The unlikely ones: The magic stove

Dave had been living in Poland for seven years now, and he’d almost gotten used to all the Polish odd customs. One of the things he still struggled with was the extreme heating in winter time. No matter the actual temperature outside, from the moment the winter officially started, Poles turned on their heaters, radiators and stoves to create a micro-climate wherever they went. Although every single Pole would swear to anyone they met that Poland was colder than a butcher’s fridge, it was rare to find a room temperature lower than twenty-three degrees. This didn’t deter Poles from wrapping themselves with woolen fabrics to preserve body heat, even when they slept. But they still hadn’t overcome the ignominious temperature outside their buildings, trams and cars, so whenever they went out they put on winter suits that seemed to have been designed by NASA for deep space exploration. So whenever Dave entered a cafe or a bar, he’d be welcomed by a heatwave that fogged his glasses and dizzied him momentarily. In those precious moments he would swear at the Polish need for coziness. It was even worse on trams and buses, where he needed to undress swiftly as soon as he entered so as not to sweat like a pig in front of bewildered Polish eyes peeping out of thick woolen scarfs coiled around their necks and faces like furry anacondas.

Dave was an understanding person, however. He knew that the hypothalamus plays tricks on us because it’s conditioned according to the climate we’re raised in. In the case of cold climates, this body thermostat switches on the hibernation mode, which compels bodies to heat up less to preserve energy. The problem was that Dave came from a warm country, and his hypothalamus had been conditioned to sweat in the presence of heat, so as to avoid overheating. Also, his body was prodigal with its energy. It didn’t spare any of it, heating up Dave’s body to such temperatures that he was forced to wear only a T-shirt in mid winter and all of a sudden he’d find himself shivering from cold because he’d run out of energy to burn. Basically speaking, Dave’s hypothalamus was a reckless asshole. But this didn’t prevent Dave from hating Poles for being so thrifty when it came to their body heat. “What are they saving energy for?” He grumbled one day in which he saw a kid in a garment that made him look like a Teletubby, “The whole world is warming up anyway. There hasn’t been a proper winter for four years in this country.”

That same day he went to one of his friends´ housewarming party. Among glasses of wine and tastings of homemade food, Dave was shown a singular stove in one of the rooms of the flat. It looked like any other coal stove, although these were becoming rare in Poland due to a recent European program against pollution. This one had a peculiarity, the new owner of the flat told him; it was a special relativity stove, one of the first of its kind, and it had been installed for free in his friend’s new flat by the government to implement a new plan of alternative heating systems. Dave asked his friend to excuse him for his ignorance, but to tell him what special relativity had to do with heating and whether it was just some kind of Polish housewarming prank. His friend assured him he wasn’t joking and proceeded to demonstrate rather than wasting his time and energies on explanations. He asked Dave whether he had any kind of paper on him, and after overcoming his puzzlement, Dave fumbled in his pockets to eventually find a supermarket receipt.

I don’t think this is what you mean, but it’s the only thing I have on me,” Dave said, apologetically.

It’s perfect,” his friend said. “What’s the total amount?”

What?” Dave uttered, now totally convinced that it was some kind of Polish abstract joke. “It’s 120zł,” he said in the end. He was a good-humored person so he was glad to participate in his friend’s foolery.

That should burn like cholera,” his friend said, using a popular Polish turn of phrase.

Really?” said David mockingly this time. “If I had known, I would’ve brought my gas bills.”

Next time,” his friend said with a knowing smile on his face. “Now please crumple the paper into a ball and throw it in there.”

Dave was about to put his hand into the stove to just drop the receipt inside, when his friend grabbed him violently by the arm.

Careful! Don’t do that! He exclaimed. “You’ll burn yourself.”

Dave humored his friend. He crumpled the receipt into a minuscule ball and threw it into the stove from afar. The moment the ball touched the embers, it flared as if it was gasoline and after around twenty seconds it settled into a smaller but still intense flame. After the unexpected spectacle, Dave gave out a laughter and smiled in acknowledgment that he’d been duped. Then he told his friend: “OK, show it to me.”

This time it was his friend’s turn to be bewildered. He said: “Show you what? That’s it.”

Show me the secret switch that triggers that flare and tell me what is it, a gas outlet or something?” Dave said.

Nothing of the sort,” his friend answered. “It’s a special relativity stove, just as I said, and it’s definitely not a joke but the most serious attempt at reducing our carbon footprint, as well as the perfect solution to all our energy problems.”

Dave started to get uneasy by now. He believed the sweetness of jokes lies in their brevity, and this prank on him had lasted more than he could find amusing. “Just tell me what the fuck this is!” the wine spoke through David.

OK, don’t get so upset,” his friend said; “otherwise I can’t explain. And believe me, the explanation is still more spectacular than what you’ve just seen.”

I’m not upset. I’m sorry,” David muttered. “You’ve got me intrigued now, so I beg you to explain.”

OK, listen,” his friend went on. ”So you know the theory of special relativity, E equals mc square?

I only know it’s some sort of energy equation that proves that energy is never lost but only changes its form,” Dave said.

Quite so,” his friend answered. “I’m not a physicist myself, I must say. Actually I just call it the magic stove, because it’s like a magic trick every time I see it, but I thought its real name is still more intriguing, and I’m all for building up expectation, you know? But I’ll explain what I know about it. So the equation goes: energy equals mass multiplied by the square of velocity. Now, I couldn’t possibly use technical terminology, but in lay words, velocity, the same as energy and mass, can be accumulated, for instance in this bill. Velocity is, if you think about it, just the product of energy. The more energy you spend, the more velocity you get. We’re talking here of a new twist of Einstein’s theory, in which the X factor is not energy but velocity. We’ve been looking at the equation in the wrong way. We thought we knew what velocity was, till a Polish physicist came up with the idea of the stove you see in front of you. Now velocity is an erratic construct, but once we grasp it, we get the key to an immense source of energy. Now, you know that we are only walking masses of energy, which by some quantum laws are kept in balance, without combusting suddenly or dissipating in space. Now, this energy is transferred to every single thing we do: Walking, writing, talking, shopping, in your case. The more you shop, the more energy you spend. Just think of the amount of mental effort it takes to choose your groceries, comparing prices and looking for promotions. This energy doesn’t go anywhere but it remains in the nearest and simplest combustible form: Paper. Of course this is just a glimpse of the energy each of us contains in our bodies and more precisely, our minds. Actually, some physicists are trying to build a model of this stove which will be able to incinerate dead bodies. We’re talking about the energy of at least one Tsar bomba per body. If you think about it, it all makes sense now. Otherwise what’s the purpose of all the thinking which is done by a person before they die. If you consider that it all ends in dust, it really doesn’t make any sense. It’s energy ready to be exploited. The same as dinosaurs’ energy was spent making them grow into giants, our energy is spent in idle thought processes. We can’t avoid thinking because we can’t avoid giving out energy. It’s our nature as energy beings.

It sounds like madness,” Dave said, but he actually believed every word his friend had just said, not because he found them sensible but because of the serious expression on his friend’s face. “But what’s the next step? Why hadn’t this information spread like wild fire?”

Because not everyone is like you, Dave. There are many people from the Middle Ages still living in this world. Just take a look at the Arabs and their endemic warmongering. But they’re very civilized in comparison to some Western politicians who would gladly destroy the world tomorrow if they could get more money today. Poland has not officially made known this revolutionary invention and it won’t. It will let the world wonder for as long as it takes for the new reality to seep in.”

This is just too much. There are so many questions. What is what? Just imagine the implications and possibilities of it,” Dave said, allowing his mind to overwhelm him with thoughts. “For instance, the implications in literature. We could throw books from different authors by turn and see which of them gives out a stronger flame. Actually, the value of practically everything could be assessed by this method. Have you already tried?” Dave asked, his eyes full of excitement.

Yes, I’ve been throwing miscellaneous written stuff at it the whole week,” his friend answered, “and you’d be astonished if I told you the surprises I got more than once. Just look at my eyes, I burnt my eyelashes the first day when I was throwing some newspapers into the fire. Generally they don’t give out much flame, but apparently one of them contained some well thought piece of information, because the flare burst out of the stove and it almost set my hair on fire.

But imagine the implications!” Dave exclaimed, still more excited. “If we threw the Bible and other holy books to try their substance.”

Done it already,” his friend interrupted. “I was careful and threw just one page of the Old Testament at the beginning, for fear of being burnt in hell, but I ended up throwing the whole book without much consequence. It gave quite a good amount of energy, though. It burnt for almost two days. A real disappointment was my whole collection of Harry Potter, I must say. They didn’t look like magic books at all. At first I thought the stove had broken, but then I threw some old school notes from my wife and they flared like demons. Could you believe my wife is a better writer than J.K Rowling?”

That’s no surprise to me” Dave said, because contrary to his friend, he had good taste in literature. “This is fascinating,” he continued. “The thing that intrigues me the most is why literature, I mean why is the easiest combustible material?”

That’s no surprise,” his friend answered; obviously he’d had more time to think about it. “You see, writing is not real language but a cultural construct, governed by arbitrary rules. Every time we write some thought down, we’re already breaking it down into a simplified form, which is like cutting down and drying a tree for firewood.”

Fascinating,” Dave said aloud to himself. “Just the mere implications of it. Our whole conception of the world will be turned upside down.” “Who is the genius who discovered it?”

A PhD student from Politechnika Poznańska,” his friend answered. “I think actually his secret was that he approached the subject very pragmatically. He didn’t linger on the metaphysical aspect of it. He was just looking for an alternative to coal heating and this did the trick. Believe me, you’re the first person I hear fussing so much about it. Even if God came down from the heavens tomorrow and told us what the meaning of life is, I don’t believe that it would change anything on how people behave. We’ve become so unsensitized by the media and technology that people would not really care. I mean, yes, it would be in all the news for a week or two, but then Shakira would release a new album or di Caprio would appear in some film.”

This can’t be! This is the key to a new cosmogonic theory, the answer to the greatest questions of all times as well as the most intimate ones: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?”

Nah,” his friend said, a bored expression on his face. “I think you’re reading too much into it. I actually think the Americans will boycott the project because it will destabilize the world economy too much or the Russians will to keep on selling us their gas. Existentialism aside, I actually don’t think it’s such a great invention. I mean, what was this guy thinking? You need to plan the marketability of a product before endeavoring in its production. It’s simple economics. I think that that University where he came from should adapt its curricula to the twenty-first century. Students come out of it totally unable to cope with the modern market. I mean, it’s all good if you want to try and be a new Copernicus, but unless you find a fast monetization plan for your theories, you’ll end up being an unemployed Copernicus living in the streets. Besides, we all know the world is ruled by multinationals, and there’s nothing corporations hate more than inventiveness. Just do the job they pay you to do and don’t come up with anything fancy. Believe me, Dave, you won’t be seeing these stoves around for long.”

This is insane,” Dave said, “but the wine had already made its effect on him, shutting down his inquisitive mood. “Why to bother about all these abstract questions?” he thought. “I’m going to die one day anyway. Life is too short to linger on idle thought.” In the end, the thought that prevailed in his mind was that finally he’d have to move out of Poland because now that Poles found a cheap source of energy, they’d start turning into a sauna every single building and public means of transport.

When he was about to go home that night, his friend said to him: “By the way Dave, it was only a prank. It is indeed a gas stove and Piotr turned up the valve when you threw the paper ball.” I just added some embers to mess up with you.”

Polish humor,” Dave thought. “I should’ve known better.” “I don’t care anymore,” he said frankly to his friend. “I think such an invention would be wasted on humanity anyway.”

But on his way home, he felt a sudden relief that Poles wouldn’t have the means to overheat their country and that he wouldn’t have to leave after all.

by Juan M.S.


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

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