The Reapers by John Connolly
For Kerry Hood,
without whom I would be very lost indeed,
even with a map.
All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.
—HERACLITUS (C. 535–475 B.C.)
SOMETIMES, LOUIS DREAMS OF the Burning Man. He comes to him when the night is at its deepest, when even the sounds of the city have faded, descending from symphonic crescendo to muted nocturne. Louis is not even sure if he is truly asleep when the Burning Man comes, because it seems to him that he wakes to the sound of his partner’s slow breathing in the bed beside him, a smell in his nostrils that is familiar yet alien: it is the stink of charred meats allowed to rot, of human fats sizzling in an open flame. If it is a dream, then it is a waking dream, one that occurs in the nether-world between consciousness and absence. The Burning Man had a name once, but Louis can no longer utter it. His name is not enough to encompass his identity; it is too narrow, too restrictive for what he has become to Louis. He does not think of him as “Errol,” or “Mr. Rich,” or even “Mr. Errol,” which is how he had always addressed him when he was alive. He is now more than a name, much more. Still, once he was Mr. Errol: all brawn and muscle, his skin the color of damp, fertile earth recently turned by the plow; gentle and patient for the most part, but with something simmering beneath his seemingly placid nature, so that if you caught him unawares it was possible to glimpse it in his eyes before it slipped away, like some rare beast that has learned the importance of staying beyond the range of the hunters’ guns, of the white men in the white suits. For the hunters were always white.
There was a fire burning in Errol Rich, a rage at the world and its ways. He tried to keep it under control, for he understood that, if it emerged unchecked, there was the danger that it would consume all in its path, himself included. Perhaps it was an anger that would not have been alien to many of his brothers and sisters at that time: he was a black man trapped in the rhythms and rituals of a white man’s world, in a town where he and those like him were not permitted to roam once dusk fell. Things were changing elsewhere, but not in this country, and not in this town. Change would come more slowly to this place. Maybe, in truth, it would never come at all, not entirely, but that would be for others to deal with, not Errol Rich. By the time certain people started talking aloud about rights without fear of reprisal, Errol Rich no longer existed, not in any form that those who once knew him could have recognized. His life had been extinguished years before, and in the moment of his dying he was transformed. Errol Rich passed from this earth, and in his place came the Burning Man, as though the fire inside had finally found a way to bloom forth in bright red and yellow, exploding from within to devour his flesh and consume his former consciousness, so that what was once a hidden part of him became all that he was. Others might have held the torch to him, or sprayed the gasoline that soaked and blinded him in his final moments as he was hanged from a tree, but Errol Rich was already burning, even then, even as he asked them to spare him from the agonies that were to come. He had always burned, and in that way, at least, he defeated the men who took his life.
And from the moment that he died, the Burning Man stalked Louis’s dreams. Louis remembers how it came to pass: an argument with whites. Somehow, that was often how it started. The whites made the rules, but the rules kept changing. They were fluid, defined by circumstance and necessity, not by words on paper. Later, Louis would reflect that what was strangest of all was the fact that the white men and women who ran the town would always deny that they were racist. We don’t hate the coloreds, they would say, we just all get along better when they keep themselves to themselves. Or: they’re welcome in the town during the day, but we just don’t think they should spend the night. It’s for their own safety as much as ours. Curious. It was as hard then as it was now to find anybody who would admit to being a racist. Even most racists, it seemed, were ashamed of their intolerance. But there were also those who wore such an epithet as a badge of honor, and the town had its share of such people as well. It was said that the trouble started when a group of local men threw a heavy pitcher filled with urine through the cracked old windshield of Errol’s truck, and Errol responded in kind. That temper of his, that fury that he kept bottled inside of him, had erupted, and he had tossed a length of two-by-four through the window of Little Tom’s bar in reprisal. That had been enough for them to act against him, that and their fear of what he represented. He was a black man who spoke better than most of the white people in the town. He owned his own truck. He could fix things with his hands—radios, TVs, air conditioners, anything that had a current flowing through it—and he could fix them better and cheaper than anyone else, so that even those who wouldn’t allow him to walk the town’s streets at night were happy to let him into their homes to fix their appliances during the day, even if some of them didn’t feel quite as comfortable in their living rooms afterward, although they weren’t racists either. They just didn’t like strangers in their home, particularly colored strangers. If they offered him water to slake his thirst, they were careful to present it to him in the cheap tin cup set aside for just such an eventuality, the cup from which no one else would drink, the cup kept with the cleaning products and the brushes, so that the water always had a faint chemical burn to it. There was talk that maybe he might soon be in a position to employ others like him, to train them and pass on his skills to them. And he was a good-looking man, too, a “nigger buck” as Little Tom had once described him, except that, when he said it, Little Tom had been cradling the hunting rifle that used to hang above his bar, and it was clear what being a buck implied in Little Tom’s world. So they hadn’t needed much of an excuse to move against Errol Rich, but he had given them one nonetheless, and before the week was out, they had doused him in gasoline, hanged him from a tree, and set him alight.
And that was how Errol Rich became the Burning Man.
Errol Rich had a wife in a city a hundred miles to the north. He’d fathered a child with her, and once each month he would drive up to see them and make sure that they had what they needed. Errol Rich’s wife had a job in a big hotel. Errol used to work in that hotel, too, as a handyman, but something had happened—that temper again, it was whispered—and he had to leave his wife and child and find work elsewhere. On those other weekend nights when he was not seeing to his family, Errol could be found drinking quietly in the little lean-to out in the swamps that served as a bar and social hub for the coloreds, tolerated by the local law as long as there was no trouble and no whoring, or none that was too obvious. Louis’s momma would sometimes go there with her friends, even though Grandma Lucy didn’t approve. There was music, and often Louis’s momma and Errol Rich would dance together, but there was a sadness and a regret to their rhythms, as though this was now all that they had, and all that they would ever have. While others drank rotgut, or “jitter juice” as Grandma Lucy still called it, Louis’s momma sipped on a soda and Errol stuck to beer. Just one or two, though. He never was much for drinking, he used to say, and he didn’t like to smell it on others first thing in the morning, especially not on a working man, although he wasn’t about to police another’s pleasures, no sir. On warm summer nights, when the air was filled with the burr of katydids, and mosquitoes, drawn by the heady mix of sweat and sugar, fed upon the men and women in the club, and the music was loud enough to shake dust from the ceiling, and the crowd was distracted by noise and scent and movement, Errol Rich and Louis’s momma would perform their slow dance, unheeding of the rhythms that surrounded them, alive only to the beating of their own hearts, their bodies pressed so close that, in time, those beats came in unison and they were one together, their fingers intertwined, their palms moving damply, one upon the other. And sometimes that was enough for them, and sometimes it was not.
Mr. Errol would always give Louis a quarter when their paths crossed. He would comment upon how tall Louis had grown, how well he looked, how proud his momma must be of him. And Louis thought, although he could not say why, that Mr. Errol was proud of him, too.
On the night that Errol Rich died, Louis’s Grandma Lucy, the matriarch of the house of women in which Louis grew up, fed Louis’s mother bourbon and a dose of morphine to help her sleep. Louis’s momma had been weeping all week, ever since she heard of what had passed between Errol and Little Tom. Later, Louis was told that she had gone over to Errol’s place at noon that day, her sister in tow, and had pleaded with him to leave, but Errol wasn’t going to run, not again. He told her that it would all work out. He said that he had gone to see Little Tom and had apologized for what he had done. He had paid over forty dollars that he could ill afford to cover the damage, and as compensation for Little Tom’s trouble, and Little Tom had accepted the money gruffly and told Errol that what was done was done, and he forgave him his moment of ill temper. It had pained Errol to pay the money, but he wanted to stay where he was, to live and work with people whom he liked and respected. And loved. That was what he told Louis’s mother, and that was what Louis’s aunt told him, many years later. She described how Errol and Louis’s momma had held hands as they spoke, and how she had walked outside for a breath of air to give them their privacy.
When Louis’s momma eventually emerged from Errol’s cabin, her face was very pale and her mouth was trembling. She knew what was coming, and Errol Rich knew it, too, no matter what Little Tom might say. She went home and cried so much that she lost her breath and blacked out on the kitchen table, and it was then that Grandma Lucy took it upon herself to give her a little something to ease her suffering, so Louis’s momma had slept while the man she loved burned. That night, the lean-to was closed, and the blacks who worked in the town left long before dusk came. They stayed in their houses and their shacks, their families close by, and nobody spoke. Mothers sat and kept vigil over their children as they slept, or held the hands of their menfolk over bare tables or seated by empty grates and cold stoves. They had felt it coming, like the heat before a storm, and they had fled, angry and ashamed at their powerlessness to intervene. And so they had waited for the news of Errol Rich’s leaving of this world.
On the night that Errol Rich died, Louis can remember waking to the sound of a woman’s footsteps outside the little box room in which he slept. He can recall climbing from his bed, the boards warm beneath his bare feet, and walking to the open door of their cabin. He sees his grandmother on the porch, staring out into the darkness. He calls to her, but she does not answer. There is music playing, the voice of Bessie Smith. His grandmother always loved Bessie Smith. Grandma Lucy, a shawl draped around her shoulders over her nightdress, steps down into the yard in her bare feet. Louis follows her. Now all is no longer dark. There is a light in the forest, a slow burning. It is shaped like a man, a man writhing in agony as the flames consume him. He walks through the forest, the leaves turning to black in his wake. Louis can smell the gasoline and the roasted flesh, can see the skin charring, can hear the hissing and popping of body fats. His grandmother reaches out a hand behind her, never taking her eyes from the Burning Man, and Louis places his palm against her palm, his fingers against her fingers, and as she tightens her grip upon him, his fear fades and he feels only grief for what this man is enduring. There is no anger. That will come later. For now, there is only an overwhelming sadness that falls upon him like a dark cloak. His grandmother whispers, and begins to weep. Louis weeps, too, and together they drown the flames, even as the Burning Man’s mouth forms words that Louis cannot quite hear, as the fire dies and the image fades, until all that is left is the smell of him and an image seared upon Louis’s retina like the aftermath of a photographic flash.
And now, as Louis lies in a bed far from the place in which he grew up, the one he loves sleeping soundly beside him, he smells gasoline and roasted meat, and sees again the Burning Man’s lips move, and thinks that he understands part of what was said on that night so many years before. Sorry. Tell her I am sorry.
Most of what follows is lost to him, wreathed in fire. Only two words stand out, and even now Louis is not certain if he interprets them correctly, if the movement of that lipless gap truly corresponds to what he believes was uttered, or to what he wants to believe. Son.
There was a fire inside Errol Rich, and something of that fire transferred itself to the boy at the moment of Errol’s death. It burns within him now, but where Errol Rich found a way to deny it, to temper its flames until at last, perhaps inevitably, it rose up and destroyed him, Louis has embraced it. He fuels it, and it, in turn, fuels him, but it is a delicate balance that he maintains. The fire needs to be fed if it is not to feed upon him instead, and the men he kills are the sacrifices that he offers to it. Errol Rich’s fire was a deep, scorching red, but the flames inside Louis burn white and cold.
At night, Louis dreams of the Burning Man.
And, somewhere, the Burning Man dreams of him.
He will now be felled with my arrow, as I am enraged at him, and gone are his lives now, and indeed the earth shall drink his blood.
—SRIMAD VALMIKI RAMAYANA (C. 500–100 B.C.)