ONLY A CANDLE
I am only a candle alone on a table
My light is small, my speech only a glow
I am short-lived, yet with my flame
I have seen much, many secrets I hold.
I have seen lovers ignoring my flame
Seeing only the glow in each others’ eyes
Lovers to be united into one, making promises
Willing to spend their lives in happy consequence.
Teenage lovers who know not how time changes
Yet happy are they in their simple love
Tearful lovers with ruts in the road
Trying to love in spite of conquering confusion
Their smiles, breaths and tears are caught in my glow
And now I am taken away, another is put in my place
My glow is worn, my flame is at an end, my experience is of no use or comfort
If only I could relive to learn more of the beings in whose world I burned
For their precious words were but theirs and mine.
Be careful what you ask
Or you may get it
Be sure of what you want
In your heart
Be careful what you yearn for
The dreams and plans you make
The wishes that you ask for
You may have to take.
They told me to look for a guide in Liwa, but it was bad advice. A crescent-shaped village huddling against the gravity of the deepest desert, red dunes sweeping like tidal waves toward a forlorn shore, it did not house adventurers, but thin families that kept to their doorways. Only one man, Rashad, was foolish enough to take money from the white man in exchange for direction across the Sand Sea.
A woman covered in a shapeless, grey abaya, only dark eyes showing, came to see him off. She did not spend a glance on me, but placed her head close to his and spoke in hushed tones for a long time. I asked him later who she was, and he said it was his mother giving bad advice, advice he ignored.
I had intended to fly, but Rashad warned that the king would not speak with me unless we crossed the desert on foot. Perhaps that explained why no one else would take my money. I climbed a tall dune and called the office to clear my schedule. “Enjoying yourself then, sir?” asked Lyssa.
“Time of my life.”
They could break through any firewall, but I hoped a casual search would place me in Iceland, exploring hot water springs, perhaps.
Rashad and I spoke little in the first few days. With every footstep, the camel's toes spread, conforming to ripples in the sand. Designed by God or evolution for this very place, they were stately here, at state on this impossible earth, and yet they obeyed Rashad. My own footsteps sank. I would walk many more miles than we traveled by the time we reached Dubai.
He found a filthy depression beneath a few, bent trees behind a dune like every other dune, and cleared it of half-rotten palm fronds. In bare feet, he threw out heaps of sand with an old chunk of plywood he carried in a pack until he splashed into a wet pit. On my stomach, I thrust my bottle into the murk to emerge with a briny mud that I swallowed with difficulty. Rashad watched me and waited, but I did not spit the stuff up.
“Why this journey, Banker?” he asked.
“I'm on vacation.”
I meant it as a joke, but it's hard to smile with a belly full of salt-water. He got it, though, showing gritty teeth, not a laugh. “We are some silly men, you and I, no? Why do you seek that king?”
“I didn't say I wanted any king. I said wanted to go to Dubai.”
“You go to Dubai, you either seek the King or you avoid him. You won't be much good at avoiding him, I think.”
“I suppose I seek the King, then. He may know something.”
I liked Rashad. I liked that he offered me brine and drank none himself. The camels were busy slurping it up on their knees. We'd been drinking their milk the entire trip, milk that bore no hint of salt. I liked passing tests. I'd been passing tests my entire life.
“My sister came here against my will,” I told him. “She was treasure-seeking. A little fool, but my sister nevertheless. Do you have a sister?”
He showed his gritty teeth again. “My sister is the opposite. She is like you, perhaps, watching out for me and failing.”
My expression, I think, revealed nothing, but his relationship was familiar to me. “She disappeared in Dubai. Your king may know of her.”
“Not my king. What will you offer him in return? Not gold, I hope.”
“Why not gold? All men love gold.”
“He is king. What need has he of gold?”
This word, king, was tiring me. I snorted at it, but supposed there had never been much difference between kings and bandits anyway. “I have something more valuable than gold: I know his future.”
“A prophecy,” nodded Rashad as if prophecies were to be expected. What a child my guide was, what a relic, speaking of kings and prophecies. I had information because I knew the powerful, the gods, if you like, but this was not prophecy: it was fact.
Even as I scoffed at him, though, I knew I was entirely in Rashad's hands. The sand had destroyed my implant two nights ago, so my carefully prepared com-sat connection was useless. Awash in a sand sea, I could not survive without his knowledge and his camels. The sand crept into everything: my boots, my skin, the lip of my water bottle. With the pads of my middle fingers, I brushed sand from my eye lids. It was a forsaken land, deserving of everything coming to it. I shook my head. What a thing to think.
Rashad did not mind the sand. It was part of his face, part of his beard, like a crust of burned skin. He turned to the camels as they rested on their knees, muttering to them in his low tongue.
Obviously, no one intended for Maktoum to know of his fate, but my wayward sister had forced my hand. My messages were encrypted but if I fell asleep in my own home, leaving my computer open, shouldn't I expect that she would peek? It was a game to her, still, to see what she could steal from her brother.
“To see it now,” she breathed, “in all its glory, before your hounds get in.” She had not understood the full import of what she read. “It's a treasure.”
“The treasures are long gone,” I assured her, but as she failed to understand the message, so I failed to understand the intensity of her vision. It was always this way with us: I did my best to protect her from her own calamitous adventures, but she never listened. It was only after she disappeared that I discovered where she had gone.
One does not betray men like my masters, the perfect elite, men who had escaped the restrictions of frontiers, nationality, allegiance, even gravity itself, like angels, without consequence. We can hope, and we can lay clean plans, but in the end, mustn't I save my fool sister first?
“Rashad,” I called. He was far ahead of me, leading Nis'waa, the white-legged camel, up toward a pass in the blue dunes, moonlit. I did not call loudly, but knew, by now, that sound carried well in this silent void. “After Dubai, get your family. Move fast. You must cross the sea into Iran.” He did not turn or acknowledge me in any way. “I will give you the money to do it.”
We kept trudging through the cooling sands, up a dune, and down, curving toward harder sands in the basins when possible, but I think he let me gain on him, little by little. We had been traveling together eight days, and I understood that I owed him more than the grubby fee I had promised back in Liwa; I owed him the loyalty of a friend, or at least of another human being. “Do you speak any Persian?” I asked, but he gave no reply. “It doesn't matter; they all speak English there. Head north if you don't like it there, but I think you will. It's better land, more water.”
“What is this nonsense, you speak of, Banker?” he asked, suddenly stopping.
“You can't stay here. It's not safe.”
“Pick up my family? Travel to Iran!” He was mocking me, angrily. “Better land!”
“I know what is coming, Rashad.”
“Yes, my prophecy, if you like.”
“If you like,” he mimicked again. “This is my home, not yours. I am the master here, not your money. Do not give me direction.”
“It's not direction, it's advice. This land will be ruined.”
“It is not already?” he laughed, stretching his arms to the barren dunes, the salt washes.
“This place is beautiful,” I told him, in all honesty. “But it will not be here in June.”
“What man would want this land, Banker?” he asked. “You remind me of my mother.”
And he of my sister.
We did not speak of it again for the rest of the night, nor the next day. The sand became paler as we approached the coast. Washed of its iron, it only glared weakly, like a sick man turning yellow.
The next morning, a half-hour to sun up, we spotted the first towers rising iron-black and glass-blue above the wavering horizon. I thought it might be my last chance to speak to him.
“Have you thought about what I said?”
Rashad turned from Nis'waa's udder with a wooden bowl of steaming milk and offered it to me. As I drank, he said, “Mr. Banker, I like you. You have never complained in all these days. But this is my home. Here, I am--.” He smiled as I handed the bowl back to him, half-full. “Here, I am captain. What would I be in another land?”
“You must leave, Rashad,” I begged. “You cannot know what is coming.”
“You cannot alter my course. Do not ask me again, please.”
I'd heard all of this before. I put my teeth together and turned back to the towers, wondering which one is my sister in?
Later, the sun like an ax on the back of my neck, we stood among the ruins, the dunes a dozen stories high, pressed against the glass as if curious, peering down into the guts of these old towers.
“Which one does this king live in?” There were hundreds of these skyscrapers, maybe more, some collapsed, but most still standing, like the legs of giants wading in an ocher sea.
Rashad spit on a window, cleaned it with a ragged elbow, and peered in. “Near the river, I think,” he said, and I realized that he was going to be less and less useful to me from here.
The river was no such thing. It was an inlet from the Persian Gulf, the water intense with salt and warm as urine. Still, in the eastern light, the buildings caught reflections off the water and gleamed like sapphires. It was easy to imagine treasures within them, buried beneath the sand, or trapped on floors high, high above. I could imagine my sister imagining. She hated how she needed my money, and forever sought ways to free herself from it.
In an instant, we were surrounded. One second, we were alone; the next, twenty-five bearded men on horses and camels emerged around us, armed with a pitted collection of blades and guns. Rashad dropped immediately to his knees in the hot sand, pulling at my hip to do the same. I followed his lead, but was craning my neck, assessing these men in their filthy robes, wondering how far my information would take me.
One fellow with a spiky beard and a robe that might have been white once, dropped from his nag and strode toward us aggressively. I was wondering if that old mass-driver he was swinging around could possibly still shoot when Rashad knocked me in the back of my head, hissing, “don't meet his eyes.” This was their king, then, Maktoum.
I stared at his booted feet, gathering my offer, the trade I had come to make: word of his future for word of my sister. His robe, I realized, this close, was silk, trimmed in black.
He snarled and barked in Arabic at Rashad who responded soothingly. I thought my guide was very smooth, but the king suddenly stepped forward, crushing Rashad's hand with the heel of his boot.
“Stop,” I said in English, and touched the king's boot. Somehow I felt myself back in my master's offices in Zurich or New York, watching them exert just this power, the power of a king to crush a hand with impunity.
Rashad must have impressed him, however, for he did not have me killed. He lifted the foot from Rashad's hand and used it to kick my shoulder, turning me on my back. I took this as permission to look him in the face.
“What prophecy?” he asked in a finely accented Queen's English.
“I know your future,” I sputtered.
He lifted his old gun, laying it across his shoulder. “Tell it.”
“I'll trade it. I'll tell you your future for my sister. She came here.”
“Stealing from me, no doubt.”
“I don't know. Perhaps yes, from your endless vaults,” I gestured with both arms at the mighty ruins around us. Back on my knees now, I began to feel my power: I knew all about groveling and flattery. “I know your future. Will you trade for it?”
The king planted his feet in the shifting earth before me and pushed a sand-calloused hand into my hair. He pushed through my hair over and over, clearing ten days' of filth from my scalp until he saw: I have red hair like my sister.
“I know your sister. I know where she is.”
“I thought this was a trade.”
“They're going to terraform Dubai. They're going to terraform the whole peninsula.”
The king's eyes brightened. “Are they going to turn it green?” In that simple question, I saw the king as a child; I saw the desire that had lighted his entire journey from impetuous, adventurous youth to disillusioned king: the desire to see his land rich with green life. But not even my masters had that kind of power.
“They're going to wipe it into the sea. It limits shipping and water circulation. They'll use the sand for beaches.”
“We have beaches.”
“Your water's too hot for beaches. It can't circulate with the ocean.”
“And how do I stop it?”
This surprised me. “Stop it? You can't. We're not talking about some war, some national interest. It's the Bank. You can leave, but they don't want you to. You'll only upset some other place. I'm taking a great risk in telling you all of this.”
The king sat on his heels suddenly and squinted up at the sun. “So it is with prophecies,” he said.
“And my sister?”
He reached behind him, tugging at something on his belt, then handed me a ragged mass of hair, stiff and black. He rubbed the hair with a thumb until the red began to show.
“When can I see her?” I asked, uncomprehending.
“You are seeing her.”
All of her, all her angry romanticism, her rangy dreams, her wide-mouthed laugh, my baby sister, all contained here in a handful of hair.
“Was it so awful, what she stole?”
“It's not what she stole. She stole. The desert is unforgiving.”
Behind us, the way we came, a storm was brewing, a stinging darkness rising above the dunes like a wave, ready to engulf the world.
“Your fire is dying.”
“The fire and I have much in common. You will not need your weapon. As you can see, it has already done its work.”
He did not even consider holstering his weapon. Who knew what creatures might be sulking among the trees?
“You should not have built the fire. I’d have never found you without it.”
"I needed you to find me. You have a medkit. I will die if you do not use it to repair my wound."
"I had hoped to kill you with that shot, not just wound you. Why would I save you now? Use your magic to save you."
"My magic, as you call it, cannot do that. It is a passive thing, and no threat to you or anyone."
"Magic goes against the will of God! It is a violation of the laws of His nature!"
"Then why has He given it to us? It is a natural feature of our world."
"Then you all should have stayed there, Blake."
"Why should we not have the same freedom of the galaxy? Why can't you have just left us alone?" The shouted response ended in a paroxysm of coughing while hands already wetly red pressed against the lower abdomen in an attempt to staunch the blood that spread from a gaping hole in the material and the flesh beneath it. Blake sat on the ground, back slumped against one of the massive trees that surrounded the tiny clearing.
"Because you are all an abomination!"
"Well, Warden, now you are trapped here, with this so-called abomination, in Everdark."
"Everdark! That is a myth!"
"Obviously not, since we are here. Sunlight has not touched ground level in this forest for thousands of years. I chose this place for our final meeting, but I underestimated your marksmanship. So it is the magic now that will keep us both alive or allow us both to die. Which it will do is up to you. Heal my wound and we can both live. It is your choice."
"That is an easy choice. I will live; you will die."
"That is not an option. But you must ch-choose quickly. I am bleeding to death. I have gone into shock and it will soon be too late. If it becomes too late for me, it will be too late for you."
"If you want my help you will explain how your magic will either save us or kill us."
"I will show you. Feed the fire. Build it up high...that's right, fuel it and stoke it as best you can."
"It's not growing...it just ignores the wood and continues to die."
"That is because I continue to die. That is the magic. We are connected. I started the fire so it is dependent on me for its life. If I die, it dies. And if it dies, you will die shortly thereafter."
"I have my weapon, and my torch, and the battery is fresh."
"That won't help you. It is only the fire that keeps them at bay."
"The eaters. Listen! You can hear their breathing. They are all around us."
He strained to hear, and did.
"Okay, so they're out there. Like most animals, they will stay away from the light."
"Shine your torch into the dark around us...see them?"
"Yes. They are there. They look like giant muskrats."
"Did their eyes reflect the light?"
"Huh! No, they didn't."
"They have none to reflect. They evolved here, in Everdark. They func...function by hearing and smell and touch. They know fire and fear it, like wild animals everywhere, but they know it by the sound and the smell and the heat. Your torch has none of those things. When the fire goes out they will come in to our little circle here and have their meal."
"If I heal you, it will only be to kill you later. But for my own sake, I will save your life...for now." Warden finally took the medkit from his belt and knelt by Blake. He opened the kit, but then hesitated.
"I find the very thought of touching you to be repugnant, and the idea of saving your life even more so."
"I had hoped you would sh-show...show mercy...for the sake of mercy."
"Because you are a female? Did you think that would make a difference?"
"No. I hoped you would treat me...because...both civilized intelligent beings...separated by misunderstanding."
"There is no misunderstanding. Magic is unnatural and cursed and we will not rest until the universe is cleansed of it, and you."
"Never mind then. It is...is now too late. You waited too long. They smell the blood. They will not wait long."
"No! Not too late!" Warden was suddenly full of careful motion. He expertly pressed the internal bandage into the wound, and then the external bandage over it.
Blake's breathing was barely perceptible.
"Here, stay awake now! I have staunched the flow of blood. I have closed the wound."
He shook her, gently at first, then with more urgency.
"Wake up and renew the fire! Wake, wake! The fire is down to a last flame! Please, please rekindle the fire."
He drew his weapon and fired into the trees, hoping to frighten the animals away. There was a bestial cry of pain. He directed his torch there, to see an eater on its side. But the others kept their attention on the two in the small clearing. He could see their eyeless faces, their small alert ears, their flared nostrils. And their teeth.
He shook her again. "I am sorry I did not...please, awake and help me!"
Blake's heart pumped one final time.
The last finger of flame trembled and died. Warden directed his torch into the forest and fired his weapon at the animals until it was empty.
He could not kill them all.
Lynn Assimacopoulous learned to write at 5 years old and has enjoyed it ever since. She graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Nursing with a BSN degree and has spent over 30 years as a working nurse with the Red Cross, Long Term Care, the Intensive Care Unit, Home Care as well as serving as editor of several Nursing newsletters. Lynn has published several articles in Nursing Journals. Since 2000, she has written two non-fiction books entitled “I Thought There Was a Road There” (2000) and “Separated Lives” (2015) and contributed various poems to a book called “Follow the Piper” (2011). Her hobbies have been rock hunting and genealogy.