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  • 29. The Burners

    By Alex Burrett

    The imagination of Alex Burrett, whom we met a few weeks ago with “Immortal,” wavers between truths and realities, hovering among the past, the present, and the not-quite-ever. This story, “The Burners,” from his new collection My Goat Ate Its Own Legs, should trouble you.

    There’s a village of slaves up in the mountains who struggle to stay warm in the winter. Throughout the dark season, their owner sends them just enough wood to keep the pervading cold at bay. The serfs get a delivery of logs every fortnight, with each household receiving an equal amount; which is fair as all the families live in identical one-room lodges. There’s enough calorific energy in each bundle to keep a small fire smoldering for three hundred and thirty-six hours. It takes careful maintenance to ensure that the fire doesn’t burn too quickly and exhaust the stock. Kept ticking over at that rate, the temperature in their homes during the coldest months rises from dangerously cold to bearably chilly. Their overlord has no humane interest in helping them stave off hypothermia. He’s not bothered about their welfare. He’s happy for them to be universally miserable. He doesn’t care about them in the slightest. But it wouldn’t be in his interest for them to die. He makes most of his money from the cassiterite they hack and scrape out of the pitted mountainsides. If they get sick, he lets The Fates act as nurse, doctor and undertaker. Since rutting is their major source of entertainment, there are usually enough natural new ones to replace those that expire. And if new arrivals don’t quite keep the population stable, it’s relatively inexpensive to top the numbers up with outsiders. To him, the slaves are no more than biological equipment. All that concerns him is their maintenance. Apart from one family, he takes no interest in their daily affairs whatsoever. He calls that family The Burners. And he can’t decide whether they are extremely stupid, or very clever.

    Every two weeks through the winter, The Burners have a massive fire. On the night following the fortnightly fuel delivery, while the other lodges in the settlement barely glow a pallid sienna, theirs is ravished with brazen scarlets, dazzling flickering yellows and rich heartening oranges. Their roaring blaze serves as both signal beacon and party hub. All the other slaves flock to their home. It is the place to be. It is vibrant, alive, buzzing, hot. The following thirteen days are unlucky for The Burners. They get cold. Very cold. Although they’ve fashioned rough garments and blankets to resist the frost, they still get dangerously chilled. Their children frequently freeze to death. And their old die young too. The master wouldn’t be at all perturbed if the premature death of a small number of their clan was the only side effect of The Burners’ raging parties. But those defiant flare-ups have a much more dangerous impact. They undermine his authority. Slaves, you see, should only have one master—one superior being they look up to. Give them more than one person to admire, and they start to question their overlord’s supremacy. On the nights of the bonfires, they are in awe of more than one man. If it was just the occasional celebratory fire it wouldn’t matter too much. Those in power have used entertainment to distract the masses since ancient times. And since peasants have short memories, the occasional circus can be used to beneficially distract the underprivileged from their miserable existence without giving them ideas above their station. But give them repeated experiences of a luxury and they start to desire it more often. They develop a taste for it. Their master realizes that The Burners are doing just that; giving their fellow vassals a sample of something they should not experience—regular, reliable splendor. Wittingly, or unwittingly, they are sowing seeds of revolution.

    The only thing that stops him slaughtering the lot of them is their popularity. The Burners are universally loved and idolized by their dull, tepid community. And loyalty amongst the disenfranchised can be a powerful, cohesive force. The motivated poor can be dangerous. These people have nothing to lose, after all. And while their owner can afford to occasionally inject fresh blood, he doesn’t want to have to quash a full scale rebellion. Slaves don’t grow on trees. And this bunch are all trained miners. Expensive to replace.

    So The Master is monitoring his pet pyromaniacs; keeping a very close eye on that radiant bunch. If their fortnightly festivities catch on among the wider population, inspiring other families to host nights of flamboyant excess, he’ll have to get rid of them. And since killing them would cause problems, he’d have to do it by setting them free.


    From My Goat Ate Its Own Legs: Tales for Adults. © by Alex Burrett.

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