The Silas Candle

 
Barge in winter.jpg
 
 

They’d boiled up his dog for the grease, and now Ephrem's cabin flickered with dog-fat candles. He should be asleep, he knew.

The Snow Father would be able to tell if he was awake, and pass over his barge. Last year he had slept deeply, and woken to a cluster of berries, a river-melon (in winter!) and a wooden soldier.

But Ephrem was sure that the Snow Father had already passed. He looked out the window again, barely moving the little curtain. Not that there would be anything to see.

The Snow Father was invisible. Everyone knew that.

Ephrem peered into the night. The snowfall was fresh. A fluff of white covered everything: the deck, the railing, the grassy bank. The world glowed under the barge’s lamp―until its light hit the forest.

The spaces in the trees were dark, and haunted by the grey ghosts of birch trunks. Ephrem let the curtain fall, and looked under his bed.

Nothing. At least, nothing new.

His cabin held all the things of their river life: tarpaulins, oilskins, lamps, wicks, whale-oil, maps, and―behind all that―the money. But there was nothing for him.

Ephrem lay back. He watched the light on his ceiling and imagined Silas was asleep on his feet, chasing balgairs through a whispered dream.

Then there came a time when he might have slept. But he couldn’t be certain.

The ways of his dream seemed so familiar―Silas nosing his hand as they ran through the woods, the dog’s touch cold on his palm.

And, when he awoke, Mamma and Pappa were on deck.

Ephrem peered once more under the curtain. They were in their cloaks: mamma’s feathers and pappa’s leaves fluttering in the night's wind. If he narrowed his eyes, his parents melted into the world.

So Ephrem squinted his parents into invisibility―and when he opened his eyes the deck was empty. He was alone. But he was not afraid. His parents were bradai, and had vanished in the night since he could walk.

Sometimes they got hurt. Ephrem had seen his father’s lips bloodied, and his mother carried onto the barge by his uncles.

But no-one went out on Newsun’s Eve except the Snow Father. No-one went out tonight because it was a night for blankets and hot-spice mead, for lighting the lamps and being happy and warm. It was a night for anticipation. Tomorrow they would share meats slow-roasted to butter, roots basted in seasoned oil, and custard sponge.

If the Snow Father had already passed, there could be none of that.

Ephrem got out of bed and put on his grandpappa's boots and robe. Both were lined with seula skin, and he felt instantly warm. He lifted the Silas candle, set a small globe over the flame, and went into the barge-hold.

The chair-skins sparkled in the embers' glow, and the room had an air of sleepfulness and peace. It smelled, as ever, of rubber and varnish and wood. The spice of Newsun was there too, in the pine-cones and coloured wax.

Ephrem stood on his toes and reached through the cones. His fingers closed on the cloudy glass of potœm he'd left for the Snow Father.

It was full.

So he hadn’t been. Ephrem opened the barge's main door and walked outside, pulling the hood over his head.

The world was perfectly still: nature’s wriggle suppressed by the fat puff of new snow, the Danék sliding along soundlessly. The other barges were in darkness. Ephrem looked for his parents’ footprints and found them on the gangway, disappearing into the woods.

He followed them, hopping in Pappa’s big tracks like they were stepping stones, and then he stood, holding the Silas candle and not knowing what to do.

Little sounds began to perforate the silence―the chime of ice on the water, the fluther of tumbling snow. Ephrem closed his eyes, training his ears as mamma had taught him, picking through the sounds of winter... and he heard something else.

Footsteps. There was somebody coming!

Ephrem looked about quickly for somewhere to hide. He half-stepped to the trees, and was about to climb the gangplank when he saw the ursa.

It was bigger than a living thing could ever be―broad and long and powerful. Its stink filled Ephrem’s nose and mouth. He had never seen one so close, only glimpsed the great, hairless beasts from the safety of the barge, when the adults hurried him inside and filled the decks with flames and blades.

There could be no hope against an ursa: they would run faster, swim quicker, climb better, fight longer. Ephrem stopped breathing.

The creature waddled towards him. He watched its claws tear the ground. The orange eyes were tortured slits, and close-to Ephrem saw they were bristled, like cat-whiskers. The great mouth rattled with spit, and he smelled the sourness as the animal drew near―filth, rot and death. He felt its power, and closed his eyes.

Silence returned to the world.

Ephrem blinked. The ursa was gone, and the flame of the Silas candle was bulging against the glass. The beast had not seen him.

He was alive.

The Silas candle! It had made him invisible! Ephrem held the candle aloft. Silas, his great friend, protecting him once more!

He thought for a moment. If he was invisible, and the Snow Father hadn’t come…

Only a stub of tallow remained. Less than twenty minutes of light, and Silas would be truly gone. Ephrem felt once more the thought-shadow of loss.

Running back on board, he pulled his chest from the closet. Inside sat his toys: the soldier, a spinning top, and a little horseless carriage. All three went carefully into a hessian bag, then he changed into his summer boots. They were furless and cold―but had a proper, pointed toe.

Ephrem hefted the bag over his shoulder, lifted the Silas candle, and set off into the darkness of Newsun’s Eve.

From his own deck he climbed onto the barge of Tug Gevesakkr, black-painted and strange with its odd, northern layout. He moved across it, pointing his toes into the virgin snow to make the perfect shapes of the Snow Father’s feet.

When he lifted Tug’s window the odour of dried fish-meal fell out, and Ephrem held his breath until it passed.

Tug was an unmoving lump in the bed: leg thrown out onto the floor, head angled sharply on the pillow. Ephrem placed the soldier beside the sprigs of pine on Tug’s mantle, then crept the length of the barge and hopped across the inky water.

The layout of Lucij Bertrad’s craft was like his―but Bertrad never salted the deck. Ephrem slid sharply, and the gunwale hit his guts. As he fought silently for breath he felt someone stirring inside the barge. Tallow spilled from the candle’s flame, and it sputtered.

Ephrem stepped carefully across the deck―the world whispering in winter voice around him, the boards creaking under his boots. Moving as slowly as he could, he opened Lucij’s window, and passed the little carriage into her warm, still room.

He looked at the Silas candle.

It had burned to its last nub, the flame muddy and low. He scampered to the final barge, slipping onto Hrefne Morten’s wide, bright deck.

Leaving the candle to glow on the snowy sill, Ephrem opened the heavy, brass porthole, and set the spinning top rolling softly on the table. From inside came the soft breath of Hrefne’s sleep. Ephrem smiled.

He turned then, hurried down the gangplank and along the icy path, his point-toed tracks sharp in the fresh snow. As he ran the candle sputtered again, its flame easing into the yellow pool.

‘Silas!’ whispered Ephrem. ‘Silas, don’t leave me!’

The flame gave one last swell of brightness, licked the globe―and went out.

Ephrem found himself holding the dark candlestick as the milk of dawn spilled over the trees. His parents were looking down at him.

‘Ephrem?’ said Pappa. ‘Why in gods’ names are you out of bed? Don’t you know it’s dangerous when the moon is low?’

Ephrem thought of the ursa, passing him in puffing silence.

‘Yes, pappa,’ he said.  

‘Were you lost?’ said mamma.

‘I was walking in my sleep. With Silas.’

Mamma looked at his feet.

‘In your summer boots?’

‘Yes,’ said Ephrem. ‘I’m sorry.’

Pappa ruffled Ephrem’s hair, cape-leaves waving around his head.

‘Come back inside, little adventurer,’ he said. ‘There’ll be a surprise for you, I shouldn’t wonder.’

He pointed at the bootprints on the gangplank and laughed, deep and long, as Ephrem ran back into the rich warmth of his own barge, and eager barking filled the Newsun sky.