Monday, June 06, 2011

The Burning Man

Today, I was woken at sunrise by horrific screaming. I stumbled to the window, certain that someone was being murdered outside.

The street proved to have a distinct shortage of death. People were walking around and nodding to each other. No one seemed to notice the screaming, though I didn't see them trying to talk either. I doubt anyone could have heard.

The flames I'd glimpsed last night came to mind. Maybe this was just one of those towns where fire and screaming were considered unremarkable. I usually try to avoid those. They're quite rare, fortunately, but it's not always easy to tell when you've found one. I had nearly made up my mind to sneak out quietly, before anyone noticed me, when I happened to see the source of the screaming. It was a little gray bird, about the size and color of a mouse, which sat on a fence post and screamed as if it was being eaten alive. It seemed far too small to have a voice like that. Occasionally, it stopped to sneeze or preen its feathers.

I gave up trying to sleep and went outside instead.

Twokk is a fairly small town, so it was easy to find my way to the center (which was lucky, as I couldn't have heard anyone if I'd asked for directions). There was a man there. He was sitting in the middle of the town square, and he was on fire.

This seemed like the sort of situation that might warrant screaming, but everyone in sight seemed as unconcerned as ever. Several people stood with buckets next to a trough of water. I assumed there were there in case anything else caught fire. They watched the burning man idly, looking almost bored.

"Er… does this happen often?" I asked one of them.

She shrugged. "Usually he only does it once every few months, but there's been a drought lately."

I had been under the impression that droughts were normally a reason not to light fires in the middle of town.

"Normally, yes." The woman took the piece of wood she'd been whittling, eyed it critically, turned it around, and stuck it back in her mouth. I tried not to stare. I can't recall ever meeting someone who could carve wood with her teeth and talk at the same time. "Not in his case. He does this to end droughts, apparently. Something about taking the dry thoughts and burning them away. When he wakes up, he won't even remember there was a drought unless we tell him. I don't pretend to understand it myself, but I've seen it rain after his little bonfires often enough. Whatever he's doing, it works. Besides, the salamanders like it."

I looked closer then, trying to see through the flames. The man was sitting in what looked like meditation - one of those poses that requires minimal use of muscles to maintain. The flames rose from every inch of his body, bright and roaring, as if he was made of dry wood. I could feel the waves of heat blowing from him.* His eyes were closed; his face was peaceful, completely unmarked by the fire.

He was also covered with salamanders. They perched on his head and shoulders, sat around his feet, and clung gecko-style to his bare chest. My own salamander seemed agitated, so I let it join them. It climbed into the flames and settled down on a heap of other salamanders on the man's foot.

Maybe salamanders like the taste of dry thoughts.

One of the other bucket-holders checked a pocket watch. "You showed up just in time. He's been going for almost a whole day now. Can't be much longer."

"Usually, he remembers to take his clothes off first." The whittler pointed to the ground around the man. It was covered with a thin layer of ash and a few half-melted buttons. "Not this time."

"Hmm." The man with the watch put it back in his pocket. "Pity. That was a nice shirt."

We talked for maybe ten minutes or so. The screaming had stopped by then. The bird, I found out, is called a throkelit skeee, which literally means "shriek of death." They're found only in a very small region of the Scalps. Thank goodness. Apparently, the shrieking is a mating call; females are attracted to the males with the most bloodcurdling screams. They occasionally get confused and mob the heroines (sometimes the heros) of particularly melodramatic traveling plays.

We were comparing the plot of "Death in a handbag" (the dialogue in the Hmakk translation is apparently a bit more… explicit… than Trachia Ghastie's original script) to that of "The Perils of Pulgreen" (one of the few plays with an ogre as the heroine) when the burning man woke up. His eyes were wide and golden. Steam hissed as the fire vaporized the water on them. He didn't seem to care.

The fire died down gradually as he sat there, as did the conversation. He looked strangely naked without the coat of flames. (Technically, he was, but since he was a reptile, no one cared.) His scales were orange and yellow, speckled here and there with the intense blue of a fire's heart. I could just make out the shape of clothing silhouetted on him in soot. Other than the ash on the ground, that was all that was left. He got up, stretched, and gave everyone a vague smile.

"My, it's hot out here, isn't it?" he said.

No one seemed to have an answer to this.

A cool breeze wafted in as he spoke, carrying the scent of rain. His smile widened. "Oh. Never mind."

With that, he turned and walked away, shedding salamanders as he went. The rain swept in a few minutes later. Everyone ran to gather their own salamanders, or their children who had been watching the show, and disappeared into various houses. The extinguished man disappeared in a cloud of his own steam. The raindrops sizzled and vanished when they touched his skin. It rained until nightfall, and I spent the rest of the day inside, illustrating the inn's menus.

I never did find out his name.

* It was early, after all. The morning air was barely hot enough to melt candles.

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