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The Bonfire

by Antonio Bellomi

part 1 of 2

The word flew on the wings of wind, soared above the squares and intruded into the mews, ascended tortuous stairs and descended into damp cellars, repeated everywhere by a chorus of voices. Young and mature people, all of them joyfully anticipating the great show. “The bonfire! The bonfire!”

The bonfire.

Bruno heard the screaming voice coming from afar while he was busy trying to solve a difficult problem. How was it possible to build a drill that could make square holes? Someone had told him that in the past that had been possible, but now nobody remembered — just as so many other things had been forgotten after the Great Cataclysm. However, Bruno liked to play with the strange contraptions he had created, and he hoped to be able one day to construct a machine that could make square holes.

“The bonfire! The bonfire!”

The screaming voices were approaching. Bruno came up from the cellar where he had arranged a small laboratory with very old pieces of equipment he had painstakingly recovered from scrap heaps where they had been discarded at least half a century before. His jewel was a hand-driven bench drill... that unfortunately could only make round holes, damn it!

The voices came nearer and nearer. They had an hypnotic and hysterical quality that gave him both a thrill of excitation and a feeling of apprehension. And yet Bruno had no fear whatsoever. He was tall, big for his sixteen years, and people of his age had long ago ceased to scoff at him for his love of mechanical equipment. A few bloodied noses had been enough to persuade even the most hardened mocker.

The only people for whom he still felt a sort of awe were the priests of the Purity. For them only agricultural work was worthy of true men, and they looked suspiciously at every kind of equipment or metal tool. But since a good iron hoe was still more efficient than a hardened-wood hoe for vital agriculture, they let it go... as long as nobody felt inclined to go further.

Bruno still felt uneasy when he remembered the hours of the so-called religion at school. When Dominus Picpus, the priest with the beaky face of a predatory bird, had thundered against the arrogance of the Old Science that had dared to challenge the Lord of Creation. A Science that had generated the bacteriological holocaust and the near-destruction of humankind.

Because Science was the Great Evil!

As a child Bruno had come to identify the Science as a monster with long yellowish tentacles stretching endlessly in a crimson-streaked sky. A monster which seeped into the houses and struck men and women, grown-ups, the elderly and children alike with its filthy tentacles while they were sleeping and could not awake any more. This conception of Science was more or less common to everybody, especially because the Domini did nothing to refute it. On the contrary.

But now Bruno was beginning to think that the Science of the past was not the apocalyptic horror the Domini said. One day, he had found an old chest abandoned in a cellar, and in it he had retrieved a newspaper of the kind they used to print in the past. It was full of illustrations and one of it was the design of a city utterly different from the town where he lived, a city of very tall buildings and strange vehicles which seemed to be propelled by themselves without being pulled by horses or donkeys.

For some strange reason he had thought that Science had something to do with the structure of that city and he became almost sure of it the day that Dominus Picpus had caught him looking at that newspaper. At the sight of the printed image the priest had a tantrum, and Bruno had feared he could be imprisoned in the Purgatory, the terrible reformatory where the Domini extirpated noxious ideas from the mind of young depraved people.

Now, Bruno could see the vanguard of the procession arriving from the end of the street. It was a mass of hysterical youngsters rhythmically screaming “The bonfire! The bonfire!”

Denis, the younger cousin of Bruno, was running like a ferret in front of them and when he arrived near Bruno he cried: “Come and see the bonfire! Today they found a chest of scientific books!”

He uttered the word scientific as if it were one of those dirty words for which he received a good dose of blows with a belt when they were spoken at home.

“Where...?” Bruno asked. He wanted to ask Denis where the chest had been found, but Denis was already ten metres away, crying loudly “The bonfire! The bonfire!”

The screaming mob had almost reached him and behind them came a high-sided cart pulled by a strong horse, with a big pyramid of books. The skeletal Dominus Picpus, wrapped in his black and white cassock, was standing on the front part of the cart. His fiery eyes darted glances about him loaded with malice, and when they met Bruno’s eyes, his mouth was distorted into a devilish sneer that seemed to promise unlimited punishment.

“Come and see, you wretched unbeliever,” he hissed. “Come and see how we destroy the works of the Devil, the creator of Science. Come and learn, because one day your infernal contraptions could suffer the same fate as well.”

Bruno shivered and lowered his head without speaking. He was well aware how Dominus Picpus had hated him since he was a kid, and he knew that the Dominus would have called him to the Purgatory long ago, had he not been so useful to the peasants with the repairing of their tools.

The procession behind the cart was made up only by a small group of exalted youngsters who screamed like hell as they passed in front of him. Most of the crowd had already rushed to the big square where the purifying bonfires were being mounted. As usual, only a few would dare miss the ceremony.

Bruno, too, followed the cart, without even knowing the reason for it. Surely not because he feared the rage of Dominus Picpus if he would not take part in the feast, nor because he liked to see books being burnt. Truly, that fate would be quite appropriate to the few books that the Domini allowed to circulate. Deadly boring books that only exalted the life in the fields and the value of the Purity and attacked the degenerate monster of Science, the Evil of all Evils, the absolute Evil.

Bruno could read, and he would have liked to be able to read something more useful than those idiocies, maybe a book that could explain how to work metals... or make square holes. But he knew that was an heretical thought, something which came very near to the concept of Science.

The teachers at school were not inclined to teach how numbers worked for the same reason. People could not usually count beyond twenty, as they were helped in this by the use of fingers and toes.

However, Bruno had learned to count up to forty, although he did not know how those numbers were called. He had discovered a simple trick to do that. He started again with the first finger after he had used all the twenty fingers and toes. It was clear to him that he could start the process over again with the third series of twenty, after he had used up the second series of twenty, and that it was possible to go on and on with the fourth, the fifth, the sixth series of twenty and so on, but it was also clear to him that from there onwards it would be very difficult to remember all the series.

And, above all, how could he solve the problem after he had used up the twentieth series of twenty? He had no more fingers to use and, in any case, at that point his mind went astray and all the numbers whirled into a maelstrom of images of fingers and toes.

However, he was convinced that there was a simpler way to count things, and he was sure he would find it someday. Maybe. If Dominus Picpus did not imprison him in the Purgatory before he could succeed.

When he reached the big square he found it chock-full of people around a big stack of dry firewood that would soon throw joyful flames into the sky. Dominus Picpus was on a scaffold and his predatory eyes were scanning the crowd as if he wanted to be sure that nobody missed the purification ceremony.

“You’ll see the flames!” grinned Denis, who was standing beside Bruno. “It will be fun! It is a long time since we discovered a heap of scientific books!”

Bruno shot him a harsh glance. “What’s so funny, seeing books being burnt? Don’t you think there could be something useful in them? It would be logical to examine them before burning, at least.”

Denis stared at him, horrified. He looked terrified and shot glances around, fearing someone could hear his cousin saying such blasphemous things. “Are you mad?” he hissed. “Do you want to be imprisoned in the Purgatory? You know that Dominus Picpus is just hoping for that.”

Bruno looked at him pityingly, but he preferred not to retort with a wrong word. After all, even if Denis was his cousin, it was prudent not to trust him.

“You sinners...” Dominus Picpus ranted, and he began a long ranting speech to which Bruno paid no attention at all. His attention was focused on the group of young followers of the priest who were unloading the books from the cart, heaping them onto the wood stack. The voice of the Dominus became more and more harsh; full of hatred against all and everything and Bruno realized he had finished speaking when a deafening roar rose from the crowd.

The crowd began rhythmically shouting “The bonfire... the bonfire... the bonfire!” and they became silent only when Dominus Picpus lifted an arm to hush them.

“Let the bonfire be!” he ordered.

An acolyte gave him a burning torch and the Dominus threw it onto the wood stack. It must have been soaked with some resinous substance because it caught fire immediately. “Burn, you filthy, diabolical Science,” the Dominus shouted, his eyes glaring. “Burn in hell and don’t ever come back to contaminate the Earth!”

The flames came up high and roared, as a light breeze stoked them. Their sparks flew around and came down on the people that were too near to the fire, but they were so excited that they did not even become aware when a small spark burnt their skin. “Burn, Science burn!” the crowd began chanting.

“It is wonderful!” Denis cried out ecstatically, his eyes shining with religious awe. “Yes, yes, burn, Science, burn!”

Bruno shrugged, but he did not say anything. It was too risky to betray his true feelings in this moment of collective folly. The eye of Dominus Picpus ran over the crowd and seemed to look just in his direction as if he wanted to challenge him and see if he was so foolhardy to say something blasphemous. Of course it must be a pure coincidence, because it was not possible that the Dominus had spotted him amid this chaotic crowd, but Bruno could not shake off the unpleasant feeling he was being closely watched.

“Dominus Picpus always knows everything!” people said in the street and in the shops.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Antonio Bellomi

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