The Entropic Lighter

by Hugo Scheubel

Foto: Aylin Scheer / privat


TRIGGER WARNINGS: Depic­tions of self-harm, death/loss, fire, burn­ing, burn marks, scars

The flames arrive unex­pect­ed­ly and with­out wel­come as the ado­les­cent is asleep. Patient lovers, they take gen­tle plea­sure in burn­ing down every­thing he has grown to be famil­iar with: his grandmother’s porce­lain, the cheesy posters on the wall, the filled note­books, the unfold­ed clothes. When he final­ly wakes up, the young man bare­ly has enough time to run down the crum­bling stairs of his home to seek refuge in the gar­den. Smoke is already high in the sky and he is struck by a pain on the right side of his body incom­pa­ra­ble to any­thing he has ever expe­ri­enced before. His eyes are too dry to cry. He screams.

A few weeks are need­ed for the recov­ery. When the nurs­es remove the ban­dages around his arm, what is left is leath­ery and bro­ken skin. They make sure to talk about it in a gen­tle and under­stand­ing way, telling him it will get bet­ter with time, assur­ing him it is proof of his sur­vival, that he is noth­ing but a strong man, a hero, lucky that this mis­chance only befell the right side of his body. He wants to believe the care­tak­ers so much. How­ev­er, he can­not look at his swollen veins with­out feel­ing the mount­ing pres­sure of tears. The man learns how dif­fi­cult it will be now, to receive advice from peo­ple who nev­er had to run down stairs that were on fire. He even­tu­al­ly gets back onto his feet, his skin gets bet­ter, and life is final­ly allowed to go on the way it always did—without care for his sorrow.

The young man makes a vow to him­self: he will nev­er be caught by sur­prise again. Pain and chaos will not be allowed to find their way into his body that eas­i­ly ever again. Because of this promise, sleep starts to elude him. Through­out the long nights he spends con­tem­plat­ing his wounds, he does not ask “Why has this hap­pened?” but “Why has this hap­pened to me?” A bit­ter­sweet taste coats his tongue and lingers in his mouth as he is being told “I love you” way more often than “How are you?”, and this dis­tinc­tion pre­vents silence from whis­per­ing the kind of sto­ries he’s sup­posed to fool him­self with, at such a young age. Sleep does not come back to him.

He talks about that to his assigned ther­a­pist. She’s a joy­ful forty-some­thing woman with an office that smells both of cedar­wood and cheap plas­tic binders. He did not like her at first—she’s the kind of woman to reply with a long and cryp­tic “hmmm” after any con­fes­sion. Despite this, she remains good at her job. The time he tells her he can­not sleep any­more, she intro­duces him to the notion of entropy.

“It is the phys­i­cal prop­er­ty of uncer­tain­ty and ran­dom­ness. A mea­sur­able and quan­tifi­able state of con­fu­sion. It comes from physics. It implies that chaos and dis­or­der do not mean that sense and log­ic can­not be found.”

Look­ing at his con­fused eyes, she adds:

“In oth­er words, your life has lit­er­al­ly been turned to ash­es, and your arm is noth­ing like the one it used to be. But you can still be okay.”

Real­iz­ing it is pos­si­ble to make sense of chaos is an epiphany to the young man. That night, for the first time, he under­stands what he has to do. He picks up a lighter and rolls up the long sleeve cov­er­ing his right arm. Then, he places the lighter’s flame right under his skin and lets it stay there for a few sec­onds, until the pain comes and forces him to with­draw. It is both unbear­able and con­trol­lable. It reminds him that he has now under­stood how to pre­pare him­self. Now, the fire can come back at any time, and it will not be as trau­ma­tiz­ing as it was before; flames will be noth­ing but old lovers wel­comed back into a house haunt­ed by their absence. His ther­a­pist her­self said it: mean­ing can be found in chaos.

It is, after all, nicer to see the glass half-emp­ty than to admit that there is no glass anymore.

The man then goes on with liv­ing his life. He excels in school and his grades allow him to enroll in the most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ty of the coun­try. He leaves his home­town glad­ly. In col­lege, he stud­ies a sub­ject he likes very much, and befriends many peo­ple, join­ing var­i­ous clubs, going on hik­ing trips, drink­ing beer in parks until they close. He even falls in love for the first time, with a beau­ti­ful young man who is very calm and very fun­ny and who lives his life in both a weight­less and ground­ed man­ner. They meet in the university’s café, and, for a few weeks, they bare­ly leave one anoth­er. Two rules are always kept: The young man nev­er shows his arm, and twice a day—usually in the morn­ing and in the evening—he takes a few sec­onds to burn himself. 

One night, after they had made love, the man’s boyfriend sees him hold­ing the lighter to his arm. They fight, and he breaks up with him.

“I always saw you as one of the kind­est per­sons I have ever met and yet I’ve nev­er seen any­one pour­ing so much hatred onto some­one as you do onto your­self,” he tells him in tears.

He does not understand—this has noth­ing to do with hatred. The young man actu­al­ly cares about his own well-being. That evening, when he stays in bed and does not run after his boyfriend, he thinks it is because they will nev­er real­ly under­stand one anoth­er. The truth is that he refus­es to be turned into a tourist with­in the home­land of his disquiet.

The man grad­u­ates with hon­ors and finds a ful­fill­ing job. He buys his first flat. It’s a beau­ti­ful two-room apart­ment not far from the city cen­ter that he saved a lot for, with high ceil­ings, ele­gant stuc­co detail­ing and a dou­ble-winged wood­en entry door with bronze and iron han­dles. The first thing he does after unpack­ing his box­es is to light a can­dle. He places it in the cen­ter of his bed­room, and he watch­es the tiny flame con­sume itself and the wax before dying down. 

He thinks “I’m home,” and he believes it.

There is a prob­lem with the notion of entropy. It estab­lish­es log­ic with­in the absence of sense, but it requires this very absence. Entropy with­out chaos is noth­ing but an emp­ty word.

The man has now been burn­ing his arm for a long time. What used to be a dam­aged but recov­er­ing limb is now bare­ly usable—a dark destroyed appendage. When some­one bumps into it in the metro or in the street, he lets out long and gen­uine screams. He adapts his life so it can be lived with the use of one arm only – no more elab­o­rate meals, no more quick and effi­cient reports on the lap­top. He craves cer­tain kinds of caress­es that are noth­ing like the ones com­ing from the per­ni­cious lovers he sum­mons with his lighter. He wish­es for some­one to wait for him in bed at night, some­one to move their hand on his body, to kiss him behind the neck, to tell him how proud they are of the order he has cre­at­ed with­in this mess he was forced into. But there is noth­ing but the flame.

This sad­dens and frus­trates the man. The pass­ing decades had him grow tired of this lit­tle kid cry­ing inside of him. He is so far away from the burn­ing house and its ash­es now. He can­not help but envi­ous­ly look at the peo­ple who can use both their arms in a healthy and effec­tive way. The man does not think “Why did these peo­ple nev­er get burnt?” but “I wish I could do what they are doing.” To thrive, dance, work, fuck, live like these peo­ple is what he wants, with their smooth and healthy skin, their rapid move­ments, their abil­i­ty to wear T‑shirts or go to the beach with­out hid­ing a part of their bod­ies. Their abil­i­ty to embrace each other.

The man grasps that per­haps, only per­haps, he has been pun­ish­ing him­self all this time for a crime he did not even com­mit. Per­haps, only per­haps, adult­hood comes with the deci­sion to stop seek­ing mean­ing in vio­lence. This real­iza­tion bears the smell of both cedar­wood and cheap plas­tic binders.

It is easy to seek a vio­lent lover. It is a lot hard­er to ask your­self what you bury under­neath the pain they—you—inflict on your­self. The sad truth is that the answer to this ques­tion is, more often than not, nothing.

One day he goes to work as usu­al. He ful­fills his tasks and has lunch with his cowork­ers who tell him about their fam­i­lies, their all-inclu­sive hol­i­days, their youngest who’s final­ly able to walk, and he lis­tens atten­tive­ly. The man leaves the office light­heart­ed, in the idio­syn­crat­ic way which comes with decid­ing to make dras­tic changes in one’s life. That night, he does not reach for the lighter. It’s a qui­et sum­mer evening, the bars in his street are filled, pur­pose is not looked for yet. All is good; the paint on the walls has been dry for a long time now.

Maybe to prove him right, or to reas­sure him that he has not done all this work for noth­ing, the fire comes back that very night. Unex­pect­ed­ly. The flames do what they do best: they devour. He is asleep.

Can a sto­ry be a sto­ry if there was no inten­tion for mean­ing in the first place? The regret­table thing about heal­ing is that it can eas­i­ly con­vince you that pain is bet­ter than scars; but scars hold nar­ra­tives. Pain hides behind words spo­ken reck­less­ly in life­less offices, and it waits.

As the blaze fades away and the pain strikes, the man who had read­ied him­self so much for this very moment looks at his right arm with­out ques­tion. He expects to find the marks and sig­na­tures of the abusers he mis­took for sav­iors all his life, since that very night. He is how­ev­er left with noth­ing but dry eyes and baf­fle­ment as he notices that this time, it is his left arm that has been marred.