In the hour of ice and death, in the last throes of darkness before dawn tears up the clean night sky, you shook your last and died in my arms. I clutched your wasted body throughout the day, feeling your warmth leave in a last surrender to entropy, until I was left holding nothing more than cold meat. When dusk came around again I stripped your body and washed it, slowly, with the same gentle touch I had had when we were lovers. And then, when it was fully dark, I took your empty shell outside and burnt it.

It was a poor funeral pyre, graced only with broken crates and palettes and old newspapers. As an afterthought, once the fire was lit, I added a handful of spent batteries, that their detonation might bring some life to this simple cremation. As it turned out I need not have bothered. I had not known how your body would spasm as the heat of the fire, the muscles contracting frantically as the last of your water escaped into the air, in clouds of smoke and steam I could almost pretend was your soul ascending. It was like watching you dance one last time. The glow of the fire and the cracking explosions brought a small group of street people to watch, all of whom stayed in silence until there was nothing but embers and blackened bones.

I found an old biscuit tin in the rubbish and gathered what I could identify as your bones into it, once they were cold enough to handle. Sitting quietly on the step outside our tenement building I tried to think of the memorial I would fashion for them. It was no good though. All I was left with was charred bones - no trace of you was left in them. I abandoned them in a pile of rotten food.

I returned to the bleak, grey room we had shared for your final months. I had never given much thought to our lack of material possessions before, but looking around now I realised there was nothing left to remind me of you apart from a box of clothes and a bare mattress stained with your failing body's fluids. The numbness I had felt all day gave way and I found myself sitting on the floor sobbing. You had been my whole life for so long. I no longer felt like I had a soul of my own; I was just an adjunct to you. Now that you were gone what was left of my life made no sense. It was as if I had died instead: my head was full of you, with no room left for me.

Without thought I took my stale clothes off and left them in a loose pile on the floor. Using the cold water I had used to wash your body I bathed myself, a half-conscious attempt to form a last bond with you. Shivering, I dried myself and then stood naked before what had been your mirror. Not the best canvas, I thought, but it would do. I knelt before your box of clothes and selected those that had been your favourite: a red bustier with subtle glitter, a loose red and yellow patterned gypsy skirt and your black leather boots. They did not fit well. I am not a big man, but even the loose skirt of yours was tight on me. The boots pinched so much I could hardly walk. But comfort wasn't the object. If anyone had asked me what the object was I would not have been able to verbalise it, but it was as clear in my mind as the first light of creation.

Clumsily, with no trace of your ease, I put on some makeup: clumsy streaks of lipstick, thick eyeshadow and too much perfume. The perfume was the most important part as its smell would tie you to me with every breath. As an afterthought I added some jewellery and tried to style my hair. My reflection looked ridiculous, but I turned and left anyway. It was late evening, the street lamps providing little illumination in the near starless night. I walked as if I knew where I was going, and somewhere in my mind I suppose I did. There were some last actions needed to make your death an end instead of a tailing off.

Along the way I stole a red paint aerosol from an all-night convenience store and sprayed your name as I went, painting in letters as high as my reach. A group of teenagers pointed and laughed, shouting incoherent threats at my back. I felt like I was underwater, hearing strange sounds coming from shore.

It didn't take long to get there. The office building looked even more cold and impersonal at night. I remembered holding you as you cried, taking almost half an hour to get the words out, telling me how they couldn't carry anyone as sick as you, how it was in everyone's best interests that they let you go.

The bottle came from a rubbish bin and the petrol I siphoned from a parked car: I was careful to chose one that looked expensive. I used one of your tampons as a wick. I think you would have liked that. I lit the wick and shouted your name as I threw the bottle through the window.

As I walked away my thoughts were too disjointed for me to run. I did not need to look back to see the fire grow: its flames leapt wildly and lit the whole street. I heard the sound of windows exploding at my back. I lifted my hands to my face and smelled the petrol mixed with your perfume, taking greedy gulps of the scents.

The next few hours were a blur of flames and crashing glass as I visited the doctor whose bills we could not afford, the insurance company who found it inefficient to offer health insurance to the sick and the church whose pastor had said that your illness was a judgement. At each site I painted your name. My face felt sunburnt. I was spent.

I sat on the step of the back entrance of a dirty-looking restaurant, my head now empty of thoughts. I felt I had served you all I could, that there was nothing else that needed to be done in your memory. You wouldn't let me rest, though. I clenched my eyes shut and tried to force the missing piece into my mind. Then I realised my mistake. It wasn't all to be retribution - there was also a last celebration of life to be had.

Until I met you I had never understood what it meant to dance, but when you brought me underground that first time and danced with me I saw what it really was. I had just perceived it as the movement of bodies to rhythm, but for you it was the outward expression of the passion that defined you. You flickered with the flame that gave you life.

The club had always been your favourite, though I had never understood why. It called itself Subterranea and the inside was modelled to look like caverns and grottoes. It had all been done cheaply and the club was dotted with the remnants of papier-mâché stalagmites and stalactites, reduced to stumps by vandals and careless dancers.

I had always tried to talk you into going to other clubs instead, arguing that the rough clientele Subterranea attracted always made me feel vulnerable, but you just told me I was being silly. Walking in on this night I could feel the hostile glares of everyone who noticed me. Even in the poor light it would have been difficult for anyone to not see me for what I was.

I had a couple of drinks in quick succession. I thought about the sweet white wine you favoured but my body called for whisky. The bartender never made eye contact with me.

Once I could feel the alcohol loosen my inhibitions I made my way out onto the dance floor. The music was loud, just a blur of bass and drum machines. The lights whipped around fast enough to rob everything of its detail. I found a clear spot and started to dance.

My movements were clumsy to start with. When I had danced with you I always felt like an ageing relative at a wedding, hauled up to dance to alien music, embarrassed and embarrassing. Now I tried to let my mind go blank and to let you speak to me through the rhythm and my body. I stopped being aware of my limbs, of the beat of the music: it all blended into one. I felt like I could hear you singing in my head. My body grew wet with sweat and a simple joy grew within me, an energised peace. I closed my eyes and let the stroboscopic lighting play geometric patterns across the lids.

The first blow took me by surprise. I lost my footing and fell heavily into another dancer. I looked up and saw three young men, dressed in clothes severe enough to look military, standing over me. None of them even looked old enough to be there. One of them, the ringleader, I suppose, shouted something I couldn't hear, his words twisting his face into something grotesque. He swung his leg back and kicked me in the face. I was still too dazed to protect myself. His friends took this as their cue to join in.

The part of my mind that still worked was surprised by the lack of pain. I could feel their blows landing, but it all felt unimportant. I could feel my grip on consciousness fading. I was distantly aware of being dragged through the club by my legs, seeing flashes of barely human faces leering over me. My head bumped sickeningly on each step as we went up the stairs and out the back entrance.

The cold night air started to bring me to. I could see there were more of them now. The young boy who had started it all pulled me up by one hand and spun me against a brick wall. He and his cohorts shouted obscenities and threats at me as they closed in again. I looked for an escape route, but there were too many of them and my legs felt too weak to walk, let alone run.

A fire was burning in the middle of the alleyway, lit by vagrants looking for warmth. It looked just like your funeral pyre. I focussed on it as the next wave of blows descended. It took me away from the breaking of bones and the cracking of teeth. This time I stayed conscious through it all, your fire keeping my mind from fading to black.

When I was too broken to offer any more entertainment they stopped. One of the men produced a knife but the ringleader waved him away. He gestured towards the fire with a nod of his head. I felt rough arms lift me, making bone grind against shattered bone. The warmth of the fire grew stronger as they dragged me towards it and pitched me in.

I felt the flames consume me.

The morning light woke me. Dew had smeared the ash of the fire into a grey film that covered me. I rolled away from the fire, feeling the dead embers crunch under me.

I looked at my arms: under the ash they seemed unburned, the skin underneath soft and healthy. My eyes hurt from the light and I felt strange and confused, light in head and body. I took a few steps, waiting for the pain of broken bones to evidence, but nothing happened. I started walking towards home, though without you waiting for me there seemed little reason to.

Passers-by looked at me oddly, but without the hostility of the night before. I wondered if the coat of ash had made me beyond ridicule or if day people were just more tolerant than their night-time counterparts.

I arrived home tired and empty. I knew I would not sleep, but all I could do was got to bed. I took off the sorry remains of your boots, grateful that they no longer hurt. Then I started to undress. A part of my mind knew what I would find under the clothes, but I was still unable to believe what I saw: as I removed the bustier it released a pair of small breasts from their confinement. Your breasts.

The amazement and fear I should have felt never came. What had happened was just too natural. I looked at your face reflected back in your mirror, wiping away the ash and grime with spittle so I could see your features better. I asked you if you were there, but you never replied.

I washed again in the same water, removing all the filth, unable to take in the miracle I saw in the mirror. There you were, back in our room, reflected and alive. I hugged you, myself, both of us. I cried and the tears felt like a baptism.

After a while I tried dressing in my own clothes again, wondering if the enchantment or delusion would be broken by my return to myself. It made no difference. My clothes just did not fit any more.

Now I sit here, not quite alone, waiting for more of you to come to me. You were the strong one, the one that mattered. If I am honest with myself I am little better than your dead shell, reanimated but empty. All I can do now is wait in the stillness of our room for you to fill me with your fire.

(c) 1997 XoYo

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