Thursday 21 November 2013

The Candleheart Boy

[I realise it's been a while since I last posted a proper story.  Regular readers (what's an over-optimistic plural among friends?) will be glad to know that I haven't been wasting my time and have in fact managed to track down some further letters from Otherwhile's least intellectually able ambassador, Lemnick of Carysfort, to the King of Shende.  I've no doubt you're as eager to learn what he has to say as am I, so let's to it (skipping over the two preliminary pages which are occupied chiefly with various praises of Shende's "most Munificent and Sagacious of Rulers".]

'... I was, as your High Wondrance1 will doubtless have Anticipated, most especially gratified by the interest Your Serenissitude2 shewed3 in the little Otherwan Tales I was able to most humbly impart in my previous missives ... [omitted here several paragraphs of rather oleaginous humility] ... As a Result I have been pleased to take the liberty of seeking out further such Stories and Yarns whilst residing in this land.  In this regard I have been most grateful for the assistance of my good friend Lyre Merrum, who directed me to one Granddam Tetch, his childhood Nurse.  This good lady, though somewhat wandering of Mind and, as it proved when I sate myself too close, of hand, has proved to be a very Fount of Tales, the first of which I will take the great Honour of imparting forthwith.

'Long ago and far from here, there lived a woman who had lost a daughter to war, a son to the Murrain, three children yet to famine and ill-fortune and beside all a husband to a high cliff path and a misplaced step.  And so the woman was left all alone with a crumbling house and a barren strip of land and an aged goat to tend.  And in her loneliness the woman craved a child as winter trees crave the summer's sun.

One spring day the woman was making her way to market when she came upon a walnut-faced man seated cross-legged against the bole of an old oak, carving away at a fallen branch.  So intent upon his task was the man's expression and so eager was his working that the woman stopped to watch him, utterly entranced.  And as she watched, and as the day moved from morning towards afternoon and into dusk, she saw emerging from the branch the shape of a small boy, perfect in every detail.  To the woman's surprise, the old man did not cease his sculpting when the wooden boy was formed. Instead he began to carve deep into the child's breast, making a deep hollow where his heart would have been. And then, just as the sun was readying itself to slip beneath the horizon, the old man reached into the pouch that lay beside his tools and withdrew a small, red candle, such as the woman had never seen before, which he placed inside the hollow.

And now the old man set about making a fire, turning to the kindling that lay ready beside him and bringing it into flame with steel and flint.  Now all this while the woman had not moved a step nor breathed a sigh, and yet, as the flame licked up from the fire and as she saw the deep red glow in the wooden boy's cheeks and the upward tilt to his lips and the trusting look in his eyes, she found a small, soft moan emerging from her lips.  At this sound, the man turned his face from from the fire and his small, dark eyes looked up at the woman.

Without saying anything, the man shuffled up from his place on the ground and carried the wooden boy to the woman and placed it in her arms.

"But", said the woman.

"Yours", said the man, "The child for which you wished".

The woman looked down at the lifeless lump of wood, confused.  And then a smile cracked the walnut shell of the old man's face and a spark lit in the depths of his eye.

"Fear not", he said, "for long ago I was taught a little of the Absented's word and I shall speak it to the boy".

And then he picked up a spill of wood from the fire and lit the candle that lay where the wooden boy's heart should have been.  And at the same time he brought his lips to the wooden boy's ear and whispered something.  And then the wind sighed and the leaves of the old oak shivered and the flame of the boy's candle heart flickered.  And then the boy opened his eyes.

"Mother", he said, looking up into the woman's eyes, which were wide and filled with tears.

"Child", she said and took the boy's hand in her own.

And then the wind stirred once more and the flame of the boy's candle heart flickered a moment and the boy trembled.

"The candle will not burn down", said the old man, "but the flame must be kept alive.  For, if it were to fail ..." And then he shook his head and looked down towards the ground.

The woman nodded and held the boy tight to her, shielding him from the wind.  And when she looked up from him, she and the boy were alone and the old man had disappeared into the gathering dark.  So the woman took the candleheart boy home.

That was a long and windless summer, such as the world used to have when it was still young, full of blue skies and bright suns and the sound of laughter.  And much of that laughter came from the candleheart boy and his mother, who found great joy in each other and, in doing so, found great joy in themselves.

Autumn came, as it almost always does, and loosed summer's grip upon the world.  Apples ripened, geese returned to the skies and fields, leaves began to redden and golden and brown.  And with it all came a new coolness in the air, so that the woman began to feel the first hint of chill in her bones and she called to the candleheart boy and sent him out into the forest to gather wood for the fire.  And so he set off amongst the trees, the candle that was his heart burning brightly, and began to gather up what he could from the forest floor, not stopping to thank the oaks and beech and hornbeam and ash for their bounty.

The boy spent much of the afternoon at his task and as he worked he whistled and skipped and told stories to himself and took no notice of the whispering in the trees as the wind began to rise, nor of the light touch of the first raindrops upon the autumn leaves, so that by the time he did look up the wind had risen high and the rain was falling fast.  And whether it was the wind, or the rain, or simply the strangeness of them to a child who had known only the calm warmth of a long, still summer, something there was that set the flame of the boy's candle heart flickering and sent him running home, his bundle of twigs and sticks from the forest floor quite forgotten.

Now when the woman saw him, his red cheeks pale, his lips turned down and his eyes full of fear, it was as if a wintry hand had reached deep within her and then tightened.  And when she saw how the candle that was her wooden boy's heart flickered and trembled, she was taken with a fear as deep as any know.

And now the woman took up the candleheart boy and sat him on her knee and cradled his wooden head in her hand and let the warmth of her own arms and body take the chill from his heart.  And as they sat, she saw the flame within the wooden boy's chest become still and bright once more and knew that all was as it should be.  And yet, the memory of fear's cold touch would not leave her, as how could it leave one who had lost so many in her time.  So it was that all that winter she kept her candleheart boy within the walls of her small home, safe from wind and rain and cold, while she trudged out into the forest for her wood. And for all the hardness of her work, she was happy and - safe within the walls of the woman's little hut - the candleheart boy was happy too.

And then the spring came and the sound of birds in the bright blue sky and the shimmering laughter of children playing on the green grass and the flame of the boy's candle heart leapt at the sound and he turned to the woman saying, "Mother, may I go out?"

And at this the woman said, "No".  For still the memory of her fear would not leave her so that when she thought of her smiling wooden boy going out into the world she pictured to herself a thousand-thousand dangers and saw in her mind the dimming of the candle's flame.  And for these reasons she kept the boy inside her home, where he worked and played as best he could, all the while keeping an eye upon the little window that looked out on sun and sky.

And now the woman saw a thing she had no wish to see, for even as the summer sun waxed stronger each day, so the flame of her boy's candle heart began to wane, its flame growing pale, its heat growing less.

"Get away from that window, good my child", she said, fearing that it was the sweet breeze that so troubled her wooden son's heart.  And then she drew up the shutters and blocked out the world, so that it could not harm her candleheart boy.  Yet each day her child grew paler and his flame darkened yet further.

"Does the breeze trouble you still?" she asked the candleheart boy, watching the flickering flame within him.

"I know only that my heart is troubled and grows weak", he said.

And now the old woman took up the little oaken chest that was all she had of her long-dead husband and took out from it all that was inside and told the candleheart boy to lie within.

"This will keep you safe", she said and at this the wooden child smiled and the woman kissed him and she closed up the lid of the chest and there the boy stayed, safe from all the world.  Each day the woman would sit by the chest and press her lips to the lock and ask how the candleheart boy fared and each day the boy would tell her he fared well.  But when she placed her eye to the lock she could see that the wooden child's candle heart was growing dimmer and she shivered and pulled her shawl close round her for the room felt suddenly cold.

At last there came a day when the little flame within the chest was so dim that the woman feared it would soon fade altogether.  Desperate, she ran from her home and set to digging a deep pit, into which she placed the chest that held the candleheart boy.

"Now, sweet dove, now will you be safe", she called to the child, her lips pressed to the lock of the chest.  And then she turned away and began to shovel the earth back into the pit, so that it might keep her child safe.  And when her work was done, she brought out the little three-legged stool from her hut and placed it by the mound that was the candleheart boy's new home and sat down.  And there, so they say, she stayed, sure at last that no harm could come to one she loved as the skies love the swallows.

What became of the woman, no one has ever told me, though there came a day when she sat no more by her child's home, just as sure as it is that The Absented has left us.  And what of the boy? Many years later, on a bright spring day, or so I've heard it said, a tiny green shoot emerged from the mound where the boy once lay buried.  And as the days and weeks and months went by the tiny shoot became a seedling and then a sapling and then a young tree, green-leafed and straight-limbed.  And more, they say, the very next year, that young tree produced a blossom that was scented like summer and which, when touched with flame would burn long and bright, banishing the darkness and bringing a little warmth to the heart.  And that, good Lyre, is the tale of the Candleheart Boy and that, good Lyre, is the tale of how the Candleblossom tree was born.'

1. Whether "Wondrance" is part of an official title or Lemnick is making up honorifics as he goes along is, frankly, anyone's guess here
2. No, scratch that, he clearly *is* making these things up as he goes along
3. Yes, he really did spell "showed" like that.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

A Birthday

Today is Robert Louis Stevenson's birthday, or at least it would have been were he alive, or, rather, it wouldn't have been because, marvellously, he gave his birthday away to a girl called Annie Idle who was very unhappy at having her birthday on Christmas Day.

RLS is at least partially responsible for the existence of Otherwhile Tales.  You can't read Kidnapped or Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a child (or adult) without getting a taste for tales of mystery and adventure and if I can manage to get one-thousandth of the thrills of any of those books into The Heart of the World, I'll be very satisfied indeed.

As well as raising a glass to the great Robert Louis, you might also want to pop here to download three of his tales for free, courtesy of The Association for Scottish Literary Studies.  Go on, it'll be worth it.