If I could take the fire out from the water,
I’d share a life and you’d share a life
If I could take the fire out from the water,
I’d take you where nobody loves you and
Nobody gives a damn
- “I’ll Believe in Anything,” Wolf Parade
Once upon a time, deep in the valley of the Manuella Mountains, there lied a now long forgotten town, Martir. Surrounded on all sides by the heights of jagged and snow capped peaks, a blanket of darkness covered the town, smothering it under the weight of perpetual shadow. Having not the slenderest of rays of light by which the colors of the village could be illuminated, the townspeople went about their days knowing none but the hues of gray that captured their village, and the shade of blue in which the sky was cast, for between the mountain tips lied a short expanse of the field of heavens. It was the one suggestion of beauty they had, and, craning their necks to gaze on it, they would wonder what else might be hidden from their dank and drab village.
They often prayed for more than just a glimpse of this beauty. They did not know for what it was that they prayed, having no words to describe it, but still they prayed for it. And then, one summer morning, the townspeople woke to find a fierce flame burning at the center of their town square. Its fire rolled in brilliant waves of red and yellow, and scattered a welcome warmth across the village.
No one knew from whence the fire had come, unheralded and unprecedented as it was, but the villagers gave praise to its sudden appearance nonetheless. For the first time since their ancestors came to Martir, the village sparkled with beauty and the people knew what colors had been hidden in the darkness: the red tile of the roofs, the white plaster of the walls, the green grass of the meadows, the blue tint of the water spring. They were all so crisp and dazzling, so awe-inspiring, that many of the villagers would spend hours staring at the same blade of grass, or a single roof tile, trying to determine the perfect word to name its particular shade of color.
But, as time passed, and familiarity replaced novelty, other, less savory, consequences of the flame’s power grew to plague the villagers. It was not long after that fateful summer morning that they began to complain about the increasingly intolerable heat. They sweated more in those days than they ever had before; and, even when they went to bed at night, exhausted by the day’s work, they would find their skin was red and hot, having been burned by the heat of the flame, and sleep was hard to find in the pain it brought.
And then came the inescapable ugliness. Without the cast of shadow under which their village had hidden for so many generations, the people found more and more that was imperfect: the houses were cracked and splattered with mud; the green grass faded in tufts of brown and unseemly weeds; the roofs hung unevenly; and the springs were coated in dirt. Everywhere they turned, some smudge on the beauty of their village made itself known; and even when they closed their eyes they found no reprieve, for the brilliance of the light had burned the unsettling images onto the insides of their eyelids.
With nowhere to hide from the fire’s touch, a deep melancholy fell upon the villagers, and many wished to return to the days of perpetual shadow. In their despair, they even tried to snuff the flame, but all in vain, for it was an eternal flame, and no force the villagers commanded was a match for eternity.
For years they lived under this malaise, until one day when a strange man appeared in the village square. No one knew who he was or why he had come, but still they congregated to greet him. He was a small man with a disproportionately large and aquiline nose. On his shoulders rested a forest green cloak that draped to his knees, and, when he spoke, he gestured with grand movements of his spindly arms. He never gave them a name, and the villagers were too wrapped in the majesty of his eloquence to think to interrupt him and ask for it, but he did pronounce a way. He told them he had come from a faraway land, one which had woken to find an eternal flame of its own, just like Martir, but that his village had devised a way by which the power of the light could be harnessed without sacrificing the colors of the world it made possible.
“Dig a hole in the earth,” he told them, “a hundred leagues at its deepest, and fill it with water. Then I will return to bury your flame.” And then the man, in the blink of an eye, disappeared.
The next morning the townspeople awoke early and began to work. Long days followed in which the people dug fathoms out of the earth. Even at night, when they stood tired and dirty, they continued to work by the light of the flame, its painful brilliance urging them onward in their task.
When they had carved a bowl-shaped hole out of the ground, one hundred leagues at its apex, they began to fill it with water. With no more than a trickling and sputtering spring, the task often overwhelmed the villagers, but still they worked with a fevered haste, and on the fortieth night after the appearance of the strange man, they added the last bucket of water needed to make their hole a lake.
After so long an effort, many wished to collapse right there and sleep for three whole days; but, despite their weariness, none could find such sweet oblivion. Wracked with anticipation and anxiety, they found themselves wondering, “Would the strange man return? Could he do as he promised? Could he really submerge the flame in the lake?” And when the skies above trimmed the starry fields with rolling hues of blue, the morning brought them to a fevered pitch of worry, and many, thinking the strange man would not come, sat upon the tufts of brown grass and wept.
But it was then, when hope had seemed to set below the horizon, that the strange man appeared once more. The people jumped from their despair and rushed after him as he, never saying a single word, took hold of the flame, carrying it in the palms of his hands, and dove into the clear water of the newly made lake. He swam deep and fast, the light of the flame radiating like a firefly caught in a bell jar, and the people all leaned over the water to watch as the man descended. Slowly, as the flame sank deeper and deeper into the shimmering leagues of water, the light around the village grew dimmer, and the shadows they had forgotten lengthened across the uneven roofs and cracked plaster. And just when they thought to worry that the lake was too deep, that the light might lose too much of its luster, the eternal flame came to rest one hundred leagues distant from the crystal surface of the water.
Still standing at the edge of the lake, inching along the mud and peering over the grassy lip, the people waited for the strange man to emerge from the depths. But he never did, and the people never saw him again. A thousand different stories were told to explain the mystery of the strange man with a thousand different reasons for his sudden appearance and strange disappearance, but on one point they all agreed: he was an agent of good. He had taken the eternal flame, that which had brought so much despair to the village, and carried its light where, though it still touched the village, it no longer offended the people’s eyes or burned their skin. They saw the red tiles of the roofs as they had on that first day, but no longer how unevenly they hung; still the white plaster of the walls was clear to the naked eye, but its cracks were cloaked in shadow; and even though the strange man sunk the flame under a hundred leagues of cool water where it could not burn their skin, its welcome warmth still spread across the village.
And so the people were happy once more.
Hundreds of years had passed with the flame buried deep in its watery tomb, the story of its submergence long passing from the villagers’ collective memory, becoming no more a point of human industry, but a divine fact, eternal and absolute as the flame itself, just as all history too ancient to remember becomes, when a boy named Esteban was born unto a young couple of the village. Esteban was a small boy, even for his age, with sandy hair that curled about his ears and bright blue eyes that drank in everything around him; and in every sparkle of those bright blue eyes lied a thirst for life that seemed to grow with every day, a thirst that he sated on every sight, sound, smell, and taste the village had to offer.
But it was not enough that he absorbed everything which impressed itself upon his senses; he sought to understand it all as well. To Esteban, the entire valley in which the town lied was rife with wonders and mysteries waiting to be figured out. And so, as he would wander the valley and revel in its life, he would step over the state of a mere sponge, only absorbing his surroundings, and become an agent of intelligence, imagining how everything worked, fitting the pieces together in the eye of his mind like they were a jigsaw puzzle, and building a picture of understanding from their jumbled existences. And at night, after the rest of the villagers had gone to sleep, Esteban would slip out of his window and stare at the greatest mystery of all: a tiny flickering light that danced at the bottom of the lake.
But, as years passed and Esteban came to know the whole of Martir, he was disappointed to find that gaping holes still marred his picture of understanding. Why did the green and soft grass sometimes feel harsh and dry? And why did the shadows seem to hang unevenly on the rooftops? No matter how long he spent thinking on these riddles though, he could not solve any of them.
One day, as he was feeling along a harsh and dry patch of grass, a young girl, watching him from her home, came outside and asked him what he was doing.
“I am trying to understand what is wrong here,” he told her.
“Wrong?” she asked.
“Yes, this patch of grass feels different than the rest.”
“What do you mean?”
Esteban took her hand and led her to the site of his mystery. “Do you feel that?” he asked, guiding her hand along the patch.
In fright, she pulled back her hand. “What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but it is wrong.”
The young girl took a step away from him. “It can’t be wrong. Nothing is wrong.”
“But it is!” he said. “Can’t you feel it?”
She did not answer, but only burst into tears and ran back home.
Later that night, Esteban returned to his own home to find his parents waiting for him, and the mayor with them. They asked him what he had been doing and he told them about the harsh and dry patches of grass, of the shadows that hung unevenly on the rooftops. As Esteban listed all the imperfections he had found, his parents became increasingly embarrassed, and when he finally stopped, they began to fawn over the now disconcerted mayor.
“Please, your honor,” his mother said, “do not hold this against him. He is just a child; he does not understand. Please, leave it to us. We will teach him.”
The mayor laid a heavy hand on her shoulder, and, from beneath his bushy eyebrows, he pierced Esteban with a sharp look and said, “I have watched him now for some months, walking the village grounds and searching what is not for us to know. I had hoped it would not come to this, but his infractions have impugned the minds of our children now. He will have to be publicly chastised.”
“It’s not my fault!” Esteban screamed. “I did not make the grass harsh and dry. I did not make the walls jagged!”
“No one else has noticed these things you mention,” the mayor said. “No one else says anything is . . . ‘wrong.’” The word sounded odd on the mayor’s tongue, as if it were stale from lack of use.
“But you have to believe me! Something is wrong!”
“No more of that!” his father shouted. “Problems unspoken are problems unknown.”
“Please,” Esteban’s mother was pleading with the mayor. “Can’t we forego the public chastisement? I promise he will not do it again.”
The mayor thoughtfully rubbed his chin, his eyes still fixed on Esteban, but he did not speak, not right away. After several beats of this pregnant silence, the mayor pronounced his decision. “If Esteban will apologize to the girl and her family, we will forego the public chastisement.”
“No!” Esteban screamed. “I will not!”
But his mother lunged at him and covered his mouth. Then, with grateful eyes turned on the mayor, she said, “Thank you. He will do as you say.” After a brief exchange of pleasantries, the mayor left, and Esteban was sent to bed without supper.
That night, as every other night, Esteban slipped out of his window after his parents had gone to sleep. Sitting at the edge of the lake, he angrily thought of the coming day. Why should he apologize? He had done nothing wrong. It was the harsh and dry patches of grass, the shadows over the roofs, that were wrong. Why should he be punished for it?
Frustrated with his parents, the mayor, the little girl, Esteban plucked a smooth rock from the mud, making a suction-pop sound as he pulled it free, and threw it at the dark and still crystal surface of the lake. It tumbled through the depths of the water slowly, silhouetted by the light at the bottom of the lake, until, eventually, the light swallowed the rock and it was no more.
After the rock had disappeared, Esteban continued to stare into the shimmering image of maroon and bright yellow, so much like the sky on a late summer’s afternoon. He let himself be mesmerized by its restless dance, its struggle against the weight of the lake. It was so bright, so strong, to illuminate the village, however weakly, through the leagues of water it had to pass, and Esteban found himself wondering how the village would look if that light were brought to the surface. If it could touch the village from that depth, how brilliant must it be? Shadows would scatter at its radiance, and Esteban would be able to see why the grass was harsh and dry, why the walls were sharp and jagged. With the light above the lake, he would be able to see it all and . . . and he could fix it! He could fix the village!
And in that moment, though the water was deep and his stomach was tied in knots of uncertainty, Esteban knew what he had to do. So he stood from his seat in the grass, stepped back a single pace, and flung himself forward, diving head first into the lake, breaking its still and crystal surface. The water washed over him, cooling his skin, and he felt cleansed in its bubbling froth; and when the last of his toes sank beneath the surface, he began to kick and pull at the water eddying around him.
With each passing thrust of his body he moved closer to the flame, and its brilliant light fanned wider across his field of vision. The tiny flickering became more pronounced, and its dance grew wild. Throwing tendrils far through the depths, Esteban began to feel the warmth of it. The chill of the water broke, and even when the warmth became uncomfortable heat, still he swam toward it. He knew if he could only get to the light everything would be okay. The village would be a better place.
He needed it to be a better place.
But it was not long before his lungs began to burn. He kicked and pulled as hard as he could, but the lake was proving to be too deep. He was close now, very close, but he would never make the surface again. There was just too much water, and it was too heavy, too deep. Looking back at the leagues above him, the far cry at which the surface rippled, he knew he was going to die. But his mind was set, and so he swam deeper still, and when the flame was mere inches away, he reached out his hand, gave his feet one last kick, and touched it.
It was hot, scalding and blazing. It singed the tips of his fingers. By instinct, Esteban pulled back his hand, trying to nurse its sting, but this was an eternal flame, and all eternity needs is one lick and it will swallow you whole.
The flame began to curl about his arm. Upward it traveled in its terrific heat, and when not an inch of his skin was but covered in its raging torrent, his body erupted in a conflagration of brilliant light. The pain was searing and he tried to scream, but only to find water that filled his starved lungs. Panic set in and he started to flail, yet still his body shriveled in the heat of the fire.
But then, in his last moments of life, one hundred leagues below the surface of the lake, a sort of calm washed over him, for he knew he would not drown before the fire consumed him. And as his eyes closed for the very last time, he smiled, and turned to ash.
* * *
In December of 2012, I published a book of short stories titled Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat. When I first started this blog, I had hoped that, in addition to being a forum in which I could express my ideas and my art, it would serve to generate interest in my work. Unfortunately, it has not been going as well as hoped.
I know a lot of the novels self-published on Kindle lack originality, most being easily reduced down to “fifty shades of commercial crap,” but, if my work is anything, it is unique. Is it good? Well, that’s for you to decide. So, if you read my blog, please consider giving my book a chance. It might just surprise you.
Posts and pages in which you will find excerpts to my book:
Books by Julien Haller
Excerpt from Preface