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August 29, 2017 | Nonfiction

On Burning

Renée Branum

On Burning photo

“If you are flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit.” – Mitch Hedberg

It is sometimes hard to believe that we can burn – that not only our clothes and hair, our outskirts, but even bone, given enough time, can burn.

Richard Pryor, after pouring a bottle of rum over his head and lighting himself on fire, said afterward that he didn’t believe the pain until he was finally in the midst of it; said, “When you burn up your skin goes to sleep.”

It is hard to believe burning and sleeping could ever coincide, hard to believe there is space for red and blue within a single flame, believe, as a tour guide in the French Quarter once told me, “ghosts who died by fire haunt the longest.”

We are asked to believe that Jan Hus, in the midst of being burned alive for heresy, watched an old woman throw a feeble amount of brushwood into the flames and called out to her, “Sancta Simplicitus!” Holy simplicity. If any act is both holy and simple, surely it is the act of burning; surely, the act of drunkenly lighting a cigarette in the street, and lighting instead by accident, the scrap of paper you hold in your hand, a receipt from the purchase of a hot dog, and watching the thing alight, so near to your eye, a flash of red so raw that it makes you fear red a little forever afterward, you drop the burning receipt to the ground, trying to trample the flame back into shadow, but instead your shoe catches, the heat clinging along the arch of your foot, and you try to shake the flame loose, shaking your leg as if you’d stepped in something, and it’s right then that a middle-aged couple appears, pointing at the source of the smoke (your shoe) and telling you with holy simplicity, “You’re on fire,” while you finally stamp burnt rubber and burnt paper and little scrambles of flame back into silent smoke and bad smell, and looking up to meet the eyes of the couple who have stopped to stare, openmouthed, you say to them, “No big deal,” and because they are still there, looking, you say it again, “No big deal.”

It is hard to believe, but all true, there were witnesses, men in bars who afterward would strike a match and move it back and forth quickly then ask each other, “Now what does that look like to you?” answer, “Richard Pryor running down the street,” or Czech peasants who called out to each other, “Holy simplicity!” when they watched their neighbors trying to start a fire with damp kindling, and their neighbors called back in annoyance, “No big deal.”

And years later, you might walk past the statue of Jan Hus, might walk also past the blackened cross embedded among cobblestones where a twenty-year-old university student named Jan Palach poured gasoline over his head, shook the liquid from his eyes, struck a match – and walking past these memorials, you might begin the smallest belief in ghosts as you feel a whole separate heat in the air, wondering: How long did he hold the match between two fingers before it caught? How long before the small flame grew large, suddenly the size of a man, containing a man within it? How long was it before someone scrawled in dripping graffiti the words Do not be indifferent to the day when the light of the future was carried forward by a burning body across the vast stone figure of Jan Hus? And how much longer before people were able to believe it?

 

image: Aaron Burch


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