want that now, all of a sudden? But it wouldn’t look like that, anyway. Not for him.  Did they realize what they were even asking of him? What sort of life could he expect?

Weeks more in critical care, morphine-addled, shitting in a bag through a hole in his side. Then months, or years, of alternating skin grafts and physical therapy, with all its concomitant infections, rejections, and a burgeoning addiction to pain meds. Eventually he’d get a new throat, harvested from a cadaver: a new, dead man’s voice in some twisted irony. And how long would he stay bedridden, then in a wheelchair, then on crutches. And that’s if he was lucky. Whether he’d ever walk or talk or eat like a normal person again was anyone’s guess. He’d be housebound. Then again, where would he go?

He’d be naked, always. And hideous. Everywhere he’d be the sideshow, a symbol of what not to do: “Kids don’t try this at home—or anywhere. Ever!” A true-life urban legend whispered to the uninitiated every time he rounded the curve. They’d laugh at him because he failed. He’d never escape that blunder, not in private or public. Even those who never heard of him would see the scars and wonder. Innocently some would ask, and their heartfelt sympathy would pry the truth from him.

His parents and Yusef were right: eventually the medical professionals would have to write off the episode as a psychotic break—temporary or permanent depending on how he played it. Throw in a PTSD diagnosis. A pile of scrips for head meds. Regular therapy. Worse, they might actually identify some real physical anomaly in his brain to pin this on. Recommend surgery. And all for what? 

So that once he’s deemed “Better” he can assimilate back into the same society he so violently declaimed? If he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a padded cell he’d fall in step. And this time he’d have to pull it off even more convincingly than he’d faked it the first time. 

It’s a waste of time, thinks the monkfish, right as the nurse walks in to change his dressings. His family leaves them to it.

Withdrawing deep into the in-between as the nurse proceeds with her scheduled torture of his living remains, the monkfish makes his decision. They don’t need a note and they don’t need him. They found the poster and in time they’ll find every other scrap of evidence they’ll stitch into a palatable theory. The different groups and organizations will comfort themselves with the facts however the facts suit them best. By turns he’ll be Activist, Criminal, Martyr, Freak, Hero, Loser, Artist…Symbol for your Cause: Fill-in-the-Cause. In the end, the burning monkfish will be whatever anyone needs him to be.

And then, like all his predecessors, they’ll forget about him.

Suddenly Yusef bursts through the door, red-faced, dripping tears and sweat, cap on crooked, and ignoring the nurse’s protests, rushes to the stilled t.v., flips it back on, stands back and stabs an outstretched finger at the screen. “Do you see this?”

On t.v. a man is on fire. 

Sitting crosslegged in a public square. In Baltimore. 

It’s not the monkfish. It’s a different monkfish.

Soshigateli! flashes into the monkfish’s mind, the name of the group who, two centuries after the last of the Old Believers was fire baptized, revived the practice. Copycats.

“Do you see?!” Yusef shouts, manic.

And the monkfish’s fisheye widens, and he thinks of the babyfaced Prague student whose self-immolation in protest of Communism not only sparked a rash of copycats over the ensuing years, but 35 years later inspired 6 more young Czechs to reproduce the act in the same location in homage. He thinks of the Lithuanian high school student whose act inspired 13 copycats and the largest post-war riots in the USSR. He thinks of how Mohamed Bouazizi’s act provoked 107 copycats among his own countrymen alone and dozens more in neighboring countries before catalyzing the famed revolution. He thinks of the Indian college student whose blazing declamation against inequality inspired 150 copycats, despite his own survival!

“Now do you see what you’ve done?”

And the monkfish doesn’t yet, but it may be starting to come clearer. Ending one’s life, he realizes, may be the ultimate act of hopelessness, yet what is ending it in this way if not one last desperate grasp at hope? Hope that maybe it will change the people who see it and maybe that will be enough to spur some change in the world. Isn’t that the paradox of the burning monk and all the burning monkfish who followed in his wake: that they’re beacons of hopelessness born out of hope? Or might it be the other way around?

Drew Ballard blinks once and lets his eyelid rest. He’s going to need his strength.







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