His pastor had given him the leather-bound holy book as a confirmation gift, and he had carried it with him ever since. Now, he ran his fingers over the words stamped into the cover–HOLY BIBLE–and then down the gilt-edged pages, worn from years of devoted use. A small part of him hated to use it, but another part of him insisted that, if he was going to do this, he might as well do it right.
Alone in the dark, in front of the flames, he felt nervous. The hands holding the holy book began to sweat. He swallowed hard and then, with trembling fingers, he began.
The leaf pages came first–title, copyright, index, not sacred and therefore less blasphemous. The thin paper burned quickly from the edge in, becoming scattered leaves of ash.
Next he pinched the first page of Genesis and, contesting concern, pulled it from the book. The paper offered no more resistance than one would expect from a page so delicate and thin. Unsteady fingers held it up. The flames snatched at the page. He let them take it, then held his breath and waited.
There was no ominous smoke. No furious flare. The earth did not shake, nor the seas weep. Creation succumbed to simple combustion: fire transforming paper and ink into carbon and heat. Dark smoke chased motes of cinder on the updraft.
He fed page two to the flames, which burned just the same, and when it was gone he tore out the next page, and the next, all singly, all slowly. Ephemeral embers of original sin blew away on a guilty breeze. By page five, he was no longer sure if he was afraid.
Next came the Ark. He always loved the story–the bold proclamation of destruction, the animals marching two by two (or was it seven by seven?) into a ponderous and impossible boat. The pages went into the fire one by one, forty days and forty nights gone in four seconds of flame. The dove, the mountain, and the rainbow followed, offered just as surely as Noah’s lamb on the side of Mount Ararat.
He tore into the Patriarchs with steadier fingers; Abraham, who begat Issac, who begat Joseph, who fluttered into the fire and burned. No one intervened in this sacrifice, changing the holy pages into excerpts of some lesser work. They burned like the rest.
Then he paused, examining the sacred text that had guided him for so long. The book was ugly now, its binding threads exposed and the torn edges of Genesis clinging to clots of amber glue. The empty space glared at him, conspicuous and accusing.
Guilt flooded in. Driven to defeat it, he pulled out two and three pages at a time. Moses drifted down the Nile and into the flames, while God’s bush burned, as did Egypt and the plagues. He did not stop as he tore through the Ten Commandments (both the first set and the second set), then the whole of Mosaic Law–Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Duteronomy–and then Joshua, and Judges, and Kings.
Soon a full third of the book was gone. It was light and incomplete in his hands.
Job stared up at him now. They had told him much about Job when he was a child: Job the quiet; Job the patient; Job who had faith and did not complain. But when he finally read the story himself, he saw Job had complained, loudly and bitterly. Job was not patient! Job had rightly bemoaned God’s casual cruelty. Job demanded answers, and God gave him a fistful of wrath.
He tore out Job in two handfuls.
It came easily after that. Psalms and Proverbs and all the prophets, just paper, just words. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.
He stayed a moment on the New Testament, let his eyes take in the first few words. Of all of it, these chapters were the most familiar, these stories the most dear. He felt some sadness at letting them go … sadness, but not guilt. That had burned away with the rest. And without guilt, what did these red-lettered pages really offer?
Once the gospels were gone, he didn’t even tear the rest; he just dropped the vestiges of the tome onto the fire, its worn leather cover now as empty as the epistles that remained. He watched it burn until it was gone, ragged embers atop red-orange coals. The flames, now starved for fuel, faded until they were little more than a candle in the dark.
“What now?” he asked the universe with uncertainty.
I can’t tell you that, was the silent reply.
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
Does it matter?
“But how do I go on?”
One day at a time … the same as everyone else.
For the first time in his life, he thought that he could live with that.