“The Burning of the Books” -Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480, Spain
I process in a line of strangers and pause to witness a contest of halos as from Mary, Christ, and his many saints,
embellished holiness emanates with such radiance they extinguish need for the sun. Even local heroes like Íñigo of Oña, a peacemaker,
receive majestic appointments, heaven’s glory bisecting their heads from temple to sacred temple. For three miracles coupled
with a pope’s approval, any of us pilgrims might be so adorned. And the glory of their halos fills the Prado, light within light,
setting us all a blinking. We raise our hands and tour pamphlets to shield our eyes. Then, as though some cloud came to intercede
with the sun, a smaller painting lets me lower my arms and take off my sunglasses. A canvas of humble dimensions,
Berrugeute has rendered his scene in less glowing terms— uncharacteristic for his subject and training. Any visible holiness
belongs to St. Dominic, his halo the complexion of a coin worn smooth with transaction, the relief of many debts.
He watches from a pace as an impromptu fire chews on its first book of the morning. Book burning is hard work—
the pages bind close and permit no air, no crevice for root of flame. Boys in red stockings—like Saul, pleased with a little riot—
have prepared kindling for what their superiors hope will prove an idea’s pyre. Robed with fur and embroidered silk, they try
condemning Dominic’s volume to the hungry void of ignorance as they have, no doubt, tried condemning souls. The fire flickers
in surprise, a tongue accustomed to blander fare—the gamey prose of heresy, the illicit sweetness of erotica published under a pen name,
and that sour, Copernican suggestion that the earth could move ‘round the sun. But a palate wholly unprepared for the spice
and tang of a man’s honest testimony, making a wound of the whole mouth. Too hot for the fire’s maw, it burned
but a moment on the ember’s tongue and was spat into the air, the middle of the canvas. Hinges unclasped, the pages part
slightly to face their accusers. I bend closer and closer to see if I might catch the end of a sentence, almost revealed,
to learn how I too may meet a fire’s crackling tenor with the pine cone’s alleluia: I open, I open, I open.
About the Author
Phillip Aijian received a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, and he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Irvine, where he studies Shakespeare’s politics and theology. His poems have been published in Literary Laundry, ZZYZZYVA, St. Katherine Review, and Heron Tree. He lives with his wife, guitars, and cat in Fullerton, California, and is slowly assembling material for his third studio album.