Tallis Steelyard. One of my favourite story tellers tells a tale.
A group of us were sitting in the Misanthropes, sharing a bottle, pondering nothing much and talking in a desultory manner about verse. It was then that Dallin Ergold came in. He sat at the table and was told off sternly for not arriving with a bottle. He gestured to the bar and one was brought over, and as we drank it, we listened as he elucidated his predicament.
He had been inspired to write a verse based on a candle. But was trapped, he hung between two allegories, neither of which satisfied. To be fair I could see his point. I rarely buy candle. In summer, if I’m that late to bed, I’ll undress by the light of the false dawn seeping through the cabin windows. In winter what is the point of having light to work by when penury ensures you cannot afford fuel for the stove.
But yes, we do use candles, but we don’t buy candles. When I’m working for a patron, the housekeeper will give me the short stubs they have left that are too short for their holders. I’ll float them on salt water to keep them burning longer. But a new candle is a luxury, an indulgence. How much work could I get done if I wasn’t constantly watching the burning stub out of the corner of my eye, wondering how long I have left?
Indeed I sometimes wonder, what if I stopped fussing and just let it burn down. Do I waste more light with my fretting than I gain through my increasingly desperate expedients?
But then you have the sheer beauty of the candle. The glory of its light. The gallant way it drives back the shadows and creates a limpid pool of radiance. A challenge cast into the teeth of the darkness which reels back, stunned.
But then there is the other allegory. Our life as a candle flame. Brief, flickering, soon extinguished. Some manage to live their life down to the last pathetic stub, but is it worth it? Others are snatched from us when there must be plenty of candle left. Be they the bully whose thuggish comrades mourn his passing, recognising that death is the purpose of every man. Or perhaps they are the wealthier type, the committee thug, who regards reducing fellow committee members to tears as just another tactic. His acquaintances, his colleagues and competitors, stand aghast. “But he was so young.” “Barely over fifty.” “It’s no age.” Unfortunately the words, “I am entitled, I have rights,” lack conviction when they linger on the lips of a corpse.
But Dallin Ergold set us to talking, names were mentioned. What about young Spar. It’s true there have been better poets, but few lived as a poet should. His candle was burning at both ends, and probably from the middle as well. He even died poetically, a woman had been assaulted in the street, and knife in hand he stood over her, taking down her three assailants, slaying them even though he took his mortal wound doing so.
But then there is old Muncher Dree. A more miserable wight you’ll never meet, his candle has given off more smoke than flame for thirty years, yet he still lingers on like the aftertaste of indigestion to remind everybody that life is a serious and wretched business.
But then somebody remembered Widow Morpeth. She’s laid out more folk for the dead boat than anybody else I know. The families all send for the widow. She will chat tenderly to the deceased, bring them back what dignity she can, and then wrap them in the shroud with the tenderness of a mother dressing her new baby. She cannot have much candle left but her flame burns bright and clear.
Eventually people started to drift away and only I was left. I picked up a discarded bill and wrote on the back, then placed it on the table, held down by an empty bottle.