Burning Possession of Life
I had never travelled much in life, being reluctant to stray too far from my home and possessions. Instead I spent much of my time, despite constant ill-health, amassing a large fortune while becoming ever more fearful of losing it.
I owned a candle-making business, which ironically was renowned in our ancient town for having the least well-lit premises - my frugal nature forbidding me to waste resources on the comforts of this world. Indeed, my doctor had warned me several times to enjoy life more - to be open and present to its delights. I always found such comments uncomfortable, yet a nightmare soon befell me confirming such criticisms.
It began in a tumultuous struggle with illness, out of which I found myself acquiring the companionship of, or perhaps to state it more accurately, becoming coupled with, an unwholesome phantom guide. A figure who, by supernatural means had emerged from the depths of my fever to take on spectral form - suspended in my awareness somewhere between hallucinations of the mind and bodily pain. From this hazy position the thing began to colonise a stable place in my perceptions, and soon made clear it had no intention to leave.
Not long after his arrival in my awareness, this gruesome being gruffly informed me of a system of caves far underground that contained millions of lit candles - each one representing a soul above ground. Their significance being that the more time a person had left in this world, the more wax remained to the body of their candle.
Several times this intruding shadow-ghoul offered to show me the candle denoting my life. I remained uneasy at this proposition, feeling the only reason it should be shown me was if there were a problem. Consequently, I declined his proposition every time it arose. However, each repetition of the proposal shaped in me a deeper curiosity, despite bitter doubts. Until eventually an inquisitiveness took command of me and I found words of consent slip past my lips.
Setting off later that day, having procured the hire of an inexpensive carriage, anxieties began to grow within me. Never having being adventurous or curious about other places, I hadn't before travelled beyond the town's walls. To me, any excursion was laborious and frightening, as ill health had dissuaded me from most exploits. Yet here I was on a journey that went far beyond the familiar.
For the duration of the trip my thoughts sought escape from the tedium and discomfort of travel - often envisioning brightly lit, stanchion-like candles attended by bold flames and illuminating a grand cavern. However, beneath these day-dreams rumbled forebodings of a sputtering flame and a death-laden discovery.
After a seemingly endless journey, myself and my phantom-guide arrived at our destination beneath a dusky sky. Stopping at the base of a mountain I saw an opening from which light emanated - its brightness just exceeding that of the evening glow. My gruesome escort indicated I should follow him into this entrance.
Inside there was a steeply descending, almost well-like passageway leading under the mountain, while on the near side of this steep mine were the most precipitous stairs I had ever seen in my life. The steps appeared to continue downward without visible end, which was disquieting, though the stairwell emanated an enticing and warm golden light.
My every move down the stairwell was burdened with vertiginous unsteadiness. After descending for what must have been more than an hour, the monotony of the steps, with their perpetually recurring geometry, became blinding in their repetitiveness. I began to feel I was hallucinating their existence - each stair morphing into a fluid image of light and shade - adding to an already delirious sense of fatigue and poor health. When we finally reached the bottom I felt released from this giddy confusion of the senses, and realised for the first time a fondness for horizontal surfaces.
It was here that we seemed to enter the caves proper, surrounded by a constant, yellow-orange glow like that of a perfect sunset. Upon every wall of every corridor and in every room were shelves and surfaces supporting lit candles. I remembered noting to myself that there was enough wax in just a single room to sustain my business for a month.
I also noted the extent to which each candle was different - obviously being of unique invention, whilst somehow remaining simply a candle. Each of the ledges and shelves were also unique, as was each room. Furthermore, the flame of each candle seemed to burn with a peculiar individuality, somehow distinctive in its size, character, shape and intensity.
Looking ahead and behind me, I noticed that each of these flames was burning exactly vertically, indicating that there was no air movement in this cave - not even in the wake of our passing. Though in a more detailed observation I noticed that flames directly to the side of us gently leaned away. Through observation I deduced that they were leaning away only from the beast escorting me - the flames seeming to fear his presence and tilt from him.
We walked for some time through many corridors and rooms, all filled with a hypnotic mellow light and a heavy, waxy smell. On occasion along our way I would see a candle that was positioned horizontally on its mid-point, perilously balanced upon a protruding nail and lit at both ends. I asked my deformed leader what this meant.
"Some lives are not content with simply being, and become restless. It's a precarious existence," said the brute indifferently, his every word invading the interior of my being. In these caves it seemed his voice felt different, cutting easily through the heavy air, and also through me.
He then pointed at the candle I'd asked about, and immediately it slipped from its nail, the fall extinguishing its light. Subsequently a few of the flames nearby inclined towards this fallen life, as if leaning over to take a last look, but they soon resumed their upright position, though their radiance seemed a little dimmed.
"Did you do that?" I asked anxiously, and became suddenly aware that my voice echoed in these caves, whereas his did not.
"Try not to think your cause-and-effect explanations," he stated with a tone of condemnation.
"But that was someone's life." I said, and immediately knew he wasn't listening. I wondered to myself if I had caused that death - after all I had stopped to ask after it. The question persisted in my mind for a fair distance, but my thoughts soon returned to concerns for my own mortality.
For a long time we walked through rooms and corridors in an approximately straight line. So it was that when we began turning corners I received the sense that we were nearing our destination, and before I'd had time to fully absorb the idea that we may be reaching our dark objective, my ghoulish-master stopped. Standing at the entrance to what appeared to be just another medium-sized room full of shelves and candles, he pointed his brutish and gnarled finger at a ledge.
"That is your candle." His raspy, echoless voice announced.
I glanced along the indicated sill, upon which about a dozen candles stood. Immediately I supposed mine to be the tallest and fattest one there, and briefly felt relieved by this - except that my cohort's stern silence put my sense of relief in doubt. I began to wonder why he'd so laboriously brought me here - surely not to calmly point out a perfectly healthy candle.
Turning to look at him again, I began to follow the line of his finger more closely. In doing so I became aware that he was pointing toward the near end of the ledge where lay a tiny, barely flickering candle. I checked the position of his finger again, hoping I'd been mistaken - but terror gripped me as I grew sure this insignificant remnant signified my life.
Troubled thoughts vacillated in my mind - mirroring the sputtering desperation of my candle's light. My future telescoped in my estimations from death being a remote concern, to wondering what would be the last image I perceived. All previous thoughts of finishing the extension on my home, or implementing wage cuts, now looked inaccessible - as did my safety deposit box full of the riches it seemed now I would never spend.
Desperate, I sought a way to keep my candle alight, and thinking quick I replied to the fiend's indicating gesture with a feigned indifference, to simply say, "oh," as if it mattered little to me what condition the candle was in. I then asked curiously, "what does it mean if a candle has fallen over and is leaning against another one?"
"It's a mistake, these candles aren't to do that."
"Well, I saw one like that in the other room. On the shelf at the back." I stated with calm conviction.
He immediately left the room to attend to the supposedly fallen candle, while I swiftly picked up mine. My eyes darted about the room, looking for any wax to put beneath my dying flame.
Glancing at the other lit candles, I thought briefly I might snap a long one in half and put the lower half under mine, or even extinguish one and put my own flame on top. Just then I spotted a pile of unlit candles in the corner, each with slightly different proportions. I hurriedly chose one that seemed to me the largest, and gently placed my moments-worth of flame on top. Carefully aligning the candles together, I noticed their diameters were exactly the same, and both had rather broad, stodgy wicks.
The monster re-entered the room just as I'd finished my subterfuge. The beast glanced around the room, not seeming to find anything amiss, then his intimidating voice pierced the atmosphere, "I see you've chosen a similar incarnation to your last one. You're not very adventurous."
"What do you mean?"
"This was an important juncture in your existence. You've chosen your next incarnation. You had the opportunity to select a new path, but you prefer more of the same. I usually give people the choice, then transfer the flame myself. You've saved me some time," said the fiend, then led me from the room. I glanced back at my candle - comforted yet melancholy to see the mass of wax there.
I was led a small distance, and at the end of a darkened corridor was told to stop by a large hole in the ground. The monster gestured me to look inside - wherein I saw a blackness of absolute and incomprehensible density. As I stood on the void's precipice, I pondered opportunities in life refused out of fear, and possibilities that passed due to anxious attachments to material things. Then I reflected that even in my very last choice I had opted for quantity over quality - still believing the candle more important than the light it gives.
Just then I felt the energy collapse from my body, and gravity cease.