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Flash Fiction/Excerpt: Book Burning

This is an exceprt from Tin Soldier, my free online novel about a post-petroleum dystopia. It's also linked at Sunday Scribblings which is a great place to drop in and read new writers.


The storm overtook them as they reached the valley floor, rolling in with cold gusting winds that rocked the wagon as the rain burst upon them in a deluge. Visibility dropped and the gray, wet world closed in. The downpour plastered their clothes to their bodies and turned the path to mud. Wheels stuck in ruts and Donovan had to get out and push. Goneril and Regan balked. There was no place to find shelter except in deserted Catalunia. Carina climbed down from the wagon, grabbed hold of a bridle and, laboring in the squelching muck, tried to lead the jennets to shelter by example.

House after house was unsuitable. They were caved in, crumbled, or so unsteady in appearance that taking their chances with the storm seemed more reasonable. Finally, in the thick of downtown Catalunia, where the few remaining signs swung crazily in the wind and gusts howled through the alleyways between vacant stores, Carina spotted something promising. "Over there." She pointed to a small stone library.

Donovan pulled a wheel out of a patch of sucking mud, and hurried ahead to try the door. The double doors opened readily and they led the jennies into the shelter of the building.

In the silence of the dusty foyer, Donovan and Carina stood dripping while the bedraggled animals hung their heads in the traces, as cold and dejected as their humans. Outside, the rain continued falling in sheets, but here in the library, the storm was reduced to a patter against the roof and windowpanes. After struggling so long in the downpour, it felt like utter insanity that they should find themselves in a quiet, sheltered place.

"I don't see us going any farther today," Carina said needlessly. "Let's light the lanterns. We need to get the animals settled in."

Luckily the tarps had kept most of their goods dry. The lanterns lit without a problem and Donovan went searching for a place to bed down the animals while Carina unhitched them, rubbing their ears, patting their necks and speaking to them with the first real affection she had shown in weeks.

"I found something," Donovan said, emerging out of the gloom. He took hold of Regan's bridle and led the way.

"A reading room?" Carina said, upon leading Goneril into the place Donovan had found. "Well, it doesn't seem to be leaking. I guess that's the most important thing."

They got the animals clean and gave them some hay from the wagon. "We should build a fire," Donovan said, noticing that Carina was shivering.

"I suppose the ceilings are high enough, and there's enough broken windows we won’t suffocate ourselves," she said. "But where?"

"The only thing I saw that didn't look flammable was the entryway. If we moved the wagon, we'd have enough room." Donovan took her hand and led her back the way they had come, and this time Carina assessed the foyer with an eye toward what might burn. The floor was marble, the ceiling was high, and there was nothing nearby that could catch sparks. Far above their heads was an absurd folly of a cupola where colored glass lit up in the occasional flashes of lightning. "If we moved the wagon into that room over there," Donovan pointed, "We could build the fire here in the middle of the floor."

"What will we burn? Books?"

"Why not? You don’t think anyone’s going to read them, do you?"

"Not likely."

They pushed the wagon into a small room and shut the door, then gathered a stack of reference books which Donovan lit with crumpled newspapers and magazines. The Catalunia phone directory caught first, then a thesaurus and encyclopedia. Then they were all ablaze, and Carina held her hands out toward the warmth. But books burned quickly, and it took a lot of them to keep the fire fed. After a few minutes, Donovan went to the wagon, retrieved a small hand saw and disappeared into the stacks. By the time he returned, Carina had traded her wet clothes for dry. She stood as close to the flames as she dared, looking in her black cloak like a priestess of some strange book-burning cult. When Donovan brought over an armful of sawed-off wooden chair legs, she let the cloak drop to the floor so it would be safe from sparks and helped him make a teepee of them. Then she stood back, picked up her cloak and put it back on. "I'll get some more books," she said, picking up a lantern. "Just to keep this thing going until the wood catches."

Donovan used her absence to change into dry clothes and spread out their bedrolls near the fire. It wouldn't be comfortable sleeping on the marble floor, but he tried to fold as much as he could underneath for padding. Then, realizing they hadn't eaten all day, he brought out some food and a bottle of scotch to take the edge off the cold.

The flames were dying and the chair legs were starting to smoke in a desultory sort of way when Carina returned, her arms full. She set the books next to the fire, collected a few off the top and took them to the room where the wagon was stored. "For Amalia," she said when she returned. "She'd never forgive me if I spent a night in a library and didn't bring souvenirs."

Once the chair legs caught, the fire began putting out real warmth. Carina sat on a bedroll and accepted a brownie. She downed it almost at a bite, ate a second with nearly equal speed, then fell to nibbling some dried apples.

"It's nice to see you have an appetite." Donovan poured a cup of scotch for her, then one for himself.

"We've done a lot today."


Want to read the whole thing? Go here: Tin Soldier.


Old Egg said...

Was it difficult to write about book burning? I know it was done out of need rather than in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 where it was the law! I would get cold because I would have to check each one out before it was put to the flame.

Enthralling as always.

February 28, 2011 at 9:11 PM
Alice Audrey said...

Might be practical, but still feels like a travesty.

March 2, 2011 at 11:42 AM
Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Well, Donovan is barely literate and Carina is more interested in animals than books. Her sister Amalia would never burn books, except for things like the phone directory. No need for phone books, though, in a deserted town in a contaminated valley that will never be inhabited again.

March 2, 2011 at 12:24 PM
Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I hope the chemicals in the wood chairs won't be a problem...

LOVING this so far, Ann. I need to make time to read the whole thing. Really. Print copies?? Please?

March 3, 2011 at 10:48 AM

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