The Reinvention of Fire

Jacopo_Pontormo_-_Martyrdom_of_St_Maurice_and_the_Theban_Legion_(detail)_-_WGA18103

He can see them from the palace: high on the hill, a row of burning bodies lashed to stakes. Heretics, thieves, adulterers, murderers – there is always, the executioners assure him, a healthy mix of miscreants.

His subjects compose no songs. They write no plays. No one in his kingdom draws, paints or sculpts. But as criminals their artistry is unmatched. When he grows tired of signing decrees, of endless meetings with ambassadors and ministers, he goes in disguise to courts in nearby districts. There he learns of his people’s doings.

He learns that one peasant woman gave her husband a sleeping potion then spent half the night forcing lava ants down his throat. That a man trained his pet monkey to steal piglets from a neighbour’s farm. And that, in one plague year, a penniless physician fathered half the children born in his village. Such crimes as these deserve spectacular punishments.

His is a complex world. His wives scheme. His children, sullen and secretive, plot amongst themselves. They meet in private rooms with his enemies. He has hired spies and bodyguards, and more men to watch his spies and protect him from his bodyguards. Surrounded by intrigue, he is comforted by the thought that one corner of his kingdom remains predictable. Each evening, as darkness falls, there are twelve new bodies burning on the hill. Weeds grow everywhere else; here order reigns. Here, every night, his bright flowers bloom.

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