Candles on a Hill
After the fire we counted our dead as one by one they were carted away. Some took extras. No one wanted to leave a body unclaimed, no matter how charred. The Wellingtons took a spare arm, just in case. Their father numbered among the missing, so it only seemed right to have something to bury.
The rubble heaps were another matter. Everyone claimed ignorance, but in the mornings we found fresh alters piled high and topped with candles burned down to bubbling crusts of wax. They dappled the hills at night like stars that had crashed to earth, but no one knew who lit them, or so we all claimed.
When the smoke first came, when it felt like summer blazing on my arms from the next room, I shut myself up in the only cold place I knew, and I hid in the refrigerator until someone heard me crying and knocked on the door and I answered, “Callahan residence, who may I ask is speaking?” because they knocked twice and it made me giggle even though the riddle didn’t have an answer. “Douglas, are you in there?” “Yessir,” I said and it opened. That’s when I learned I was the only one left. That’s when I stood guard at the burnt door jambs even though (and maybe because) there wasn’t a house left to guard. But I knew who to bury. Styx pointed them out. Styx was never wrong.
Styx walked me to the courtyard where people walked every day. When we got there they talked but not to me. I didn’t see where it mattered. No one knew who started the fires, Styx explained, and that’s how come everyone walked there every day. They were figuring things out.
“That’s just how some people grieve, Douglas Callahan.” When he used both my names, I knew he was saying grown up things. It made me a little proud and a little scared and mostly I knew I was a man, even if only Styx and me thought so.
Three days they went on with it, and we stole food from the grocery, and we slept in ashes, and we dreamed of smoke. Then one day, on the fourth day, we stopped. What I mean is everyone stopped.
“They’ve spent their peace,” Styx explained.
“What happens now?”
“Time to build things. Things always got to be built, Douglas Callahan. Even when there ain’t fires. But first we bury those that ain’t gonna be building no more.”
I’d never buried anyone. “How?” I wanted to ask. But I didn’t.
Judge Mayor stood on the steps and all fell silent.
“Dean Koontz has perished in the fire,” he began. “And all questions end in him. We have our justice.” With raised fist and voice he declared it, but no one looked comforted.
“I thought that was grieving,” I whispered.
“It’s what they thought, but you should know, and this is a life lesson so remember it. You should know, sometimes what us grownups think and what is true don’t match. What I mean is they aren’t always the same.”
“Oh, could be a dozen reasons, but I think mainly it’s ’cause no one, not a one really knows what they need in the end, so everyone just goes about settlin’ for what they think they want instead.”
Once I wanted a toy sailboat but I got a bicycle instead. It was kind of like that.
“It’s time now to honor the dead.” Mrs. Mayor had a quivering voice and a halo of hair poofed around her ears. Her eyes were the very color of a storm cloud. “We march at sundown.”
I tugged on his shirt sleeve, but all he could say was, “I’ll be there, sho’. You know I will.”
And true enough, he was.
The street glowed orange wherever the light hit, and long shadows filled the spaces where it did not. The caskets cast the longest shadows. They piled the caskets along the road, tall stacks for families, shorter boxes for children, some like shoe boxes. Those didn’t cast shadows, except in men’s faces as they passed. I had three, the smallest for my baby sister ‘Etta. Henrietta, after my father.
Legion, they whispered marching towards the setting sun. At the sound of footsteps, Mrs. Mariner came to the curb from across the way. Her white dress and veil flapped in the breeze. She rested ancient hands on the rough wood box and released a sigh that carried on the wind like a howl.
Styx tossed Ma and Pa over his shoulders and I carried ‘Etta behind like in follow the leader. I whispered to her how you play because she was little and never played yet and now never would. Styx called it the final walk and we walked into the sunset letting the orange light lead us. We walked until the orange light turned red and the red light turned purple and the purple light turned into a pin prick on the horizon and everything faded to black and that was how we finally knew it was time to stop and sing our lullabies. ‘Etta would sleep in her forever home.
Mrs. Mariner lay down on top of Mr. Mariner And her white dress glowed in the moonlight. She will stay there, says Styx, because that’s what you do when you’re in love. And sure enough the white dresses of a hundred women dotted the hillside, glowing in the moonlight as it rose into the sky. Their bodies rested on the shadows of black wooden boxes and never moved again. Suddenly we knew who lit the candles that dappled the hills every night, and knowing that we knew that they would never be lit again.