He hung reclusively by the frame of the cherry mantle, eyes inured to the darkness, buried in the embers of the fire. The once eminent oak logs, set in iron fingers at the heart of the heart, were now disfigured skeletons of ash. The wind found its way through the cracks of the brittle window frames, hushed the fire’s cackle, faded its glow, and finally, collapsed the skeletons into heaps of dust.
His fingers lined the grooves of the woodwork, tracing the cherubic faces. They were half black with soot, these angels. And the grime caked to his moist fingers he smeared along the frame. Not an angelic throng went majestic into wood without a stain.
He let loose a sigh that wavered briefly in silence, quaking in escape at the front of the cold night air. He took in another stale breath. As he did so, the distant knell of the steepled bells harmonized in dyspeptic cadence—it was one o’clock.
Around him, curtained by the free will shadows that night carries on its back, sat forlorn bits of furniture—rotting wing-backed chairs, once decked in gold, expansive lounges printed with crests, long since faded, stools that ambled on three legs, but would not succumb to lopsidedness. He turned his head to the window, a deep furrow fragmenting his brow. Eyes aglow with fragments of moonlight, he slowly paced to the largest of the maison’s windows. Each step reverberated in the belly of the house, disquieting the silence that stood watch at night. Through the hurried figures painted on the pane—the too heroic saints that stain so many windows—he gazed down at rooftops, thatched and whispering. The witless wind, its purpose always empty, wove through shingles, holes, and imperfections; it whispered slightly as it found its way to the window.
Better, more noble to slide down whistling roofs, past milkmaids’ windows, through merchants’ tents to the heavy cobblestones below? Or, he mused, tie the fraying rope that sits lifeless by the cold hearth to the chimney just above, and hang myself for all the city’s entertainment? For soon the rope would lose its strength, and my quick and lifeless body would fly from aristocratic domes to the fountains in the sellers’ streets. There, the birds would peck at me, perhaps begin with eyes, and would eek out bits of flesh wherever they appear. Perhaps it best to wear as little as a noble soldier aught, to free my skin for vultures prying on the precipice of every lordly house.
But all before the morning, before the shroud of night is ripped from me, before the tailor of the day has fitted noble deeds to noble men, before the great have sailed in victory and valor is once again discovered in the meekest soul. Before the world goes on, he said beneath his febrile breath. Before the candor of the light outshines me.
He turned again to face the cavernous dark. The stillness soothed him to unearthly calm and he stepped into the black again. From inside the night, he saw in the farthest corner of the fireplace, an orange light that flickered gently. His eyes pressed hard together, his pupils searching the ash. They drew him forward, past the capsized chairs and resilient stools. His cobbled shoes, grey with wear, kicked up the many years of dust.
He did not pause when the mantle rose. His hands up turned the chain that clothed the fire. In a moment, he was in the graveyard of ash. Soon, he mustered to his mind, words that, too tired, wouldn’t come before. There, inside the corner of darkness on the far side of the hearth was the glowing ember. He removed his cloak and smiled at the tortured, dying fire. Reaching down as though to cheer a saddened child, he leant the corner of his tunic to the glow. And as it grew, and caught the hem of his cloak, he began to laugh. The echo of his voice careened through the chimney, billowed out above the roof, and flew down the steep walls of the city. It filled the streets like a flood; it canvassed on the windows and toyed with moon. The city could hear the tenor of his voice for miles.
He laid the cloak beneath him, brilliantly aflame. His knees he crossed between the spires that held the weighted wood before him. And within a moment, his knees were kindling. Within five, his arms were ribbons of flame. In 30, his body was enrapt with fire, shutting out the darkness of the house, pressing against the weakened window frames, and filling his smoke-filled lungs. He seared against the heat; he laughed against it.
And in the shrouded dark of a quiet night, he burned himself alive.