In every culture, in every civilization, across every continent, we find among peoples the recognition of the primacy of the four elements—Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. The fundamental mixing of these four in infinite combination accounts for all that is, all that has ever been, all that might ever be. In many ancient cosmologies, Fire is the source of universal creation. Fire is movement. Fire can never rest. The other elements may be characterized by stillness, but their most violent motion often comes from their association with Fire—the boiling of Water, volcanic eruptions of Earth, the shimmer of Air under the fiery gaze of the Sun.
Fire is also the unity of opposites—destruction as it consumes its fuel, creation as its flames leap high, beckoning yet fearsome, comforting and threatening, contained and uncontainable, seen and unseen. The unanswerable question: Where does Fire exist?
In this way, Fire embodies the Veil. Is it here, near at hand, interpenetrating the stuff and substance of our familiar world? Or is it far—an unreachable “someplace else” accessible only to those who, willing or not, make that one-way journey? Ancient wisdom tells us that sacred Fire can bring within reach that which is far, that it can reveal that which is unseen.
So, can Fire return the dead to life? In the Semitic aphorism, it is said that only Water and Earth can bring forth a living soul. It is left to Fire to accomplish the disquieting opposite, this raising of the dead. In the architecture of the Tarot, Fire, the suit of Wands, is the element of intuition. Unlike the other feelings—love, hatred, fear, joy—intuition is revelatory. It is a source of knowledge accessible in no other way, and this is a clue, for the Veil is opaque to logic but open to intuition.
In the end we cannot imagine the difficulties that the dead encounter in their attempts to communicate with the living. Too often we ask without thought, is there life after death? We would do better to ask ourselves the question we really want answered: Will I be alive when I’m dead? The answer clearly is no. As Fire and Water are irreconcilable opposites, so are death and life.
Death is all about not being alive. The dead know this, and they suffer it. They’ve been deprived of every benefit of life—breath, sensation, extension, the specificity of presence. They are left with nothing but longing, and this longing drives them across the difficult terrain toward the living. Longing is the presence of absence, the void that demands to be filled. As death is the absence of life, so does it express itself in the inexpressible state of longing.
Longing is the motor for all that passes for activity among the dead, though activity is a poor choice of word, for the dead are not active. They do not move themselves any more than the bodies of the dead decompose themselves. For the dead, all agency comes from outside. Thus it is that the longing of the dead is like a great, towering flame fed by the fires of death. Its fiery turbulence buffets and tosses the dead like so much weightless ash.
As Fire calls to Fire, so does this hollowness inside each of us call out to that which we have lost. Sometimes, when everything is in perfect accord, the Veil is thin, and we see through the dancing flame a diaphanous glimpse of the beloved on the other side.
J. Lee Strickland is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. In addition to fiction, he has written on the subjects of rural living, modern homesteading, and voluntary simplicity. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Atticus Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Workers Write!, Pure Slush, Mad Scientist Journal, Newfound Journal, Jenny, and others. He is a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild and served as a judge for the 2015 and 2016 storySouth Million Writers Awards. He is at work on a collection of connected short stories vaguely similar in format to the long-defunct American television series Naked City but without the salacious title.