On the Theory of Fire and Ice


The summer after eighth grade I started

wearing my hair differently, up in a bun

instead of a ponytail, because that was

the year I started remembering the rules

of laboratory procedure. You didn’t, kept

wearing your long sleeves next to the

Bunsen burner, even when I said you’d

catch fire, because you were all too

excited about its false sentience. You always

were, eyes tracing the bobbing flame, and

inhaling the smoke trail after it died because

it reminded you of rain clouds in summer.

You always liked the concept of cloud cover,

and I never doubted you, or your hands

flickering, moving in shadow jumps, without

warning otherwise, even when you

took my hand in yours and thrust them both

into the pitcher of ice water during that lab

in sixth grade, when we were conducting

research on whether or not the absence of heat

stimulated mountain climbers to move faster

so that their bodies didn’t shut down or collapse.

I pictured burning in reverse, the cold eating

your skin, your fingers, until the blood in you

would boil like liquid candle fire, the same way

that running your hands under the hottest setting

of the sink turned the water cloudy with heat

that felt cold. Your hands knew more than

shadow jumps, knew how to stay cold all the time,

to stimulate the fire that kept you burning,

kept you going. I remember my hand trembling

in the absence of warmth, remember wishing for a

fire, for once in the laboratory, wishing for a spark

to creep through my veins, and bring back a

semblance of life to my fingers. Instead,

I wrote in my notes that the absence of heat

did stimulate more activity, but only noticeably more

if they were used to adapting to begin with.


Stephanie Tom is a Chinese-American high school student living in New York. She writes and serves as an editor for both her school newspaper and literary magazine. Her writing has previously won Gold and Silver keys from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and her poetry has either appeared or is forthcoming in Rising Phoenix Review, Germ Magazine, and the Blueshift Journal, among other places. You can find her spilling her thoughts online at stom18.wordpress.com.