The Candle Farmers
We grew candles on our farm. It was always night. I carried embers in a copper bucket and trailed behind my mother. Under the candlelight, the ground was warm. I tucked my plait down the back of my dress. We walked narrow pathways through fields of candles. The glow hurt my eyes, so I looked up at the darkness and star blink. When we reached the empty plain, we dug holes and planted the embers. I didn’t know if my fingers were black with dirt or soot.
We watched the new candles creep up out of the earth. My job was to count the flames. I smelled of cinders. My dress was wax stiff. She told me when they were grown they’d be taken to the dark cities and roads. I didn’t want them to go. When I measured them, I lied to her. I wanted her to think they were smaller.
My candles were ankle high. They weren’t in straight lines. I tip-toed around clusters and gazed at flame flicker. I sat with them when the harvest men came to our farm. Their wagons were sky black. I saw my mother leading them in the far fields. The candles made them look small. I crept closer. Their faces were ember red. I didn’t want them to look at me. I saw the candles fall. I tried to remember the shape of each of their flames as the wagons took the crop away.
We watched the new candles creep up out of the earth.
We never kept any candles for ourselves. In our home, the shadows didn’t move; our rooms were window bright with the farm’s glow. It was steady. It rested on us. I pushed my bed into the light and crept round the shade. When my mother combed wax from my hair, she told me how the harvest men carried the crops onto ships. The sails were taken down and candles crammed upon the masts. The ships lit the black seas, slow sailing with wax and wind.
My candles were waist high. I hid among them. When my mother called me, my name mingled with flame smells. She showed me how to clear the wax drips from the ground to make the crop grow faster. When she wasn’t looking, I pressed them into the earth. I wanted to slow my candles down. My fingernails clogged. I picked the wax out with her comb. When she caught me, she cut down the smallest candle and made me carry it as she led me up narrow paths. She talked but I only listened to my footsteps. I tried to push my hands into the wax. On the hilltop, she pointed at the black shapes of cities. The towers and walls were edged with candlelight smudge. I didn’t want to look. The windows were like star creep.
She said the dark was full of things we couldn’t see, and without our candles the cities would become just another piece of the blackness. I wanted our crop to grow over the plains and roads, the world to be farm bright. I needed to plant my candle on the hilltop. I scratched at the earth; it felt sky hard. She knelt by me and said she’d do it instead. I could hear her hands becoming sore. After we planted it, I tried to breathe in its glow to keep part of it with me. She said it might not grow tall in the hard earth. When we reached home, I looked for its glimmer in the black sweeps.
I didn’t go back to the hilltop. My crop grew. I stood on the road edge as the wagons took it away. The darkness was heavy. I bit the wax off my sleeve and tried to guess which of my candles it was from.
She said the dark was full of things we couldn’t see, and without our candles the cities would become just another piece of the blackness.
I grew more crops. Many harvests passed. I led the harvest men while my mother watched. She stayed by the house. I put a chair in the first field so she could be warm. I sat on the ground by her and we gazed at the flames. We didn’t talk about the black stretches in the fields where the candles had gone out. I wondered if she could still see that far. I counted the dead candles, but didn’t cut them down. The harvest men came with fewer wagons. They said the crop was only for the cities now.
My mother stayed inside under the window glow. I picked out the reddest embers, took them to her, and told her the dead candles were fire bright. As she turned the embers in her fingers, she said our crop would grow tall. I didn’t tell her half the farm had gone black. I slept in a chair by her bed. She held on to the embers. She told me she once saw the candle ships when she was a child. Her hands had grown old.
After she’d gone, I crouched among the dead candles and remembered. I cleared the wax drips from the ground and pretended it was my first crop. The harvests shrank. All of my mother’s fields became black. They smelled of ash. When I walked them, I heard wax crumbling beneath my feet.
Across the darkness, I saw a low star. I remembered the candle we planted up on the hill. My feet slipped as I climbed the slopes. When I reached the top, it was warm with faint golden light. The candle was still small. I stared out into the blackness, seeking the city shapes my mother had shown me. But there was only the dark.
I cut down the last candle and carried it home. I put it in my mother’s room. I sat with it until it went out.
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her best friend is a dog who can count. Her stories can also be read at Molotov Cocktail, Quantum Fairy Tales, Rose Red Review, and elsewhere.
Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk.