Gregg Punger “The Candle Girl”
An old man crept lightly on his toes through the house careful not to produce a squeak from the house’s old wooden floor. Hearing noise within his bedroom, he stopped and poked his head inside.
“Stop giggling. He’ll hear us,” Dave whispered angrily to his younger brother, Jay, from their hiding place under the bed.
The old man tiptoed to the side of the bed.
“I gotcha,” he yelled lifting up the bed skirt.
“Hee-hee-hee,” Jay giggled as the old man pulled him out from under the bed and into his arms.
“Stupid Jay. He wouldn’t have found us if you hadn’t giggled,” said Dave as he crawled out from under the bed.
The old man chuckled deeply. “Jay just can’t help giggling, can you?” he said with a wink from one of his mirth filled blue eyes.
“No,” said Jay giggling.
“All right, let’s take a break from the game for a second. This old man’s getting tired, and you’re getting heavy,” said the old man as he placed Jay onto his bed and sat down next to him.
“Grandpa, why do you have that unlit candle next to your bed?” said Dave staring at an old yellow wax candle that rested in a worn pewter candleholder on Walter’s nightstand.
“It’s a memento from someone I knew a long time ago.”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story. Do y’all want to hear it?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said an excited Jay.
“Is this a true story?” asked Dave.
“Of course it is. It just might take a little belief. Come take a seat next to me, and I’ll tell it,” he said patting the bed.
Dave climbed up onto the bed next to his grandfather.
“It all happened when I was a young boy. Come to think about it I was about your age, Dave. Back then Mars Bluff was a lovely little town no bigger than a postage stamp. My Uncle ran the only store in town. Everyone went there to buy their feed and other farm stuffs, but it also had a wide selection of candies, sweets, and treats that were kept under a glass counter. Every time my father let me come to the store with him, which was not often, he would let me pick one treat. Mable’s Salt Water Taffy was my favorite. Mmm! Mmm! It was good. But, anyways that doesn’t have anything to do with our story.
It was a particularly hot morning in July. Since it was July, there wasn’t a lot of work to do in the field during the day, so I only had a few chores in the morning and the evening. I finished my chores lickity-split that morning and ran towards the swamp that is deep in the woods behind the house.”
“That sounds cool,” said Dave.
“It Is. Maybe I’ll take y’all down there sometime this weekend, but anyways…”
“The sun was barely over the tree tops, but it was already scorching hot. I plunged into the woods and immediately felt ten degrees cooler.
After walking a little ways into the woods, the ground became muddy. Now in South Carolina, we have some good mud. It’s made from our good rich, black soil and let me tell you having it squish up between your toes on a hot summer day is one of the best feelings in the world. I’m really going to have to take you boys to the swamp.
Anyways, I got to my favorite swimming hole deep in the woods and jumped on in. I swam around a bit enjoying myself, when for some unknown reason I got the notion that I should explore deeper into the swamp, so I headed off.
The trees slowly grew older and larger. Massive oak and cypress trees with their limbs covered with Spanish moss nearly blocked out the sun. I kept trudging deeper and deeper into the dank swamp, driven by some unknown impulse. When suddenly, I stumbled upon a little island bathed in sunlight with a one story white house with blue shutters and a red door slab dab in the middle of it.
What the heck is a house like that doing in the middle of the swamp? I wondered to myself.
I waded over to it and climbed out near a big old cypress tree. When all of a sudden, someone swung in front of me.
“Hey,” she said.
Startled, I couldn’t immediately come up with an answer. Hanging there in front of me was a gorgeous little girl with ringlets of red almost orange hair and pearly white skin that reminded me of moonlight. She dropped down out of the tree. Her clean white dress fluttered as she lightly landed on the ground.
“What’s your name?”
Her eyes were like the sky right before a summer thunderstorm.
“Yes, you have a name don’t you?”
“Well what is it, silly?”
“Who are you?” shouted a woman in a long black dress with brown hair made up into a bun on the top of her head.
“Calm down Mama. I already asked him that. I’m just now waiting for an answer,” she called in response to her mother. “So, what’s your name,” she said to me.
“Ahh, my name’s Walter, but all my friends call me Walt.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Walt. My name’s Lumiere,” she said holding out her hand.
“That’s a real pretty name,” I said as I shook her hand.
As Lumiere’s mother came up beside her, she turned towards her and said, “His name’s Walt.”
“Nice to meet you Walt, but you had best be running off now.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said sheepishly.
“Come on, Mama, let him stay. You know how long I’ve wanted someone to play with.”
“Please, Mama, I promise we won’t get into any trouble.”
“Lumiere, I said no.”
“Please mama, you can watch us the whole time.”
The woman considered it for a bit, and then after looking me over, she said, “Ok. He can stay, but stay where I can see you.”
“Thanks, Mama,” Lumiere said happily giving her mama a large hug.
The whole situation left me befuddled.
“Come on,” Lumiere said grabbing my arm. “There’s a really good tree to climb in the back yard.”
We played around the island the rest of the day.
We were sitting on a large tree limb way up in a tree just talking. When I looked up and noticed that I could no longer see the sun through the trees. So I said, “Well, it’s getting dark. I guess I better start heading home.”
“Are you sure you have to go?” she asked sadly.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I have chores to do back home.”
“You really love to climb trees.”
“I was thinking, this tree here,” I said patting the tree we were sitting on, “would be a great place for a tree house. I was thinking that tomorrow I could bring some stuff and start building one for you.”
Her face lit up. Her eyes sparkled. “You would do that for me?”
She hugged me tightly and said, “Thank you.”
“It’s no problem,” I said growing warm. She pulled away from me, and I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I jumped down from the tree and headed home through the swamp. I had no idea what made me say I would build her a tree house. It was something about her. I can’t explain it. I was drawn to her like a moth to flame.
The next day, I came back with a few boards and tools. When she saw me coming, she dropped down out of the tree and came running up to me.
“You came back.”
“Of course I did. I said I would.”
She sat on the ground and watched me put up the first few boards. As I finished up, she ran into the house. I climbed down the tree and wiped the sweat off my brow. She came running out of the house carrying a glass.
“You looked hot, so I got some iced tea for you.”
“Thank you,” I said as I took it from her. It was cold, crisp, and perfectly sweet. I hadn’t had tea that good before or since.
We spent the rest of the afternoon playing. I headed home, as it grew dark promising to return the next day. I kept going back every day. Each day, I brought a little more materials for the tree house, and after working, she would bring me a glass of that heavenly iced tea.
One particularly muggy day after I finished my iced tea, I asked, “It’s so hot. Why don’t we go play in the swamp for a little while?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not? It feels real good.”
“I’m not really in the mood, but don’t let me stop you from going swimming.”
“Yeah, I’m not hot, and I don’t want to get dirty. You go, and I’ll watch from the bank.”
I took my shirt off, threw it on the bank, walked in, and swam around for a while. Lumiere just sat on the bank hugging her knees to her chest smiling at me.
After I was nice and cool, I climbed up out of the swamp and lay down next to her basking in the sunlight.
“The sun feels good,” I said.
“It sure does.”
Eventually, I sat up and asked her, “What do you do here all day?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well at home I have chores, then I have my little brother to mess with, and some times my friends will come over. What do you do way out here in this swamp?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I mean I have chores to do too, and my mom keeps me company.”
“But don’t you get bored”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?”
“I don’t know, but it’s just like, what do you plan on doing with your life? I mean I know you don’t want to spend the rest of your life stuck on this little island.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know about you, but I want to see the world. I want to climb tall mountains, swim in distant oceans, talk to unique people, and I don’t know, have adventures,” during my speech I stood up from excitement.
Lumiere sat there, and then she whispered, “I don’t know.”
“Oh,” I said and sat back down next to her.
We sat there a while in silence. Then I said, “Well it’s getting late. I think I’ll be heading home.”
“Ok,” she said, but it seemed like her mind was a long way away.
On the morning of the day I was going to finish Lumiere’s tree house, I was cleaning out the chicken coop, when my father came in and asked, “Walter you’re coming to the store with me today?”
“Yes sir.” I was excited to go to the store because it meant I got a treat, but I was also sad because I really wanted to finish the tree house that day. I had been working on it for over two weeks, and I wanted to finish it.
We arrived home in the late afternoon. I quickly grabbed my tools and tree house material and headed for the swamp. I knew I would have to move quickly to make it back before dark.
As I approached the island, I saw Lumiere sitting sadly on her front step. When she saw me, she ran excitedly to the edge of the swamp.
“I thought you weren’t coming today.”
“I had to go to the store with my father, but I promised myself I would come finish your tree house today,” I said climbing out of the swamp.
“You’re too kind,” she said with her blue eyes gleaming.
By time I finished hammering in the last nail, it was dark on the island. I climbed down the tree and there she was waiting for me at the bottom her orange hair shining out of the darkness.
“It looks wonderful.”
“Let’s go up.”
“It’s pretty dark. Why don’t we wait until tomorrow?”
“You came all the way out here and did all this work and you want to wait until tomorrow. I don’t think so. Come on,” she said grabbing me.
“Hold up,” I said holding back. “It’s too dark. You won’t be able to see nothing up there.”
“You’re right. Let’s go get a light.”
Holding on to me, she pulled me towards her house.
“Be quiet, my mom’s in the kitchen, but I know where a candle is.”
We tiptoed into the house. A small fire in the fireplace revealed a quaint little living room with a couple of rocking chairs and a handmade rug. We crept past the kitchen, where her mother cooked by the light of a single lamp. We entered her mother’s bedroom that was lit completely by a candle in a pewter holder next to her bed. Lumiere carefully took it, and we went back outside.
We climbed into the tree house the candle lighting our way. We sat down with the candle between us. Lumiere gazed around at the tree house. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was beautiful in the candlelight.
“You did a great job,” she said.
Our eyes met. Transfixed, we slowly learned forward. My eyes closed; our lips met. Her lips were soft, slightly moist, and warm. The warmth of her lips seemed to flow through me my whole body. A cold breeze swept through the tree house. Startled, I pulled back and opened my eyes. The candle flickered in the breeze. I thought it was a trick of my eyes, but Lumiere seemed to flicker too.
“It was worth it.”
“What was worth what?”
She just smiled that big warm smile of hers as a strong cold wind blew through. The candle flickered. With one mighty blow the candle and Lumiere were gone. All that was left was smoke.
I sat there dumbfounded, when I heard the pained cry of “Lumiere!” from her mother. I grabbed the candle and climbed down.
“Lumiere!” cried her mom from her doorway. When she saw me, she ran frantically towards me. I stood there not knowing what to do. When she got closer, she saw the unlit candle in my hand. With a loud cry, she sank to her knees. I was shocked to see that her hair had turned gray, and her face looked much, much older.
“What happened to Lumiere?” I asked.
“You should know,” she said bitterly.
“You brought the candle outside.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Lumiere, oh Lumiere why!?” she said in an anguished cry.
“What did Lumiere do?”
“She, Lumiere, was the candle.”
“She… was the candle. Its life was her life.”
“Ok, well let’s go get something and relight it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lumiere like everyone else only got one life. Once it’s gone it cannot be returned,” she said resignedly.
“No! That can’t be true.”
“I’m sorry. I wish it weren’t. Oh how I wish it weren’t, but it is.”
“No, that just can’t be true.”
I splashed into the swamp with the candle, but then I had to take one more look back. The house had changed. All the color, all the cheer, all the light was gone. It had become an old dilapidated gray house.
I shook my head and ran as fast as I could.
I crashed through my kitchen door and ran to the matches next to the stove. I lit a match and put it to the wick, nothing. I lit another, and another, and another, but none worked… She was gone.”
A brief silence filled the room as the final words of Walter’s story played over again in the boys’ minds.
“That’s a good story, grandpa,” said Dave.
“You don’t believe me.”
“Come on grandpa. I’m not a kid.”
“Here’s a lighter,” the old man said pulling a lighter out of his pocket, “Why don’t you try lighting it.”
“Sure,” said Dave rolling his eyes.
The lighter started with a flash. Dave moved it to the wick and nothing happened. He tried again and nothing happened.