The morning of the accident, I sent out three submissions, increasing my productivity. I was selling stories, and I could see a clear path before me towards my goal. I was still new enough that every time I hit send on a submission was an adrenaline-inducing act of bravery.
I had spent three weeks barely sleeping or being human in order to meet the deadlines. I told myself that if I finished on time, I could go to the party that night. I went.
I don’t regret going.
There was a fire. I was the fire. Everything else around that moment is hazy. I was severely burned. I almost died. I learned that fourth degree burns are a real thing. I was in a coma for weeks. I underwent seven skin graft surgeries to save and repair my legs, and spent months relearning to walk and climb stairs. I’m still working on stairs.
When I first opened my eyes in the Burn ICU, I cried. What of me was not burned had been harvested for the skin grafts I would need, leaving behind a perfectly even second degree burn. A dead man’s flesh was wrapped around my legs, hoping to salvage them. My hands were small bundled fists to keep the muscles and burns from contracting backwards.
I was certain I would never write again. Or walk.
In order to heal, I had to surrender to what was happening.
That was two years ago. I have a few more years of recovery ahead of me, but my determination has me ahead of the doctors’ timetable by months. This summer, I started a series of outpatient surgeries to break up scar tissue to increase my mobility, which included breaking up the contraction bands on my right hand. Typing is much easier now that I have full reach on the keyboard.
But writing hasn’t been easy. I lost momentum. My days are consumed with self-care and healing and stretching and walking and resting. I have little energy left for world-building and character development. I fall asleep at the computer more than I don’t. But the ideas haven’t stopped. They whisper behind my skull at night, the unwilling heroines and heroes waiting to be born.
It’s frustrating. I want to work. But I choose my recovery first. I have to. This is a marathon not a sprint. One of the biggest lessons this accident has taught me is discernment. I have to pick which projects to spend my energy to work on and let the other ones go. When the submission call for On Fire was posted, a story birthed itself overnight.
I surrendered to the need to let the story breathe. I allowed it purchase in me. I trusted that my body could handle the distraction. I shifted my focus. “The Last Seven Tribes of Ketchari” was the first story I finished post-recovery.
Something miraculous happened when I submitted it. No white knuckling. No adrenaline rush. No nervous pit sweats. I hit send with a smile on my face. It was a good story, but I should have been nervous. It took me days to realize what was different.
Here’s the thing about fire. It destroys, sure. But sometimes, you find that after it burns through and you are still standing, that it also burned away what you no longer needed.
One of my friends said that he had been afraid to see me after the accident. He had not wanted to see me broken by what happened. But he sat in my office and looked at me sheepishly, surprised to find that I was more me than before. He said I was clearer. Cleaner.
I realized that, above the obvious physical pain, that was how I felt.
What the fire took from me was my negative ego, the voice that said I wasn’t good enough, that my writing would never be wanted. And in the months since then, I have found that I can take criticism on my stories with a professional ear. It’s always helpful. Even if I disagree with the remarks, it tells me that moments I tried to hit were unsuccessful. I no longer take it personally.
The most important thing is sharing my stories.
I can’t say that this journey has been easy. In fact, it’s been painful. Dark night of the soul painful, over and over and over and over again. And then multiply that times one thousand. I know what my own flesh smells like while it’s cooking. Just like barbeque.
I know that on the other side of unbearable pain is more unbearable pain.
…and a planet where gods are giants that string humans up on a fence rail facing an impossible giant star that is turning me into jerky. Slowly my skin is drying and desiccating. I can feel my lips pull back away from my teeth. Soon, they will loosen and fall out. The sun is too hot. I cannot breathe…
Scenes from my coma play out behind my eyes. Unwanted stories that need to be written. They’re not stories to me. There were so many other lives lived while I lay sleeping and the surgeons pieced me back together. So many versions of me facing death and undying. They all woke up in this new skin together.
I am clear enough to see the gift hidden beneath the charred flesh. Before the recovery, I was such an indecisive artist and writer, my voice caught between what I wanted and what I thought the editors wanted. That moment before dying finds you standing at Ma’at’s scale. She weighs your heart against a feather. There are demons waiting for you on the other side of the scale. You can hear them snapping and smacking their jaws together.
You have seconds to decide what you care about and who you are. And you find it’s not choice, it’s re-knowing something you knew at birth.
I am a storyteller, and I am meant to tell stories. When Ma’at asked me why I should be allowed to live and I had seconds to tell her what filled my heart with joy and light, telling stories was at the top of my list, after experiencing unknown spots in nature and loving my wife a little bit longer.
Sarah Lyn Eaton is a writer who has survived both flood and fire. She lives with her wife and cats where the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers meet. Her published stories can be found in Pantheon Magazine, as well as the anthologies Dystopia Utopia, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, The Northlore Series, Volume One: Folklore, What Follows, and Elf Love. When not writing she can be found taking photos of fungus, collecting rock specimens, and mediating an end to the cucumber and bean plant turf war in her garden.