BONFIRE

Winner of the Writers' Bureau Short Story Competition 2017

 

They send pest control to deal with my book problem. I like the smell of books, the feel of them; they look nice up there on my shelves. But Gisela was really the bookworm in our house. She kept them dusted and occupied. Since Gisela has gone, some of them have become a little unruly.

The Satanic Verses keeps jumping off the shelf into my path in repeated attempts at hari-kari. I’m sick of catching my walking stick on its hard-backed edges, stumbling and coming nose to page with the same text every time - now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business. Our King James Bible has grown teeth. Yesterday it snapped at me: he that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. I snatched it up and smothered it under one of Gisela’s patchwork quilts in the airing cupboard, but I could still hear its muffled proclamations. I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed.

So, pest control are here, extracting the books and building a bonfire at the end of my garden. I get some lebkuchen for all the chaps working so hard. When I’m in the pantry, I find one of Gisela’s little notes. Even three years later, I keep finding them around the house. My love, they start, then a quote from one of her books. This one reads: the first English sentence we learned was “Long Live Chairman Mao!” I don’t understand a lot of the messages. 

 

The men from pest control are thorough, they fumigate my neighbours’ bookshelves too. They ask me first, if I mind them putting all these other books on my bonfire. The more the merrier, I say. And so the whole street gathers round the flames. Günter from number 14 sets up his barbeque and Birgit brings out some of the fiery liquid she makes in her still.

Not everyone is pleased. The Neumanns and the Brechts don’t want to give up their books. But it’s a public health issue, so they don’t have any choice. I can’t understand it. Why wouldn’t they want to see their vicious tomes burned to nothingness?

I wonder how Gisela would have felt. I think perhaps she’d be sad to see me burn her precious books. Perhaps not, it’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words, I remember reading once. At the end, when she was bedbound, Gisela asked me to read all her favourite books out loud to her. She had a list, and we worked through most of it that last year. A line from Uncle Tom’s Cabin built an invisible bridge between us: in real life, we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us. My eyes filled with tears and I think that’s the first time I felt the anger. We read about all these brave people and yet those were the lines she chose to focus on. She didn’t fight, not hard enough.

The fire flings out smoke that swirls into shapes. Not just shapes, words. No one is so thoroughly superstitious as the godless man. The smoke makes me sneeze and I have a sticky film over my eyes. The flames crackle, having a conversation. Clowns in search of crowns, they say. The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

I think I might be a little asphyxiated. One of Gisela’s quotes steals into my mind – nothing was your own, except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull. I found that one in my sock drawer. But this smoke fills up those few centimetres and there’s nothing left but a slight madness.

Gisela’s notes make me furious at her. She knew, she knew they are the things I don’t want to hear. Safety-pinned to my funeral tie: to hope and to act, these are our duties in misfortune. On the last page of the telephone pad: look how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.

I wonder if I regret what I said to her, at the end. Don’t you dare leave me, I said. And she replied: it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. How could she be thinking about Harry Potter when our world was ending? You are killing our love without looking back, I told her; more than your body is dying. My eyes are watering now, washing away the greasy film from them.

I don’t think pest control expected so much smoke. They don’t seem to know what to do about the billowing clouds. The flames spear high into the air like gilded tridents. The bonfire can be seen for miles around.

The fire brigade screeches up, drawing even more attention to my little house. They aim their plastic hoses, but, when the water hits the flames, there are the wild violet sparks of an electrical fire. Gisela would tell me to admire them, so exotic and vivid. I think it pisses God off, she would say, if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.  

Gisela, I’d learned, was a romantic. She’d always been so practical, but in her head she had all kinds of nonsense. She’d mumbled when she was nearing sleep and confused by the drugs. They loved each other because everything around them willed it. Quite a few of the books on her list had brought me to blushing. I know I faltered over: we fucked a flame into being. Those books are all in the fire now.

The firemen move away and pull off their helmets for a pow-wow. Their faces are pale and worried; masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull. Eventually they return with buckets of sand. At first, the flames seem cowed.  But soon they grow again, splitting into little fingers that wave in the air. Night has fallen, and the dark is filled with delicate phut phut noises. The fire burps out beautiful golden chunks. I don’t feel bad about collecting these for myself; the fire is in my garden, after all. But I give a handful to Heinrich, the little boy from next door.

Then the media vans come, with their tripods and furry microphones like squirrels. It’s big news now, my backyard bonfire. I tell a young blonde, only in her early twenties, all about it - all about how I’ve lived in the house fifty-six years. The girl’s smile doesn’t falter, no matter what I say, as if her face is made of ceramic that only sets harder the longer it’s in the heat. The fire belches curses: the hiss from a thousand Jewish newspaper vipers. I hope I’m the only one that hears. Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can’t see where it keeps its brain, I remind myself.

I really don’t know, I say, when they ask why this is happening. Just books, I tell them, when they want to know what’s burning. Because some of them had got too much to handle, I explain. I can’t remember, I reply, when they ask which books are causing all this trouble. Just ordinary books; I’d had them for ages up there on my shelves and they’d never been any bother before.

It begins to drizzle, so we all decamp to my porch and watch the raindrops fall. The rain only makes the flames hungrier. They creep along the ground and lick at the edges of my wooden porch. My neighbours scatter. One of the firemen puts his arm around my shoulders and hustles me inside. Pack a bag, he says, it’s not looking good. I grab my beaten-up leather suitcase and bundle in what’s most important. Some clothes. Toiletries. And the photos. As bitter as I am, I can’t let them burn.

Down the street, I watch as my house is consumed. The house I had lived in with Gisela since we were newlyweds. I watch the chairs and umbrellas make grotesque faces as they melt. The roof falls in and whispers: we’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. The minister, Alfred Schulz, has come to be with his congregation. He murmurs bible verses at the flames, as if they can subdue the rage. The fire blazes and spits sparks at him. The bible did not arrive by fax from heaven, they hiss, the bible is a product of man, not of God. The minister’s cheeks flush, in frustration or mortification, perhaps. 

 

*

Two weeks later I’m at my nephew’s flat in the city. My house is now nothing more than golden dust, mixed with Gisela’s ashes I’d left behind on the mantelpiece. I think she’d be happy with the resting place. She’d written a letter my nephew had read out at the funeral, and her final lines were: I shall be dumped where the weed decays, and the rest is rust and stardust.

I find one of Gisela’s notes, the last I will ever find, I suppose, tucked in a rip in the lining of my suitcase. I know she hoped I would travel after she was gone. You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way! I screw the note up and wish I hadn’t read it. Dr bloody Seuss. I shuffle around the unfamiliar apartment in my slippers. The entire village is gone, my friends and neighbours displaced, like scurrying spiders, into the creases and cracks of the country. The fire still rages.

Critique by Competition Adjudicator,
Iain Pattison

Every once in a while I encounter an unusual entry that truly surprises and haunts me. And Bonfire is such a tale. A dark edged fantasy skilfully blending menace and mischief, this multi-layered narrative stayed fresh and intriguing in my memory for days and I found myself drawn to reread it time and time again. On each occasion I found new and unexpected elements; clever, sinister details and nuances that emerged almost grudgingly. 

In theory I should disapprove of Bonfire. I have strong prejudices against stories without dialogue or where the era and/or setting is vague or unclear. I also like my endings to be unambiguous. But it’s impossible to dislike this yarn. Any lack of hard facts or clear exposition isn’t omission or mistake, but masterly spell-weaving luring and binding with its malevolent, but subtly satirical, mystery. 

The central premise is fantastical in every sense - stretching credibility close to snapping point. Yet, through the strength and pace of the entry’s prose, and the way the plot sticks rigidly to its own rules of magical logic, the writer convinced me that books could suddenly become alive, ill-intentioned and “unruly” - a threat that had to be fought ruthlessly with fire. And by the outrageous events being described in a matter of fact, almost mundane way, they were infused with a strangely powerful authenticity.

The tale, of course contains knowing historical nods to the book burning of the Nazis and homage to the sci-fi classic Farenheit 451. And, like Ray Bradbury, this writer creates an unnerving sense of unease, of something disturbing and predatory lurking amongst the lyrical.

And that makes this an accomplished story that questions, entertains and chills in equal measure. 

© 2018 by R. A. McHale

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