Joe was on fire. He was a beautiful liar, and his days had come to an end at the stake.
“Look at Joe,” said the man to the boy, “he did what we all wanted to.” It was hard for the boy to listen to the screams of Joe, but he did so, because he knew it was expected of him. He knew that Joe had done wrong and was paying for it.
Joe’s flesh crisped, and his soul did something or other, perhaps leaving this universe, perhaps opting to stick around as an angry ghost, perhaps both. As the people threw more faggots on the fire, a fiddler struck up a tune and some of the couples took up dancing, slowly, holding each other tightly, rotating like human spits.
Joe was quiet now, and it was getting dark, and the smell of the cooked meat and the warmth and color of the flames were beautiful. The boy was crying.
“Why did we burn Joe?” he asked a man.
“Joe? I never knew him very well, boy. But I wanted to. I wanted to know him.”
The boy ran home, through the darkening streets, over the cobblestones. He shouted a few times, just to hear the sound of his voice echo off the pavements and walls of the houses. The moon was rising and the light of it shone on the boy’s face, flashing off his wet cheeks.
“Momma, they burned Joe,” he said, arriving at the back stoop of home, burying his face in his mother’s skirts.
“I know, boy, I know. Have some tea. Time for bed.”
They sat and drank the tea at their table.
“Momma, why did they burn Joe?”
“I don’t know, son. People do all kinds of things. Sometimes we burn each other.”
“But why, Mom?”
“God has a plan, son. He knows, even if we don’t.”
This shut up the boy, though it did not satisfy him a bit. He drank his tea and watched the grandfather clock tick back and forth.
“Where’s Charlie?” asked the boy. Charlie was their cat.
“Out hunting mice I think,” said the woman.
The boy finished his tea and sighed, and lay down to sleep on the table. His mother, a generous soul, picked the boy up in her strong arms and took him to his bedroom, where she stripped him to his underwear and tucked him into bed.
Later that night, Joe’s ghost slipped into the boy’s room, squatting over his small chest as nightmares do, watching his sleeping face. It felt natural to Joe, being here, on top of this boy, not quite here and not quite gone.
“Boy,” he whispered, and the sound of his whisper was like a cave, like an ocean cave where rocks smashes against the lime-covered walls. “Boy, it’s Joe . . .”
The boy woke. He did not scream, but looked up at Joe’s pale face.
“Joe,” he said. “Why did they burn you?”
“The same reason they’ll burn you, boy, if you don’t get out of here. Mark my words!”
The boy believed Joe, though he could not have said why. He felt something stir in his breast; a dragon, or a mountain, perhaps a river, something large and dangerous and his.
He followed the ghost out of his house, dressed only in his underwear. It was not that cold outside now, he found, rather pleasant, though he shivered from the anticipation, the thrill of this strange night.
“Where to, Joe?” he asked, but the ghost was gone. The boy gazed up at the moon, thinking many strange thoughts he had never thought before. At length, he returned to his bed, and to sleep.
Many years later, the boy was a man. And if we would speak of men, we must speak of burnings. Not too long, I promise.
What, after all, is a burning of men alive, when it is not meant specifically to propitiate a god? If the nature of this punishment is secular alone (and it may well be, whatever the priests say), is it then just another in a long list of creative ways to cause pain to one another? An arbitrary distinction in a long line of them made by a few million governments since Time began?
The boy, whose name was now Brian, or Lucky, if you knew him well, had spent a great deal of time thinking about burnings.
Something about the heat, he thought. And the dancing.
And he was right. For what spiral of our final end, wherever it may come, cannot be bourn out but by the slipping loose of another’s vital knot? It is best, you see, when villages forget their thoughts and lives at burnings, so that they may only huddle by its heat and stir their bodies for so many unions, so many further forgettings.
A bit Gnostic, perhaps, but Brian had met a great many of them, and this tangled philosophy served him well in his travels, where he never stayed long enough to become really known, and he learned much.
Many years after that, Brian became a burner. In a village much like his own, he took men the village brought to him, tied them to the stake, and set them afire. It seemed logical to him, this new position. It did not fill him but it soothed him, and warmed his face and skin.
After his fifth burning, the ghost of Joe came to Brian the boy, who was now almost sixty years old.
“Boy,” said Joe, squatting on his grey-haired shallow chest, “boy.”
Brian woke and screamed but found he could not move.
“You got out, but you didn’t get out quick enough. I warned you.”
“I’m sorry!” cried Joe.
“Yes,” said Joe. “You’re sorry.” And he reached down to Brian’s face with his ghostly finger and left a mark there, a long, deep mark; the mark of a ghost.
In the end the boy Brian who was now old was reduced to beggary, and a very strange beggar he was, skittish even by the standards of other beggars, never staying in the open long, usually crouched under logs or watching the sky, to see what faces might appear out of the dark.
And that is all I know of Brian, the boy who saw Joe burn and later burned men himself.
Bio: Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in The Town of the Queen of the Angels, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, in Echo Park. He is 33 years old.