We arrive in the dark at the shortest night and cluster away from the pyre. We are nameless and unsure, bleeding without a wound. We count: forty of us against three of them. Still, we feel outnumbered. We rub our cramping bellies. Wood smoke makes us cry.
The Leader yells from his soapbox, demanding law and order. His voice pierces our bodies like needles. We stop shuffling and straighten our spines, our muscles tight with tension. All around us, nocturnal insects hum, drawn to our youth, our flowing blood.
Form a circle, the Leader shouts. We squeeze ourselves around the fire while the Bully squeezes us, our butt cheeks, our tender breasts. Silently observing is the Boy: Everything that happens here tonight will go into the Book of Men.
The Leader tells us to step forward, one by one, and relinquish our dreams to the flames.
We don’t move. We barely breathe. We turn our heads only to look at one another and at the sky. The full moon glows ghostly white, like a broken promise. We are dolls of straw and cloth. We don’t know how to become real.
The Bully shoves one of us in the back, separating her from us, the circle. She stumbles forward, looking helpless, blurry. The swirling smoke steals her shape, her boundaries.
Relinquish your dream, the Leader shouts.
She, one of us, digs into her skirt pocket, removes a finger puppet, and observes it as a jeweler would examine a precious stone. She glances over her shoulder, back at us. We smile to help, but our smiles are fake and therefore useless.
She faces the pyre and throws her dream into the flames.
Ashes whirl up. The blaze whips our skins dry as bone.
The Bully spits in her face, pushes her away, jerks another one of us toward the heat. We flinch.
Bigger! The Leader shouts.
One of us feeds the fire with a paper plane.
Orange flames shoot out toward us. We withdraw, yet the Bully forces us back. He speaks with kicks and punches. Violence appears to give him pleasure, as though it’s chocolate melting on his tongue.
Bigger! The Leader shouts again. You must sacrifice your biggest dream!
When the third one of us steps forward, the Boy faces her and says, Please do as they say. It will be better for all of us.
We don’t understand his pronouns “they” and “us,” but we understand his warning. He seems to sway between two worlds, eyes brimming with pity. Still, he returns to the sideline, his silent position, safe.
The third one of us removes her shoes and surrenders them to the fire. We watch the rubber curl, then melt, inhaling the fumes. We feel like animals with a paw caught in a trap. Sparks of desperation singe our throats.
We act more quickly now, poked by the Bully or braving the flames on our own. Dreams fly like birds from our hands. We give up a ring, a sharp pencil, locks of hair, a pair of transparent gloves. We throw in an egg fertilized by the wind. Set alight a future child. We bite off a fingertip, surrender an intuition, fold our wings and let them ignite.
The flames remain hungry: The Leader wants more. We watch our treasures burn, heat charring our faces, until one of us is about to gouge out her eyes.
We feel it happening. A pause, a freeze, a doubt. A refusal of pain. It rises as a song in our bodies, starting low, then surging out of one mouth. It’s a call-to-arms. Our arms.
One of us screams, No.
Her voice, our voice, is like a storm that changes everything. It fills, then clears the night. The moon, at last, delivers its power into our eyes, our minds.
The Leader yells, the Bully beats, and the Boy blinks, looking from the men toward us and back. He could be our brother, our future son. But he could also be the bully or the next man claiming to be in charge.
The bravery of one of us spreads like a virus and infiltrates our veins. Now there are two of us screaming, four of us, fifteen, twenty-one, thirty-six, forty. Finally, we understand: Our initiation is a revolution.
We reach into the fire and retrieve our dreams, slap them around to extinguish the flames. We blow life back into the cinders.
The Leader is still yelling when we drag him off his soap box, stuff his mouth with moss, tie him up with spider silk, and drop him into the woods where the animals will piss on him to lessen his stink.
We are outrageous. We are bold: Our last fears fall away from us like stars.
We tackle the Bully and sing to ourselves—a chorus of encouragement. The Bully thrashes and flails on the ground. His back carves out a pit that fits his body like a grave. We refuse to grant him a last wish. Instead, we close the grave.
When we come for the Boy, he’s nowhere to be found. We go after him, high on revenge, but once we spot him in the bushes, begging for mercy, we make him our witness. Our victory deserves to be seen.
We dance around the fire, ashen hands in the air, ready to accept the power that is naturally ours. We throw one another names to try them out. We are Saraswati and Medusa and Scheherazade and Joan and Cleopatra and Eve. And we are Fatima and Jing and Camille and Alysha and Maryam and Tamar and Anna. The starry sky seems too small for our elation.
At dawn, we turn our backs to the pyre and triumphantly march home as a pack, carrying our dreams like banners. We are women now, each unique and all together. The earth along the way resembles a freshly born planet, with the sun on top of everything, as rich as gold.
Claire Polders is the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers (A Whale in Paris, Atheneum / Simon&Schuster, 2018). Her short work appeared in Electric Literature, Tin House, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Rupture, and elsewhere. She was roaming the world when the pandemic hit and is currently safely stranded in Vietnam. Find her online at www.clairepolders.com and on Twitter at @ClairePolders.