Halloween Special: 'Candles'

Halloween Special: ‘Candles’

Daniels had grown a tad too interested in his own research and now he couldn’t sleep at night, his eyes grown owl-like, globular and staring. He would sleep a fitful couple of hours in the chair in the afternoon, but nights were for fretting about what he had learned, and, more troublingly, what he was proposing to do with the knowledge.

A folklorist wouldn’t have normally expected to travel through such ghoulish terrain because of his work, but there he was now, doomed to walk in the ghastliest of places. And it wasn’t normal.

It started as a book exercise, reading his way through all the available literature in the Salisbury collection about corpse candles, those strange apparitions of the dead that manifested themselves in lonely cottages, busy farmsteads, indeed wherever a person was about to die. Just a candle, in a window, moving without human agency. It presaged the passing – gave a glimpse, perhaps – of when the soul would leave the mortal cage of rib and heart, when the candle of life was snuffed out, dispatched by a quick finger pinch.

Carmarthenshire, the old Carmarthenshire, was one of the epicentres of activity and there were still many old people who had seen a candle, and only they were qualified to say what age the dead person would be, a matter of some consequence in a farm, say, with many living souls, including the servants, who were often tubercular.

A small candle for a child, a brief light.
A larger candle for an adult, its flame guttering as if in a draught.
A white candle for a woman.
A red one for a man.

It was all somehow classified just as surely as it was preordained.

Daniels visited seven old people’s homes, with his voice recorder and his notebook, detailing apparitions from Pendine to Llansawel, thin illuminations in the conifered valleys of Brechfa and candles manifest in cottages high in the high sheep folds above Rhandirmwyn. He also visited farmers in isolated tenancies, and dutifully recorded both their sightings and responses to them, and as he did so he realized just how lucky he was to have done the work now, when all these people were still alive. Five years more, ten years certainly, and they would all have been dead, their recollections turned to gossamer.

Daniels’ desire to see a corpse candle for himself grew more and more. He volunteered to work in a hospice just outside Llandeilo, and put his name down, time and time again for the night shift, but to no avail. Then one of the other volunteers moved to Birkenhead and he was asked to cover.

Then came the awful realisation. It came as a flash, a unbidden epiphany (as if there’s any other kind), that these people didn’t just die but, rather had been killed, and those who saw the candles were manifesting their own dark and troubled consciences.

And so he knew how he could see one: his own corpse candle.

One morning he was reading the Reverend D.G.Williams’ collection of Carmarthenshire folk literature, about how unwise it was to interfere with the passage of a corpse candle if it passed in front of you: a blacksmith, William John y gof, was struck down mortally from his horse when he tried to stop a candle crossing open ground in front of him – and of the three candles seen in the waters of the river near Golden Grove. Later that same night three coach travellers were claimed by the black waters.

Daniels realised that he would have to murder to satisfy his folklorist’s deepening interest in the subject.

So that Thursday, on the night shift, he stole all the makings of a lethal injection from the pharmacy cupboard. He identified Meryl Williams, aged ninety one and demented as can be, as someone with no real quality of life, his only flimsy justification for what he was about to do. And having hidden the syringe, and secreted the phial of Fentanyl – sometimes served in lollipops to cancer sufferers ­– he sat in the comfortable chairs in the conservatory to wait for the flicker.

When it came he had no idea he was watching the last illuminating moments of his own life’s journey, the candle burning defiantly, as if casually aware of that one last glorious gasp of sudden and transpiring air.

He sat there staring at the candle, reached out to hold it. Found that he could, and that it seemed to guide him. Into that terrible terrain, that moss filled bog, haunted by the shades of all the other would be murderers. His fellow travellers. Each clutching his own light, as if in fear.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis