My mistress lights her candles at dawn, and does not stop until dusk. And then it is dawn again, and she continues to light them. Row after row of tiny white flames ignite from the tips of her fingers. Night never comes, she says, when there are candles to be lit.
Our home — a simple, bright abode — is by a wide, expansive river. Its banks stretch endlessly, empty save for the old tree that arches its ancient branches over our roof. Its waters are wide as the sea. I cannot see to the other side, nor can I see to its bottom. Sometimes I imagine that secrets hide within it. Like exotic, colorful fish, or sleek pebbles that shine in the sun. But these are merely dreams, for I see nothing in the waters save for her candles.
My mistress is a patient woman. She crafts each candle with care. Round, golden candles appear at her touch. Each one can sit in the palm of my hand with room to spare. Each one perfect and flawless. I sometimes ask why she makes them each the same. Surely, I say, it would be more interesting to make them different. Some tall, some short, some red or black, maybe even some in funny shapes, like a bird or the tip of my nose. But my mistress simply shakes her head when I say these things, and I imagine I must be very silly.
“Each candle starts out the same,” she tells me one day as we kneel by the riverbank. “It is how they burn and how far they travel that makes them unique.”
My day starts the same with each dusk. With my wicker basket I gather leaves from the tree, plucking them off one at a time from its long, bowing branches with clean, crisp snaps. With my wooden bucket I gather sap from its trunk, cutting carefully into the thick bark with a thin, sharp blade and letting the sticky golden liquid flow. My mistress taught me these things long ago. I was once clumsy, but today I am nimble and fast, and she gives me approving smiles as I set my basket and bucket down on the riverbank.
And so I sit by her side, day after day, doling out little portions of sap in my palms and watch in awed fascination as she molds them into candles. She rolls them in her hands until they become round, smooth balls of amber before carefully putting in the tiny wick. She is silent in her work, looking out serenely into the river as she goes about it. Then with a flicker from her finger the candle is lit. I fold a little boat out of a leaf of the old tree and on this boat the candle is carried away. Then she makes another, rolling the sap between her warm palms as I fold little green boats, and the river is covered in floating spots of gold, wobbling away into the distance. I feel as if we are on that riverbank forever, and that is where I want to remain, in this peaceful eternity lit by candles.
She turns to me. Her eyes are deep, dark and speckled with tiny spots of light, the way I imagine a galaxy must look up close.
“Yes?” she asks, her fingers never stopping their tireless task, even as she looks to me. Her voice, as always, is even and kind.
“Do you think . . .” I stop. I am being silly, I think.
She smiles. “Why, I do think,” she says, turning the ball of sap dexterously over the tops of her fingers. “I think quite often, in fact. And what I’m thinking now, is that life would be awfully dull if everyone was too afraid to speak what’s on their mind.”
She has caught me, and I blush. I swallow hard and work up my courage.
“Do you think I might . . . if I may . . . light a candle?”
I thought she would laugh, or dismiss me, or chastise me for stepping out of my bounds. I’ve only ever plucked the leaves and made the boats, after all. I wouldn’t know the first thing about candles.
But she does none of those things. Instead, she looks at me with her deep eyes.
“You wish to light a candle?”
She is not mocking me, and I nod. “If I may.”
For a moment she is silent, and her gaze wanders out to the river, where millions of little green boats bobble in and out of sight, carrying their precious cargos. Then, gently, she takes my hand and stands.
“Come,” she says. “If you are to light a candle, it must be of your own making.”
My mistress shows me how to hold the sap from the tree in my palms, gently so that it may take shape on its own. She holds my hands and show me how to roll the sap in smooth motions, until it becomes the perfect sphere. She holds it up to the light, so that I may see the light shining through it, igniting specks of gold inside. She clips the wick for me and pushes it into the candle as I hold it out. I shake with excitement, and I fear she will change her mind when she sees how nervous I am, but she says nothing of it.
“Come,” she says when the candle is complete, and I follow her to the riverbank. She gestures for me to sit close to the water, so close it practically laps at my toes.
“This is the tricky part,” she tells me. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” I lie. I think she knows I am lying, but again, she says nothing of it.
With one slender finger she points out across the river, where countless little green boats are disappearing into the distance. “Look,” she says.
I do. I follow her gaze and for a moment I see nothing but mist. Then the mist parts and I see a woman. In her arms she is holding something small.
Too small, I realize.
“Light the candle,” I hear my mistress says, but she sounds distant, so very far away. Something else has taken over. It is as if the world is melting away from all around me, and all I hear is one sound.
I see the tiny baby in her mother’s arms, struggling to breathe.
She was born too early. She is too small.
My body is hot. I feel her as if she is within me, so small but so present, everywhere, drowning my sense.
I feel my fingers move on their own, flicking in the air, their tips burning.
I see her growing up, living a wonderful life, succeeding.
I see her dying young, succumbing to illness in toddlerhood.
I see her falling in love, raising children, growing to old age.
I see her cheating her mother, her lover, and the laws of the land, living a life of chaos on the run.
With every thump I see another life. Her potential, her futures, every life she could lead and every choice she could make flows before my eyes like so many drops of water through a river.
“Light the candle,” I hear my mistress again. My fingers flick, and flick, and flick.
A spark lights, then goes out. Another spark, gone again. I watch the scenes before me, panic wells up but I cannot make the candle light. I try and try and . . .
It comes so suddenly that I think I’ve gone deaf. Then it all slowly comes back — the sound of the river, the rustle of leaves on the old tree, and my mistress’s soft hand over mine.
The last thing I see before the mist closes is the mother, bent over the still body of her tiny daughter, weeping in anguish. I cannot hear her cries. They’ve gone silent like her baby’s heart. My body is numb. The candle tumbles from my fingers, now cold and stiff. The heat of life has gone out of them. Hot tears are pouring from my eyes and I cannot stop them. I feel my mistress’s arms around me.
“It’s alright,” she whispers gently as she holds me. “This is not your fault. Some candles are simply not mean to be lit.”
I weep for what feels like days, there on the riverbank as she holds me. When the tears finally stop, she brushes my hair out of my wet eyes and looks at me as if she’s infinitely proud.
“Would you like to try another?”
I shake my head, and my mistress nods with a sad smile. She picks up the candle I had dropped and lets it slide from her fingers over the water. It sinks into the river with a soft “plop” and disappears beneath the waters. In the eternity I spent by the riverbank, I suddenly realize, I have never noticed where she puts the candles that will not light.
“She may not live,” my mistress tells me, “but in this river she will sleep. There are many like her, so she will never be alone, and they will only know peace in these waters.”
I nod, and we move on. I sit by my mistress, folding little boats as she lights the candles, one after another. Once in a while, one does not light, and she sends it to the bottom of the river to peaceful slumber. I sit and watch her serene face as she watches each life spark into the world, lives lived and not lived, and feel awe wash over me. I admire her strength, and her tenacity, and wonder if someday I may truly live up to her brilliant light.
I light the candles as my mistress once taught me, an eternity ago. I hear the heartbeats of the innocent beat through my chest as I gaze out into the water.
I turn to my ward. She is young, as I once was, and she clips the leaves from the ancient tree that has given its leaves to many like my mistress before me, and will give to many after me.
“Do you think I might, if I may, light a candle?”