Incense Burns This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 6, 2010
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Incense burns, burns, burns. Incense burns in her earliest memories. Incense burns in the background of faded Polaroid pictures. Her parents take her to the playground while incense burns in the house. Still too young to understand or remember when her immediate world shrinks to two; things are different, but incense burns the same. She falls off her new bike, still too big, and her eyebrow needs stitches. When her father returns to the house that he left three years ago, ready to take her to the hospital in his old gray car, the burning incense has already soothed his daughter.

Incense burns, greeting the child as she returns home from school. Incense burns as girls enter the house in pink dresses. They giggle about classmates as nail polish fumes mask the scent of incense. Incense burns as the girl throws out her dolls. She eats dinner alone with her mother as incense burns. Incense burns in her newly painted room, blue, like the sky she loves so dearly. Projects and papers and stories lie on the table as incense burns. In a hotel room in Florence, incense burns.

They return at the end of August – tan, saying ciao, drinking espresso – and with a flick of a lighter, incense burns. Summer burns out with the incense as a biology textbook tells tales of species and phylums. She falls asleep with unfinished work as the thick scent invades her brain, filling unblazed neural pathways with Patchouli and Nag Champa. The smoke alarm wakes them in the deepest night: someone left the incense burning. The girls, no longer small, tiptoe through the brown door at 3 am, met by a worried mother blowing out the flame on a fresh stick of incense. They hurry to bed, waking up in the afternoon with raccoon eyes and headaches. Forgotten conversations and neglected reprimands fill empty chairs at the table.

She cries to herself, soaking her pillow and clutching the blankets as smells of first
heartbreak and wasted time mingle with heavily perfumed air as incense burns. Incense burns in the kitchen, incense burns in the bathroom, incense ash grinds into the fabric of the stained living room couch.

A man in the house now, he coughs at the incense spirals and her mother hurries to
extinguish it. In her cave of a room, an eternal sanctuary, incense still burns. In her cavern of a chest, where a heart used to beat, incense still burns. Incense burns as she screams silently, alone in the night, when no one can hear her cry.

A boy in her head now, he lights incense with her and shares her delight at blowing scented smoke through the air. I love you, he tells her. He charms her mother and they cook dinner in the kitchen with incense burning. As they steal furtive kisses on the floor in her room, incense burns. The boy goes out at night with her and the other girls – they welcome him, like he’s been there since the days of braces and matching miniskirts.

She cries to the boy now, as incense smoke wends its way between two forms: tall thin mother and still little daughter. Incense smoke lassos another, binding it to her protector, with excuses of nothing’s really changed echoing in the blankness. So she smiles to the world and pretends that the words are true.

Incense smoke sides with the daughter, masking (just barely) another smoke. The yellow bathroom with peeling walls fills with new smoke, thick and musky. She lies on the floor in a haze, watching incense waft in lazy whirls above her head.

Incense burns as she leaves, closing the door and rushing into a taxi. She dances through incense smoke at his house, blowing out the flame as gently and carefully as he touches her body. Incense burns, and floats away. Incense burns…

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