One Lone Candle

The weekend before her first day of college, Maisha moved into a small studio apartment on Sandrock Bay.

It was a nice, clean apartment, with brand new carpeting, and a large window that opened to a wide ocean. The perfect headquarters to begin her adult life. She had already decided upon her goal. She would change the world. Make it better.

The apartment itself wasn’t terribly remarkable. A bed occupied one bare corner. On one blank wall she hung a wrinkled poster of the planet Earth.

When afternoon transformed into dusk, and her few things had been neatly arranged, Maisha noticed that a dim, barely perceptible light periodically entered her room. It winked from a place very far away up on the headland enclosing Sandrock Bay.

She approached the open window and saw a distant lighthouse.

As darkness grew, the circling beam of light strengthened. It cast a single ray of power miles out over its circling sweep of silver ocean.

At night, as Maisha lay in bed thinking about her life ahead, and her big dream, that powerful beam whirled, passed over her window, shining through to the black wall that faced her, passing over the Earth. It was like the rising of many suns.

On Monday morning Maisha returned to the open window. She breathed in the cool ocean air and anticipated her first class.

Walking up Campus Way to school, it was difficult to keep her eyes from that faraway lighthouse. Even after sunrise, in broad daylight, its tiny light kept winking. It seemed odd to her that a lighthouse would operate in daylight.

The first day of classes passed.

Maisha sat alone at a table by a window in the school cafe. She tried to remember what she’d learned during several lectures. The complexity. The fog of human action. The formulas, suppositions, limits, conditions. The outlines, demands, divisions and conflicts. The history, the hatred, the avarice, the vanity. The cruel truths of the world. The impossibility of soul. Theorems uttered by unconcerned professors.

And in that darkening shadow of near hopelessness, her eyes were drawn again to the lighthouse.

How did it shine for miles? she wondered.

What was its secret?

Slowly she remembered . . .

When she was a very little girl, and all the world was completely new, she and her parents had visited a lighthouse–another old lighthouse that stood at the end of another headland . . . overlooking a dim place . . . an elsewhere she had nearly forgotten . . .

She tried to see it.

She remembered being inside that narrow lighthouse, climbing circular stairs up and up and up . . . right up to an enormous shining lens.

The lens had appeared to her surprised eyes like an enormous diamond, finely cut and polished and infused with a heart of light.

Her parents had explained that the radiance of a single candle was refracted by the lens into a single powerful beam that could be seen for miles out at sea.

Saving countless lives.

As she sat at the table remembering, she suddenly wondered: would it be possible to change the world by refracting light from her own heart?

Could she shine her heart’s light through a jeweled lens, focus it, and send a beam of saving power beyond her small horizon?

Resolute, she was determined to ask the silly question of everyone in the cafe. “How do you refract a heart’s light?”

Maisha turned to address a student who sat at the nearby table.

A laugh. “You’re joking, right?”

Maisha turned to the table on her other side, where several students sat eating and staring into phones.

“How do you refract a heart’s light?” she asked the first student who looked up.

“You know, that’s really a weird question. Is it possible to refract what–a heart’s light? That’s literally impossible. You bend light, not a heart’s light. What exactly do you mean by a heart’s light?”

“I think I see what she means,” interjected another student. “Can you bend your soul or spirit or something and shine it around a corner–is that what you mean? The heart light you’re talking about can do anything you wish. It’s like poetry–a heart light can shine anywhere. You could pass it through a metaphysical prism and make rainbows, even.”

The final student laughed. “Oh come on, be serious. Metaphysical rainbows. The fact is nobody can ever escape from the Laws of Physics. If by heart’s light you mean something like love or compassion, then you have to bend it with something that actually works. But compassion isn’t a physical thing. So I don’t really know how you would do that. Is it possible to refract a heart’s light? I mean, really, why would you want to refract that? I’ve never heard a more stupid question.”

“Thank you,” said Maisha, turning back to her cold food.

When she had finished eating, Maisha quickly jumped up and crossed the school’s cafe to throw away the garbage that remained on her plastic tray. She had never felt so alone.

“It’s possible,” said a small voice behind her.

An old man with severely stooped shoulders was busy mopping the dirty floor. His mop worked in small steady circles. He looked up at her. His faraway eyes shined with knowledge. “It’s possible,” he said quietly.

“But how?” begged Maisha. “How? All I have is my one candle. How do I cut and polish the refracting lens?”

“You’ll work it out. Simply keep that candle lit.”

Skeleton Forgiveness

Bradley woke up in the middle of the night. The clock showed a quarter to three. His wife was asleep beside him.

Careful not to disturb her, he lay motionless on his back and reviewed another day at work. There was something important he was supposed to remember, to do tomorrow, but he’d forgotten.

His mind wandered. For a moment he wondered about the car–if he should have the oil changed that weekend. He thought about making reservations for the vacation in Hawaii. He thought about an appointment with the doctor. In the darkness, he looked along the length of his body under the sheet. Suddenly he realized that under the sheet lay a skeleton.

His mind quickly turned.

Another pressing thought came to him that he must buy groceries after work–he must ask his wife what she needed. He would try to remember. And then he fell back to sleep.

And ten years passed in the blink of his astonished eyes.

Another late night, after brushing his teeth to ward off decay, blinking at his face in the bathroom mirror. I’m starting to get old, Bradley thought. What a strange face.

He lay in bed beside his wife, feeling the aching years, unable to sleep.

He couldn’t stop thinking. Next week he would have to see the doctor again. And then do his taxes. And then plan for that critically important conference in Seattle. And then remember his anniversary. How long? Thirty years? And then the lawn needed mowing again. And the leaking faucet. And his daughter needed more money. And he had to write a reply to his older brother, Kenneth. He didn’t want to write words to Kenneth. Kenneth was a big-mouthed jerk. Kenneth was probably the one thing Bradley hated most. There had been no words for most of a lifetime. There was too much anger, bitterness and pain. There was a feud that would never end. He could barely remember why.

He lay in bed, mind rolling, staring up at a dark ceiling, when an unbidden thought returned. He lowered his eyes and gazed at a draped figure.

Under his sheet stretched a skeleton.

His own skeleton.

Then suddenly Bradley was six years older. And his happy younger brother, Ben, who lived halfway across the country, died of a heart attack.

The entire family flew to the funeral. Older brother Kenneth sat near the opposite wall. Everyone faced the open casket.

Bradley sat near the back, behind a strange family of bent people clothed in black.

And then he understood the truth.

With time–too soon–all of the somber clothing, the tears, the bowed heads, the pain, the hidden thoughts, the beating hearts, muscle and blood would fall away.

After the short service he rose, walked bravely up to Kenneth and hugged him.

“I’m sorry.”

One Word

As I stood on the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing on a rectangle of cardboard.

From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the large word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.

Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.

As I waited for the light to cross, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.

Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.

“GOD!” he roared.

A Crown Above All

Gathering in the park around the central fountain. Eating at rusted tables under sun-faded umbrellas. Napping, with head tilted forward, on a bench. Roaming about disordered flowerbeds. Gossiping, laughing, reading.

As I sat in the shade of a straggly tree, it suddenly appeared to me the splashing fountain was a shining crown. Above every head a crown.

I saw it all in one enchanted moment.

Shining above the gray hair of one gentleman who walked very carefully with a cane.

Shining above the short curls of a girl as she petted a dog.

Shining above a runner, who flashed past the fountain, arms pumping.

Shining above two lovers on scooters, playfully circling around planters of summer chrysanthemums.

Shining above people sitting in disorder, like painted figures on a margin of green grass, talking, resting, thinking.

Above every soul, a waterfall rising into blue basin sky.

Water jetting skyward.

Breaking into atoms.

Shimmering.

Falling.

Gathering.

The Firefly

Cynthia and Mia loved being outdoors. Late in the evening, after dark, the two young sisters would stroll down to the end of their sleepy cul-de-sac, quietly talking, or singing, listening to the breeze in unseen oak leaves, gazing up at the ever-changing moon. Night was a place for dim lights and deeper feeling. In the darkness they’d steal aboard the slow backyard swing to float among infinite stars. Those beautiful nights were better than any dream.

“There it is again!” said Cynthia.

The firefly had returned. It seemed to show up every night an hour after sunset. The small light zigged and bobbed above the ghostly lawn. It disappeared behind the black shed. Suddenly it appeared right in front of the two sisters, who sat motionless on the swing.

“We should try catching it,” suggested Mia.

“Why?”

“We could bring it inside and use it for a night light.”

“That’s silly.”

“I’m serious!”

“You shouldn’t ever catch a firefly. You’ll be cursed.”

“Says who?”

“I don’t know.”

It remained a very great mystery–why there was always one firefly. Cynthia and Mia watched the small light flit here, there, here again, but always a shade beyond reach. Both young sisters understood that the small insect’s ballet was not arbitrary. Windblown, indecisive–but not without purpose.

The following night the two sisters walked down the cul-de-sac looking for bats. But it was getting too dark, almost a new moon.

After returning home, Mia couldn’t resist her heart’s desire. She darted into the kitchen through the screen door. A few minutes later she plunged into the darkness clutching an empty glass jar. She showed it to Cynthia on their swing. “I’m going to catch the firefly!”

“Why?”

“Because I want my own lightning in a bottle!”

“But a firefly is alive. If you catch it you’ll kill it.”

“No I won’t. I punched air holes in the lid.”

“The poor thing will starve.”

“Just this one night. I don’t want to hurt it. I’ll take it back outside and let it go free in the morning. I promise.”

“You’re silly.”

Mia unscrewed the jar’s lid and sat on the swing with her sister quietly waiting. They could barely see one another. A trillion bright stars whirled above. Somewhere in the night, a lonely cat yowled. An owl hooted. The firefly appeared like magic.

For a long while the two watched the dim light swing through the air like a falling star. With a bound Mia jumped up clutching her jar and raced beside the star.

The firefly darted away.

“Almost got it!” Mia laughed.

Cynthia laughed with her.

Mia chased and veered. A metal lid clapped on glass.

“I got it! I got it!” Mia shouted.

“Quiet! You’ll wake everyone up.”

“But look! I really caught it!

Mia crossed the gray grass and quietly came up to Cynthia with the dark jar in hand. “Look!”

Trapped at the bottom of the jar was a small, indistinct shape. The sisters put their noses to the glass to see better. The captured thing looked like nothing but a plain beetle.

“Are you sure that’s the firefly?” asked Cynthia.

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Well, there. You got your lightning in a bottle. I hope that makes you happy.”

Mia carried the jar into her bedroom. The firefly was in reality just a tiny, rather plain-looking beetle. It crawled awkwardly around the bottom of the confining glass jar, its chemical light off. Mia stared at the hobbling beetle for several minutes, then placed the jar on the corner of her nightstand. She switched off the bedroom light and lay on her back in bed. Her eyes were on the jar. The room was pitch black.

Mia waited. Her eyes focused on the exact spot where the jar should be. She anticipated, hoped, held her breath, waiting, waiting. She wished for a star. She yearned for a rising star. A star of her own. But why would anything happen? It was merely a dull beetle.

Out of the darkness a soft light appeared before her. It grew slowly brighter, slowly brighter, filling the room. The light intensified, enveloped her, blazed and shimmered, lifted her into a dazzling universe of infinite stars.

The alarm clock jolted her from the dream.

Sunlight streamed through the bedroom window. Mia sat up and looked at the jar on the nightstand. The beetle was dead.

Mia stared at the dead thing.

Somehow she stopped her flood of tears when she finally joined Cynthia for breakfast. Mother as usual was drunk and said nothing. The two young sisters headed out into the glaring daylight and trapped themselves in the school bus.

“I told you you’d kill it,” chided Cynthia.

The two sat motionless on their swing in the darkest of nights. A cold night with no moon and no firefly. They sat outside anyway. Alone in blackness was better than nothing.

“I told you,” insisted Cynthia, “but you wouldn’t listen. Why did you have to catch it? Why did you have to kill it? Now our one and only firefly is gone. There’s nothing left. You murdered it.”

“Stop it! Shut up!”

The two sat motionless on the swing, like twin dead planets in that cold, black night. They didn’t see the bright stars. They didn’t look up.

Cynthia broke the silence. “Now that the firefly is gone, what’s the point in sitting here? I’m starting to freeze. Let’s go back inside.”

“I don’t want to go inside,” protested Mia, thinking of their mother.

“But there’s no longer any reason to be here.”

“I don’t care.”

The sisters had nothing more to say. Each young girl had reached a dead end. Inside and outside, nothing was possible but the suffocating emptiness. There was no place left in the world for either to go.

Two hearts had died.

They sat like gravestones into the night.

A new moon night.

Suddenly, in that cold blackness, a ghost light appeared. A light flitted in space before the two sisters.

A firefly zigged and bobbed in front of astonished eyes.

Mia caught her breath. “Look! I don’t believe it! There’s another one!”

The tiny light had appeared from nowhere.

A new firefly bobbed and danced, twirled and weaved, like living magic suddenly risen from a well of utter blackness. Where it came from, neither girl understood. Where on Earth had it come from?

The firefly was a spark from an unseen fire, moving mysteriously, from silence to silence, from heart to heart.

Cynthia turned on the swing to face Mia. “That was wrong what I said. It was mean. I promise I will never hurt you again.”

“I’m sorry, too,” replied Mia. “I was wrong to kill it.”

Relief. Freedom.

The firefly danced. Simply, brightly, joyfully.

In two hearts, new life.

One Man’s Philosophy

“The problem with being thoughtful,” explained Burt, “is you quickly understand that most people aren’t. People don’t want to be philosophers. They simply want to feel good.

“People coming down the sidewalk are almost one hundred percent predictable. All they think about is their hair, the money they owe, winning the lottery, and what’s for dinner.”

Burt took a long drink from his paper bag.

“Have you ever wondered why people love dogs? Why do you think people identify with dogs? Oh, how wonderful it would be to lead a dog’s life. People actually want to be dogs.

“Look at them smiling.

“See that group of people coming our way? Pull one of them aside and ask their life’s purpose. I dare you to ask and hear what they say. You’ll get some feel good shit, a feel good God, a few vacuous words that add up to nothing. Then they flee.

“Cattle are more interesting.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because at least you can grill cattle.”

I looked down at Burt. His eyes were red and downcast. I began to really wonder if there was any hope. “When’s the last time you had something to eat?”

“Fifteen minutes ago. Some passing idiot gave me half his jelly doughnut.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“Because I begged for it.”

“But you know he didn’t have to.”

“Yeah he did. Look at me.”

A Steep Hill

The old man bent slowly. He set a heavy black garbage bag down on the sidewalk. He stood on the hill and rested. The five block climb to the church seemed more steep than ever.

I can’t do this forever, he told himself.

The shrugging shadows from a crowd of downtown buildings were very cold. The old man zipped his jacket all the way up. He gazed down at the sidewalk and the garbage bag.

He lifted the bag and resumed his way up the hill. One careful step after another. He waited on a corner for a traffic light, even though there were almost no cars about on a Sunday morning. Litter blown by the November wind had collected in the gutter. On the opposite sidewalk several people were sleeping among discarded bottles.

The apples in his bag felt like stones.

He wondered why he carried them.

His parents had built their modest house a long, long time ago, decades before the city swarmed around it. When he was three years old, his mother had planted an apple tree in the backyard. Now, suffocated by high-rises, it was a miracle that tree grew at all. It was a miracle the harvest remained bountiful. No sunlight now reached the tiny house.

For a painful instant the old man barely recalled the radiant face of his mother: her shining eyes and bright fiery curls. The apple tree was just as generous as her unpent heart. Pies, cakes, muffins, cobblers, jelly, sauce, cider, enough for a large happy family. But those years were long dead. The only hands that remained were his own.

He now despised apples.

A smiling man in a sideways baseball cap hurried rapidly down the steep sidewalk. The smiling man stopped a few feet above the old man and stared down at him.

“What you got there buddy?”

“A garbage bag.”

“Find anything good?”

“No, just garbage.”

“Too bad. Look what I got. The idiots at City Church give them away for nothing.” The smiling man pulled a red apple out of a pocket. “They don’t even care who you are. You can take as many as you want.” The smiling man suddenly pitched the red apple across the street. It struck the side of a cold building and exploded. He laughed loudly.

The smiling man pulled out another apple, tossed it onto the street, watched it roll down into the gutter.

The old man shrugged, continued up the hill with his garbage bag.

. . .

The tree was unrelenting. Those beautiful apples seemed infinite.

The old man ascended the hill to church Sunday after Sunday, transporting a terribly heavy bag, one careful step following another. He often wondered why he did it.

It was fate, probably.