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Fire / Freedom of Choice

Updated: May 24, 2023

Tatjana Almuli

Listen to Tatjana reading her own Mammoth in Dutch:

Something has been on fire for a week in the park next to our house. Each day, during the same walk, I breathe in the smell of kindled wood. Still, nothing’s burning. The park has not been burned down, the trees are still there, spunky and resilient, the grass is remarkably green for the time of year, people are walking around leisurely with their dogs, their children, themselves.

The smell reminds me of the past: there was a time in which matches were my favourite thing to play with. I was probably subconsciously ignited by ‘The Little Match Girl’—again and again, I would ask my mother to read me said fairy tale. I sat on her lap, slumped, waiting for her voice to waver. Sometimes, my neck got wet because she was crying.

Although my parents hid the matches, I would always find another one of those little rectangular sparrow boxes. The first crackle of the match on the brown part, increasingly eroding; the flame that makes me quiver but is controllable enough to long for again and again; the scent that’s released; the candles I light and extinguish with my fingers a few seconds later, only to perform the ritual all over again. The sense of power. The sensation of fire on my skin.

The smell of kindled, damp wood in the park is deeper and yet less oppressive because I’m outside. The sky is a dark grey, like black ink mixed with drops of warm water. Soon it will get dark, soon I’ll make my way back home. With my heavy body, my expression lacking focus these past few months. My eyes seem smaller, the blue-grey furrows underneath my bottom eyelashes seem deeper. I don’t know of walking really helps, but it keeps me moving, it provides me with cool daylight on my skin, the occasional sliver of autumn sun. They say it’s good to do, that it helps to dispel the even darker clouds. Sometimes, it’s best just to listen to what they say.

When I get home, I see the word appear on my telephone screen. Earlier today, I shared something about the abortion I had a few months ago. Between all of the hearts, that text, no capital, no punctuation. Just ‘murderer’. Senselessly, I click on the sender’s profile picture; a young boy fills my screen. He looks friendly, his expression is welcoming. Underneath, it says ‘follow back’—so he follows me. And he thinks I’m a murderer. I’m about to send him a message or block him; I do neither.

I’m not a murderer—those are the first words I hear inside my head when I wake up. Nonetheless, I dreamt of a pyre in the park last night, which I was thrown onto. That’s where witches belong, where murderers belong. I awoke sweating at the temples, with a throbbing sensation in my chest. I place my hands on my empty belly and feel no regret.

That afternoon, I start walking an hour earlier than usual. I can’t get the words out of my fingers, out of my head. I decide to discontinue my workday and make my rounds. Past the primary school—the schoolyard is empty, save for the brown-and-white rabbits, scrambling in the wild. They’re always there. Over the bridge, where the weeping willow moves her long, low branches toward the water. I never choose consciously, but this is the path I take every day. Freedom of choice can be oppressive, too, if you don’t know what the right choice is. So I choose nothing, I let my feet lead the way.

I keep walking, past the benches, past passers-by, until the smell of fire reaches my nose again. Today I see smoke for the first time, I follow the hazy mist that dissolves into the air, which is once again greyish. It’s not quiet, like it usually is. From behind the overpass, the buzzing sound of children’s voices comes my way, they tumble over and across each other, those excited little voices. I walk past the water, and all of a sudden I see a playground on the other side, where they’re apparently building a fire this time of year.

A guardian’s voice: throw in the last branches, boys, we’re wrapping up. Your parents will come to pick you up soon.

There is some whining, but they calm down a bit. I stay where I am, watch the thick branches hit the flames and fall into the blazing fire. Orange-red, translucent. Like every flame, however big or small. And for a while, I can do nothing but long to stand there, next to the pyre, warming my hands, my feet inside my thick hiking shoes—to feel something, even through those. And then to be picked up. Just waiting until someone’s arms warm you as much as the fire that’s now slowly dying, and not having to choose.


Tatjana Almuli (1991) works as a freelance journalist for publications such as het Parool, ELLE and Vogue. Besides that, her two books Knap voor een dik meisje (Pretty for a fat girl, 2019) and Ik zal je nooit meer (I'll never ... you again, 2022) were published by Nijgh en van Ditmar. Tatjana also works as a freelance photographer and, together with the writer Malou Holshuijsen, she records the weekly podcast Tussen dertig en doodgaan (‘Between thirty and dying‘).

Author photo: Aline Bouma

Translation: Fannah Palmer. Read the original Mamoetje in Dutch here.



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