What follows is a description of a private event on a cold fall night in rural Maine. An artist is called to fulfill her unconscious need to be free of her work, a need which supersedes the accountability we expect. We don’t know why she is doing this, we don’t know if she is successful in freeing herself, but we do know she finds it necessary. All we are left with is the magnitude of the event, and the participation of her audience. I have tried to recall it as it happened, with style, but without fiction.


Distant gunshots echo out of the dimming sky. They range across the field and over the lake, strike the mountain and rebound. They rattle through the barren trees whose branches, stark against the purple sky, sway in the rising breeze. It is a cold wind. It gathers over the surface of the freezing lake and wends down the dirt road through the muddy furrows newly hardened by frost. The wind twists through the silent brakes and flourishes in the fading garden. By the edge of the field the tall grass plumes shuffle and dip, rise, and bow again.

A square wooden building with orange-lit windows stands in the field. People shift in and out of the frames. Inside the warm light each sees the others’ faces clearly and they meet with smiles of recognition. With kindness they laugh and greet one another, but they speak of tragic things. In one room they stand together along a line of tables examining dozens of books. Purple, red, gold books with titles like Evening, Arising, Reclamation. In their hands they feel the symbols on the covers, turning the pages with melodramatic reverence. Each is filled with frenzied writing, letters looping and peaking, brittle words jumping frantically and dropping, suddenly languid, surrendering to the grief they carry. Overlaying the writing are images of wells, birds, great totemic figures, plants, celestial bodies, and fire. Swaths of color recondite, Orphic paintings. Private images.

Whispering, they examine the volumes, carefully considering every page. One lingers over a pattern of circles of green, purple, and black. She lays her hands on the open pages and strokes their ornaments. She grasps the edge of the page and pulls it from its spine, splitting the calm of the room with the sound of tearing paper. No one turns to question her action and soon many guests are tearing pages from the books they hold. Some fold the sheets into their pockets. Others tuck them protectively into bags or coats.

At the center of the room a concerned woman says to the artist “Perhaps you should keep them, maybe you don’t have to do this.” The artist just smiles. It is a kind smile but it has a zealous gleam. Still smiling, she puts out the lights until there is only a single candle burning. Standing over it she raises her voice to the crowd. The candlelight deepens the lines of her face. She looks older and extreme. She begins to speak in a voice that comes and goes like the wind outside is taking it away and giving it back again. She speaks of loss and sacrifice and describes precious things. Then she speaks of what her work requires of her. It is a very difficult thing to say and her demeanor wavers and half a nervous laugh bubbles in her throat and is choked down again. She draws a quick breath and composes herself, thanking everyone for their help. The people encircle her and look with attention, expectantly, and not without love. She rings a bell, a single, loud peal. It rings for a long time.

Outdoors the only sounds are the footsteps of the group and the whispered questions from a child. And the wind. They walk through the scrub of the field by the light of meager paper lanterns. They carry the books with them, the books with missing pages.

The wind strengthens. It threatens the lanterns on the footpath. In a dark welt on the field the group manages themselves into a circle around a pile of kindling. While the child lights the new fire they begin a thin, plaintive song. Singing, they shift in the cold, a bit nervous but quite eager. Heat awakens in the heart of the fire. The wind breathes into it and out splay yellow and red flames. Plumes of sparks huff about with each gust, seeking skin, clothes, hair, eyes. Crouching to avoid the smoke the people feel their attention settle pleasantly towards the fire. Patiently they wait as the young fire grows and then sinks. It dims to its hottest cerulean flames and burgundy coals.

Interrupting the crackling quiet crackling silence, the artist gives a whooping shriek. The crowd answers in chorus. From the darkness around them now they present the books. The golden covers catch the firelight. In one fluid motion the artist opens a book, tears out a page, and releases it into the fire. Like a waterfall the others follow suit. Tearing pages roar, filling the cold night like the racket of summer insects, descending in such great numbers that the fire is nearly smothered. The fire hisses and sputters as it finds purchase on the edges of the brightly painted paper. Flames wreathe the colorful figures, hunching figures cradling their centers, gold arms around green and black wombs, cowering from the light of their incineration. Fire raises its bright spectacle around the doomed paintings. They are sparkling and gleaming and the fire dances blue and green and purple. There comes a smell of paint, of burning plastic as hundreds of images blacken and curl. The people laugh and shout and they love the burning. A call for restraint is swallowed up by the crowd’s eagerness as piles of pages smolder and flare. How many images have left their hands? How many remain? They have embraced destruction, it was inside them waiting for permission. Down, down, fall the pages into the fire. Dull smoke rises in a putrid column.

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Reed McLean, Burning Page, photograph.

Hesitating, the artist is unwilling to participate in her gruesome ritual. Something is moving too quickly in her, in them all. Alarm swells in her but it is wicked away by the rising smoke, by the wild force of the crowd. She surrenders to her requirement. It is the greatest power.

The wind tacks course and leaps at the fire. It raises a searing white fan that breaks into shards that fly against her, her face glowing with concentration as the sparks ride the hot wind. Her hair billows in the heat that ripples the lens of air around her, eyes narrowing into the burning light, eyes like shining torches that pierce the fire and render it transparent. At her feet she pulls pages from an open book and with one hand to the earth, transfixed, pitches them into the glowing center.

Slowly, the crowd’s lust is satiated. The people continue their burning methodically, dispassionately, with mechanical synchronicity. In ones and twos they step toward the fire and drop papers softly into the glowing ashes. They flush and diminish like brief, important lives, soothing the crowd by the regular meter of their destruction. The crowd’s eyes are cast into the fire, gently averted from the artist, their faces intent and peaceful, seeking private thoughts, remembering private memories. They do not look to one another. The child staring into the weakening glow turns to her squatting mother and buries her face in her neck.

The artist’s vision is afforded clarity by the destruction of her paintings. Her face alone is untouched by peace. She feels a sense of regret wholly unconnected to the obliterated images. There is a hand in the heart of the fire, in the night around her, a hand that takes. Sealed in her mouth is a demand for everything to be returned to her. It remains unspoken, and exhaustion fills her. It contains peaceful possibilities.

The fire is a glowing mass of sheaves of ash manifold, cleansed of all depiction. The cinders worm through the blank pages, crinkling as they slough to pieces. Someone stirs them with a stick and a flame springs reconstituted from the ashes and winks out again. The wind rises from the dry grasses and rends the pages to sparkling litter that races along the ground. Sparks crawl through the stubble. The people begin to sing to the artist a timid, compassionate song, climbing with the wind as it strengthens. It confers their love to her. They sing “We are sending you light, we are sending you light to hold you.” She is surrounded by the song. Long tired, she sinks. The voices of the singers lift and swell, clear and resounding, their powerful, village voices blending their song with the wind.

Unfolding its way before it, the wind turns over the mountain and drives among the trees. It plays with the empty branches. The trees bend and creak at the mercy of the wind. Their branches sway and shudder, they scrape together the liquid, aspen branches. Twigs rattle as the branches shift. Out rises the occluded moon, a blue light, its phase indistinguishable. No, it is yellow, a yellow spark riding away from the black earth on the heat of the dying fire. See, it singed a hole in the turning sky. The light is coming through the hole. The moon is a little blue light.

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Reed McLean, Moon Rising, photograph.


Image at top: Reed McLean, Fire and Trees, photograph.