The Final Candlemark
Contrast. It is critical to everything around us, and yet we acknowledge it so fleetingly. It is only by the light that we can see shadows, it is because these two states mix that we see the depth of details. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but often we are drawn closer to beauty when something we detest is brought forth. Never do we bask so much in the comfort of a state of ease than when it is following a trial of pain … never do we desire so much for ease than when facing utter despair. Yet in every loss there is some gain, it just may take the heart time to grasp its meaning.
Hardly a breath stirred in the room. Heads downcast and paws folded, like statues carved in stone they sat pensively in the oppressive silence. They remained as though surrounding an altar in the midst of some solemn ritual, an unbroken circle with their focal point at the center. From my place where I perched on the shuttered window ledge I observed their devotion, removed from the immediate and yet a part of the whole. I had stumbled upon them quite by accident days ago, and as the candlemarks burned become acquainted with the imminent loss. It mattered not what brought me to the doorstep, what sort of bard would I be if I abandoned them now?
Upon his muzzle thick whiskers grown brittle by age covered his once strong features. He had a broad face where time had chiseled the lines of a smile for how often he wore it. Being an otter of the brucach helped there, for they were known to be a jovial lot. No stranger to hardship, his calloused paws bore the evidence of one who had worked with the water all the days of his life, the lines of the nets and ship’s ropes woven patterns into his furry hide. Scars of many a battle with a toothy beast from the deep left bald patches. Fisherbeast, leader, father, friend, protector. All these things he said without words for he could no longer speak for himself … days ago the disease had stolen his speech locking him within his own body. And now all we could do was wait, five souls whose altar was the otter who lay in his deathbed. Four his kin, and one the bard who would sing Denaidh to his final home.
Pulling my knees up to my chin, I rested my head there trying not to disrupt the family’s vigil. There had been silence for many candlemarks now, there seemed nothing left to be said. In the flicker of the candle on the nightstand I observed the four otters that formed the tight knit family. Nansaidh, his wife hovered just beside the head of the bed. Her half lidded eyes red with the tears of grief already shed. How I wished I could coax her into telling me once more about Denaidh’s first fishing trip, have her recall their wedding, the birth of one of the whelps. But I knew by one glance that her heart would break at such a request. The time for that had already come and gone. On the opposite side of the bed Bricius, their oldest son, sat taciturn and staring at his tightly clasped paws as though they could hold his father on this earth longer by will alone. Beside him the middle whelp had also been a son, Seoras glanced up at every change of breath that came from the bed. A mixture of dread and weariness lined his eyes each time. It was inevitable, but even still, the anticipation is often the worst. Beside her mother sat the youngest of the three whelps, Ganeida reached out a paw and placed it upon her mother’s shoulder. No words, just a simple comforting gesture. Though all three children were fully grown, they had returned to the home of their birth at the news that Denaidh had taken a turn for the worse. The signs were beyond denial that his wick was burning thin.
Though locked in solemn silence now, when I had first come upon the earthen cottage days before the stories they told of their father could fill a bard’s repertoire for a year. Staring idly at the flicker of the candle I let my mind wander over the amazing life of one otter named Denaidh that I might do his life song justice.
Lives rarely begin amazing, it is rather the experiences that surround one that makes it remarkable. Denaidh was born on the banks of the lake, son to a woodworker the young otter found himself more often in the water than out of it! Applying the skills to shape wood that his father had bestowed upon him it wasn’t long before Denaidh sailed his own homemade boats out onto the waters and experimented in catching fish by speed diving over the side. Living fast and free, Denaidh soon cast his home anchor aside and sailed a well made ship down the river to the pulling waves of the ocean beyond. Always a smile on his face, he acquired a strong loyal crew along the way that gravitated toward his fair nature. Skipper of the ship entailed great responsibility, but the otter had a knack for inspiring his crew to work together.
At a market just upriver Denaidh was selling some of his latest catch when his eyes fell upon Nansaidh. She had recalled with a found laugh how the sailor’s paws awkwardly caressed the fish he held as he had murmured, “Your eyes sparkle like the shimmer of the sea on a fish scale.” The rest of the day they spent paw in paw strolling along the banks of the river all the way to the sea. It was a night of pure magic as he told her of his travels out into the blue waves; to islands of wonder, foreign lands filled with strange beasts, battles on the waters with creatures of the deep. To an ottermaid land locked in one shire the whole of her life, his tales sparked a fire in her heart. She knew, before the sun kissed the horizon that she had stumbled upon the other half of her soul.
They were married in the high summer to with a merry feast. Within a year Bricius was born. And though Denaidh’s sailing kept him from home for long stretches of time, when he sailed back into port and returned to the lake shire home he was always there for them. With a smile broader than the ocean, he would sit before the hearth and relate his latest adventures … and often other stories of the past he retold time and again. And yet, even though the shire had heard them a hundred times a hundred they listened and laughed as though it were the first.
Seoras had already seen a seasons turning when the Age of the Keel Race began. Somehow, despite how peaceful Denaidh’s spirit was and that he was but a humble a fisherbeast, his ship became entangled with the great shore battles of those years. The bards called to the shores in those bitter times told of a terrible competition between the those of the old ways and city folk to design the best ships for fishing the generous waters. What began as a simple advancement became a dire and bloody race where entire ships were destroyed and crews slain in acts of pure greed. Denaidh’s ship worked to supply food to the shires cut off by blockades. If the sly otter skipper had been caught, it would have been certain death. His whole crew knew it, and risked it just the same. Each and every beast contemplated their own family receiving the supplies they ran past the blockades. Hundreds of mouths were fed thanks to the humble bravery of Denaidh’s ship alone. At the tail end of this bitter war Ganeida was born.
With three whelps now thriving under his roof, Denaidh cherished every moment he could spare to remain at him. On the shores of the lake they would cast lines from fishing poles spending the afternoon trying to catch the biggest fish, Denaidh would spin great yarns telling the biggest whooper of a tale. Wide-eyed with wonder his children believed his every word. Out in the woods, strolling paw in paw with Nansaidh they would tell their whelps of the trees and creatures that surrounded them, bestowing skills and knowledge. Ganeida had closed her eyes and smiled as she remembered when a doe and her fawn stepped cautiously across the forest path, just paws lengths from them as she rode upon her father’s shoulders, her favorite view of the world.
When they were older Bricius and Seoras came aboard the ship for a day, setting sail with the crew long enough to get a feel for the ocean beneath their paws. Though neither one chased that dream any further, the day spent out on the waters seeing what their father did remained forever in their memories. When the sailor festival came that year the fun and games seemed to never end as the families of the ships gathered to share their common thread. Strong families, bound together by love. Wives who knew their husbands would be gone for long stretches of time. Wives who knew that at any time this departure might be his last. Somehow, they kept this sad possibility from their whelps.
But fate did not have that in store for Denaidh. Each time he sailed from port he returned home again with arms flung wide to embrace his beloved family. The years turned on and with it the growth of his family as one by one they matured, stumbling across loves of their own and beginning families. Now Denaidh and Nansaidh were not just parents but grandparents gazing with pride in their eyes at the love they had created. Now grandpa had grandwhelps to tell of his favorite big fish and shipwreck stories.
The salt had become part of his coat showing in its white tips, the twinkle of starlight embedded in his eyes, the water of the sea flowed in his veins. Though the years were turning to the point when most beasts sought a less active role, Deniadh’s paws did not wish to release the tiller. Bones ached and muscles complained, but only those who saw past his masking smile knew the truth. He buried deep the burden of his strenuous years. Even when the knell rang out, the smile remained. Out of respect, the crew continued to serve him unquestionably, this wise and generous soul.
It began as a cold. Something simple, nagging, common. But it never went away. The seasons turned and the cough continued. The druid healers listened when Denaidh was pushed into their hall by a concerned Nansaidh. They knew something was wrong, but the usual remedies Nansaidh had given him had not done the trick. So they tried their methods. Scant moments of time were stolen, but the progression just continued even when the deep healing was applied. Finally the head druid embraced Nansaidh and tearfully told her to let him live as he desired … for the time upon this plain is limited.
They all knew, whelp and wife alike that Denaidh was defined by his love of his work. When his ever-failing health would force him to lay down his line that would be the end of who he was. Despite their fears for his safety, they let him sail on. Each time he returned they listened to his stories, asked his for advice even if they had knowledge of the answer, craving a chance to build just one more memory—for they never knew when the last one was coming. Every beast saw the signs as his breath came harder and harder, the constant struggle for air began to deplete his once inexhaustible strength. Were that not bad enough, during the winter fishing lull Nansaidh saw his access to memories being stripped away. Moment by moment times of the past were fading from her beloved like the ocean’s tides pulling the sand from the shore. At least his smile remained. That same sweet smile that brought strength and inspired such joy. And so she clung to his hands even as the strength and coordination began to fade.
Denaidh’s paws struggled to obey him and repair the nets, his memory fought to recall the order of the rope bindings. The work was getting harder for him, and his crew quietly stepped up to help him as much as he would allow. The ailing otter refused to admit that the tasks were getting out of paw. Navigation was becoming a greater issue as Denaidh lost access to part of the map of his world in his head. He knew things were missing and simply could not get access to them.
The struggle grew more desperate when his paws lost dexterity enough that even holding a low tension rope was beyond him. Nansaidh found her home-bound Denaidh sullen, feeling out of place the otter simply stared off at the hills that blocked his beloved ocean. The closest he could come was a staggered gate down to the lake front that left him gasping for air. Nothing she could do would lift his spirits, the sparkle in his eyes was relentlessly stricken by the disease. Piece by piece, muscle by muscle, memory by memory he was locked inside himself. The lively Denaidh full of spirit and life had gradually been stripped away. Until at last so vanished the smile.
I imagined him as they had described his vibrant spirit. Sleek and lean, he had moved about the world with a merry gate. Bright eyes sparkled back as he worked with a song on his lips. Although they say he was no singer, apparently quite tone deaf, it never stopped him from lustily belting out an old tune. With paws that could haul a line in any weather his footpaws were equally sure on both land and sea. There was always a warmth about him, even when he was disciplining crew he had an understanding air about him.
When I opened my eyes there he lay upon the bed. The muscles had deflated leaving behind the contours of a face much older than his true age. Yesterday had been his birthday, his sixty-second. The once bristling whiskered maw of a strong otter drooped where the muscles failed to hold up cheeks. His eyes had closed days ago in a sleep deep and unyielding. Thin arms and paws laid stretched out upon the woolen blanket, the skin hanging off the wasting frame. Beneath the blanket his chest rose and fell slowly, too slowly with the rasp effected by his blocked lungs. Even with his slackened face the evidence of his smile remained in the lines found there. Bittersweet to know how he must have looked to others grinning as wide as the day is long … and here he lay now devoid of all expression. Through the stories they had shared with me I felt I had come to know this slan as though I had spent years working the rigging under his gentle guidance.
The candle guttered on the nightstand, every eye in the room shifted to the flame, the first motion for ages. From the bed nothing had altered, just the unnaturally slow rasp of breath in and out. My eyes could not help but gaze back to the flicker of the candle’s flame, there are ways in this world that even a bard cannot explain. Like how a candle’s flame can predict the future. Unfolding from my perch on the window ledge I quietly walked up to the foot of the bed. Physically nothing seemed to have changed, the breaths still came as sluggishly as they had for a day now.
But the flame knew.
Nansaidh reached forward to pull up the blanket a little tighter to his chin. “He . . . he looks so cold.”
“Shall I get another blanket?” Almost standing, Ganeida was stopped when her father failed to inhale at the time he should have.
Once more all eyes were drawn to a focal point, this time it was Denaidh. Impossibly long we waited. One shoulder after another fell in sorrow. Then he gasped, drawing in a slow shallow rasp. Their eyes closed in the anguish of all those days, dreading the inevitable pain of loss. This was too much, too long sitting vigil. I came to wonder what kept him from his final release.
Tentatively, Nansaidh reached out and embraced his paw. Touching his forehead with hers she whispered just above a breath, “My heart is always yours, now and forever.”
There was no breeze in the tightly shuttered room, but with a hiss and a wisp of smoke the candlestick went out.
That was what he had waited for, one last declaration of love. The beauty of those words carried his spirit on its final journey. As she pulled back from embracing him, Nansaidh’s weary gaze studied his still features. Only the hearth fire lit the room now, but even in its distant relief the motionless whiskers were testament.
No words could be found. Only silence as a mother, her sons, and her daughter watched for the breath that would never come. Out of respect I bowed my head, waiting patiently as the silent tears fell like a cleansing rain. All this time they had held the sorrow in, now it was at last free to flow.
* * * * *
It was a dusk to remember. The setting sun set the lake ablaze with those gathered on the shore who had come to see off Denaidh for his final sailing. Atop the planks of his favorite vessel he lay on a bed of kindling, dressed in his finest tunic. At the end of the dock stood his family, paws locked in an unbroken circle, at the center was a fire urn crackling away. With the wake completed, and the last preparations made, there was but one task to be done before the otter could return to the ash from whence he came.
Standing atop a knoll I reached up my paw and enclosed the small kenaz that hung from my neck. Willing the magic to lend me a set of uilleann pipes, as the family had told me the old fisherbeast would have asked for them. Working the bellow with my elbow I let the first mellow tones carry into the air, the soft mournful wail of the lament I had intended. My fingers stirred over the holes in the pipe, as I let my heart remember this beast through the eyes of the others I realized a lament was not what he would would have desired. Gradually, the mood of the piece shifted. Denaidh’s spirit guided my paws lending a lighter air to my original melody. Yes, we would remember. Gazing into the first star winking in the darkening sky I altered the words of his life song.
“The sun can still be found shining
Beyond the leaden clouds of rain
The heart is still believing
Amidst the shadow of pain
Time has ceased your wandering
Beloved watch o’er your bed
As the candle marked each hour
Remembering the life you led
Do not grieve for the steps not taken
Mourn thee not for the hours not lived
Only dwell on the joy and the laughter
The ripples cast out is what the soul can give
Through your eyes the world was golden
Silver waters brought wealth in fin
Selfless journeys carried hardships
When wizened hearts beat not to sin
Joyful arms were there embracing
When the time came to call home
Stories are gems worth the taking
As your heart had always known
Joyful arms were there embracing
When the time came to call home
Stories are gems worth the taking
As your heart had always known
Journey on to heaven’s keeping
Beyond the pain and sorrow
Watching o’er your blessed loved ones
With every sunrise of the morrow
For the candle called you on
To the final great beyond
Where you smile to greet the dawn
We shall forever sing your song
Wisp away the smoke of forever
Burned away the wax of time
Ripple on the waves of gestures
The spiral carries ever on.”
The pipes continued as I watched Nansaidh’s paw unclasp from Bricius’s to claim a long torch from the urn. With as much dignity as she could muster, the ottermatron approached the rail of the ship. Blowing a kiss to the wind she hefted the burning torch onto the ship where the flames licked and caught the kindling ablaze. Once they were certain it had caught well enough, a couple of his sailors cut the ship loose and pushed her away out into the lake.
Fire and water, the dance of the flames on the mirror of the lake made endless by the starlit sky above. He rose with the smoke, his spirit ascended in the flames. Whether his family sensed it or not, I never knew. But on the knoll where I stood playing a sea shanty whose words many had long forgotten I felt him bid a joyous farewell.
The ship burned for hours with the shire’s eyes ever vigilant. Knowing he had truly departed, I slipped back into the humble dwelling drawn to the nightstand where the remainder of the candlestick had cooled. No one had touched it in the days that had passed. Studying this humble item I noted once more there was nothing unusual about this wax and wick. No spell had been placed upon it, no magic embedded in the wax. How curious that it should have known. The end of the wick had not yet been reached, and yet it went out … like so many lives half spent.
“Why did you come here?” Barely turning I discovered the source of the drained voice was Ganeida, the stains of recent tears lined her face.
My paw released the candlestick, leaving it once more on the nightstand. “Sometimes a bard is simply drawn to where they should be. Drifting, like a seed on the wind. I was meant to be here for his passing, you were a very lucky family.”
She closed her eyes, fighting back tears. “But he’s gone.”
“Gone?” I let a smile cross my face, “Never gone because he is here.” I pointed to her heart. “For all of you have shared his life with me, the stories and the lessons he taught you. He will never truly be gone as long as you share what he has gifted you with.”
Her eyes were puzzled, too near the pain to truly hear the meaning behind my words.
Gesturing with my paw I pulled her closer to me, covering her heart I explained. “Our lives are never isolated, they always touch others. Your father had a gift for inspiring others to seek out the best in themselves, to work hard and be happy for the ability to do so. All of you have been touched by his joyful diligence. He was strong, that is something he left as a legacy in all of you.”
Her eyes responded to the gravity of my words, falling to the floor. “But so much was taken … ”
My finger pressed against her chin, working against the gravity fighting to pull it back down. “One day you will find his strength to smile again. One day you will see beyond what has taken and grasp what was given. It will not be tomorrow, it may not even be in the turn of the seasons. But you will, because he wants you to. That is what he wishes.”
She heaved a heavy sigh, “How can I smile again when he is not here to make me laugh with one of his stories?”
My own heart skipped a beat as I was forced to close my eyes at a memory of my own. The utter despair as I stood at the memory stone where my parents passing was recorded. No imagination was required to know how she felt for I had been at that very precipice. How can a spirit ever soar again when the source of their inspiration has been ripped from them?
Wrapping my arms around her I whispered, “You will remember when you tell his stories in your own voice. Your heart will rejoice in his memory when share in his spirit. With the spark of his generosity you will find a way to honor him, and in doing so he will lift you to greater heights.” Releasing her, I drew back to look in her pained eyes, “You must heal first, but once the wound has mended you may find a greater gift in exchange than you can imagine.”
Sniffling she shook her head, “Nothing can replace him.”
“You are right.” I grasped her paw and gave it a firm squeeze, “Nothing will ever replace him, but as his memories inspire you changes will fill that space. When there is a loss of a loved one there are but two paths to chose from; we can let the loss consume our hearts and turn us bitter, or we can let their spirit lift us to higher heights in their name. In you I see his strength and his joy. From this you will be made stronger.”
“How can you know that for certain?”
With a smile I let go of her paw, pulling away as I drifted towards the door, “Some things bards just know.” … like the candlestick foretelling the final candlemark. Out in the night air the scent of burning wood drifted on the breeze that toyed with my cloak. To my back was the flicker of the pyre in the middle of the lake, by the time the sun rose it would be gone, vanished beneath the lake waters. Gone, but never forgotten.
That is why we exist. The connections forged by each and every life as it tangles with the next. We tell of the coming and the going. We tell of the ties that bind and the events that sever. We tell of slan existence … but our voices are never alone. Our tales come from others as mundane and extraordinary as can be. Spirits are inspired by every manner of beast, and the legacy often passed on—of act and word. Beat on gentle heart, remember the simple love and joy. Remember how to laugh and smile, and cherish the wonders of the world you live in. We all must lose some things in our lives, it is how the soul grasps it that makes the difference in who we are.
This story was written years ago in memory of my father, Denny. For those who know the truth, The Final Candlemark parallels the real vigil of witnessing a vibrant life stripped away too soon by a dreadful affliction. It has taken me time and distance to feel confident in sharing this … but I know my family is not alone in enduring loss. That this story may bring comfort to another and shed light in their moment of sorrow, I honor my father this Father’s Day. Somewhere, beyond the shadowing veil that parts the living from the departed–he listens to every story we tell in his spirit.
My father–sailor, hard worker, lover of a good joke, and most of all–the original yarn-spinner in my life. I miss you.