Spirit in Flight
by Michaele Jordan
The spirit drifted up from the cold and the dark, utterly without thought or identity, eventually turning—not so much seeking as being drawn—toward the warmth. There was a tiny glow, and the spirit—just barely conscious enough to suffer fear and weariness—settled gratefully before the flicker of light. Yes. The spirit recognized that the flicker was light.
And it was warm. Was the warmth fire? Or affection? The spirit sensed a distinction, but it didn’t matter, because this light was both. This light was real—whatever that meant. More real even than the spirit. It was … a candle, and in that someplace else where things were real, candles had to be lit. The spirit almost sensed the presence of someone who had lit this candle, maybe even lit it especially for her. How wonderful. It must have been someone who cared.
Then the candle flickered and went out.
Later? The spirit drifted up from the cold and the dark. This time there was a hint of memory, a faintly purposeful seeking of the candle. (The spirit had forgotten that the candle had gone out, but still remembered light and warmth.) The candle was there; it had been lit by a young woman. She stood in a room. She was smiling. There was someone else smiling, too. A laugh. And then the candle flickered and went out again.
Later, again? How much later? How many times had the spirit drifted up? Long enough for the spirit to reject the dark and the cold, to flee them consciously, to replay that flight until it evolved into a memory, and to acquire enough memory to form a core that served as a sense of self. Long enough to seek out that smiling woman.
She was young. Really more a girl than a woman. And yet she was not as young as she should be, which didn’t make any sense. (Except that the spirit didn’t have the sense to notice that it made no sense.) The spirit just knew that the girl should have been younger, knew it because she (she?) loved her like a … a … And there it was, plain as day. Suddenly the spirit knew that, yes, she was a she; she was, or had once been, a woman, and the smiling girl was her daughter. Her daughter, Anna. Darling little Anna, who’d been such a frail child, and yet so brave and patient and sweet-tempered, never fretful, no matter how many doctors poked her. How had she gotten so big?
The candle flickered and took everything with it: the light, the girl, the memories. The spirit tried to hang on to a picture of Anna—just the one—a recent picture. Anna as she’d been on her twelfth birthday, trying to blow out the candles on her cake, even though they were sparkler candles and would never blow out. Anna, breathless and laughing, falling back onto the big comfy sofa where they all watched TV, the sofa with the blue and white afghan thrown over the spot where they’d never been able to get the wine stain out.
The flicker passed, but the sofa was gone. Anna was … what? At least seventeen, and sitting on a cream-colored leather sofa. The spirit wrinkled her nose, entirely forgetting that she didn’t have a nose to wrinkle. She detested leather furniture—it was always so sticky in the summer. And she distrusted cream-colored anything. After all, they’d never even gotten the wine stain out of the blue-and-purple-flowered sofa. On a cream-colored couch, that stain would be like a neon sign.
Yet another flicker, and when it was done, she noticed that it wasn’t just Anna. It was Anna who had lit the candle, but David was right there with her. Lord, but David looked tired. And old. When had her handsome David gotten so old? It tore her heart to see all those sorrow lines around his eyes; she’d loved him once because he was the happiest person she knew, his pleasure in life infectious. But he was a widower now. The spirit crumpled under the pain. Had she taken all David’s joy with her when she … went into the dark and the cold?
She couldn’t face that pain, and turned away. It was a long time before she drifted back up. David was even older, but the sorrow on his face had softened into a melancholy wisdom. Anna was older, too, and there was a young man with her, holding her hand. The furniture—no, not just the furniture, the entire house—was completely unfamiliar. “It seems like yesterday,” murmured Anna, and the man beside her squeezed her hand.
“At least she didn’t suffer,” replied David, then sighed and added, “Sometimes I have to hold on to that thought very hard.” He smiled at Anna and the young man. “I only wish she could have seen this, the two of you.”
The last piece of the puzzle snapped into place. The spirit remembered everything, right up to the Boston terrier running in front of the car and the telephone pole rushing toward the windshield. She remembered about lighting candles for the dead. She must have died in the accident, and that was why there was a candle on the mantle.
It shouldn’t have taken her aback—after all, she could see plainly that she wasn’t exactly alive anymore—but, still, it did. She hadn’t admitted it to herself yet, hadn’t formed the word dead in her mind. Even now, it was such a big word, she could hardly take it in. There were so many dead, billions and trillions and quadrillions and—what was that word for the one with eighteen zeros?—quintillions.
She looked around. She didn’t see billions of spirits. She didn’t see anything. There was only darkness and cold and the little lighted window around the candle. Maybe she just couldn’t see them because vision didn’t work the same way here. Surely this … afterlife was not hers alone. Had the other spirits “moved on”? But where? She didn’t see anyplace else to go.
They must all be gathered around their own candles, the ones that their loved ones lit on the anniversaries of their deaths. Or if they had no loved ones, maybe they never managed to drift up, because there was no candle to guide them. Unless some of them just didn’t bother. It wasn’t much. Just one day a year, and all you could do was look. You couldn’t touch or speak or smile. It wasn’t enough. Hardly worth the trouble of rousing, the pain of exclusion. But still … To her, the knowledge that she was still loved and remembered was intensely valuable. She’d take it, even if one day a year was all she got.
So she watched, one day a year, as Anna’s belly grew round and children gathered around her. She knew of it when Anna’s young man—his name was Eric and he was a professor at the college!—won tenure. She even got to see Jerusalem when Eric was invited there for a year of guest lectures. They placed her candle by a window that looked down on the Wailing Wall. That she should live (or whatever) to see the Wailing Wall!
She knew of it also when David remarried at last, because every year after that he whispered to her shade, “She reminds me of you.” As if she would have grudged him. It healed her heart to see the sorrow almost gone from his eyes, faded to a distant memory.
And then, one year, David wasn’t there, and Anna was not smiling when she lit the candle. Instead, she turned and fell weeping into Eric’s arms, unable even to murmur the customary prayers. David’s second wife wept, too. David was gone. Pain swallowed her up, and she sank down into darkness. There was nothing left for her but the empty cold. She might never have moved again, except for a sudden flash of crazy hope. If David wasn’t alive anymore, perhaps he was here?
No. So stupid of her; she should have known better. This was her candle. David couldn’t come here; he had his own candle to visit. She looked around, but, of course, his candle wasn’t here. Or rather, his candle wasn’t now. At any rate, she couldn’t see his candle—or any other candle than her own for that matter.
The disappointment was almost as painful as the initial grief, and was immediately followed by a deep pang of bitterness. One day a year was all she got, and now it wouldn’t even include David? Why couldn’t he have died the same day she did? Maybe then they could have met at the joint candle-lighting.
The time spun by so fast the spirit could hardly keep up, faster even than it had seemed to spin when she was … there with them. With only a day each year to catch up, she missed a thousand details, lost track of everything that was going on. Each year there was more changed furniture, or a different home with a strange view outside the window; each year another unfamiliar face or another child dressed in ever more peculiar looking clothes. Sometimes the faces that were familiar weren’t there, and she never knew whether they were simply absent from that year’s candle-lighting or if they were … gone. David’s second wife was probably gone, but Eric’s sister?
Somehow Anna’s daughter, Deborah—such a pretty girl she had turned out to be—grew old enough to marry and name her daughter Sarah. Such a wonderful child! The spitting image of Anna. Little Sarah always watched so intently, her little-girl eyes all huge and solemn as the candle was lit each year. Afterward, Anna liked to sit in the glow, take her granddaughter into her lap, and tell stories about her mother. They were very ordinary stories, about a very ordinary woman, but they were told with love, and little Sarah seemed to take an astonishing interest in her great-grandmother’s adventures. Perhaps the sheen of history made them sound exotic.
And then one year, Anna wasn’t there. Eric lit the candle, and he was weeping. There wasn’t another candle for a long time.
At last she was summoned again by the flicker of light and warmth. She looked around. At first she was bewildered; she saw no one she knew, except … Anna? But it couldn’t be. Anna was a grown woman, not a young girl. No, not even a grown woman, an old woman. Maybe even … gone. The girl who had lit the candle was Sarah.
“You don’t know me, Great-Grandmama,” whispered Sarah. “But I promised Grandma I would light a candle for you when she was gone.” The spirit started to weep. She had suspected but she had not known. Anna was gone. She didn’t know how or when, but her darling little Anna was gone. David was gone. Everybody was gone, every single person she had known or loved. Nobody she had ever met was left to light her candle.
“Daddy says there’s no such thing as spirits,” Sarah told her. “And even if there are spirits, maybe you’re not there. You probably went to heaven a long time ago. So maybe there’s no point in lighting a candle for you. But I promised.”
The spirit nodded. Sarah was a good girl; she kept her promises. But she was right. There was no point in lighting the candle anymore. Sarah thought her Great-Grandmama had gone to heaven long ago. It was time, and more than time, for the spirit to move on.
Move on? Where? Heaven? Was there even such a thing as heaven? The spirit realized with a shock that she didn’t know, hadn’t the slightest idea. All she knew was the candle. She was grateful for the candle. It had sheltered her from the dark and the cold. It had given her a place to be, a refuge from which she could remember herself, a new starting point. But now she had been remembered, and was again forgotten. She took a deep breath. Time to move on.
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