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The Bonfire

Francis Beverly arose from his bed that morning with a sense of urgency. It was as though he had been cast adrift from his dreams into an icy river. The date was December 6, 1941, which—to foreshadow a famous quotation—was, at least in the storied history of the Beverly family, “a day that would live in infamy.”

“Lucky Frank,” as he was called by the barons of American business, was the surviving son of the three children that Catherine Beverly had borne her poor as a mire-snipe husband, John. There is now no need to recount the horrific history of their poverty; suffice it to record that those times were hard, and the bread on their table was never soft. Francis often thought back with a certain fondness upon the light of those rare old days. Of the old man’s regrets, none of them stemmed from his youth. To tell the whole truth, he always drew much comfort from memories of his childhood. This was especially so during his long, restless, and hermit-like withdrawal from the world—Francis had been retired reclusively for nearly thirty years.

No one in the Beverly family knew precisely when Francis had been born, not even his long-departed wife or either of his surviving sons, one of whom, amazingly, had recently become a great grandfather. “Except for the river,” people used to say, “Lucky Frank Beverly is the oldest living thing in Rumson.”

Francis himself had personally designed the family’s Angelic Acres estate, which, in the words of his late son, Clare, was created to be “...the warmest place in the world, like the inside of a man’s heart.” Inevitably, however, over the plains of time and his mountains of money, the joy that Francis Beverly had experienced in the cultivating of Angelic Acres had faded into nothingness. “Too much success,” he used to mutter to himself, “is really a curse.”

Now to the puzzlement of all, the fortune’s founder had, even from the very first day of his retirement back in 1913, lived a solitary life, passing his years living within what had originally served as the house’s caretaker’s quarters. Among the world’s wealthiest men, he was the block of ice around which was fast- frozen a fortune that seemed all but impossible to thaw. Consider these things: Francis Beverly had paid for the family's stock exchange seat with cash money. He was internationally reputed to be the only man ever to earn and lose a hundred million dollars on “a day shift.” He had, for patriotic reasons, personally underwritten the entire cost of a secret government war project (an act for which he insisted no public acclaim should ever be given). Also, he inexplicably sold, on a Friday, the family’s tool and dye concern. This netted a profit of nearly one hundred million dollars. Then, on the following Tuesday, he purchased the unneeded enterprise back for a price that was some twenty million dollars higher than he had sold it for on the previous week. To what end? Well, no one could ever say precisely. For the record, however, Francis Beverly did make the following statement to the perplexed press: “It was the best bargain I ever made.”

And now, sailing his last days on the sea of life, the ashen old man of the Beverly family, whose age branched back to the banks of the rivers that not even he could ever think to possess, emerged from his bed and began living out the fated and fiery fullness of his final day.

What happened was this. After dressing in the same sort of grubby garments he had worn nearly every moment of his self-imposed exile, Francis Beverly began fumbling through the top drawer of his dresser. He was looking for a box of wooden matches (he very much disliked the paper ones), a package of Sweet Corporal cigarettes, and a wad of banded together one-hundred-dollar notes. The stash was somewhat depleted, at least by the standards of Francis Beverly and his long-standing purposes, for the width of the stack was down to only about a quarter inch. Lighting a cigarette, the unblinking old man flung the money onto his neatly made bed. Then, after cracking the knuckle on his right index finger, he sat down at his desk to do some “figuring.”

Like a hungry bird tearing its talons against the tundra’s frozen firmness, he began scratching some numbers onto the cold and hard reality he believed only a blank sheet of paper could provide.

"365x$1000," he muttered as he marked,
=$365,000 per a., x 10a =
$3,650,000 x 3 =
$10,950,000, give or take a little.

Francis then got to his feet, took heed of his money, walked over to the bed, snatched up the cash, peeled off one thousand dollars precisely, counted it twice, tossed the banded balance of bills back into the dresser’s top drawer, and purposefully walked out of his dwelling’s east-facing exit. Marching methodically towards a coarsely cut cord of wood, which was neatly stacked within walking distance of the estate’s big house, the old man then picked out two very thin sticks of fire-wood. After placing them into a large canvas satchel marked Cliffwood Brick Company, which was the last remnant of his boyhood and had been a gift from his father who had long labored as the fan operator in the brickyard’s kiln room, he strode over to an old shed that was not far from the west wing’s portico. He talked to himself as he walked: “Except for the clouds, it's a perfect day.”

Prior to opening the shed door, Francis paused for a moment and again studied the overcast sky. He twisted his neck in all directions, like some protective hen inspecting the whole circumference around her nest. Disappointed but not distraught over the clouds, he then stepped over the threshold. When he reemerged, there was a double-barrel shotgun dangling carelessly from his right hand. Genteelly he shut the shed door, flung the satchel over his shoulder, took a long and satisfied look at the rising dawn, cursed the clouds, and straightaway marched for the back of the property. When he reached the rim of the yard, which was the polished point where the green grass met the green wood, Francis stooped down and began to stroke the palm of his right hand over the top of a flowering bush. Gently caressing a newly blossomed Damask, he leaned forward and smelt the flower. Opening his pocket knife he cut the bloom and carefully placed it into his satchel. He then stepped forth onto the center of a roughly hewn pathway into the woods. It was his road to the river—and an extremely narrow one at that.

“No need to stride so softly,” he inwardly whispered. “I’m not as old as they think.”

Step by step he ambled along, using the down-pointed barrels of the shotgun as a walking stick. It took a long time for Francis to travel even so far as a few yards. He was more tired than usual.

Awake, O sleeper,” he shouted reverently into the vastness of the ravine. “Only a mile and a half to go! This is your last journey and you’ve only a mile and a half to go!”

Picking up his pattered pace, Francis Beverly lumbered deeper and deeper into the depths of the woods that he knew so well. He had made the same trek nearly every morning for the past three decades.

“You've been along this narrow way more than ten thousand times, old man,” he inwardly panted. “Do it once more.”

As he paused to scratch the beaky tip of his nose, however, Francis heard a voice: “Mr. Beverly, you look a bit worn down. I suggest you rest a moment and recall something you once told me.”

Not yet seeing anyone, Francis blurted into the air: “What was it that I said?”

You told me that it is good to move towards your final destination, but it is even better when your destination is final.”

The voice heard was one that was vaguely familiar to Francis. Squinting in the direction of the speaker, like some distracted owl, the old man caught sight of a lighted presence. Leaning on his shotgun, he rose, took heed of the glow, and started for the brightness. When he reached the point where the light was perched, Francis saw a familiar figure standing in a small clearing.

“I can’t recall ever being so profound as all of that,” responded Francis with a humble smile.

But then it struck him: “Wait a minute, I remember now. Aren’t you Ragland? You were foreman over the men that moved the west wing walls of my house off the river barge.”

“That's right, Mr. Beverly, we were the ones. It was a great challenge and I am proud that it was done so well.”

“Indeed it was, Mr. Ragland!”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I can’t recall precisely. When was that?”

Francis dropped his satchel to the ground.

“It was way back in nineteen-and-nineteen.”

“But—” Francis started to say, as a rather confused look fell upon his face as the beclouded figure gently interrupted him.

“I’ve only returned for a moment or two, Mr. Beverly.” Ragland spoke in a comforting tone: “I just wanted to see the river one more time.”

“I can't say that I blame you for that,” answered Francis agreeably.

“Are you still a rich man, Mister Beverly?”

“I suppose so. I don't keep track too closely. I’m very much like you; I only want to see the river one more time. Even the richest of men can’t resist the great rush of the river.”

At that moment, the chirp of an osprey was heard overhead. Francis looked to the sky. When the bird had vanished into the thicket, the old man again turned around. He squinted when he saw that his visitor, and the hazy light that had aired about him, began fading into nothingness.

“He was a strong man,” Francis said to himself, “and a good man too.”

After sounding a slight whimper, Francis again began to follow the narrow path down to the river. He was now far along the trail and way past the deepest center of the woods. Perhaps it was the weight of what he was carrying, but somehow the cloudy day was revealing itself differently than all the others that had previously arisen.

“Continue moving, old man,” Francis muttered inwardly. “You’re sure to make it.”

Somehow it seemed as if that particular dawn’s passing was different from all the others that had come before it. Time itself was melting away as he slowly strode towards the beauty that awaited him. Going to the river is going home, he thought.

Keep the home fires burning\While your hearts are yearning,” he sang. “Though your lads are far away They dream of home; \There's a silver lining Through the dark cloud shining.”

Francis again looked at the sky, as a blackbird streaked for the river. Seeing this, he closed his eyes and lowered his head once more.

Turn the dark cloud inside out,” he resumed, “Till your boy comes home.”

Despite the heavy cloud cover, the slightest sliver of sunlight was piercing the trees when he reopened his eyes. Also, something he saw was strange. There, just ahead of where he stood, sitting on the eastern rim of the narrow path, was another cluster of hazy light. Wrapped within its brightness was a form, which emerged slowly. It was little Clare, who’d been gone for nearly fifty years!

Calling out to him whom he loved so well, the translucent little boy pointed his right hand in the direction of his father, who within his heart was just then feeling blessed beyond all measure. As for the little boy, his body was a gaunt and transparent wisp. It was the light around him, however, that plainly revealed the love within. Clare was substantial love. He was love through and through.

Approaching his never-forgotten child, Francis stepped gingerly upon the path. His eyes were bulging as he drew within the margins of the scene. Reaching out with his right hand, he waved his fingers through the luminescence. Birds were circling above them, as though attuned to the compelling nature of what was being hatched below. Even through the cloudy light that hovered atop the ravine, Francis was given a last chance to touch his own inner self. It was a part of him that he’d long thought dead. And as that cloud was dispersed, the old man caught a distant glimpse of the river’s great rush.

“Is that your special shotgun, Father? Is it the one you loved more than all the others?”

“No, son,” answered Francis, “after what happened I threw it into the west wing’s furnace.”

“That’s a great shame, it really was a good gun.”

“But we never hit any birds with it, son. Neither of us could hit the broadside of —”

“As I said,” the angelic boy interrupted, “it was a good gun.”

Now the birds above, as if pulled by some mystic magnet, were at that instant drawn down closer to the site, like a halo descended from the heavens.

“Father, have you been missing me all this time?”

“Yes, son, I've missed you more than I am able to express.”

“Then there's no need to tell me anything more, Father. You are a rich man for having loved someone so faithfully. You are love through and through.”

Suddenly Francis pulled in his arms and clutched at his chest. A grimace fell upon his face. The shotgun and satchel fell to the forest floor.

“I feel a great weight within me, son,” said Francis. “It’s as though the vastness of the world is being pressed onto me.”

“You feel too much, Father,” consoled Clare. “All of this—everything you have ever known— will one day vanish, but as you can see, we will never vanish. Now go down to the river and finish your divestment. Then, what has so long smoldered away within you will at last begin to burn away. When that is done, you’ll finally begin to feel much better. Please understand that the past cannot be changed, but it can be accepted.”

Francis blinked expectantly. Then, in the flashing of an instant, the aura of hazy and inexplicable light that had surrounded his son began to contract inwards, like a beating heart being sucked into the soul of its own chambers. Clare was no longer there. The old man then peered upwards with anticipation. He was looking for the swirling swarm of birds. They, too, however, had gone the way of the light. All that remained overhead was the overcast sky. Francis then whispered inwardly: “He binds up the waters in His thick clouds.

Just then, and at long last, he reached into his satchel, carefully removed the Damask bloom, and placed it on the soil from which Clare and the wondrous light had risen.

Feeling reconciled with the world he had once abandoned, Francis squinted in the direction of the river’s great rush. He then grabbed his shotgun, flung the satchel over his left shoulder, and walked towards the water. The current was calm when he reached the river's coarsely sanded rim. He headed directly to a small boat that was buoyed about twenty feet offshore. Stenciled on the tiny craft’s stem were the words The Budding Rose. Once he had waded into the water and was down at the dinghy, Francis again dug into his satchel, withdrew some ammo, loaded the gun, kissed the barrels, and blasted the bottom of the boat. It sank instantly.

Next, he threw the gun into the river, turned his attention to the shoreline, and methodically marched in the direction of a mountain of firewood that was mounded on the otherwise barren beach. Kneeling before it, like some pious pagan bowed down before an inexplicable idol, Francis again reached into his canvas satchel and withdrew from it his “thousand-dollar stash” and the two fire-sticks he’d brought along. Gently prying out some of the enormous mound’s lower logs, he stuffed all the money into the mass of kindling. It was his final deposit.

Francis then tossed the two pieces of tinder he’d brought onto the heap and took a deep breath. Rising, he then strode backwards towards the edge of the ravine. A moment later he returned carrying a crimson-red can of gasoline. Pouring as he walked, he circled the mound three times. When this was done, he pasted a Sweet Corporal into the right-hand corner of his mouth, lit the cigarette with satisfaction, and at last detonated the mountain.

The river then picked up the pace of its undying current, but the mountain of fire merely collapsed under the weight of its own flames. As for Francis Beverly, he died as he lived: Contentedly forlorn within a faraway world, like some lonely bird would have done unto it.