Nathan Alling Long is the author of The Origin of Doubt, a Lambda Award finalist. His stories and essays have appeared in over 100 publications. He teaches at Stockton University.

Image of The Current - The Current

Fred is an arsonist—and, Fred is not an arsonist. Let me explain: Fred has thought of fire, its power and grace, for a long time. Perhaps since he was a child. He often watched fires, mesmerized by them. He dreamed of owning matches, of striking them one by one into a field of dry grass, into a garbage can full of paper, into the basement of a house or office building. It is not all he thinks about. Most of the time he does not think about it, but often enough he does. In this way, he is an arsonist.

But Fred has never lit a fire that harmed or destroyed. And he is committed to never doing it. In this way, he is not an arsonist.

Fred knows to commit such an act is wrong, or at least illegal. He could imagine an abandoned building, one that someone might want burned down, in which case setting a match to it and watching the flames consume it would not be wrong, though it may still be illegal. Fred has come to believe that the desire itself is not wrong. It is just what it is. If you have extremely high blood pressure and you desire to eat a whole cheesecake, which would result in a heart attack and your subsequent death—in essence, suicide—is wanting to eat cheesecake morally wrong? Or is only the act of eating it wrong?

Remember, Doctor, this story is only a metaphor.

Which is the other reason why I say, "Fred is an arsonist—and, Fred is not an arsonist." Let me explain: As I said, Fred has not committed a crime, and does not plan to commit a crime, but the feelings, the urges, remain. It is not easy to wrestle with them, to keep them at bay. Especially when he can talk to no one about his desire to set things on fire. Do you understand?

Fred would go and see a doctor, like yourself, a therapist, to talk through these things, this desire—though what is there to talk about, really?—and the holding back of the desire, which is really the issue. He would talk about his strategies—how he does not own matches, how he rented an apartment with an electric stove, how he never travels alone in the part of town where the abandoned buildings are, so that he cannot be distracted for long by their allure.

If he could go to a therapist, Fred would talk about how lonely it is to have grown up, discovering this desire inside him, knowing it was wrong, that he could not act on it, seeing what happened to others who burned things down—how they always seemed to be caught, how they were always portrayed as evil, how they were carted off to jail. He would talk about the times he would see a fire, how he could not pull himself away from walking toward it, how he had to look nonchalant, like the other spectators, to not give off the wild electric feeling in his body, the breathless desire for it to rage on out of control, against the firefighters' efforts. He would talk about how the desire could flare up anywhere, from a glimpse of a wildfire on a TV in a bar, or the flick of a lighter in the dark of a street corner, to the bonfire at a party out in the woods.

He would talk about how difficult it is to have no one to talk to about this, to promise for his whole life not to act, and to get no recognition for it, to be silent in his honor. He would talk of how he knew there must be others like him, but how he could not find them, could not talk to them, for what if there was a spy or an informant, or what if one of them gave in to the desire and began to talk of fire with a lust he'd never heard anyone express before? What if, like in rehab, there was one person who snuck in matches, kindling, and gasoline?

But of course, Fred cannot make an appointment for a therapist, he cannot come and talk to you, Doctor, because you are obliged, under law, to report such things, and then where would he be? His life would be ruined, all his efforts to be a good person, punished under law.

Fred is an arsonist, but he struggles to not be an arsonist. In a way you can decide which he is by asking yourself, do you believe the sin is in the thought or in the action?

But either way, you would be wrong. Because, this is, as I said in the beginning, just a metaphor, for something else that I cannot tell you about, Doctor, which is the real reason why Fred is not an arsonist. Because arson is not the problem, has never been the problem. And of course you know by now, too, Doctor, that there is no one named Fred.

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