Alexandar Tomov jr
The Firekeeper - short story
In the fall, darkness comes quickly in the evening. Once twilight settles in, the people almost imperceptibly disperse from the park’s pretty walking path, thinking about the next day and the bright future as they walk away. But at the far end of the path, standing by a small fire, the firekeeper always remains. A man with an ancient face, he’s constantly gazing at the flames. Rarely does anyone muster up the courage to venture out to him after it’s already dark. And yet tonight, a strange woman walks down the path and goes up to him in the darkness.
“What are you here for, madam?” he asks, without looking at her.“You know why I’m here. Everybody knows what you do. I want you to burn away my past…”
“You know that I only burn away the kind of past that is so black that it can’t be forgotten, the kind that haunts people until their final breath. Otherwise, I don’t bother. It’s not worth it.”
“My past is more black than all the rest,” the woman says, as she fixes the flames with her strange eyes.
The firekeeper smiles.
“That’s what everybody thinks. I’ve been doing this job for about 400 years now, madam. I’ve burned away people’s pasts so terrifying, you can’t even imagine. You know what the price is, though,” he speaks slowly and tosses some pieces of wood into the fire.
The woman’s eyes tear up.
“I suspect. You’d want to know…”
“You’re wrong, madam. I don’t want to know anything, and yet, I still get to see it all. This is one of the eternal laws that govern firekeepers like me, whose job it is to burn away the dark past. When I throw one’s past into this fire, even if I don’t want to, I get to see it all,” his eyes widen in amazement.
“Couldn’t we find a way around this? What if you kept your eyes closed, for example?”
“I can’t, madam. I’m only human, after all, and I can’t help my curiosity. But don’t you worry. I keep everything I see to myself. That’s the other eternal law. I don’t have the right to discuss other people’s pasts.”
“Don’t you ever break these laws?” the woman asks and sits down on the bench next to him.
“Are we going to do this or not?” for the first and only time, his green eyes pause briefly at her beautiful face.
“Will I remember anything afterward?”
“You’ll remember everything, but only as a set of images, as fiction. The emotions of the memories that haunt you in the present and determine your future will burn away in the flames, once and for all.”
“Once and for all,” the woman repeats.
“Yes. Once and for all. Once they burn away, they’re never coming back. That’s what all of you people with a black past want, isn’t it?”
“I’ve met people who are so selfish that they come to get the black memories that haunt them burned away, but as soon as I scorch them, they start regretting having them burned, realizing that evil was, after all, a part of their soul. That’s why I always warn people in advance. Once I burn away your past, there’s no going back.”
“Just do it, please,” the woman says quietly.
“Alright. Just give me a sign,” he says, as he throws another piece of wood into the flames.
“What should I do?”
“Put your hand out in front of you. After that, open up your palm and together with it your heart, then watch as your recent and your most distant memories’ ghosts get engulfed in flames…”
Slowly, she stands up in the darkness and complies with the condition.
“Incredible… your past really does burn away very slowly, and it’s so black. So very black. Let’s see what’s in the flames… blood, jealously, violence, perversion, greed… my god… you’re… your own…”
“Please, just let me know when it’s all burnt away.”
“Just a moment… it’s done. It’s all dead now.”
She sighs in the darkness.
“And what’s the future really like, firekeeper?” she asks him.
“Most commonly, it’s an unconscious reflection of the past,” he replies and smiles, as the woman walks away and down the path through the darkness.
Translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova