David Cluff (age 18), Sutton Park School, Dublin
He finally had the strength to stand up, patting the top of the headstone. “Don’t go getting yourself into any trouble. I’ll see you real soon, Angel.” Photograph iStock
The old matchbox sat lightly in my hands. It seemed a miracle to me that I’d found it, tucked into the back of a drawer in a dark, dark room. I slowly and carefully pulled out a match, my fingers shaking in the pitch darkness, and struck it against the side of the box. The light danced over my hands as the flame flickered in the draught from my barely-open mouth.
I stared at it, transfixed, my pupils widening to fill my eyes even as the unaccustomed light briefly blinded me. When it began to singe my fingertips I used it to light a taper and dropped it to the dusty floorboards. It died soundlessly under the heel of my shoe, unseen in the thick darkness. I did not care. The taper’s flame was stronger, brighter, warmer.
I turned towards the invisible corner where I knew the door to be. The taper clasped firmly in my hand illuminated a small circle of peeling green wallpaper, the vine motif writhing like a nest of terrified snakes as the flame flickered under my breath. I reached the door, turned the brass knob, crossed the hall, entered the drawing room.
By the flickering light I found the dresser and took out a box of squat candles. Lighting them one by one from the taper, I placed them all around the room, ending with a ring on the floor. I stepped into the circle of light and sat cross-legged at its centre.
The flame of the taper touched my hand and I blew it out. I did not care for it. The candles were more numerous, more soothing, more beautiful.
Looking around at the pinpricks of light that surrounded me, I revelled in what I had lost, in what I had missed for such a long time. The beauty of the flames. The soft glow shed over all.
My eyes had drunk only darkness for so long that this little light was enough to inebriate them. This was a taste of Nirvana. This was a moment of beautiful eternity.
But it was no more than a moment. While I sat there, the candles burned down and began to go out one by one. The first little death that I noticed sent a shiver through me. The second wrenched at my heart. I knew I didn’t have much time. I leaped out of the circle of candles and dashed to the fireplace, finding the stock of dry wood beside it. Tinder. Kindling. Firing. Flame.
I left the candle stub I had used to light the fire amongst the piled wood and leaned back on my haunches as the last of the scattered candles winked out. I did not care about them anymore. The fire in the hearth was larger, wilder, unassailable. I saw shapes in its flames that I fancied to be indecipherable prophecies and ineffable truths, and fell into a reverie as I gazed into them. I remembered the good times and the bad.
I remembered when the house was full of people, before they left one by one and left only the three of us. My brother, my sister and me. Yet it did not trouble us. Together, we felt safe. Warm. Happy.
I remembered that light, and I remembered when it died. My one night of madness. Hysterica passio. The wrong words said. Shattered mirrors. Torn manuscripts. An ugly bruise on my sister’s face. My brother’s, usually so impassive, flooding with an infernal rage as he practically threw me down the stairs into the darkness of the west wing.
Suddenly the shadows seemed to crowd in and the circle of light cast by the fire seemed terribly small. The fear returned, stronger than ever. I needed not to be shrouded in that darkness again. I wanted to lose myself in light, to surround myself in warmth, to forget what I had been and be reborn in flame. I took the fire-bucket, placed some of the burning logs in it with some tinder, and fled the room. The floor creaked under my feet as I half ran up the hallway, one hand on the wall to guide me in the pitch-darkness, my mind clouded and my eyes aching for light. I almost tripped over the bottom stair, stumbled up the short flight, and threw open the door in front of me.
On the table just inside, I found another box of candles. Taking one, I burned my hand lighting it from one of the burning logs. I didn’t care. The pain was insignificant, searing, irrelevant. I walked out onto the floor and held up the candle to illuminate the library. The books surrounded me. Row upon neat, orderly row sat on dark, wooden shelves all the way up to the high, wooden ceiling. Books I could not have read without light. I had loved books. I had forgotten that. I loved the flames more, in that moment. I set to work strategically placing the burning logs and candles.
As I tucked the last few into nooks and corners, the fire took hold. I felt a pang of regret at what I was doing, but it would all be worth it to see that panorama, that symphony of flame. It would be art, ephemeral, transcendent. Slowly, the books caught and the fire spread. The dry timbers in the walls and ceiling stood no chance, and became part of the canvas too. The colours were glorious. The light was like a clear pond to my parched eyes. I coughed a little on the smoke. My head felt light. Ha! Light indeed. I took a last look around at that cathedral of fire and lost myself.