Coals

(This is a tribute to Dostoevky’s novel Crime and Punishment. For those who have not read the work, this man Raskolnikov is a murderer who has killed an old moneylender, and is suffering from guilt. He is being investigated by Porfiry, the astute and worringly intelligent police detective. Raskolnikov has a tendency to talk to himself, and frequently drifts off into philosophy. His whole goal was to transcend the laws of ordinary men by getting away with murder, and thus become extraordinary, but he has failed, for his conscience will give him no peace. We enter the story several nights after the murder.)

Raskolnikov was walking during the night. He was wearing a yellow coat, not the one from that night. This one he had borrowed from Razumikhin. The night was cold against his feverous forehead. He was talking to himself. The memory of the money which he had given away to that poor family for the funeral grated on him. Didn’t he have need for that money just as much as them? How would a truly extraordinary man do anything without the power, not even power, the basic necessity, of money? The cobblestone under his thin boots was cold and hard. He reflected on his own conscience. His heart was not like this cobblestone, was it? Or rather, was it not becoming like a cobblestone? He had murdered two women in cold blood, and that cold blood flowed through his heart this very moment. Could all the remorse in the world warm that cold-hearted moment again? “But what am I saying?” he exclaimed to himself. “What happened to my resolve? Am I truly planning on turning myself in? If anything could take away my cold heart it would be that. But that is the one thing I cannot do. No, I must stick to my resolve. But this misery…it is not to be borne. There must be an escape… a release for the man who thought himself extraordinary and broke himself over the laws of the ordinary man. For that is it! I am an ordinary man.” And he despised himself. But his thoughts fell around his mind like a cold twilight.

Suddenly Raskolnikov became aware that he was lost. Where had his thoughts led him so blindly? It was no part of the town that he frequented, but his stomach tightened and bile burned in his throat when he realized that he was only a short way from her house…what devil had drawn him so blindly towards the open grave of his guilt?…His guilt should have died with the old woman, but instead it rose again with blood on its head, and stalked behind him in the empty streets. He looked around himself and found that although it must have been past midnight at this point, there was a glow on the horizon. “Could it be the sun?” he asked in confusion. But that would be impossible: it must rather be some large fire that was giving off this light. The cold of the night and the shapelessness of his own musings pushed him towards the fire, like a moth to a candle flame that is sure to scorch it in the end. As he drew nearer, he could hear a hubbub rising over the rooftops and winding its way down the streets towards him. There were cries, and shouts of directions: plainly the fire had struck a house, and men were attempting to put it out. As he rounded a final corner, he saw that his deductions were correct. A large and rich-looking house was flaming like a star in the night. Its beams were blazing with a fierce flame, withering in the tumultuous destruction. The surrounding houses were in danger of catching fire, and men were dashing buckets of water over their walls, attempting to shield them from the destructive lashes of flame that burst out from the house frequently, as some wall or other collapsed inside. The wind was blowing the flames away from the rest of the house, so that it burned quite slowly.

Raskolnikov stood he knew not how long, watching the activity and frenzied motion like some man distracted and immobile. Besides the working men, a crowd of onlookers had formed from the street rabble, ever ready for a diverting spectacle. A constant murmur hovered over the crowd, rising sharply for a moment when another portion of the house fell in, gasping at the raw fury of the fire as it devoured the house whole.

A sudden thought burned within Raskolnikov’s fevered mind, pushed further by the heat of the maelstrom. “I will walk into the fire…surely no man can follow me there. And my sins, they will damn me for certain, but I will be beyond reach. No dragging to Hell for me, I will walk into it uninvited! I will knock on the Devil’s door, and break it down if he doesn’t answer! The bite of flames would be better, anything would be better than …” and such thoughts. As he seized on this idea, it grew upon him and became firmly fixed. There was no cordon of men around the house. He would simply rush in and plunge into the heart of the furnace, and it would all be over…Indeed, he had heard somewhere that a death by flame was an easy death, since a lack of oxygen quickly suffocated the victim. He would not feel much, if any, pain from the flames. It would all be over quite quickly. He moved forward through the crowd, quiet and even self-effacing: he apologized once for stepping on someone’s foot. But he was not unobtrusive to all. He felt a stare settle on him.

The man beside him laughed. He turned in horror, his lips drawn back. Porfiry stood looking at him, beside his elbow, shadows dancing with the laughter on his mocking, knowing face. “It’s quite warm, eh, Raskolnikov? Enough to keep a man warm on this night! Heh, heh, heh! And what brings you here tonight? But no matter! Who would not want to see something like this? Isn’t it magnificent, all this destruction? You almost find it in you to sympathize with the arsonist. To split a house open with flame, just like striking it down…and all the glorious red flame that spills from it! Quite a spectacle! Heh, heh, heh!” He babbled on. Raskolnikov was speechless and frozen with fear. If he was to do it, he must do it, do it quickly before Porfiry could collar him, before he lost his own tenuous and smoldering courage. He darted forward and broke out of the ring of onlookers. Porfiry did not move, or even start. He watched the shadow silhouette go flickering straight into the inferno, and a smile played over his lips, while the light played over his face and reflected off his spectacles, turning them into little circles of flame.

Raskolnikov’s jacket was hissing and smoking under the lash of the flames’ tongues. Instinctively he shielded his eyes as he stumbled over the coals and burning debris. He body was rebelling against his will. Everything in him screamed to get back, to leave the hell he was entering. With a supreme effort, he mastered the impulse of self-preservation, and forced himself further into the withering heat of the fire. His boots, wet as they were from walking the night streets, were steaming and smoking almost simultaneously. His hair was singed as he ducked under a partially collapsed wall and almost blindly stumbled forward. And then his ears, improbably, impossibly, heard something that should not have been there: a thin cry, like that of a child. He shook his head. It could not be, but it was. He looked around, eyes as red as flame with irritation from smoke and heat. There it was again! A child was somewhere in the mass of crumbling, searing ruin and billowing fumes. His coat was flaming now, and he shed it almost unconsciously. Where could a child have survived…? There! A lip of a stair leading down. The child must have taken shelter in the basement when the fire surrounded it. A pile of burning wood and a charred door covered the opening, and he could hear the child’s whimpering now. “Don’t worry!” he called. “I’m here!” And disregarding the burns, he seized the pile and threw it off in one swift motion. In moments of stress or danger, it sometimes happens that a person will accomplish some seemingly superhuman act of strength, and be incapable of reproducing it afterwards. Raskolnikov’s lifting of this weight must have been just that: for the pile of wood, as it came out later, must have been nothing short of three hundred pounds in weight. A child with a blackened and tear-reddened face was sitting motionless and wailing in the middle of the stairs. Raskolnikov lept down the stairs without hesitation and snatched the child up in his arms. He turned and ran through the gauntlet of flame. Behind him, he heard crackling and splintering as the house began to finally crumble. A shower of sparks and coals rained down on his back as he crouched, slipped and sprinted over the rubble.

When Raskolnikov had run into the fire, the watching crowd had been thrown into a great commotion. They were all talking: guesses, explanations, shouts of rescue, declarations of insanity. It is almost impossible to quiet down a crowd thus agitated; but, paradoxically, a single striking sight is the only cure, even though it is frequently also the cause. In this moment, just as the debate and disturbance reached its highest point, Raskolnikov plunged out of the house, carrying a bundle in his arms. Halfway to the crowd he stumbled and fell, and the object in his arms gave a cry: clearly it was a child. A collective gasp went up, and a dozen men started forward to help Raskolnikov up. More followed, enough that if they had all reached him, he would have been in danger of being crushed in the press; but another figure was quicker. Porfiry darted in front of the approaching men, arms outspread, and stopped them with a cry: “Everybody back! Give him room, or he’ll suffocate! Back, I say!” And such was the urgency in his voice that the crowd obeyed and fell back a pace from the burnt and choking man, except for the parents of the child, who rushed forward. Porfiry bent over Raskolnikov and loosened his shirt. Lacking anything else, he fanned him with his hand. Shortly Raskolnikov awoke. He saw the familiar and hated face of Porfiry bent over him, surrounded by a fringe of anxious and curious faces. Porfiry was speaking to him.

“Now that was a noble thing to do, eh? Hearing a child in that furnace and rushing in to save it, quite thoughtless of your own safety? Marvelous! Why, you might have died in there, and then what would I have done? Some of these people actually thought you wanted to die, but of course that’s ridiculous. Why would a young man like yourself have any reason to commit suicide? It’s not as if you’re a nihilist. No, I said to myself: surely he’s saving someone from that burning house, and right then, out you came, holding the proof in your arms.” Porfiry’s voice was cheerful, but Raskolnikov seemed to see something deadly and serious behind his smiles. With a convulsive movement, gasping for air, he threw off Porfiry’s hand. “I think…I must go home. The smoke…I am not well…I need to rest. Let me go home!” And with that he stood up and began to walk unsteadily away, unsure of his feet. The crowd parted on either side of him, like the Red Sea before the prophet, and let him pass into the night. It was barely one o’clock.

Raskolnikov was in torment. Apart from the pain of his burns, of which he had several, his mind was unalterably fixed on the central fact: he had not wanted to take the child out of the fire. He had been unable to stop himself, to prevent the deed. It was as if God had smitten him with purpose, right at the cusp of his victory. He stopped in the street and retched, sick with smoke and heat and guilt. Where had the impulse to save the child come from? His temples were burning; they felt as if coals had been pressed on them. “If from myself, then am I not the weakest of all men, unable to hold to a single purpose? And if from God, if I am just a pawn in the hand of an interfering Deity, why did He let me do that thing? Can God control a man and have him do a devil’s work? How can the Holy, a concept too terrible to think about, a thought laden with remonstrance and light and unbearable glory, use a man blackened with the horrors of hell itself? How can a music conductor use a fire-iron? If this God is sovereign enough to use me to save a child so unwillingly, then is not God the one guilty of that? It was His hand on the axe…not mine…no….damn him…” It came to him that the most horrible thing in the world would not be a moth drawn irresistibly to the flame. No, it was the moth that could not die in the torment it found there.

And suddenly before his eyes he thought he saw a vast pit, a gaping wound in the earth plunging downwards before his feet. No light shone into the abyss, but it was filled with flames infernal, that threw off not light but darkness, and the stench and smoke and cries of the burned ascended from unseen depths and choked the night air into a dread thickness. The chasm was unbearable, but the very ridge he was standing on was crumbling into cinders and charcoal and ash beneath him. With a cry, he fell forward. He had fallen forward onto the pavement. He shook off the remnants of the fevered hallucination, weeping tears of rage and terror, tears made black in their path down his seared cheeks. Raskolnikov stumbled onward into the night, blind, and sick at heart.

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