The smell of smoke stings the back of Ramon’s throat. The crowd sweats in the sun. Behind him on the wooden dais sit the bishop, Brother Tomaso, church dignitaries, his scribe.
Ramon stands and watches. The girl and her father, both tied to wooden stakes. Beneath them, a pile of wood — carefully dried and stored to prevent mishap. The girl will be first. Not because he wants to torture the old man further, but custom dictates that the younger be killed before the elder.
The scarlet is only creeping at the bottom of the woodpile. Ramon stares into the glowing tongues. The last conflagration he saw was in the priory. A fire of his own doing.
The thought wrenches inside him.
Yesterday, Jocef came again to plead for the prisoners.
“What will you give me?” Ramon had asked.
“I have… I have access to wealth.”
Ramon laughed. “You know that this is not what I seek.”
Jocef stood up and leaned in close to him. “What, then?” He lowered his voice. “Over the time I have known you, I know that what you seek is your past, and this is something I cannot give you.”
Ramon threw his head back in a laugh. “My past. I know my past. There are no more secrets. Only a pathway set out for me from before I was born. The cruelty of the stars.”
Jocef passed his hand over his forehead. “Your words are a mystery. But there is indeed something I can give you.”
“What is that?”
Jocef sat down. “I will teach you a Mishnah.”
And he began to chant: “If there is a fire on the Sabbath, although one may not one carry an item from one domain to the other, one may rescue the sacred writings. This is true whether they are read in public or whether they are not read in public.”
He looked up. “That means both the Five Books of Moses and Prophets, which are read in the synagogue on the Sabbath and Festivals, and also the rest of the Writings, which are not read.”
He looked at Ramon. “This also applies if they were written in a foreign language.”
Ramon became agitated. “Why do you teach me this?”
Jocef shrugged. “It is a gift. Of friendship.”
Ramon was unable to sit; he pushed back his chair and stood with his eyes closed and his fists clenched.
Jocef continued. “But, you may ask, what is a book? The Talmud discusses this. The definition of a book is a parchment that contains 85 letters.” He stepped closer to Ramon. “And what is the significance of 85 letters?
“For this is the number of letters that are contained in the section of the Bible that states, ‘When the Ark traveled.’ The section that deals with the journeys of the Jews in the desert — wandering then, as they do now.”
Ramon shook his head; something in him was choking, rising, choking, a rope was around his chest, tightening slowly.
Jocef continued. “This is the definition of a book, Ramon. Something that takes you on a journey. This is what must be saved from the flames, even if doing so means that we desecrate the Sabbath, the holiest day of all.”
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 602)