What Burns


In partnership with Commonwealth Foundation, Granta presents the regional winners of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Julie Bouchard’s story, translated from French by Arielle Aaronson, is the winning entry from Canada and Europe.

1

 

First burns the boreal forest, up in the north. A little south of that burns the woman. Around her burn a tortoise, a pair of Siamese cats, two caged birds, a dozen mice and seven other people whom misfortune trapped inside the nineteenth-century heritage building. What a tragedy. Eventually, the building collapses on itself. Oof. Oh, and don’t forget what’s burned for decades, what’s still burning, what will burn: all the oil, the coal, the gas. What else? Other than Dora, who will burn sometime around noon to much less fanfare. With help from Franz, presently asleep on his couch, who will lovingly slide Dora into the oven when the time comes. For now, Dora is left to cool in a refrigerated space. Perfect. Now let’s continue counting the fires. Since, thousands of kilometres east of the boreal forest and the woman, the pets, the mice, Franz, and Dora, in the face of our obscene helplessness, the flames will soon destroy musical instruments – a violin, a guitar, a tabla – stuffed into barrels scattered here and there throughout the public square. Madness. Finally, at the bitter end of the hottest day on record, any remaining illusions we’ve clung to are reduced to ash in a burst of spontaneous combustion – this one, that one, one more. In a word: welcome, on this memorable summer solstice 2023, to what burns. Come closer. Make yourself uncomfortable, right there, in front of me. Perfect. And together, foreheads sweating, let’s watch the world incandesce.

 

2

 

But before we send the fire engines racing down Main Street, before we dispatch the airtankers and chinooks to drop thousands of litres of water onto the forest canopy, and right before Franz, who has finally woken up, heats the oven to 1040 degrees Celsius, let’s talk about what doesn’t burn on June 21. The downstairs neighbour’s toast, rescued from the toaster at the last moment, doesn’t burn. Excellent. The pressure-treated wood of her sister-in-law’s deck will never go up in flames, either. Incredible. And the sofa where Franz was sleeping – our Franz, who slowly unfolds himself and shuffles over to the sink, bending low to splash water on his face – was coated with a flame retardant which protects it from fire but contaminates the air. Great. As for the concrete that dominates the entryway of every house on Main Street, it’s made of a non-combustible material. Wonderful. Oh, I forgot: one last living thing doesn’t burn today. A special thing. A sacred thing. What is it? You, of course. Sitting there. You don’t burn. No.

 

3

 

Because your discomfort at the end of the first paragraph saved you from the fire. It did. Since you live – or, rather, used to live – in that nineteenth-century heritage building. You can thank the story for distracting you, if only for a moment, and sheltering you, here, from what burns. I suspect you were paid to be there, so near to it. Or you were promised a starring role in What Burns. Whatever it was that spared you from the worst, the bottom line is that this is your only refuge for now because you, poor you, no longer have a home. Terrible, isn’t it? Nothing left to remind you of who you once were. No childhood photo albums, clothes, or even shoes. You lost, in the process, your karate diploma (4th dan black belt), your dead sister’s gold ring (Virginia, what a looker), your entire library (including your Thomas Bernhard, your Flannery O’Connor, your Kafka), and the lock of blond hair your mother snipped when you were six, which you treasured in a clear plastic bag. So, tell me: who are you, now, without all of these objects that shaped your world? What will become of you, now that the fire has ravaged you? Oops. Now big crocodile tears are streaming down your face. I’ll try this to console you: at least you’re alive. That’s something. We are alive. You, me, Franz, and the rest of them. Unlike the woman. The woman on the Persian rug, on the second floor of the nineteenth-century heritage building.

 

4

 

The woman is wearing chic black slacks cut from a high-quality fabric, a black jacket of the same cloth, and an ivory blouse. A pair of size 41 stilettos dangle from her feet. Wrapped around her fingers, a 14-karat gold chain winks in the light. The woman’s inanimate body lies on the Persian rug in the living room, which is located on the second floor of the nineteenth-century heritage building, which isn’t – what a shame – up to code in the city of M. In fact, some apartments lack both an emergency exit and a sprinkler system. Illegal. All this incredible illegality, and all the complications that arise from it will be settled – or not – in a few months, by several lawyers. The owner of the heritage building will sue the city of M for its overly strict renovation rules. Relatives of the eight victims will sue the owner for renting out apartments that didn’t meet the city’s building standards. The city of M will deny all responsibility. Airbnb will continue to encourage owners to rent out their apartments to tourists, contributing to a city-wide housing crisis.

 

 

5

 

Let’s return to the woman lying on the Persian rug in the living room, and to the man standing over her – because there is also a man in the room. The man grabs a bottle of fire accelerant and pours its contents over the woman, the furniture, the Persian rug, the plants, the walls, the books. Then he takes a matchbook from his pocket, tears away a flimsy poplar stick and strikes the head, coated in antimony trisulfide, manganese dioxide, and potassium chlorate, against the strip of powdered glass and red phosphorus on the back of the book on which, if you come a little closer, you can read Hôtel Nelligan – An unforgettable experience in red lettering. Then the man casually drops the match and exits the heritage building through the main entrance. He stops a little further on, takes out a cigarette and smokes it under the harsh light of a streetlamp as he watches the building go up in flames. In the scorching early morning air, the sound of sirens approaches. Once they arrive, 150 firefighters unroll hoses, raise ladders, and train their nozzles onto the inferno with breathless efficiency and, like heroes wielding axes and wearing face masks, enter the burning nineteenth-century heritage building that will require nine hours to secure.

 

6

 

Warning: we’ll never find the arsonist. The man who walks nonchalantly through the streets of M. We’ll never know what vengeance sustains him or how such fury can come to inhabit a man’s body and mind. Nor will we ever work out his relationship to the woman, what the gold chain represents, or the significance of the matchbook from the Hôtel Nelligan, located 100 metres from the nineteenth-century heritage building. You shake your head, dismayed at this flagrant lack of information. Say: I don’t believe it. Add angrily: How can you? End with a judgment: It’s unconscionable. Alas, I have absolutely no authority over meaning. You’ll have to make do with what’s been given while I attempt to describe, for the purposes of the unfolding narrative, what remains of the heritage building while Franz is just sitting down to breakfast.

 

7

 

By the time the weary firefighters return to their stations, all that’s left behind is a sad and charred stone skeleton punctuated by holes through which the dense, grey sky is visible. Within, cool the ashes of a tortoise, two cats, two birds, a few mice, and eight bodies, including that of the woman on the Persian rug who burned alive and who, yes, resembled you. You start coughing, sniffling. Your skull feels like it’s in a vice. Your eyes sting. You attribute these symptoms to the powerful smell of smoke, a smell now mingling with a complex blend of gas, particulates, and water vapor produced by the forest fires 1,000 kilometres north of the heritage building that strong winds have blown all the way here. This noxious substance – which will reach New York by tomorrow and prevent Joe Jr from taking his morning jog through Central Park – seeps into your lungs, your veins, your soul. And as the entire city of M wakes to the smell of catastrophe, you beg me to take us away, please, from What Burns. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. Since What Burns burns everywhere. Even there. Look. Look up.

 

8

 

See that? The boreal forest. Proud dominion, to the north of Canada’s 50th parallel. Ever come this far up? I can’t imagine you have. Then we should take the opportunity to admire, from the tip of our new, collective eco-anxiety, the topmost branches of the balsam fir where lightning will strike. Isn’t it a beautiful tree? The most northerly fir tree that exists. The last time you saw one like it, you say with a lump in your throat, colourful ornaments hung from its branches and a garland of lights strangled it (this is the first image that comes to mind), blinking on and off at regular intervals. You recall that at the foot of the tree sat a single wrapped gift, the symbol of infinite solitude, though you don’t say whether it was one you’d received or were planning to give. To your left, through the window of the heritage building, you could see rain falling at an angle. To your right, beyond the party wall, in the spot where a woman would soon burn alive on a Persian rug, you could hear Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. An empty champagne glass in one hand, mind and heart swelling with mixed emotions, you sat cross-legged in front of the tree and opened the aforementioned gift. A 14-karat gold chain. Then, standing in front of your gold-plated bathroom mirror, you fastened the chain around your neck and stared at your reflection, as you would a stranger, for a long moment. You’ve since developed a habit of twisting the chain around your right index finger as you talk, listen, dream, fret . . . like you’re doing now. Oh, but – no. You’re not wearing it. You must have forgotten it, just before joining me at the edge of what burns, on the bedside table, next to your queen-sized bed, on the second floor of what used to be the heritage building. The beautiful 14-karat gold chain you loved so much. And this reminds you that you’ve lost everything. Even yourself.

 

9

 

Lost among 307 million hectares of woodlands that represent about 9 per cent of the world’s forests, seven thousand forest fires are currently burning – fires which, under normal circumstances, would never even cross your mind. You try to picture the scope of 307 million hectares, but you can’t. And you suddenly feel tiny, irrelevant. The thunder blast ravages your tender ears and, through a strange and subtle effect of bodily reverberation, rattles your remaining faith in love, death, Christmas, the world, yourself. Pity. But let’s get back to the matter at hand: the sky. Building within a cumulonimbus cloud formed in air as unstable as the times, the electrical discharge, following the shortest path to the ground, strikes the tip of the balsam – whoooooosh – travels down to its roots – zoooooom – heating the sap along the way – hisssssss – and sets the trunk ablaze – shhhhhhhh. What a show. Asleep in one of the topmost branches of the tree, where a few days ago a Tennessee warbler meticulously and painstakingly built its nest, five baby birds are killed instantly. Their mother, who was returning to her brood, beak filled with food, reverses course and chirps off through the chromatic field, passing in turn splashes of oranges, strawberry reds ringed with methylene blue, splendid jade greens against a cobalt background. In all directions, magnificent larches, century-old pines, white birches, black spruces, maples, and yews ignite. Around the imposing crown of fire created by the flaming treetops, you can hear the beating wings and panicked cries of hundreds of vireos, thrushes, wrens, grosbeaks, sparrows, and flycatchers as they take to the air – along with the mother warbler, whose recent loss prompts you to contemplate, through anthropomorphic bias, her despair. On the ground now, hundreds of animals are trying to flee; a family of woodland caribou is overtaken by the flames. Few will make it out alive, save a handful of insects, lizards, and a dozen deer mice who were quick – bravo! – to find refuge underground. Careful – we should move away from the fires, try to save what’s left of our skin.

 

10

 

According to experts’ calculations, the fire is advancing at around 500 metres a day. In less than 48 hours and unless weather conditions change, the town of K, located on the edge of the forest, will be engulfed in flames too. Mayor Bauer, scarcely two months in office and already facing one of the biggest challenges of her career, sits with tousled hair behind the microphone of the local radio station to issue an evacuation order. She is confident, composed. Take only what you need. Some clothes. Your pets. Money. She reassures the residents. Police officers, stationed strategically along the road with spare gas tanks to make sure no car will run out, are watering the asphalt periodically to prevent it from overheating. What would normally be a three-hour trip might now, with the sudden traffic, take twenty. Don’t forget to pack snacks. Be patient, dear citizens. Don’t panic. Everything will be fine. Will it, really? Franz reaches for this additional optimism and turns off the radio. He won’t panic. He’s never panicked in his life, not even when everything was falling apart. Not even when they learned Dora had only a few months to live. Besides, he’s just spilled strawberry jam on his white shirt. And he’s not panicking.

 

11

 

You interrupt me as Franz is changing his shirt – go ahead, don’t be shy – to undermine What Burns by mentioning your climate skeptic cousin, Johnny D. Who doesn’t believe, hang on, who doesn’t believe in forest fires. Oh. Good. Lord. You pull out a notebook and pencil, think for a minute, take notes. Look up. Think some more. Write some more. Since the first paragraph, you’ve experienced a gradual transformation. Now here you are, inspired, invested. You’re wholly committed to this trial by fire. You want to ‘change the world’. Really? OK. You believe in yourself. Congratulations. The world is on fire! you cry. Um, yes. That’s exactly what – But you cut me off. The clock is ticking. At your next family reunion, you’ll try to convince your climate skeptic cousin of the urgency to act, you’ll pull out the statistics. Look at this number, at that number. You’ll point to this graph, to that fact. See how many hectares burned this year alone? Doesn’t that prove . . . ? Shouldn’t we . . . ? Perhaps we can try . . . ? Your phone is ringing. It’s him. Johnny D. What a coincidence. He’s heard about the fire in the nineteenth-century heritage building and knows you live there. You hesitate to answer. You want to tell Johnny about everything – the numbers, the facts, the fires, our dismay, of course. But not over the phone. So, you don’t answer. Or, rather, your silence does the answering for you.

 

12

 

Their voices had been ignored for years. Their suggestions dismissed. Their appeals rejected. The result? After a vote to strike, they decided, on December 25 – just as you slipped between the cold cotton sheets of your queen-sized bed for a night that would prove sleepless, wearing nothing but the 14-karat gold chain around your neck – to close the immense wrought iron gates of the cemetery in the town of K. In the meantime, they placed the bodies – 43, including Dora’s – in cold storage, tucked off to the right, behind the three cremation ovens. For months, strikers had kept the cemetery closed to bereaved families, holding up picket signs with slogans like, Cemetery employees are buried under inequity!, Mortally determined to get justice!, Even the ghosts support us!. They wanted better working conditions, and shouted their demands from dawn till dusk as they paced back and forth in front of the gates. Decent salaries. Stable hours. At the very minimum, latex gloves for handling the bodies. And to be informed ahead of time, please, if a body was to arrive in a state of decomposition – those found in vacant lots, for instance – so they’d have time to protect themselves against the nauseating smell of putrefaction that might otherwise line their throats for days. But their requests fell on deaf ears.

 

13

 

Meanwhile, the cemetery groundhogs had burrowed into the soil, dug tunnels, and found bones that they’d unearthed, shifted, gnawed. Grass had grown wild all over the grounds, covering stone statues, wooden crosses, plaster angels, a few ghosts. Begonias and carnations had withered beside the gravestones. Some distraught mourners had taken to jumping the fence at night. Others squeezed underneath. All they wanted, after all, was to pay their respects to the dead. And nobody was going to stop them. Interviewed on the six o’clock news, a teary-eyed Georges Zapatakis declared, ‘I promised my mother she’d be laid to rest beside her husband, but now they’ve got her in a warehouse on ice. It keeps me up at night.’ Just yesterday, a tentative agreement was approved with 83 per cent of the vote. Hooray! Georges Zapatakis applauded. All cemetery workers were expected back on the job today, June 21. That is, until the fire foils their plan and Mayor Bauer orders everyone to evacuate. The line of cars stretches along Route 183. Behind the wheel of his Chevrolet, Georges Zapatakis starts crying again. Within half a day, all residents of K will be evacuated. Except for Franz, who had promised Dora as he held her hand on December 25, that he would look after her bones.

 

14

 

Dora. She’s intrigued you since the beginning. And while you were talking about Johnny D and I was telling you about the strike, and while the entire town of K was sitting bumper to bumper along Route 183, Franz was walking towards her and taking note of all the humble life around him. The mature ash tree to his left, Mr Gary’s rosebush a bit further up the road, the orange sky above, the empty storefront of Madame Wang’s boutique, the hydrangeas framing the front door of Mayor Bauer’s house, a stray cat, and the Poirier and Picard families loading bags into the trunks of their cars. When he finally reaches the end of humble life, Franz opens the thick metal door of the crematorium. On the other side, he slips on long green latex gloves, removes the cardboard box from the cold room, places it on a stainless steel lift table, opens it to see Dora, whispers a few words into her ear, gives her a kiss, and slips a metal tag into the box before closing it. Number 153. In twenty-one years, Franz has cremated nearly 6,000 bodies, honouring the wishes of the dead. Dora’s will be the last one he burns, honouring this last promise.

 

15

 

Curious about Franz and Dora, you ask me to expand. Go ahead, you say. Spill. I want details. You come dangerously close to the abyss of What Burns. Now, I have to warn you, you’re starting to wear my patience thin. Shouldn’t you know, at your age, that there’s no point in seeking an autopsy of love – any love? Yet you persist, you can’t just leave it at that. I’m not sure I follow you. At what? At that, you repeat. Without adding anything about Dora (the colour of her hair, what kind of person she was, what killed her), about Franz (how he loved her, what words he used, and if he bought her flowers?), and about how they were together. It’s one thing to scatter clues, you say furiously, that lead nowhere in What Burns. To tell us we might never find the arsonist. To hear that Mayor Bauer issued an evacuation order, that’s only natural. But to ask us to invent love is – and this is your second judgment – a major plot hole. You cross your arms. Turn your back on me. You – well, I never! You’re sulking.

 

16

 

Since you’re still facing the crematorium door, you won’t see the living Franz slide the late Dora into the oven. Pity. Neither will you watch as Franz transforms over the two hours that Dora burns. You won’t see his handsome brown head dip forward, his shoulders droop, his delicate right hand find his heavy heart, his blue eyes glaze over, his broad frame shudder. Worse still: you won’t witness the only poetic image that could have reconciled you with What Burns, as Franz opens the oven door to reveal, like a strange work of art, Dora’s bones glowing red.

 

17

 

To help fight the wildfires, reinforcements arrive in droves from around the world (150 from South Korea, 200 for the United States, 30 from Portugal, 100 from France) and set to work as soon as they land, marking out lines of defence as a containment strategy. In the city of M, municipal police cordon off the nineteenth-century heritage building with yellow caution tape, and experts are dispatched to the scene to gather information, possibly even evidence of foul play. Detectives also question local residents, and some claim they saw a strange man hanging around the building right after the fire broke out. As for the residents of K, nearly all have been evacuated, except for Franz, of course, who is busy grinding Dora’s bones and who, we anticipate, will not have time to outrun the flames. You finally turn to face me. You almost forgot why you were angry. After all, you say, you are, and I am, just a storyteller. It’s true. You walk over to Franz and discover, right there among Dora’s ashes, a red-hot metal tag with the number 153 that you pick up and intend to keep, you tell me, your voice full of emotion, as a souvenir of What Burned.

 

 

18

 

They say that after the fire, insects, drawn to the smell of smoke, will be the first to return to the forest to lay their eggs. Then birds will follow, arriving in flocks. A few weeks later, trailblazing plant life, the first to colonize the scorched earth, will also begin to take root. Animals living nearby will eventually return to their natural habitat. Despite everything, life will rise from the ashes. By the way, I heard you found a new apartment in the city of M. I’m glad. You go on to tell me that your 14-karat gold chain was found intact amid the charred debris. A miracle. You also admit that you now keep the number 153 on you at all times, tucked in your back pocket. Great idea. You eventually ask me if, among the ashes of the town of K, we ever found those of Franz. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. But you no longer hold that against me. Thank you. So, you decide to picture Franz mingled in with the rest, not far from Dora. Why not? Now, all that’s left is for me to strike a match, hold the flame to the heart of What Burns and watch as meaning turns into white smoke.

 

Photography © Ng Hui Hsien



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