Burnt Manuscripts

Nikolay sauntered past the derelict boulevards of his district. Squat men sold ‘fresh fish,’ their fins encrusted in slime. As he walked farther ahead into a public park, he saw two gaunt bald men battling each other out in a game of chess. They scrutinized the chess board, forestalling each other’s moves. A couple of yards ahead, a bearded rascal vociferated a paranoid speech. He was so inscrutable that Nikolay could not decipher anything he said. He had a casket laid out, with nothing more than a single Ruble gathered. Nikolay could detect the words ‘Tsar,’ ‘Greed’ and ‘Devils.’ There could be no doubt that he was a heretic, a messenger from the devil. He railed against the representative of God, the Tsar. He railed against the forces of God and should therefore be cast into eternal perdition.
     Yet Nikolay dealt with this kind of gaudiness in his writing. He wrote about these very people; he even considered them to be his kin. Manuscripts were gathered in his home, involving absurd incidents about prostitutes, liars and thieves. He still held those manuscripts close to his heart. After years of hard work and toil, why wouldn’t he?
    He was shrouded in a black overcoat, with a white crucifix swaying from his neck. Thick eyebrows lay above his brown eyes. He had long, knotted, skein black hair that reached his rotund shoulders. A bushy moustache curtailed his pursed lips. His expression suggested that he was hesitant and nervous. Occasionally his thick eyebrows would twitch and his eyes darted continuously, examining the shared diversion and merriment. The droves of people laughed and smiled, flippantly rejecting Nikolay’s trauma. 
    He arrived. The church was a monolithic fortress that dwarfed all of its surroundings with resplendent grandeur. It appeared that this flippancy, diversion and merriment came to a halt as soon as anyone laid their eyes on the building. Any suspect walking past its proximity bowed his head, dissimulating fear.
     Upon entering the church, his footsteps resonated across the hall’s acoustics. He arched his head, which seemed to be forbidden under the surveillance of the church’s majestic dome. The boxed pews were covered in soot, diminutive in their size and reach. The walls were festooned with candles, iridescently illuminating the darkened environment. Ahead of Nikolay stood a cross, three metres in height. Directly below was a pulpit, which Nikolay walked towards. He stood upon it, peering at the dark space below. A Holy Bible lay in front, its pages yellow and creased, the spine obfuscated by fissures and cracks.
    “Nikolay?” he heard a nasal voice intone from behind. “Playing the priest, are we?”
    Jerking aside, Nikolay gazed into the darkness. Mottles of dust coaxed through the air. The priest came to view. He was tall, gaunt, his nose was curved and a crucifix tangibly lay at the centre of his chest.
    “Father, I feel that... as I write... I am playing God.”
    “I’ve had enough of such lecherous blasphemy. Right now, Nikolay, you are not cleansed. You are a sorcerer, an agent of the Devil...”
     “Father, I feel God close to my heart. When I write, I do not feel like I am sinning.”
     “I have read your novels. They involve whores, scumbags, thieves, nitwits and deviants. Listen to me, Nikolay, if you truly want to convert, you must do as I advise. Burn your manuscripts. Burn bridges with the literati. You must then devote yourself to God and confess at every given moment about the minutia of all your sins.”
    “Don’t I do that already?”
    “You seem to lead a double life. On the one hand, you write the most perverted filth. On the other, you are a committed church-goer. The latter must take precedence.”
     The priest walked onto Nikolay, wielding his arms. “Please, Nikolay,” he said. “Burn your blasphemies. I know that, deep down, you are pious. I know that you can, and will be, a committed believer. Burn the manuscripts.”
      Evading his eyes throughout these declarations, Nikolay finally gazed into them. They stared at him with rigidity. Sweat continuously pouring down his forehead, he meekly uttered “I will.” 
     Nikolay arrived at his house. The sweat trickled down his forehead and he continued to feel jolted and disquieted. He was sprawled on his arm-chair, morosely observing a portrait of Christ on the wall. The fire in the stove flickered beside him. His faithful servant, Igor, attended to him. Diminutive in size, he held a candle above his head. “Master,” he uttered, in a coarse voice. “How may I be of service?”
     Nikolay, lying on his back and still at the same height as his servant, said “Bring my manuscripts.”
     “Making more revisions, master?”
     “No, nothing of the sort. Bring them.”
      The servant returned with a stack of papers, which weighed upon his lacklustre and scrawny figure. He released them, causing a thunderous sound as they fell on the ground. He let a sigh of relief. These were thousands of papers, covering years upon years of painstaking work and toil.
     Nikolay retrieved the first page on the top of the pile. This was the first story he ever wrote, at the pristine age of seventeen. Even at this age, he still held the same sense of the absurd that characterised his later writings. It had the title ‘Ducks and Soldiers.’
      “Looking through your back catalogue, master?” Igor queried. “That is most unlike you. You are hardly a nostalgic sentimentalist; you squarely live in the present. Or so I thought...”
     Nikolay let go of this page. A draught drifted it toward the stove, as it gradually burned to ashes.
     Igor jumped up in alarm. “No, master! That was an unpublished piece of juvenilia. Oh, no, how can it be! A valuable piece of literature has been incinerated!”
     Nikolay lurched up and glimpsed at his ridiculous servant. He stooped down, took a hundred or more so papers and flung them at the flame. Igor incredulously looked on, agape. “That is surely all of your juvenile work gone, burned and buried! Master, your youthful scribblings should not make you blush! They have merit! I have read them!”
     “That is not just my youthful work burned and buried, Igor! It’s all of it! All of it!” He clutched the reams of papers on the floor and relentlessly threw them at the stove with vigour. “Burn! Burn these lecherous blasphemies!”
    Igor’s coarse, gruff voice soon turned into squeamish shrieking. “No! No! Master, you are... You are becoming insane! No! This is a great loss to the state of letters! No! An irretrievable loss for literature!”
     Igor leaped at the remaining papers, just as Nikolay was about to dispose of them. The servant quickly perused a few paragraphs and realised what was in question. It was his latest work in progress, the sequel to his acclaimed novel Bereaved Spirits. It was a novel the entire literary community awaited. Most of it had been smouldered, reduced to charcoal. But a sizable quantity remained. “Master... Master... I cannot... Cannot... Let you destroy this as the cause of some... Drunken whim!” Tears welled up in his eyes.
     Nikolay merely tipped the sole of his foot on his body and the diminutive dwarf toppled over. He took the remaining pages and hurled them at the burning stove. 
    Ensconced in a corner of the room, the servant dwarf continued to whimper. Nikolay stormed out of the house.
     Once more he sauntered past the derelict boulevards of his districts. A squat man, with oily stains on his overall, dragged a large trout back into his store, leaving behind a large lagoon of slime. Farther ahead, a tall gaunt man mocked his opponent in a game of chess. “Check mate! Check mate!” he mischievously exclaimed. A couple of yards ahead, a bearded rascal had his head slumped, peering into his casket. He had now collected two Rubels. Evening was nigh and herds of people began to make their way home. The odd individual sighted held an expression of fulfilment, as if some kind of closure had come to place. This is the same kind of appearance Nikolay exhibited. However frantic the scene next to the stove had been, he felt as if a chapter, quite literally, had been closed in his life.
     This time, Nikolay did not feel intimidated by the presence of the majestic church. He gazed right ahead into the colossal dome without fear nor intimidation.
      Dashing past the hall, Nikolay fell to the ground. All the candles had now been dimmed. All around there was nothing but pitch darkness. “Father! Father!” he desperately exclaimed. “I... I burnt... I burnt the heresies!”

     The nasal voice once more emerged. “Well done, my good fellow,” he said. “You have been absolved.”

January 2013

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