By Stanley P. Anderson
Swanson removed his sunglasses as he approached the chest in our barn. “That’s funny—hardly any dust.”
Carl and I had no reply.
“All this hay and so little dust,” Swanson added as he opened the chest. He appeared to be talking to himself.
Swanson, a Baptist minister, had shown up a few weeks after his father, Nels, died. He came to pick through his family’s things, including some papers and an old Swedish Bible stored in a chest on the top floor of our barn. The front matter of the Bible included a family tree with birth and death dates.
My older brother Carl and I were well acquainted with the papers and the Bible, though Mom had instructed us to leave the chest alone. We had snooped through the papers and frequently used the Bible as a means of learning Swedish words, starting with the first verse of Genesis: “I begynnelsen skapade Gud himmel och jord.”
Carl did most of the studying. I was more interested in basketball. Dad and I had nailed up a backboard and a hoop, and I moved bales of hay around, creating a tiny court. As I went through the motions of winning the Minnesota state championship, I gave Carl cover for his forbidden scholarly endeavors.
Swanson divided the stuff from the chest into three parts: the Bible, what he called “papers to be burned,” and “papers to be kept.” We helped him carry the stuff to a burning barrel halfway between the house and the barn. Swanson plopped the Bible on the ground and started a good fire, which he fed by adding new clumps of paper now and again. The flames shone red and yellow in his blue eyes, and his blond hair looked ablaze with reflected light.
“You fellas build that tree house yourselves?” Swanson asked as he pointed to a Norway pine nearby. He had grown up one generation after the pioneers came to northern Minnesota, in a culture that valued a person who was handy more than one who was studious or creative. If you could build your own house or fix your car, you were a man.
“Yup,” I replied, assuming a manly tone.
“OK, ” I said. It was time for a treat, now that we were done.
After the fire went out, Swanson picked up the Bible, ripped out a clump of pages, set them on fire, and dropped them in the barrel. I was shocked and perplexed. The Bible was an old friend. It was a family Bible. It was the Word of God, even if it was in Swedish, and a minister was burning it.
When my Mom’s father died, about a year earlier, Swanson wrote a letter to Grandma from the Iowa town where he served as minister. He described Grandpa as “a gentle, loving man,” and said that he wept for “our loss.” In fact, he said that he was weeping as he wrote the letter. So, this man, who had been so moved by Grandpa’s death that he could not write about it without leaking all over the paper, was now burning the family Bible, his father’s Bible, maybe even his grandfather’s Bible.
“I do this with respect,” he explained, apparently to himself.
I backed away from the fire a little, to avoid the spreading smoke.
“What’s this?” Carl whispered when he returned with a plate of cookies.
“He’s burning the Bible.”
Carl watched as Swanson, who was into the New Testament by now, ripped out another clump and tossed it in the fire. Carl’s eyes focused fiercely on what was left of the Bible. “This is unspeakable. Did you try and stop him?”
“I didn't dare. I didn't want to let on we ever messed with it or even knew it was there.”
After the last clump of white pages was committed to flames, Swanson held the black cover and some of the front, including the family tree, in hand. He paused before he dropped the last of the Bible in the barrel. This part smoked a lot more than the other parts.
“Well, that job’s done,” Swanson said. He wiped soot from his hands with his handkerchief and then daubed his eyes. He was leaking again, this time from smoke.
Carl muttered. He offered Swanson no cookies.
We both followed at a distance as Swanson, his face once again masked by sunglasses, walked back to the house and knocked on the back door. He thanked Mom and left.
As he drove off, Mom said, “I guess he decided to leave the chest behind. Did he enjoy the cookies?”
“He burned a Bible,” Carl said. “It had a family tree and everything.”
Mom considered his response for a while. “Maybe something in the family tree needed burning.”
Unlike Carl, who nodded knowingly, I had no idea what she meant.
The next day, Carl and I checked the barrel. The Bible was all ashes, except for a jagged slip of the family tree that looked like a small piece removed from an elaborate puzzle. Five handwritten letters had survived the fire: “ollie.”
“I'm going to keep it with my stamps,” Carl said. “A memento.”
Stanley P. Anderson has been writing poetry and fiction for about 35 years and has published poetry in various literary journals. He has worked as an editor for the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, since 1974. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland. Stanley grew up in northern Minnesota and currently resides in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"The Bible" is a companion story to Conscience.
Photo "Bible 3" courtesy of Hagit Berkovich, Tel Aviv, Israel.
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