Auto-da-fé by Kristopher Jansma
Many of us had been unhappy with Vice Principal Jackson for some time preceding the incident. Over the years we, the faculty of Saint Bartholomew’s Preparatory Academy for Boys, had witnessed Vice Principal Jackson break every rule in the book – if not once then several times – but many of us believed that his antics bestowed a certain “character” upon our school that was genuinely appreciated by the students. Only after the incident did we see just how wrong we had been. Only after the incident did we see that our failure to reprimand him over the past several decades made us complicit. That it had been a tacit endorsement, really, of his various embezzlements, unsavory sexual liaisons, quaint racial intolerances, and even the long string of DUIs that ultimately led the good state of Vermont to forbid him from ever again operating any vehicle with both wheels and motor. Still he had been something of a fixture at St. Bartholomew’s for going-on fifty years, and the sight of him weaving drunkenly down the brick paths on his rusty bicycle never failed to bring a smile to our faces. But following the incident it was clear that St. Bartholomew’s would surely be shut down, unless we convened the faculty early in January to dispose of Vice Principal Jackson once and for all.
To his credit, the Vice Principal opened the faculty meeting with a passionate mea culpa, during which he spoke wittily of St. Augustine, and of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, and he got a few lines in there from Isaiah and Colossians. Having formerly held my current position as the school’s Professor of Medieval History, Jackson was well-versed in various translations of scripture, and he knew which of these was most likely to elicit sympathy. Plus, he’s, well—a funny man. We all laughed once or twice. He even managed to get a laugh or two out of Sue Gorman, the forever-strung-out Philosophy Chair. But despite our smiles, most refused to be swayed.
“Not this time, Mr. Vice Principal,” remarked Professor Kleets, of Sociology.
And the rest of us voiced our assent as Vice Principal Jackson took his seat at the corner of the table as if to say that the matter was then out of his hands, which it was.
“Well, as I’ve mentioned to several of you independently,” Professor Larraway, Chair of the English department began, “The trustees expect something to be done this time and I’m afraid Vice Principal Jackson is holding firm to his position that he’d sooner die than resign his post—.”
Vice Principal Jackson, whose attention had briefly wandered to the billowy cleavage of Professor DiRossi, quickly snapped back and shouted, “I’d sooner die than resign my post!” thumping his knotted fists on the long table.
“Yes,” Professor Larraway continued, “And given that our tenure rules will make firing him exceedingly difficult, even following this aggregious incident, the only option remaining is to eliminate the Vice Principal before the start of the Spring term.”
The faculty shared a rare moment of agreement, but this quickly dissolved as the various interested parties made their proposals for the best means of elimination. Professor DiRossi, whose bosoms were still under frequent inspection by the condemned, suggested that he be summarily drowned in the duck pond in the center of campus, which had not been home to any ducks for ten years, after the Vice Principal had permitted some shady Sicilian-types to dump sixteen barrels of waste into it. Last year a popular junior lacrosse player had stumbled, drunk, into the pond and come out covered in strange orange boils. The Vice Principal looked a bit ill at this proposal, but he held his tongue.
There was a general murmuring of approval for DiRossi’s proposal, and Professor Larraway remarked that it would achieve a nice sense of dramatic irony. But the remainder of the faculty was not to be outdone and quickly a counter-proposal was made by Professor Kirchner, who had been our conference-winning basketball coach until DiRossi’s sexual harassment suit against him.
“If we’re going to be literal-minded,” he mused, “then we ought to take him down to Clinton Correctional and let the old football team have at him.”
A cheer went up, and even Vice Principal Jackson chuckled at this suggestion. Three years back, he had replaced our entire football team with ex-convicts (while receiving for each of the twenty-six felons a generous incentive from the state of Vermont). The ex-cons brought St. Bartholomew’s to the Division Championship for the first time in seventy-eight years, and this fleeting glory nearly made us forget the marked uptick that year in larcenies and sexual assaults. Not to mention the sudden influx of street drugs among the student body. After losing the Divisional championships, the Vice Principal had given way to the concerns of the Public Safety subcommittee and so the Board of Trustees systematically framed the ex-cons for various crimes and misdemeanors until they were at last all returned to prison on parole violations. The thought of delivering the Vice Principal to their re-incarcerated hands certainly smacked of the requisite poetic justice.
But Kirchner’s suggestion sparked a melee of other such karmic proposals from even the quietest faculty members. Professor Carlin, of Anthropology, suggested that he be abandoned in Sub-Saharan Africa like the seven students in the Class of ’85, whom the Vice Principal had misplaced for three weeks. Professor Wodkowski of the Music Department wondered if Jackson could be dipped in brass and sold as statuary, so that they might replace the Marching Band instruments he’d gambled away at Foxwoods. Several members of the Women’s Studies department voted that he be ritually castrated, as penance for what Vice Principal Jackson referred to as his “crimes of the boudoir.”
The Vice Principal, who had kept a good humor throughout all this, did become understandably uncomfortable at this final suggestion. It was at this point that I stood up and suggested to everyone that, as much fun as all this sounded, perhaps the fair thing to do would be to ask the Vice Principal himself what method he’d prefer – seeing as we’d all gotten so much enjoyment out of his antics over the years, and that while it had come to this in the end, that we should not forget that we were the ones who had let it go this far in the first place. Vice Principal Jackson shot me a warm look of gratitude. I often forgot that Vice Principal Jackson had first hired me to replace him in the Medieval History department – some twenty years ago – and at times like that one, I felt a strange father-son bond with him.
He stood on wobbling legs to formally address the faculty for the last time.
“Obviously, I have many regrets,” he began solemnly. “Though I have always felt that I am simply as God made me, and that the many errors I have made over the years were the result of a certain broadness of spirit on my own part. Frankly, I love St. Bartholomew’s very deeply – only here would a big-hearted fool like myself be allowed the freedom to pursue life’s many brambly paths.” He paused to drink deeply from his coffee mug, which only ever contained Apricot Schnapps.
“They say that those who can’t do, teach,” he continued thoughtfully. “St. Bartholomew’s gave me a job when nobody else would, and has kept me on for fifty years now out of a commendable Christian charity, despite the fact that I am, no doubt, a massive liability and not even a very good teacher. I have always wondered. They say that those who can’t do, teach, but what do those who can’t teach… do?”
This struck a chord with many of us. So many, in fact, that I do believe that if Vice Principal Jackson had again asked for a pardon in that moment, he would have been given it. For we are not good “do-ers” and we are not good teachers. We enjoy a rousing, incoherent meeting. We enjoy the robust sounds of our own voices, echoing off the slumping foreheads of students who struggle to feign respect for us. We enjoy the vague ache of unpursued intellectual ambitions, and we even enjoy the solemn understanding that, without a place like St. Bartholomew’s, we would be adrift. The cold, pragmatic world outside our ancient gates has no need of us.
But in the end Vice Principal Jackson did not ask us to let him off the hook. He knew, I suspect, that he had reached a sort of zenith in his misbehavior. That after this latest incident, he would be hard-pressed to summon the energy to top it. The man was nearly eighty and his hell-raising had become more and more taxing – we could all see it. And none of us wanted to watch him fade away indignantly. We, who largely felt that fading in ourselves already. We already missed Vice Principal Jackson, in some ways, who had always burned his brightest, and this had renewed our own vigor. And so, there was not a single vote in opposition to his humble request to, immediately after the meeting, be burned at the stake on the South Lawn.
Yes, there were some who no doubt felt this a bit more dramatic an exit than the Vice Principal deserved, but others observed that this method would also conveniently dispose of the body and thus avoid trouble with the local authorities, even though they, let’s face it (especially after the incident) would be happy to no longer have to come to St. Bartholomew’s every few weeks to take a report on Vice Principal Jackson’s latest fiasco. And so it was decided that an auto-da-fé would be organized, and I – as the presiding Medievalist – would oversee the arrangements. Vice Principal Jackson seemed wholly pleased and moved that we adjourn the meeting, since our sole agenda point had been resolved amicably. Several of us shook his hands and Professor Kleets even thanked him for his years of service.
Since time was of the essence, I swiftly divided the labor. There wasn’t time to build a proper, load-bearing pyre, but Vice Principal Jackson kindly agreed to be immolated in his office chair. Professor DiRossi took some pleasure in tying him to this with a length of rope, which Professor Burke, of the Chemistry department, had quickly and carefully treated with a compound of ammonium phosphate and boracic acid so that it would not burn up before the Vice Principal. Professor Kirchner and myself gathered armfuls of fallen branches from along the edge of the South Lawn to use as tinder. Meanwhile, Professor Larraway retrieved a spare copy of Beowulf, which Vice Principal Jackson wished to read from as the fire got going. Professor Kleets, feeling squeamish, volunteered to host a mandatory three-hour lecture on Environmental Action to distract any students who were lingering on campus over the Winter Session. The remaining Professors agreed to initiate a phone chain so that any faculty who had not attended the meeting could hurry to campus to witness the auto-da-fé of Vice Principal Jackson.
When all was said and done, about fifty-four of us gathered out on the South Lawn, and many generously brought plastic party cups and spirits to share. As I tucked several bundles of dead grass into Vice Principal Jackson’s belt and shirtsleeves, I asked him if there was any way we could make him more comfortable before things got going. After a moment’s consideration, he asked for his coffee mug, which we happily refilled with Apricot Schnapps before delivery.
He sipped this happily while I began an impromptu lecture to the crowd about the long history of burning people at the stake – touching on a few of my favorite tidbits. That the tradition surfaced historically in nearly every enlightened culture. There were the Greeks, who boiled their heretics alive in a gigantic brass “brazen bull”, and, too, the Romans, who wrapped ne’er-do-wells in the tunica molesta and set it ablaze. Or the Celts, confining their societal enemies in great wicker men, and, this all preceeded, naturally, the various Inquisitions and “baptisms of fire” which became well-known throughout Medieval times.
Ironically, this tradition had largely not migrated to the New World. The witches of Salem were not burned at the stake, despite popular belief. And while some Native tribes did roast men alive on spits, that was all quite a long time ago. Today, I noted with some sorrow, the tradition had tragically diminished except in some tribal regions of Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps most would not mourn the passing of what we now rightly consider a brutal instrument of religious intolerance. And yet, let us not forget the monk who immolated himself in protest during the war in Vietnam. Yes, this type of self-incineration was remarkable as an act of protest and of martyrdom, surely. And in that famous photograph by Malcolm Browne we cannot help but admire the monk’s serene peace as he is consumed. For the phrase “auto-da-fé,” literally translates from the Portuguese as “an act of faith” and the belief had always been that those sinners who could not find faith in any other way, would surely come to it on the stake before the good Lord took them into his embrace.
Raucous applause followed my speech. It felt tremendous to have the respect of my peers for my leadership, and lecturing abilities, and especially since I’d had such little time to prepare… but it was the look of appreciation from Vice Principal Jackson that meant the most of all. And as Kirchner and I fumbled with the matches, the condemned man began to read loudly from the prelude to Beowulf – and how the loyal men lay their lord upon the breast of the boat and heaped treasures upon him. Jackson made it well into the eighth section by the time the flames really picked up and the coughing from the smoke stopped his reading. Professor Larraway got rather choked up.
Professor Kirchner asked me if I thought St. Bartholomew’s would ever again know such a rascal as Vice Principal Jackson, and I said that I imagined his absence would be felt, for a time, but that surely the rest of us could be trusted to fill the void with our own blunders, in due course. We were human, after all. As the fire’s orange tongues began to lick at his ankles, Vice Principal Jackson took a final sip from his mug and closed his book. We all watched as he allowed his gaze to fall lovingly, one final time, upon the bosom of Professor DiRossi, and then he raised his eyes through the rising plume of smoke to the stars above, and a great wave of relief did indeed seem to come over him at last.
© Kristopher Jansma, 2016
Kristopher Jansma is the author of Why We Came to the City and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award and recipient of an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award. He has written for The New York Times, Salon, ZYZZVA, The Believer, The Millions, Slice, and Electric Literature. His work has been noted in The Best American Short Stories 2016 and The Best American Essays 2014. He is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz and a graduate lecturer in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College.
Auto-da-fé was read by Matthew Alford on 7th December 2016 for Dreams & Aspirations