By Matthew Chalmers
The sand is not quite yellow but rather sapped-white, like dead skin on a pensioner’s head. It lashes across the plain, thick with obscure smells; burning rubber and pyramid dust. The people shuffle onward, entranced like so many cattle prodded into the abattoir. In the distance shudders a black plume of smoke, unperturbed by the furious wind, glowing with ash: a giant obsidian toadstool.
The crowds grow, stumbling across the dunes. Some hold hands, leaning on each other like drunks; others are loners, with sulphurous and skittish eyes, moving like spiders. Ghostly buildings prod their broken heads out of distant, volcanic hills. They seem very far away, like the end of a rainbow.
The sky grows dark as the people gather round the burning pyre, that dark distant pillar now close, and the stench, so rich and black, brings some to religious tears. An old man with a jaunty gait stalks around the fire, his mouth covered by a colourful rag. He carries chains over his shoulders, he has some gold rings on, and some dried things and some various bones jingling around his neck. His hair is wild and vast, a burst of grimy string.
His voice is very loud and piercing, hoarse but high, like the screech of a tortured nihilist who has no heaven to go to. But listen to what he says:
“The only truth is your truth! The only knowledge is what is inside yourself! The letter is profane! The feeling is sacred!”
He heaves up a stack of books from a rusty old trolley, he hurls them into the flames. The smoke surges and blooms as ideas and thoughts, science and medicine all evaporate in its black, hungry maw. The dark clouds are the faces of phantoms, trapped in some cold pit of hell. The shaman keeps yelling and his little helpers, with eyes like young snakes, sacrifice tome after tome to the flames.
But what a strange dichotomy. The people relish at the destruction, smile and laugh and dance. The truth is theirs. Nobody tells them what to do. Their blessed ignorance is contagious, dazzling, charming. It is freedom, and each opinion is equal. It is a community of mutual aid and respect. It is a festival of individual and collective good. There is hope shining in their boundless confidence.
Yet they cannot stop their children of dying from an infected paper cut.
The moment is frozen. The glee of the people seems spurious now, something forced in their smiles. In the shaman’s eyes there is a glint of something, doubt and greed swill about his mind.
Ash dots the air, each flake as fragile as snow. The sky is greying into rainclouds. People lock their doors and hush their infants, afraid of the cold and damp.
Above the tower of burning books an eagle is rooted, caught up in the gusts of smoke. Its wings are balding, burned by the flames.
Photograph: Anna Gibbs