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The Candle and the Flame
by David Norris

I understand now how Old Charley and my grandfather Bud spent all of those hours alone. Alone is a cruelty when it first begins, until the internal dialogue appears. Then we talk to ourselves just as eloquently as we used to with others, and have quite good conversations. Sometimes it is like a movie inside of our heads, and we talk to old friends in a letter-writing fashion, and they tell us wise things, and they listen to everything we have to say, and they never interrupt us, and they always understand.

There are times when I think the only difference between a crazy person and a sage is that one talks out loud and the other just thinks a lot. The same truths and the same total absurdities eventually come from both when we learn to listen to what they are saying. It is like learning a foreign language.

Old Charley sat on the side of a mountain in a tar-paper shack that he "built in a week of hard work," and he talked to animals he had made pets. Some were tame animals like dogs and cats; others were wild animals like weasels, and even a "gang of ants." I don't know if the ants had any more of an idea that they were pets than the dogs did. Who knows what is in an ant's mind, or a dog's mind, or even (as my mother once told me), what is in another human being's mind?

Bud was a cripple, and he stayed dirty a lot because it was so much work and so much pain to get in and out of a bathtub. I guess he could have taken birdbaths. But he never went anywhere. And nobody ever came to see him. And he wore his dirt in a way that it was like a suit of long-owned clothes. He sat in an old chair with everything he needed of immediate necessity stuffed into the sides of it, right where the rest of the world loses everything. He sat in that chair, and he played solitaire day after day. Sometimes he would count the money that he had saved up from his social security checks, and when he had gotten a big enough wad, he would go off gambling for a week or two over in Sunnymeade and lose every cent of it. He would come crawling back home ravaged from his drinking and sleep it off for a day or two. Then the depression would set in. That was about as much socializing as Bud ever did. He was a sad man.

A lot of people said both Old Charley and Bud were crazy, although they never connected the two. Charley was also a cripple, and he didn't take baths either. They were both hermits, and so very wise. And they're both dead now.

Charley lost his legs when he was a young man. He was driving a wagon down a mountainside. The wagon was loaded with fresh-cut tree logs to sell to the paper mill. A team of mules pulled his wagon. The brakes gave out, and the wagon ran over top of the mules. Young Charley was thrown under that wreck. "My toes on this foot, they are where my heel is supposed to be. We didn't have no money for a fancy doctor, you know."

If Charley had been unbroken, he would have stood about 5'11" and weighed around 180 pounds. However, because of his physical deformity, he was barely 5'6". If you sat up close to him and looked beneath the worn-out old clothes and the film of dirt, you would see that he was a handsome man and well-built from the waste up. Strong shoulders and chest from years of hard work. But it was the bottom half that everyone saw. He walked with a swinging motion from side to side, as far as a pendulum in an old clock. And when he set down his crippled foot, the foot was turned almost backwards so that the toe pointed behind him.

When I was a little boy, he scared me.


Twenty-five years later, I find myself living in a different land, standing alone within Buddha's temple as the fall season approaches, protected from the November rain by the temple's magnificent old wooden sides and blue tiled roof. I hold one lit candle in my hand among a thousand candles flickering in the cool, damp breeze. I stare into the flame's heart, and my own mind flickers as I think of the ones who have died this year following hearts fueled by ideas held different from others following hearts fueled by ideas. It has become a pageant woven in violent colors upon the tapestry of this past year, a painting done in reds, greens and blues, anger, lost youth and sorrow. I walk out into the moonlit night and see the moon's image on the surface of the lake. Inside my mind I begin to weave words together into patterns.

Essentially, all thinkers are knitters and sewers of thought. Whether we walk among the hills or sit in our easy chairs or bow before Buddha, we turn the ideas and the visions over and over in our minds. We look at the gemstones of thought, the facets of perspective. We turn the stones to appreciate the flashes of color and light; we twist the darning needles into elaborate patterns that appear before us and then form themselves into conclusions. We make shirts and blouses and suits and wall hangings out of thought. And sometimes, every piece we stitch has a hole in it. We sew little pieces together into great patchwork quilts. And then what do we do with our quilts and fine shirts and silk blouses, the montages that we hang upon our walls?

We sit back and look at them or place them on hangers or fold them and put them in drawers, or we wear them or sleep under them to keep warm, or we give them away; sometimes, we throw them out because we don't want them anymore, and neither does anybody else.

So thought is nothing more than apparel and bedding when we look at it a certain way, in a foreign tongue. These words were woven in the sand of Lamai Beach in the Gulf of Thailand; they were sewn into sentences late one night after leaving Pagoda Park in Seoul. I do not know if they will be hung up or worn or slept under or folded and put away, or if perhaps like the candle, flicker and go out.


WRITER’S BIO: David Norris has lived in Asia since 1985. He currently resides in Seoul, Korea, where he lectures in writing and literature for the University of Maryland University College Asia. His work has appeared in The Chariton Review, Taproot Literary Review, Poetry San Francisco, and The Dan River Anthology. David was born in the small town of Covington, Virginia, way up in the Alleghany Mountains. He left when he was 20 and has been traveling ever since.


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