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The church is dark, no lights at all. Everyone is sitting in the pews while Ed, an old man, a deacon, passes out unlit, thin white candles. It takes a long time and all Saul can hear is the collective breath and shuffle of the churchgoers behind him. He is sitting in the front row alone, though his father will join him after the candle lighting.
Once everyone is holding a candle, Saul’s father lights three large ones up on the podium. This church is smaller than the others Saul has known, but despite the size, the light doesn’t reach all the way to the corners, or even up into the baptismal font. His father lights his own candle off the largest and then turns to face everyone.
Take this time to reflect on this last year. If you would like to offer up a prayer or recite a bible verse aloud, please do so. He pauses, candlelight sharpening the hard lines of his brow and jaw. Where one or two are gathered together in his name, so he is there. Can’t you feel God in this place? For a while this evening, let us be still and know that he is God.
Saul’s father steps down off the podium and lights the candle of a man sitting closest to the inner aisle opposite Saul. From there, it is a slow progression as the flame is passed from person to person through the sanctuary. Even with all the candles lit, Saul can’t make out the features of those a couple rows back. Saul’s father sits down next to him, lights Saul’s candle and pats his leg. He’s always more affectionate in church, like he’s forgotten his normal behaviors. Distracted by the possibility of God, he remembers Saul.
The little candle has a white, paper skirt designed to keep melted wax from tender fingers. Saul stares at the flame while someone in the back prays aloud for the purity of the children, and he tries to know God is God, tries to reach upward, outward with his heart so that God might see him, but all that gets lost when he realizes his father is staring. He quickly wracks his brain for the right words, the right verse, but he can’t capture that either. Silence stretches out in the church. Saul’s father gives him a gentle push.
Saul stands and, even though it is dark, he feels the eyes of the congregation on his back. He must be breathing a bit too heavy because his flame blows out. His father, without a moment’s hesitation, reaches up and relights his candle.
He tries to remember something to fill the growing silence, but all he can think of now is his mother. He wants to pray that she is safe wherever she is, he wants to ask God why: why they are separated, why she didn’t come this time, why he is stuck alone with his father in this new town. But he can’t. And he pushes those unworthy prayers down.
His eyes feel hot with tears and, not for the first time, he’s glad for the darkness. Someone coughs behind him. Someone resituates themselves in a pew to his left. Smoke tickles his nose, but he doesn’t dare rub it. A small voice begins, Our Father, who art in Heaven…, and the congregation sputters and then joins in. Saul sits back down. His father is no longer staring at him.
A rivulet of melted wax leaks through the candle skirt and burns his hand, but he doesn’t drop the candle. No. He doesn’t even waver. He waits until the wax has hardened enough to pull away from his skin, and he flicks it away into the dark.
Evan James Sheldon's work has appeared recently in American Literary Review, the Cincinnati Review, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. He is a Senior Editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Director for Brink Literacy Project. You can find him online at evanjamessheldon.com.
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