Carry The Light

~Catherine Maya

"Shh!" the eldest girl scolded. "Sh! Quiet! They'll hear you!"

The giggles and conversations of the younger children subsided to mere whispers. They followed the girl they called Moira closely. The youngest of them all, a six-year-old boy called Ben, clung to Moira's hand fast. He was silent as the grave for fear of being scolded by the child-leader. But, his little ears were keen to the hushed conversations surrounding him.

"Do you think it's real?" one girl asked her traveling companions in no more than a whisper.

"Nah," whispered the boy Ben recognized as the girl's older brother. "It's just a story. I heard the adults talking about it. They don't believe in it."

"Well, I believe it," another girl chimed in. "It's so terribly romantic. Besides, why else would we be out here?"

"Who cares if it's real or not? I look forward to this every year!" the third girl, nearly Moira's age, finished a little too loud.

"Then you should know to keep your voice down," Moira whispered harshly, shooting the girl a glaring look. The girl was immediately silent.

The children climbed over boulders, ducked under narrow passages, and finally maneuvered themselves one by one, through the holes in a collapsed archway. This sometimes took hours and the littlest children were the first ones to see the other side, and would doze while waiting for the others to get through. Moira was the last one through, and Ben, being terrified to be separated from her for so long, raced to her side and seized her hand fiercely. He smiled up at her, but she wasn't looking at him. She was staring sadly at the maze she had just come through.

The yearly expedition through these tunnels was a tradition cherished by the children of this community. Only the children were able to take the journey, for the passages were difficult to navigate. The traveller had to be small, quick, and agile. Moira was quite short for her fourteen years, and much more agile than many others her age. Therefore, she was the eldest child to ever make the journey, and the others looked to her as a leader, a matriarch of sorts. But Moira was growing older every day, and she knew, in the deepest part of her heart, that this would be the last voyage she would take to their little Mecca.

Ben watched her sad face, utterly confused. The other children danced and laughed freely, for they were now far enough away that no adult could hear them. And even if they could, they could never get through the maze to them. Moira looked down at Ben; his young, innocent face staring up at her, and she grinned at him.

"Come on, all of you!" she instructed loudly, walking forward, taking the lead with Ben at her side.

This journey was one passed between the children of the community for generations. No one could quite say when it began, but when the leaves began to turn bright colors in the other world, every child would be whispering in excitement to each other about the upcoming trip. The older children would tell stories to those too young to make the journey about what went on, and what to look forward to by that special age of six. Every generation of travelers were convinced that the adults had no recollection of their own childhood journeys, if they even believed the trip existed all those years ago. They faithfully believed that the adults took no notice of the whispered stories and annual excursions. But, of course, the adults remembered that part of their childhood very fondly. However, for the sake of encouraging their children's secret thrill, the adults closed their ears and turned blind eyes to their children, who were nearly bursting with excitement. But, if a child was caught by an adult sneaking out to meet the group of children, they were immediately sent back to their beds; prohibited from making the journey until the next year, when they may be more responsible with the great "secret". Even those who only recently were unable to make the trip, would follow the adult's example and leave it to those younger than themselves to tell the stories. It had become a silent symbol of adulthood to no longer be able to make the journey.

Moira would be one of those adults next year. A tear rolled down her rusty colored cheek as she thought about never again being able to walk through the comforting tunnels of childhood. She would never again be among these children as she was now. Even little Ben, for all his admiration of her now, would be taught to fear being caught by her in the year to come. She brushed it off, shook it away, determined to enjoy the here and now. "Nearly there!" she called. "Just around this corner."

The children, loudly displaying their excitement, raced ahead of Moira and Ben, leaving them well behind. Moira's pace was steady, though, and Ben made no effort to hurry her or break away to join the others. By the time the pair made it around the bend, the others were clustered around a metal gate, their little fingers laced into the bars, peering through as if they could see through the rusty door just beyond the gate.

"Stand back!" Moira ordered in her musical voice. The children quickly moved to the wall opposite her and watched with tense joy as she pulled open the little box by the gate with great difficulty. Moira saw many children grab each other's hands, squealing with suppressed excitement, and even she tightened her hand on Ben's. Then, in one momentous motion, Moira flipped a rusty old switch and the door slid back to reveal a blocked off tunnel beyond it.

The children screamed and cheered, jumping up and down and dancing for joy. Girls giggled and spun in circles with their arms thrown wide. Boys ran to the gate and attempted to climb it, yelling as if someone other than their companions could hear them. Even Moira, who was the most composed of all of them, laughed loudly at little Ben's wonder-struck face.

"Moira!" one bold boy called out. "Can we open the gate? Please?"

"It didn't open last year, Caleb, and it won't this year." Moira smiled despite herself. "But you can go ahead and try."

Of course, as they all knew, no matter how hard they tugged or pushed; no matter how many children lent their strength, the gate did not budge. Dejected as always, the children backed away from the gate, admitting defeat, at least for another year.

"It's a spell!" one girl proclaimed. "That tunnel's sacred ground. A spell holds the gate closed so that no one can touch it."

"Rubbish!" one of the older boys called out. "It's rusted shut, that's all."

"All right, everyone!" Moira gained control again. "Come and sit in the circle! It's time to begin!" As the children scurried to form a circle, Moira and Ben moved to the gate, sitting with their backs to it, Moira placing herself at the head. "Is everyone ready?" They all nodded eagerly. "Okay." She took a deep breath and began the ritual she had led for three years before.

Reaching inside the front of her shirt, Moira drew a necklace out and pulled it over her head. She tucked the little keepsake between her feet, holding it there tenderly and securely. She pulled a large sack off her shoulder, wrenched the drawstring open and began pulling out large candles and passing them around. The children set them evenly apart inside their circle. Moira struck a match and lit a long, thin wooden stick. "Ben," she handed him the lit stick delicately, "you're the only Six this year. It's your job to walk around the circle and light all the candles... carefully," Moira stressed the last word.

Ben, struck and honored, slowly stood and meticulously began to light each candle. His pace never bothered them, they expected nothing else. This part of the ritual was always the more drawn out and the children savored it.

"We light these candles," Moira began to pronounce, watching Ben carefully, "in remembrance of the two who left us many, many years ago. They are a symbol of their light always carried inside each of us. It is said that without these lovers, our world would never have existed as it does to this day. No one can say for certain how long ago they lived, or if they lived at all, but they are infamous in our world, nonetheless. And because of them," Moira concluded as Ben sat next to her again, the stick still burning brightly, "we gather here every year to celebrate their lives, and thank them for our own existence." She took the stick and blew out the flame, the candles now glowing warmly.

"Moira?" a younger boy, opposite her, spoke quickly, desperate to get out the question he'd been holding in all year. "What were their names?"

"No one really knows," Moira answered kindly, despite being interrupted. "Some say that you can find their names in the old graves deep in the earth. But there are so many names of those lost down there... who knows which is theirs."

This caused a murmur of excitement around the circle. The prospect of possibly finding proof of the mysterious legend fed their minds with a burning hunger. They sat poised, hanging on Moira's every word. They knew she was the wisest and never questioned her facts, even if they were vague.

"Tell us again how they died," one girl on Moira's right begged, leaning forward.

"Well, legend says that the woman grew very sick and slipped away from our world at a very young age. But not before she had given birth to a child."

"A boy!" One little one burst out, though Moira couldn't tell which.

"Yes, a boy." She smiled serenely, kindly, at the faces of the children she led. "But, the man, being very unlike other men of the time, was so overcome with the grief of losing this woman, who he saw as his only equal, died before his son had grown up."

"And the son wept and wept for his mother and father," an older boy, about eleven, recited.

"For days and days and days," Moira built on the story. "And so, one night, when the son was tired from weeping, and too weak to make his way home, he fell asleep here... in the very center of this circle." She paused for Ben's gasp of surprise as he starred at the center of the circle, as if he could see the son asleep there. "But he was soon awakened by a bright light. When he opened his eyes, he saw them: his parents, standing behind this very gate." Ben spun around, as if he expected to find them there too. He wasn't alone, many had turned to stare through the bars.

"'We know you are unhappy, son,'" Caleb continued the story as he stared through the gate. "The man spoke to him. 'But you must not weep for us. We are together again... and we will always be with you.'"

"And the boy just sat there, speechless and more overjoyed than he had been in his life," Moira encouraged, refusing to look behind herself. Instead her focus was fixed on the necklace set between her feet.

"He saw the woman, his mother," a young girl continued. "But she was so overwrought with tears at seeing her son again that she couldn't speak to him."

"Ghosts can cry?" a child whispered and someone answered with a harsh. "Sh!"

"'It is your turn now, son. You must tell the story of our love, and our love for you. Tell everyone who will listen,' the father told him, and then they disappeared, never to be seen again," Moira concluded. "And that is why we gather here every year. To remember their love in hopes of seeing them again."

Everyone settled back, no longer watching the gate, but each other in wonder and awe as they always did after the story concluded.

"All right. We'll have to head back soon. Does everyone have their rose?" Moira surveyed as each child held up their flowers, some of them nearly crushed to oblivion. "One at a time, now," Moira instructed. The children jumped to their feet and jostled each other to get as close to the gate as they could. "Make sure everyone gets a chance, now!"

With Ben at her side, Moira stepped up to the gate, a perfect white rose in each of their hands. "What do I do?" Ben whispered up to her.

"Say whatever you like to them, or nothing at all. Whatever you feel." Moira never looked at the little boy. She was transfixed on the empty tunnel.

Ben, unsure of what he was doing, just delicately tossed his rose into the pile beyond the gate. He watched Moira close her eyes and whisper something. She seemed to grow taller as he watched her. Finally she tossed her rose and it landed on the dirt floor among the others.

"Okay everybody! That's it for this year!" Moira announced, spinning to meet the faces of the children.

In a joint effort, the children chattered away as they picked up the candles and packed them away, not to be used again for another year. Moira, however, hung back. Ben found her against the gate, staring into the legendary tunnel. He stepped up to her cautiously.

"Do you believe in it, Moira?" Ben gazed up at her.

"Yeah." Ben was suddenly aware that Moira was crying. "Yeah I do."

"But..." he stuttered, "how do you know?"

Moira shrugged. "Just a feeling," she smiled through her tears.

Ben glanced down and caught sight of something in Moira's hand. It was her necklace; dark brown leather worn thin with years. She had pulled something out of the little pouch and was running her fingers over it gently. He stared intensely and made out the form of a chipped porcelain white rose. But, as fast as he had seen it, she had stowed it away and the necklace was stuffed back down the front of her outfit.

"Come on, little brother," Moira took Ben's hand, her bright blue eyes sparkling at him.

The other children had already disappeared around the corner and Moira noticed that one of the other older kids had taken the sack of candles. She sighed sadly, but didn't let Ben see.

"Moira!" the boy tugged on his big sister's arm, spinning her to face the gate again.

There they were, just as the legend had said; bathed in golden light, just beyond the bars. The man was so tall, so much taller than they'd ever imagined him. His long golden hair covered his body and his layers of clothes were fantastically rugged. She was trim, with a kind face. Her white dress seemed to fit everything about her; her shape, her kindness, and love. They smiled at each other and then turned slowly, taking notice of the children. Moira saw piercing blue eyes that matched her own, and both she and Ben found the woman strangely like their own mother. The couple smiled at the children. Some astonishing impulse made Moira wave at them. The man and woman's light seemed to shine even brighter. The woman waved back and the man tipped his head to them. And then, slowly, hand-in-hand the couple turned and walked into the blocked off exit.

Breathless and in shock, Moira and Ben began laughing and couldn't stop. Finally Moira gained enough composure to lead her brother back toward the maze. It would be a long trip back home and Ben was tired already.

"You know, Ben, this is my last year," she informed him, still laughing to her amazement.

"No!" he protested through his hysteria.

"It's okay. You'll have to lead everyone before you know it. And you can tell everyone what we just saw!"

"No," Ben took one last glance back, smiling at the rusty, stoic gate. "I think this was just for us."