This is How They Burn You
READ Local First (the world’s most extensive library of Utah-related poets and writers) is honored to introduce Kati Lewis, Director of the SLCC Community Writing Center.
Lewis is associate professor of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). She teaches creative writing, monsters in popular U.S. literature, critical theory, composition, and queer studies.
Says Lewis: “I’m a writer who needs to make more time for writing; and I’m a lover who needs to make more time for being in love.”
Kati is a marathoner and mother. Her work explores themes of silence and voice. Most of her essays and short stories are fragmented narratives.
“Fragmentation allows me to experiment with point of view, time, and memory as witness, censor, and survivor,” she says.
Kati is the incoming overseer of the Utah Creative Writing Competition. She looks forward to continuing the excellent work of outgoing director Melissa Helquist.
The following selection of Kati’s work is short, concise, and dark in the manner of all great dystopian literature.
This is How They Burn You
They arrive in the burn unit in various states of having been unfleshed. It would be wrong of you to think that the unfleshing—the charring, the flaking into ash—first blisters then cooks the feet of the accused women. The pyre flames create more effective kindling using what the women wear: pants, skirts, undergarments, dresses, shifts, tights, bandages, or whatever else the accused were allowed or forced to wear for the public spectacle that is their punishment for transgressions deepwide. It would be wrong of you to think that the women brought to this unit are here to be saved. They are beyond saving. You must know this. This will help you avoid settling into a kind of hope for them. The salve is to preserve their skin so it will be ready for another go on the pyre. Our people need their justice. Your first case is at the south end of the unit. You don’t need to worry about making her skin presentable. She’ll be back. She likes to burn. After decades of returning here, she simply won’t disappear. No, no, her name doesn’t matter. Why are you asking that? That’s a nonsensical question. You shouldn’t be asking questions like that. And, no, before you ask it, it’s doesn’t matter what she did. Don’t ask questions like that. Your mask slipped. Let’s get that back around this ear. There you go. Keep your mask on.
You don’t want to get used to the smell.
They sent me here to treat your burns. No, no idea how many times you have been put to the flames. Seems like quite a lot based on the look of things. Turn over now. Need to get the other side. No, no I’ve seen worse. Not much worse but still worse than you. The worst is on the remains of the guilty. You don’t look as bad as them. But you will. One day. Turn over again. Raise your left arm. Lift your chin. Lift your chin. Please lift your chin. Turn your head. As you know, avoid touching the bandages. I’ll be back to change them. What? No, of course I’ll be back to change them. No, no, that’s an inappropriate question. Why would I want to know your name? No, no, please don’t tell me your name. He told me not to ask but I also don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter now. What?
How did you know that you are my first case?
They hauled me into this unit for the first time a millennium ago. He told you I’ve been coming back for only decades. He loses track of time. New healers always move farther away from him whenever he tells this lie about my story. Yes, I can hear and see very well despite my state. You ask why I don’t just give the hordes their justice? I have done everything they wanted in their burning witches. I cried. I didn’t cry. I begged. I didn’t beg. I screamed and then I didn’t. I prayed to so many of their gods. I confessed and then stayed silent. Each time I stood on their stacks of wood to perform in their fires, I couldn’t and sometimes wouldn’t give them what they wanted. They bring me back here to heal so I can return for their justice. Maybe the next time, they hope, they will get from me what they came for. But they never do. I’m carted back here to be healed by women like you. They send healers in to see what they’ve done to me and can do to others. Look around. I’m not their only abiding witch. But you know you’re really not here to heal me or these others. What did you do? Or what didn’t you do? You don’t have to answer. It doesn’t matter. You’ve seen how they burn us. Bringing you here isn’t your lesson. It’s your punishment.
This is how they burn you.