We Didn’t Start the Fire

This is an account of a house fire when I was in high school that aligned in disturbing ways with some unsavory magical activity. It picks up where the post When They Talk Back leaves off and in past version of this blog, this was part of that post. However, the story stands better on its own, and the former post was far too ambitious for its own good. I also pause at the precipice of Part III in another ongoing series to revisit the past which informs what I had been doing in that series. I am realizing how far it goes in helping to explain why I took my friend’s “Burning Man” ritual suggestion to such a stark place as a symbolic self-immolation. Something else I can admit out loud for the first time is that it also helps explain in some ways the direction I ended up taking at the Theosophical Society: At the end of the day, part of upholding my reputation (which was not even about me, but about how I reflected on the Society) meant visibly falling in line with certain norms and mores that informed the teachings at the root of the Theosophical tradition (which must be understood as separate from the mission of the organization itself). In short, it meant often having to sit in group discussions and listen to people preach at me about the dangers of this or that occult practice when a) I had already lived through the below, and b) most of the people preaching about it had no personal experience and were merely parroting what they had read.

I think I was 15 or 16 when it happened. I’d been making a study of Peter Carroll’s Liber Null and Psychonaut and was probably way more engrossed in its darker aspects than was healthy for me, but there was nobody around save Rose and Ilyas to steer me in the right direction, and at the end of the day, there was nothing they could do. I’d take their guidance under advisement, then I’d be reading and get some fucked up idea, and Minora would be there to talk shop with.

I had someone on my shit list, big time—to the point that I figured I would try my hand at my first full-on curse using magical means other than raw intent and this nebulous thing I called “energy.” I knew about sigils, and they were cool, but not enough for what I was up for trying. I have qualms about writing this, but while I’m at this, I might as well say straight up that I wanted a life taken and I actually went for it. I incorporated sigils, but first I designed my own entire alphabet just for this curse, (and now perhaps you see why I also designed an alphabet for my Self-Initiation ceremony, as a way of turning things around symbolically by using the same technique for self-healing, which is one aspect of what Initiation really is) along with an improvised magical system involving “seals” that I conceived, again, just to make this whole thing pop. I wanted to be good and sure, and I wanted this to come from the absolute depths of my magical nature. If that was my goal, that’s indubitably what I got, and those depths turned out to be far more cavernous than I ever suspected.

As I’d designed the system, the seal was to be “activated” by burning a candle over it. I spent the better part of a day at school pulling the elements together for the seal—making a few sigils, deciding how to arrange them within the seal system along with various “targeting” sigils of an astrological nature. I sketched it first, then meticulously inked it with a Pilot pen while my teachers did their thing in class. As I did all of this, I charged every line and curve of the seal with red energy. I packed the seal away in my book bag when I was done, and at the end of the day, I walked home.

On my way home, Ilyas showed up suddenly, and he was pleading with me not to go through with this spell. He tells me he promises that I will regret the results if I go through with it. He says I would live with it for the rest of my life and it would stain everything. He urges me to burn the paper with the seal, destroying it, rather than light the candle on it to activate it. I remember he was fairly insistent on the point of burning the seal, because he said it was too dangerous to leave laying around. The farthest I would budge was to agree to hold off, and not to activate the seal that night, as I had been planning. I arrived home, set my book bag on the floor up against the side of “my” chair in the living room, and didn’t touch it again. There it sat, the seal inside, as I spent the evening going about my business and thinking about what I should do. I went to bed like I always did.

The next morning, I am awakened by frantic pounding and yelling on the door to my bedroom. A wooden accordioned track door, it slides open and smoke begins pouring into my room. My mother yells at me that the house is on fire. I bolt out of bed, throw on some pants and a shirt, and run out to the dining room.

My chair in the living room is on fire–the one with my backpack–containing the seal Ilyas begged me to burn–leaning up against it. It looks like Ilyas is going to get his way after all.

I grab the phone, dial 911, get an operator, tell her there’s a fire, she reads my address at me from her screen, I confirm, the line goes dead. I turn to my mother, who’s trying to swat out the fire with a bath towel, and tell her, “It’s time to go, ma.” I grab her arm and lead her out the back, down the back stairway, barefoot through 3 feet of snow. We bang on the door and ring the doorbell of the neighbors on the first floor to get them up and safely out. They answer the door as our living room windows burst from their frames and crash onto the ground two stories down. The fire trucks just roll up as we all move away from the building and toward the sidewalk.

The apartment was pretty much totaled, but since it was an old brick building, it was structurally intact. Notably, there was a big hole in the floor between the first and second floors, just above the spot where, right by the front door downstairs, a light fixture in the ceiling would often flicker. Most likely, the fire was electrical and had been spreading quietly in the space between the floors for some time before finally getting a “breath” of air allowing it to flare to life.

It all happened right. Underneath. My backpack.

Me and Scooter (canine companion of a family friend), in the evening after the house fire.

Ilyas never took credit for the fire, per se. I don’t know that the credit was his to claim, per se. We didn’t really talk about specifics, but essentially, the elephant in the room was that it was weirdly tied to my would-be curse. Ilyas told me I was lucky, and it happened the best way it possibly could since I wouldn’t listen to him. I have reflected on this often throughout my life, and I find it interesting how the fire basically involved a latent, sleeping flame getting a breath of fresh air, about how Ilyas was fiery and Rose was some kind of sylph or “wind devi.” They were both so dire about how I had pushed things too far and paid for it. They would say “it had to be that way, given the options available.” It was some kind of “last resort” outcome. By the sounds of things, in ways I still don’t fully comprehend, this was sort of brought about by my “magical immune system.” Also, something similar to a strike of lightning comes to mind—stored energy seeking the path of least resistance in order to go to ground. I guess that works as a metaphor.

I didn’t fuck around with magic again for years. I would read about it, but not practice it. I had my guides, I did my spirit work, when feeling particularly spiritual or theistic. I underwent periods of atheism, which for me, always correlated with periods of depression and nihilism. I considered the obvious: “Maybe magic is too much for a person like you, Dan. Maybe you should just live a quiet, normal life and lay low from now on.” Usually, something eerie or synchronistic would happen that I couldn’t ignore, and I’d open myself back up to Rose and Ilyas for answers.

“This is real, huh?”

“Afraid so, kiddo.” (I mean, if I’m bothering to entertain asking, what the hell did I think they would say?)

It was some time after the fire, after my mother and I moved to a different apartment a few blocks away from the old one, that Ilyas finally told me his name. I couldn’t tell you where it came from other than from him. It was not (consciously) familiar to me, which is one of the pieces of evidence that I file into the “I’m not [just] imagining this shit” drawer. Cryptomnesia is a possibility I’ve considered, but honestly, I have no idea where a name like that would have shown up in my life for me to forget in the first place. I cannot identify any likely source.

Upon looking into it, I found that the name “Ilyas” is the Arabic form of the name “Elias” or “Elijah,” an Old Testament prophet who…well…called…down…fire from heaven…*ahem*. Given my background, “Elijah” was what I would be more familiar with—but an invisible red dragon gave me the Arabic form, “Ilyas,” as his name. Going back to the consideration of sources, I had been reading Jung at the time and those familiar with The Red Book will know that in his confrontation with the Self, the Prophet Elijah was the form taken by said archetype in his psyche; however, I don’t ever remember seeing that name rendered in the English transliteration of Arabic that is “Ilyas.”

This singular puzzle has sometimes been the sole hook upon which my entire life path has hung. It’s served as somewhat of a “koan” ever since. I’d wager that 20 years later, I still barely understand what it points to, although there have been some exciting leads and I will be writing about them. That motivates me and keeps me going.

Ilyas also had important elements to add to my story—I suppose, my Personal Myth–that Rose had only hinted at. Ilyas was more forthcoming about why I was here, why I even had he and Rose in my life, why any of this was happening, and why the house fire just proved how important it was that I start moving in a more positive direction.

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