Lightning cracks the dark in a second’s flash. In a moment of bone-white brilliance, stone angels pulse to life before darkness claims them once more. I start counting slowly under my breath: one and two and, three and…hurriedly passing crosses and tombstones bearing names and dates carved deep into my memory.
The thunder rumbles in the distance, but not as far away as I would like. I quicken my step along the graveyard’s overgrown path, reaching the tower as lightning illuminates the old oak door. Thunder for a second time, like the storm is knocking, seeking entrance. I shudder at the thought, quickly opening then closing the door, striding up the spiral steps two at a time beneath the flickering wall-mounted oil lamps as if I am racing the storm.
I have been taking this stairway to the heavens for the last seven years, ever since I scooped earth, once then twice, scattering it on my parents’ twin caskets, as they were lowered to their graves. One times seven is seven: I had learned that much at least when my uncle collected me from school for the last time. How many steps have I walked since that day? Too many to calculate; it is easier to chant the sum of my years, two times seven are fourteen, as I reach the final flight of stairs, stepping out into the cool night air where the tower opens like a palm.
I don’t see him at first as he is crouched over the ancestral fire, burning taper in hand, with his back towards me, but I hear my uncle’s voice, sonorous as a gong.
“Keeper of the Flame?”
“Yes, the very same.” My mind doesn’t even need to think of the words for my tongue to form them.
“Come to guard the ancestral light?”
“Yes, the whole long night.”
I step forward through the ring of darkness towards the central fire, set to burn long before I drew breath. For the flames danced high when my parents were Keepers, my grandparents too; and so on, right back, till my ancestor’s strong hand struck the very first spark, in this tower, on All Hallows Eve, so very long ago.
Perhaps he has been warming himself by the fire, perhaps lighting a new taper from the iron box which stands next to it; finished, he stands slowly, turning to meet me, his face cast immediately into shadow as the light dances behind him. He is a proud erect figure, sturdy and strong as the tower upon which he stands, twelve out of every twenty-four hours. Like me, he wears black from head to toe: black boots to the knee and a thick wool cloak for the days are often just as cold as the nights here. We’re so high up: the hills inch ever higher, aspiring to the mountains’ heights, peaking just beyond.
He holds out the taper and in the flash of light as it passes from his hand to mine, his normally composed face cracks briefly with what seems to be fear. Hurriedly I step back and his heavy-browed eyes are plunged into darkness. I wait for him to speak again, but he doesn’t and the silence unsettles me.
“Uncle, a storm is approaching; help me to carry the twelve candles for the dead inside or to fix the glass protectors.”
I had meant to soften my request with could and please, but lightning’s whip cracked again, just as the words left my mouth and all politeness was thrashed clean out of the sentence. Uncle must take this for impertinence.
“You know only one Keeper can guard the Flames.” He snaps, a whip himself. “Now is your allotted time; it is for you to protect the fire and to ensure the candles burn until I resume my watch in twelve hours’.”
The thunder booms around the tower’s circular turrets, lending its deep voice to my uncle’s equally commanding tone.
“Just remember,” he says at the tower’s steps, “each soul depends on you to light it on its way. Keep the fire burning.” The darkness of the tower swallows his silhouette and I am left to parrot the expected response, forever, to empty air.
There is no time to worry as the wind seems to have been waiting for his departure to fill its cheeks and blow. Simultaneously, each of the twelve candles gutter, flames bending horribly, kneeling in submission to the wind; I leap to my work. The iron box where the tapers are stored is also the keeping place for the protective glass which can shelter each candle’s light and I fling open the lid, trying to balance the need for speed with the equal need for care. Each cover is domed and made of thick glass, but there are only twelve and if even one smashes then my labours will have been in vain.
In two strides, I am at January’s candle and I carefully place the cover over the wavering flame, repeating the words I recite every time I transfer the flame from the stump of an old candle to the waiting wick of a new one:
“January’s dead, I light you the way; flame in the darkness, keep chaos at bay.”
I hurry back to the box and pick up another cover before making my way to the second candle within this ring of fire.
“February’s dead, I light you the way; flame in the darkness, keep chaos at bay.”
I place the covers one at a time over the fragile lights, waiting a brief moment to see the flame straighten and stand tall. Kneeling over the candles for the dead of March, April and May, lowering the glass over the summer months- the dead of June, July and August- I wait with each flame’s recovery for a rekindling of hope, willing it to come. I stoop and shield, stoop and shield and still no hope glimmers in my chest.
The calendar of candles will soon be complete, for I am two- thirds around this circle.
“September’s dead, I light you the way; flame in the darkness, keep chaos at bay.”
For it is chaos that must be kept at bay, I remind myself, stealing to the iron box before returning to the ring of candles. This is what my uncle had told me when he took me from school that fateful day. Leading me from the classroom, the other students hushed to silence by the teacher’s commands, returning my books to the library, hanging my satchel at its peg before turning me at the school gate to face the tower, looming tall above every house, church and tree.
“Nothing is more important in life than keeping chaos under control.” He said, ignoring my tears for my lost parents and my lost life chances.
He led me to the tower and we climbed the steps; I trailed his brisk stride, half hoping to hear the lighter step of my mother or father somewhere on the flight of stairs ahead but their feet were no longer walking this earth.
“Look up and then cast your eyes only down, upon the work set before you,” my uncle said when we stood upon the very top of the open tower, our heads brushing the roof of the sky.
“Above you is nothing but chaos: a vortex of black waiting to suck you in, where no light shines and no soul can find a way.”
I must have looked sufficiently horrified as he continued in a kindlier manner.
“But we two are the Keepers of the Flame, illuminating the paths for departing souls to follow. If we two do our work properly, no one needs to fear the long journey from our earth to the stars. The candles will always be there…” he looked at me expectantly.
“…guiding the way.” I had said it then, believing it to be true, that I could set the lights which would be beacons, ensuring no soul would stray.
Now I say it in a voice that wavers, and I feel the spark of fear deep inside me, ready to fireball out of control. For it doesn’t matter how many times I transfer the light, tend the ancestral fire or chant the words, the ember of fear is still deep inside. I try to put it out, always; I think of my mother and father, how proud they would be that I am a Keeper of the Flame like they were, but then I remember my small self, watching their determined and busy manner as they tended the lights, never a glimpse of doubt in their eyes, and all I feel is shame.
The wind strengthens and the flames of the three remaining candles lurch; sparks from the ancestral fire burst into the sky. I grab one of the three remaining glasses and head for October’s light, willing the storm- the chaos- to keep at bay a little longer.
“October’s dead, I light you the way; flame in the darkness,” but as I say the words and lower the cover, the quick fingers of the wind pinch out the flame.
The glass falls from my hand, splintering on the stones. My hand drops to my side and I kneel beside the thin tendril of smoke, rising from the spent wick.
This has never happened before. I am Keeper of the Flame and I have failed; October’s dead- how will they find the way? And how will I now keep chaos at bay?
All Hallows Eve: the night when they say the dead might walk the earth; October: the month my parents’ souls took flight. What if they are lost now, looking for my light, thinking sadly how their son has failed in the task that they performed so well?
Another gust whips the tears from my eyes. The wind tears around the turret like it is possessed with diabolical energy. Round it goes: January’s cover falls to the ground and the flame dies; February likewise and on it races to March.
I stand frozen, the horrified calm at the centre of the storm, watching as the wind crashes and smashes until there is only shattered glass and a ring of dark.
But in the centre of the tower, the ancestral fire still burns. As the wind lashes the fire into a fury of sparks once more, an idea forms: surely all I must do is light the candles from the fire and all will be well. The dead will find their way and my uncle will never know I failed.
Slipping on the shards of glass, I stagger against the wind to the fire and thrust the taper into the fire, ignoring the blazing heat as it licks up my hand and arm.
The wind howls like it’s horrified by my plan; its shriek is the summons for the deluge to start. The clouds mass and torrents of water rain down. My flying hair is plastered to my face; my thick wool cloak hangs heavier than a stone; there is nothing I can do, but fling my head back and howl, and howl, and howl at the blasted storm, the chaos, that has come and engulfed the ancestral fire, turning it to sodden ash.
“Then take it!” I scream my rage into the raging night. “Take it and take me too!”
Nothing. The wind dies, the rain ceases, the clouds scatter as fast as they had collected. The storm has come and gone, leaving me alone, encircled by darkness.
What will my uncle say? He will climb the tower’s spiral stairs, reach the tower’s top and instead of twelve proud candles and a roaring fire he will be greeted by twelve markers of shame and a beaten boy.
The night seems to creep closer, circling me. Then, light cracks the dark in a second’s flash. I think the storm has returned, this bone-white brilliance is lightning’s angry blast. But it isn’t. I turn my face for the first time upwards, and I see the moon move purposefully out from behind the last inky cloud.
At first, its strong beam is all I can see, pouring its light upon me; but as my eyes become accustomed to this radiance, I see new pinpricks tremble into life, illume. Deep in the dark, sparks of light wink back at me: one, two, ten, a hundred, thousands, infinite numbers beyond any I have ever counted.
For the last seven years, I have trained my eye to the ground, battled with the wind and weather; nursing the flames in the belief that this was the way to light the souls, to send them to the stars. But the souls need no Keepers of the Flame, here, in these heavens, are moonbeams enough to guide the way. Stars blaze from the furthest depths of the galaxy, and the light shoots its arrow straight and true to me, standing right here, in another place and time. Above my head, the stars join hands, links in a chain of hope. I stare in wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder and laugh, at how I have got it all wrong: Here are the guiding lights; here the whole universe illuminates the starpaths and meteor trails we must follow. If this is chaos, then it shines bright with a brilliance and an order all of its own.
A familiar strong hand is upon my shoulder, and I turn to see my uncle at my side. I have been so engrossed in the heavens that I never heard his heavy step even as it walked over the broken glass. I have only ever seen him in the frail flickering light of the candles; I see him now by moon and starlight, with new eyes.
“You see it at last,” he says, smiling. “The flames for the dead we keep are all about us, in the heavens and in our hearts. These candles, the fire, are just tokens, signs. ”
“But why did you never tell me? Why did you let me fear the chaos? Make me tend the candles for so long?”
“To let you feel the wonder of what I felt, when the same happened to me, three years ago.”
My face must be a picture as he breaks into an unusual and beautiful smile.
“Don’t think, Keeper of the Flames, this is the first storm the tower has ever seen!”
There is a glimmer of laughter in his eyes as he reaches deep into his dark cloak and pulls out two flintstones.
“Wet wood is a pain to light, but let’s see what we two can do.
We kneel together in the ashes and strike the stones together. As the spark flies and the kindling takes, I feel it light for the first time that strongest of flames: hope.