By John Thomas Tuft

Associate Pastor Carol sits behind the pulpit, watching the passing of the light through the assembly of the perishables. The seekers and the wounded, the lonely and the upright. All are gathered here. She tries to be centered, tries to concentrate on what is happening. Tries to pray. “What a joke,“ she whispers, then quickly checks to see if anyone heard. The senior pastor, Richard, is lost in his own thoughts. “That message went nowhere. I lost the room with that stupid story. Chuckles and charity, people want chuckles and charity. There’s an old-fashioned word. Nobody says charity anymore. If it’s not on social media, it doesn’t exist.” He sighs and returns to watching the passing of the light so he can time their exit, in silence of course, just right–out into the night and what lies beyond.

Dorothy comes forward, feeling solemn and somewhat afraid. Fire has always scared her. She is wearing the ever-present long sleeves to hide the scarring. Henry was always getting upset when he was drinking, coming after her, threatening to hurt her any way that he could. That last night, he knocked her down, called her horrible names, poured gasoline around, then lit it on fire. The flames raced across the floor, and she threw up her arms to shield her face. At first it didn’t hurt, but then the searing pain washed through her. She screamed and was still screaming when the firemen carried her out into the night air. She remembers lying there, staring up at the stars, little flickers of flame. Were they mocking or whispering to her to hang on? She keeps her focus on the Advent wreath in the front, four candles around the tall white one in the middle. Dorothy holds the one she carries into the flame of the big white one and it catches with a sputter. She turns to face the waiting faces, ready to pass the light.

In the quiet darkness, Mitch fidgets at the sight of the twinkling light being passed from candle to candle by his fellow perishables in the pews. Don’t they realize how meaningless it all is, he wonders. The flare of a candle reminds him of the flash of a camera at the wedding reception for him and Elsa. That was twenty years ago, years that started off well enough. But things changed, they drifted apart somehow, and Elsa seemed less and less interested in him and their relationship. She went back to school, got her degree, and made friends outside their circle. Now she travels a lot for her job. She texted to see if he was going to the Christmas Eve service. He sent back a petulant, ‘who cares.’ She was happier, it seemed, while he was miserable. Maybe he should find someone else–that would show her. The light comes closer to him, passed from candle to candle, while the organ chimes a solemn call. Mitch lights his candle and passes the light.

Mya claps her hands over her ears at the sound of the organ chimes. The sensory input of the moving light and the loud sound is hard for her to process. At eight years of age, all she understands about being “on the spectrum” is that life is too full of sights and sounds and touches that disturb. She is careful to stay six inches away from her mother’s hip, six inches from her father’s. She sees other kids holding hands with a parent, running to them for hugs. She doesn’t understand the attraction to touch. She can see her mother mouthing her name, trying to get her to behave. But this is how she behaves. She stares straight ahead, idly wondering what it would feel like to hold her hand over the candle flame. Mya grabs the small white candle from her mother, takes a taste of the end, marveling at the smoothness of the wax. She grasps it firmly as the flames approach, one by one, person by person, the mystery behind her eyes reflecting the coming light. What does it taste like?

Able, a row behind her, bows his head, trying to will the memories away. White hair caps his seventy-one years, but in his mind he is that nineteen-year-old kid from Cleveland, slogging through the sticky air of the jungle in droopy fatigues, a pack of cigarettes tucked into a rolled-up sleeve. The twinkling flames of the candles turn into muzzle flashes flicking at him from cover, trying to kill him and his buddies. None of them want to be here. They grab cover and radio for the 155s in the rear to level the village they want to liberate. “Merry Christmas, Charlie,” laughs the corporal to his left as the shells impact with a strangely satisfying whomp, whomp, whomp.

Then they are up and entering the burning wreckage of homes and lives. Able enters a semi-intact hooch. Everyone inside is dead except for a boy of about twelve. Both his arms are blown off. He stares into Able’s eyes, showing fear and disgust. The corporal pokes his head in. “Finish the gook, private, we’re not taking him with us.” Able flinches in the pew as he hears again the sound of his rifle unloading into the boy. He realizes that his hands are shaking too badly to get his candle lit. The little girl in front of him, who tasted her candle, leans over the back of her pew and, careful to touch only the wax, steadies Able’s candle so he can accept the flame. Through his tears the flame fragments into a thousand fairies twinkling over the hushed space.

The darkened room is filled with hundreds of struggling flames. All is quiet now. It is still. Pass the light…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.