April 15, 2010

The Inextinguishable Fire


The Inextinguishable Fire
by Christian Jackstien

I am Kallinikos. I am Kallinikos and it is because of me that Constantinople, the Empire of Rome and all of Christendom is saved. I am singled out as favoured by all of the many Emperors of ancient Byzantium who I have outlived. I have been blessed with riches and am rich with blessings. In my long years I have been elevated among the saints, revered by the great and rewarded by the powerful.

Yet all this reverence is odious to me. I have gifted to Constantinople a weapon to defend itself against the heathen and barbarian hordes, but at too high a cost. That weapon to which my name is affixed as creator is the shame I carry with me through this world and into the next.

I am Kallinikos and I brought hell into the world. I brought from the darkness the secret of liquid fire.
* * *

An old soldier, who’d held the walls of Constantinople against the wicked navy of the Caliphate and later lost his leg to a Saracen’s blade, hobbled through these lands of Syria where I invited him to rest a night in my humble home. In exchange I only asked that he give me news from the north, where I had not been for many years. He talked at length as old soldiers do and told me much about the wars with the Bulgars and the Avars, the religious controversies and the Eastern Empire’s campaigns against the Umayyads who laid siege to Constantinople so many years ago and were again beating against her impregnable walls. The old soldier boasted at length about his deeds during that first Arab siege and though I softened him with wine, he never made mention of the dreaded weapon who saw its first use then and of which I burned for news.

As we approached the deep of night I found courage to ask my soldierly guest what he knew of the great terror. I told him its many names: liquid fire, sea-fire, Greek fire and other more vulgar terms. The old soldier ran pale from memory alone. Speaking angrily, he told me he knew nothing, then turned over on his cot and went to sleep.

In the morning I prepared a simple breakfast while the soldier raked the coals of the fire pensively. After we ate he thanked me for my hospitality, apologised for his rudeness the night before and as he had far to travel, he invited me to walk with him a little way so that he could repay my kindness.

“Scripture tells us of a lake of fire,” he started, “an unholy place where the spirit burns. But I will tell you of the true lake of fire, the lake where it is not only the soul that burns, but the flesh too. I speak only so I may make my peace and never speak of it again.

“I was a guard of the tower during the siege of Constantinople and from the ramparts I watched as each day the Hagarenes threatened us from land and sea wishing to conquer the holy city and destroy us all. It was only the great Theodesian walls that kept the hordes at bay. Of that which you seek knowledge, I had never heard of such a demonic power except as the rumour of a decisive weapon the leaders of the Empire were preparing to use against our enemy. As the people of Constantinople starved under the blockade, and as arrows rained upon us daily, we waiting anxiously for this gift.

“It was early evening and the sun was setting over the sea of Marmara through a haze that so often blurred the coming of night. Lined up in formations was the navy of the Caliph Umar as it was for the long duration of the siege, threatening us from afar but unable to challenge our mighty walls. On this day I was watching out to sea when a single ship of ours challenged the Arab armada. I thought it was an act of desperation and lost heart.

“The attacking enemy formed a crescent as if to catch the single ship of the Empire like a fish in a net. To my surprise our ship made a swift turn, as if they sought to retreat from their doom. It seemed a short lived hope when the ship of the empire drew down its sails and came to a stop.

“And then a spray, like water, went out from the bow of our own warship, only it was not water but flame and it outshone the sun as it arched like a rainbow towards the enemy ships. I believed I was under the spell of a malevolent demon and needed a companion soldier, of equal disbelief, to convince me that it was not I alone who saw the rain of fire. And as the enemy ships became inflamed and retreated, in their wake was something even more frightening. Fire stood upon the water itself, a red rising flame reaching to the sky like a demon warrior raised from the depths to do battle. Our ship barely escaped while the navy of the Arabs scattered in a panic. As their ships burned I watched the heathen enemy plunge into the sea only to be caught by the same fiery tyranny.

“When brief time fled, the flames slowly dimmed like the ashes of morning and nothing remained save a few kindling masts waiting to sink to the depths of the sea. The day done, light set with the sun and still I watched, rapt, as little lights floated on what should have been the dark fathomless sea. Here was fire unafraid of its natural enemy, here was a power one should truly fear.

“That weapon brought the Eastern Roman Empire victory and there were cheers that ran through the relieved city. I could not rejoice with my fellow citizens. This so called blessing is an evil alchemy. War is cruel, yes, but this weapon is not of this world. It was not for humans to turn water into it’s natural enemy the flame. Where water and fire are one, there you cannot find man. I hope you are satisfied. It pained me to relive the horror; I hope I have repaid my debt.”

I left the soldier at a crossroads that split around an ancient cedar. He carried on his hobbled journey and I chose, instead of returning home, to take another path. A little ways on, through a forest of dry pine and after a climb of a hundred steps, there are the ruins of an old temple on an isolated hillside with a view out over the sea that I like very much and have not seen in many years.

* * *


* * *

Never was I a warrior, never had I concerned myself with battles and the desperate ways men fight. I studied architecture and preferred building things to destroying them. I also happened to be curious and loved to meddle into the properties of matter. One day in my master’s studio, when I should have been drafting, I was trying to produce lye for a buxom woman from the tavern to whom I’d boasted of my alchemical skills.

The result of mixing lime, salts and naphtha wasn’t what I intended and to conceal my failed experiment I threw the thick liquid into the hearth fire. The liquid lit up like a sun and the fire grew intensely hot. Fearing I would wake my master from his boozy sleep, I threw water on it to quench its thirst. Imagine my shock when the water fuelled the fire, splashing it outside the bounds of the stone oven. Spot fires spread through the chamber and it is to my credit that despite my panic, I didn’t try to pour more water onto it. I called my master, who half asleep, helped smother the fires with a rug.

After my master had flayed me, I described the liquid and the way it reacted with water to become even more flammable. He didn’t believe me so I repeated the procedure for him and with the tiniest drop of the thick liquid, a test proved that I’d discovered a magical substance indeed.

With gold in his eyes, my master bottled up the liquid, wrote down the recipe and dragged me off with him to make our fortune. It never crossed our minds to think what the corrupt hearts of power might do with this mysterious substance. If I weren’t so naïve I might never have let it loose upon the world.

* * *

My accidental invention found plenty of interested parties, no one less estimable than Emperor Constantine IV, a man who ruled over an Empire constantly assailed by enemies wishing to rob it of its riches and glory. I was presented before him and after demonstrating my discovery to his Excellency I saw his face gleam with arrogant joy as he imagined the power the magic liquid conferred upon him. Inflated by the feeling of his own might, the Emperor first congratulated me, then blessed me for bearing the gift that could defend this humble nation against its enemies.

As the emperor gloated over the weapon, I felt the first pangs of my conscience. After I gave his general the recipe and as if to amend for his hubris, Emperor Constantine IV said to me solemnly: “This will protect our civilization for eternity.” I would hope the world does not last that long.

The Emperor was drunk on my discovery and I left his presence with a profound sickness, regretting forever my discovery even as I was receiving a fortune in gold. Every day since I have hoped that the recipe remains a secret better guarded than all the treasures of the Empire, lest all the armies of the world discover it and set the earth ablaze.

* * *

When I was a younger man, I was passing throgh a desert land when I came upon an oasis shielded by a large sheltering rock where a small monastery hid among the date trees. There I sought shelter from the solitude and the sun. The kindly monks gave me water, fed me chick peas and unleavened bread and gave me a mat and shelter for the cold night.

In the silence of dusk, while the monks breathed in the serenity of the sunset from the rocky pinnacle where a lone cedar grew, I was invited into a conversation with a man of modest years, who alone of the monks seemed restless and ill suited to the life of quietude. He inquired as to my comings and goings and digested the stories of my travels much too eagerly for a fettered man of the cloth. I asked him why he who seemed to love travel and adventure had become a sedentary monk.

He grew taciturn and we sat in silence as the last arc of sun fell below the desert horizon. Only after the other monks left the rock did the monk finally speak.

“May I tell you something? I live among men without judgement who are well trained to receive confessions, and yet I feel I can not trust them with what I have to say. They are pure and naïve and trust to god with a simplicity I do not wish to betray. I do not believe like they do. There are doubts that I cannot utter except to a worldly man such as yourself, who has seen many things, beautiful and ugly. Perhaps I believe everything is a dream, a nightmare of some demon god. Only it is the pain, the pain and suffering that is not a dream. Here at the monastery we study how to see all things except God, as mere phenomena. See the fire in this torch? It doesn’t have form or take up space. It is a symbol of transience. Nothing is real when you look at the fire, right? That is what we are to believe, here, at this oasis. But that is not true is it? It burns. It burns everything. It burns flesh and I have seen it. Would it surprise you if I told you was wicked and that I used fire as a weapon? Well I have used fire that walks on water. Have you ever seen fire walk on water?”

I held the man’s eyes for a moment as they glittered with the light of the first stars of night. The monk was filled with searing intensity and I could not stare long. I looked down onto the rock we sat on and he continued:

“Greek fire. I can tell by your look that you’ve heard of it. Perhaps even seen it. I was a sailor. A sailor is all I have ever wanted to be and I enjoyed many great years sailing merchant ships in the Mediterranean, the Black and the Red seas. I have seen the strange Hindoos and the lost Christians in Africa. I adored the marvels of the world, but when I heard that the Arabs threatened Constantinople on all fronts, I offered up my services to the navy of God’s empire.

“Because of my experience, I was commissioned aboard a small ship whose secretive purpose you have already guessed. The ship was built with a special tube made from hardened sheep’s bladder sewn to large bellows which blew the liquid out the spout. One brave soul stood beside the tube and held up the torch to the siphon out of which the terror blew and lit the liquid as it projected from the ship. With that weapon we were unconquerable. Just the sight of the siphon was enough to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy.

“Though few had ever survived our flames, the wind carried word of our weapon and the enemy would no longer threaten our city from the sea. We were warriors though and filled with lust for war. If the enemy would not attack us, then we would attack them. We sailed to Syllaeum where we met their navy in battle. They shuddered face to face with our weapon and cried for mercy in their ugly tongues and yet no mercy did we show. We set their ships on fire and those who did not die on board, died overboard on the flaming seas with no surfeit from either ours, or their God.

“I had no love for the enemy and never considered their sufferance, but fire does not discriminate righteous from heathen souls. Ally ships, ships with brothers, comrades and friends, they too were consumed in the fury of liquid fire, they too burned and died a painful death. I was fighting for the empire and I was told it was of necessity. Necessity? I ask, what necessity is there in searing the flesh of your own, what necessity to defeat the enemy at such a high cost? I watched with the cold heart of war when the devil’s weapon killed the enemy, but the sight of my own brothers in arms, crying for help while swimming in a lake of fire which would only consume myself and my ship if we were to attempt to rescue them, that is burned into my memory. It’s their look of terror gleamed through the chimera of flames that keeps me awake at night. This monastery, this is where I have come to escape the fire, to atone for my sins. I cannot, nor will I ever hope to truly relieve myself of what these hands have done. I only hope that the purpose in making us all suffer might be revealed to me one day.”

He blew out the flame on the torch and would say no more. The sailor’s words etched onto my heart. I too hope my purpose might be revealed to me one day. I too can never escape the fire. I share its destiny.

* * *


* * *

It was in a market town at the edge of a desert where I met the man begging in the street. I was there selling the little wooden toys that are my livelihood in old age and had just arrived through the city gate with a caravan when I noticed the mendicant hidden beneath a grey cloak so ratty that through its holes you could see dark, encrusted wounds which I mistook for leprous sores.

The sand in the street swirled. The beggar cupped his charcoal hands and sent them out for alms while he hid his face in the shadows of his hooded cape. Taken by a sudden pity I went up to him with a coin and as I dropped the silver into the man’s hands I stole a look beneath the shade. Though his flesh was embossed in shadow, his eyes, those eyes were white emblazoned with a far seeing intensity that gave me shivers. He looked up briefly and thanked me in a foreign tongue and I saw that the darkness of his face was not an illusion, but that there was no face there at all, only a flesh malformed and rough like the bark of a cypress.

When he saw my alarm he apologized for his ugliness through a twisted mouth without lips. I answered humbly, that it was not he who should be apologizing, but I. The sudden fear that I might be myself responsible for his deformity made me want to flee his sight. That same fear made me stay and ask his name. In a raspy voice he read to me from a book he had beside him:

“Time is a stone and we are merely veins of ore trapped within it. Only fire melts the stone, only fire can turn the hardness of destiny into light.”

I sat down in the dust beside him, wanting him to speak more and he did, never lifting the cape, never letting me see his flesh with the light of day. The beggar said that he’d been brutally burned and I told him he didn’t need to explain, that I understood and that there was no need to bring up the memories. He was right not to listen to me, he was right to go on. It was my own dread, my own unformed memories of all those who have suffered from my invention that I was afraid of.

“I bear witness to the full wrath of life on earth. I am forged in its furnace. Though you can see its destruction on me I call myself a witness not a victim. Everything is as it is meant to be. Neither will I explain the path that led me to the fire, nor what led me out. Time past and time future are impenetrable and the meaning of the causes and effects in our lives belong to God alone. I will only speak of the lion and the vomit of flame that shot from its maw. It was the second siege of Constantinople. I had been told you Greeks are ruthless men like my nightmares of hell. I had been told to fear the rain of fire and when our ship neared one of yours and we could see the metal tubes with the face of animals and demons on them we were sent into a panic. We tried to flee but it was not our destiny that we escape the fire. Even as we retreated we went nowhere in the chaos and disorder of our oar strokes. Doom bore down on us. I stopped rowing and looked into the face of that evil who would, I surely believed, deliver my final fate. Then the fiery projectile set my ship ablaze like it were a dry piece of tinder. I and all my shipmates flew into a madness of pain and threw ourselves into the water to escape.

“But you know that there is no escaping the liquid fire. What can a man do when swimming in the cold sea and an inextinguishable fire eats at your flesh? Nothing. That is what a man can do. Nothing. Still, I swam for my life and by swimming for my life I was lucky to live. I do not know for what reason I lived while all my friends died; perhaps to bear witness to the suffering in this world. Perhaps I am made to look hideous to men to punish me for my vanity. And perhaps one or another is not chosen to suffer, but that it is only random chance which made me the victim and not the victor. If so then there is no meaning, no purpose to my dark history and I am only the smallest speck in a mighty river awaiting my destiny when the stream dissolves in the great expanse, in the ocean at the end of my time.

This man’s resilience and faith astounded me. I answered him this:

“No, my friend, you have a purpose and just now you served it. I am an old man now and I have no fear for my soul. But it is time I confessed and it is just as well that I confess to an Arab, my enemy who has felt most deeply the wrath of my creation and one whose beauty was left untouched by the corrosive flame. I tell you this: I created liquid fire. Though it was not my intention, it was my invention. I have filled my days wishing it away, but it is no longer possible for me to wish away what has been. You have helped me see. The fire no longer burns. I am not innocent, but neither am I guilty. There is a strange providence that rules the universe, far from being the one to comprehend it I can only join the stream as you say and await my final union where the fire will enter the wide sea and will not burn.”

We remained quiet for a very long time and after I had gone into the market and sold my toys, I returned to the spot where I had met the Arab with the intention of inviting him along with me, to live at my home in peace and comfort until the end of his days. He was not there, nor was he anywhere to be found during my intensive search of the town. He had vanished.

* * *

There is a small light that shines now. It is not the fire, but something else, something elusive. As I reach my own night, as the stream widens and prepares to meet the sea, I see that little light as it was once in the eyes of a burnt Saracen, and that light is my hope that all is as it should be, and that the hand of providence guides everything to its rightful end. One day, I know, the secret of Greek fire, which has been a providential saviour for the Roman Empire, will be forgotten so that darker empires might not benefit from its evil. Though there will be other scourges, other weapons of destruction, that bane which I brought into the world might die the same death it brought to others. May that fire be extinguished by the sea at the end of time.

* * *


* * *

Christian Jackstien is a veteran of various bureaucracies and life inside these mind-boggling labyrinths motivates him to write. He lives in Toronto and is currently shopping his first novel.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

Aside from being a limitless pool out of which writers fish ideas, history helps us understand how we today are shaped by the past. Historical fiction complements the facts of history by imagining not just what happened in the past, but what it might have been like to actually live during a formative era. By understanding how people from the past might have experienced their world, we get a better understanding of our own era both as the ever fluid present and as future history.