Summary of the Novel
Post-Traumatic Stress and an Interview with the Author
Sample Chapters
Comments from Readers
Coming Attractions
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How to Buy
Children of CIA and Secret Service Operatives
The Dead are Dancing, a novel by William Lloyd Roller
Chapter 8 - Autumn Bonfire and Book Burning

Friday, October 1st

Billy and Frank walked silently through the old cemetery on their way to the bonfire and book burning at the Cannon High School football stadium. They passed the graves of buried ancestors, Richcreeks and Beckwiths. Those who once came so bravely and audaciously now dreamt beneath the tender black soil their timeless dreams of sovereignty and earthly dominion. The boys paid quiet homage in their passing. The golden leaves drifted past their faces and settled round their feet in waves that rustled softly as they walked. The autumn twilight warmed their faces while the night air slowly crept beneath the shadows waiting for cool release at sunset. A hint of smoke alerted their nostrils that the fall ritual had begun.

"Do you remember last year when Mayor Hicks donated the entire encyclopedia from the county courthouse?" Frank asked in wonder. "It smoked for hours but refused to burn."

"The bonfire must be hotter than a kiln to burn books that size," Billy stated with authority. "Folks must be patient and let the fire department do its job."

"I hope they don't burn as many this year. The supply at the library has become fairly lean." Frank furrowed his brow uneasily as he spoke.

Billy knew in his heart that Frank was right, but defended Cannon anyway, because he knew it gained him the trust and confidence of its people. Billy shook his head. "There you go again, Frank. You just have to have faith in some traditions. You can't take away sacred rites without destroying the fiber of the community."

"But they're destroying our books! I'm not much of a reader but I may want to read someday."

Billy fell silent. Of course, he had his doubts about what Cannon was doing. Big doubts. But he never shared them with Frank for fear that they'd be seen as signs of weakness. Billy could never afford to show weakness, if he was going to become a true leader of his people. Billy sighed a long breath of studied patience and well-practiced tolerance. "Frank, you're getting too old for this kind of contrariness. You've got to grow up and take responsibility as a citizen. We've got a game tomorrow to fight and win," he added enthusiastically. "How can we do that if we don't all pull together?"

Frank lowered his head and nodded sheepishly. "You sound like my daddy. He says I don't accept the natural way of things and the wisdom of my elders. I suppose I'm gonna get in trouble for doing that."

They approached the steel chain link fence that surrounded the Cannon stadium, a civic temple of wood and brick constructed to seat ten thousand people, nestled in a valley between the C&EI railroad tracks and the fortress of Cannon High School made of brick and steel. Helmeted security police garbed in white robes guided the steady flow of nearly five thousand Cannonites through the narrow north gate. The archway of the limestone gate was engraved above them in oversized silver letters: ENTER HERE ALL WHO SEEK GLORY.

Billy passed under the portal with pride. He studied the faces of the people gathered here from every walk of life in Cannon County. Farmers with faces worn by wind and worry, wrinkled by the vagaries of rain and sun, came boldly wanting victory. Miners with faces darkened by the endless night of coal-laden tunnels, scarred by the rivulets of leeching acid, came boldly wanting victory. Brick makers with faces reddened permanently by shale dyes, hardened by the ovens of never ending fire, came boldly wanting victory. Strong affection welled within Billy's heart. He lifted a small child upon his shoulders and she laughed as her blond curls jostled upon her head. The people smiled warmly and with pleasure as he frolicked with the youngster, singing songs and joshing with her. Billy felt in his bones that he was one of them and would never betray their love because he was bound to them forever with a mortal cord. He pledged his honor and all the strength of his passion to these folk and their faces of Patriotism.

At the far south end of the football field, the oval cinder track that circled the field met an expanse of concrete blocks that stair-stepped gradually upward for fifty yards to the railroad embankment. Here, upon the scattered blocks of stone, the people had erected a sixty foot tower of seasoned railroad ties and kiln-dried timbers from Western Brickyard, crowned with bales of hay soaked in gasoline. Around the base of the pyre, figures in white scurried quickly with kerosene torches in their hands, the light reflected by their pale visages.

"That's your daddy down there," Billy exclaimed from the bleachers where he and Frank surveyed the scene.

Frank's face glowed with embarrassment. "Damn, but you've got the eyes of a hawk!"

"That's Merle's limp, all right."

"I don't want him to see me here."

"Why? You're doing your civic duty. This is the kind of stuff your dad wants you to do. This is what makes Merle happy!"

"I know. And that's why I feel so weird around him when he's acting this way. I just want him to accept me. I don't really want to be like him. He's too much."

Army personnel carriers began to drive around the track, dragging dumpsters loaded with books censored by the city fathers of Cannon. As each vehicle passed the pyre, citizens threw books upon the flames that began to engulf the sacrificial edifice.

It was a gorgeous ritual filled with primitive acts of cleansing as if the fires could purify the hearts and minds of Cannon. The citizens grew restless and left their seats to form a chain of human silhouettes and begin a snake dance that wrapped around the fire. The weave of dancers thickened into a mob as they sang patriotic songs and shouted slogans of liberty. Billy thought he recognized Mr. and Mrs. Starking, Emily's parents, but their faces were contorted into strange masks lit ominously by the fire. Flames reached one hundred feet into the air and smoke churned like black buttermilk in the torch-lit sky. As the flames whipped higher, the excitement of the crowd grew to frenzy. The movements of the mass of bodies became more random and less controlled.

Billy and Frank joined the throng in a burst of spontaneous emotion. The crowd pushed forward like a throbbing organ of retribution. Youthful vigor soon overcame Frank's initial reluctance, and once chastened by Billy, he shredded a sizeable portion of sonnets with manly ease. Quivering with rage and delight, they stamped and revelled about their victory bonfire, ripping the pages from books and tossing the remnants skyward. Byron and Beckett burned together with Whitman and Wilde and cast one single flame of pure light.

The Cannonettes, cheerleaders for the football team, dressed in smooth pink sequined satin, strutted before the firelight, and fed the greedy eyes of the multitude, their white bodies twisting sensuously to the steady beat of the big bass drum, BOOM-DA-DOOM, BOOM-DA-DOOM, BOOM-DA-DOOM. They deftly twirled batons aflame at both ends, tossing them fearlessly into the air and catching them adroitly behind their backs. To Billy, their eyes appeared to be soft, empty, blue receptacles that sucked in the electricity that charged the air. He watched with excitement as Emily Starking, captain of the cheerleaders, whipped the three-foot tassel of her braided blond hair languorously to the sensuously throbbing beat of the drum. She had entered a trance and her face was transformed like the faces of her parents.

Merle climbed upon the turret of the M-48 medium tank brought in especially to haul the book bins because of its superior traction. He straddled the 48mm barrel and began to beat his feet to the rhythm of the drum.

"Merle, let me see you fire that pistol!" Billy called up to him.

"Not on your life, Billy! That's not how I want to get my rocks hot," he laughed. Merle's head turned sharply toward the crowd where an outbreak of violence ripped apart the carnival atmosphere. The crowd pursued a solitary figure with mob-like fury, chasing him and beating him with hands and sticks. Billy saw a bespectacled face streaked with terror and recognized Mr. Denman, his biology teacher. He furiously beat back the hands that punched his face and tore his clothes, clutching an object to his breast. Billy drew closer and felt pity for him as larger men wrestled him to the ground and began to twist his head from side to side and stomp on his back. The man writhed and called out in pain. "Help! For godsakes help me someone!"

"Give us that book, you Red bastard!" The large men grappled with him as he squirmed on his belly, arms and legs twitching like a grasshopper on a pin.

Merle jumped upon him, grasped his hair, and raised a billy club above his head. Billy moved swiftly to block the blow and disarm Merle.

"What the hell are you doing, Richcreek!" Merle screamed.

"Leave him alone, Merle! Just back off now, okay? I'll take care of this." Billy placed his body squarely between the fallen man and his tormentors. No one challenged Billy and the melee ended abruptly.

"You put him up to this, Frank!" Merle shouted, pushing toward his son.

"Leave me be, Daddy. Billy did what was right."

Frank pulled away from his father and reached down to help the fallen man. Billy lifted the man to his feet. He quivered with fear like a small animal caught in a trap. His eyes squinted and darted from Billy to the onlookers and then back looking desperately for compassion. He clutched a leather-bound book tightly in his arms.

"You're gonna be okay, Mr. Denman. Some boys got out of hand. Just come with me," Billy said.

Billy and Frank led the man over to the football bench where they all sat while the man gathered his senses.

"I 've never seen it as bad as tonight. Ten years teaching in this town and I've never seen it this wild," he said shaking his head with disbelief. Bruises and blood from cuts smeared his forehead where his glasses had been smashed. "There's a mean streak that's set in. Something awful is coming our way, and I swear to God, I don't want to be here to see it."

"Mr. Denman, " Billy spoke softly and firmly, "Give me that book."

Various expressions crossed the man's face at once. Surprise passed into anger, then passed into fear, and melted away into resignation. He covered his face with his hands and began to weep softly at first, then loudly, rocking back and forth and swallowing air in great gulps of sorrow.

"Don't make me do that," he pleaded. "These ideas, these little words don't harm anyone. They're so important to me, though. Please understand, Billy. Don't make me give them up."

Frank fidgeted uncomfortably as he watched Billy's outstretched hand reach for the cherished bit of leather.

"Maybe we could let him keep the book, Billy. Like he says, they're only words."

Billy cast a quick disapproving glance at Frank and resumed his fixed gaze into Mr. Denman's eyes.

"The book, Mr. Denman. It's for your own good. You'll never get out of here alive if you keep it." Billy's eyes shown like chiseled blue steel, stern and filled with compassion.

The man looked into the distance beyond the sinister folk who hovered menacingly about the sideline, beyond the masses of citizens who cavorted about the bonfire, beyond the football stadium and town toward the distant and silent prairie. The heaving of his chest subsided and his expression softened and deepened into wisdom. He spoke calmly and with conviction. "You're strong, Billy. And these people are afraid. With your strength, you can help them transcend their fears. Loyalty does not require that you indulge their terror and tread to the tune of their dreadful cadence."

Billy's expression became troubled and he searched within himself for a response to match the gravity in the man's plea. A perplexed smile crossed his face and he shook his head. "That's mighty fine sentiment, Mr. Denman. But I've watched fear all my life and I've never once been able to take it away from anyone." Billy's face darkened with a touch of irony. "If I am strong, it's because I follow the traditional ways that you call acts of fear." Billy approached the man gently and placed his hand upon his shoulder. "Please give me the book, sir."

The man looked adoringly at the manuscript in his hands. He stared back into the inexorable emptiness of the prairie and surrendered the book into Billy's hands. Then he stood and walked somberly into the night.

"What is it?" Frank asked eagerly.

Billy read directly from the spine. "The Laws of Natural Selection."

"Sounds innocent enough to me. What are you gonna do with it?"

Billy looked again at the book and then at the throng of revellers that had thinned considerably as the fire waned and the supply of books diminished. Merle had left and the phalanx of faces had departed with their armored personnel carriers and tanks. The thick smoke had drifted away and the stars sparkled with uncanny clearness. Billy strode slowly toward the burning embers.

"Why not give it to him later?" Frank asked.

"I think he's leaving town. I never expect to see him again." Billy's voice was vacant and distant.

"Do you think it's true what he said about us? Do you think we're afraid?"

"We're a people who have a calling. Should we be ashamed of what we're called to do?"

"If you burn that book it's like you're burning him too — and maybe a part of us."

"No, he said himself that it's only made of little words." Billy swallowed and lightly tossed the book into the smoldering ashes. They glowed awhile then flashed brightly into flames that once more illuminated the title on the cover.

"I feel the chill of the night descending," said Frank. "The laws are burning."

They studied the fire closely as if some oracle were going to be revealed by the immolation. Frank's expression passed from sorrow into weariness. He did not have the fortitude to maintain the vigil. The heaviness of the evening's passion weighed too greatly on him. He drifted into forgetfulness and sleep.

Billy did not sleep. He remembered only fear. Fear in his teacher's eyes and fear in his voice. He wanted desperately for compassion to win in the face of fear but he knew that fear was the regent who held unquestioned power. An iron determination struck him with the force of destiny. He spoke with grave steadfastness to the solitary night.

"Our people may not always be right, but they remain our people just the same. We must forgive them all their hideous scars."

Continue the story by reading Chapter 9