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Better to Curse the Darkness than Light a Candle
by Joseph Cusumano
They mockingly call me “Diogenes,” believing my lantern is carried merely to illuminate my path each night through the dark streets of Philadelphia. Yet it is not an honest man for whom I search, but a scoundrel, a liar, an adulterer, a thief, a murderer – ideally someone who has been all of these – for I must find a soul darker than my own.
This quest resulted from an earlier and more innocent one, first undertaken while I was a young man blissfully wed to Patience, who brimmed with optimism over what heaven had apparently planned for us. Not content with the considerable success that I enjoyed as the proprietor of Silsbury Shipping Company, I sought more wealth, the respect of Philadelphia’s business and merchant class, and especially the adoration that Patience showered upon me with each step my growing business took. On the occasion of my boasting to her that I now employed upwards of fifty men who labored on my behalf, moving goods from our warehouses to multiple sites hundreds of miles west, she swelled with pride in my accomplishment and even her passions were aroused.
My success was achieved before the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. When the canal first opened, there was no appreciable loss of business, merely a slowing in our rate of growth. However, by 1829, the volume of goods shipped through the canal at lower cost than any land route could hope to provide had created a disastrous effect on my personal economy and, to a lesser extent, on all of Philadelphia as well. Even the powerful textile manufacturers were adversely affected. If my business had suffered only a loss of revenue, not all would be lost, but I had taken substantial loans from banks to further my seemingly unending profits, loans based upon the value of my business and personal property, including our home. As the city’s fortunes declined, other borrowers faced the same issues as I, and the banks to which I was indebted ignored my entreaties to renegotiate the terms of the loans that might well be my ruin.
A man raised in a devout Calvinist community should never have resorted to what I did next, but had I not been taught that a man’s eternal fate could be ascertained by the material success and wealth he amassed on earth? If I lost everything, would it not be proof that I had no place among the chosen? How would my community judge me? Worst of all, how would Patience judge me? Thus did I begin a life of deceit, a series of mounting lies to everyone, especially my beloved.
“Charles,” she asked one September morning as I was preparing to leave for work, “have not the city’s declining fortunes affected your business?”
“Hardly at all,” I responded. “By letting part of our work force go, I’ve saved enough in labor costs that we can weather a moderate decline indefinitely. There is no need to trouble yourself over this.”
“But what of the men and their families whom you no longer employ? What is to happen to them?”
“I have pledged to each and every one of them three-fourths of their salary until they find new employment. They were immensely grateful.”
“Charles! What a lovely thing to do! But I shouldn’t be surprised, for it’s the right thing to do, and you are a righteous man indeed.” She had completely accepted this fabrication, hugged me, and bestowed a passionate kiss upon me. A righteous man would be consumed with guilt by this, but I was already preparing my next lie.
“Patience, my darling, I won’t be home for supper tonight. I have an important business meeting to attend and will return very late. You could visit your mother tonight, if you wish.” She happily agreed to this suggestion.
We believe work to be virtuous, but where is virtue when one can find so little to do? Incoming orders to transport goods to points west had plunged. The warehouse, greatly enlarged and refurbished with borrowed money, was less than a third occupied with goods to be transported. Thus, I spent the day on the edge of despair, reading the increasingly insistent letters from the banks. These I answered with deceitful replies, claiming that new orders had risen over the previous month and that the debt I had incurred would be paid with only slight additional delay.
At the end of this disheartening day, I rode west to an inn at the outskirts of the city, being of no mind to feign merriment with the merchants and professional people who frequented the establishments in the business district. However, once I reached the inn, a glass of wine and a hearty stew of boar raised my spirits considerably and prepared me for what lay ahead. I then resumed a westward course, thankful for pleasant autumnal weather and a dry road free of ruts. The change in the color of the trees was as beautiful as any I could remember, providing welcome distraction from my growing unease regarding the two sisters I sought. I had known of these two since childhood and had been warned to shun them. Almost never did they venture into the city, and I had not seen them for years. All details now forgotten, I remembered them only as middle aged spinsters.
More quickly than I would have chosen, the cabin reputed to be the home of the two sisters became visible as I surmounted the crest of a hill and gazed down into a shallow valley. The cabin appeared in a rather poor state of repair and looked uninhabited but for the smoke drifting from its chimney. After dismounting and securing the reins of my horse to an odd piece of pagan statuary in front of the cabin, I approached the door and knocked hesitantly. There was no response of any kind, and a part of me began to hope that none was forthcoming. I knocked a second time with still no sign of any stirring within. When I turned to remount my horse, a woman’s voice broke the silence. “Whom do you seek?”
A glance back at the cabin door showed it still shut, but a dark-haired woman now stood at the left side of the cabin, some ten yards away. She appeared more vigorous than I expected, likely at the transition from her third decade to her fourth, a youthfulness still lingering. Then a second woman appeared at her side, appearing of similar age and visage although slightly smaller in stature. Neither showed any hint of apprehension at the arrival of a stranger. As they approached, it took some effort to stand my ground.
“Who are you, and how may we be of service?” the second woman asked.
“I am Charles Silsbury, a businessman in Philadelphia. I… my business that is, has fallen upon hard times,” I replied, reluctant to admit my misfortune even to these two strangers.
“Pray come inside and have tea,” the slightly taller sister responded. The inside of the cabin, a single room, was clean and orderly, and they bade me to be seated at a small round table near the hearth. In one corner of the room stood an old spinning wheel. In another, two cupboards with multiple shelves held uncountable bottles, jars and tins. There was only one bed, its length placed against the wall opposite the front door and adjacent to a partially opened window. Four tall posts of polished mahogany supported the bed, and the remainder of the wooden furniture appeared to be equally well-fashioned.
The tea they served was highly aromatic, extremely hot, and flavored with a variety of herbs which gradually settled into the bottom of my cup. Instead of arousing me, the tea had a calming effect, perhaps taking me off my guard. After several swallows, life itself seemed to slow, and my mind latched upon one thing at a time, no longer racing from one conjecture to another. I was also able to focus on individual sounds in the room, including the ticking of a single-handed clock atop the fireplace mantle. This mindfulness was most queer, yet pleasant, and with the two of them seated expectantly at the table, I began my story, now unable to withhold anything.
They had offered no introduction of themselves, and I chose not to ask, suspecting there would be no meaningful response. But in my own mind did I name them. The taller would be Smirk, for the sneer that wrestled constantly with her otherwise welcoming smile. The shorter, who smiled not at all, became Malice; her eerie stare unnerved me until the tea had completely taken hold. Both women listened intently and never once interrupted to ask a question, simply nodding with understanding as I explained my situation. In my confession, I acknowledged my godless ambitions and the unyielding pride that had engendered so many fabrications. The closest either of them came to making any rebuke occurred when Smirk said “You wish us to help you out of the pit you’ve dug,” but fortunately, neither sister inquired as to why I believed they could do so. Had they asked, I would have felt compelled to answer.
“Yes, I entreat you. I see no way to help myself.” After a moment’s silence, the two women glanced at each other, and Malice gave her sister the merest of nods. Smirk rose and approached one of the cupboards, whereupon she took hold of a short, wide, cylindrical candle. This she placed within an open-top glass container almost twice the height of the candle, then brought it to the table and reseated herself.
“This candle will enable you to harness a power which cannot be exhausted; its source is eternal,” Smirk said. The candle was brown, the brown of old blood, but I made no inquiry regarding its origin.
“While the soul resides within the body,” Malice continued, “even a body ravaged by disease, it is safe. And when the body dies and the soul has neared its heavenly destination, also is it safe, provided the individual led a virtuous life. Yet there is a time during which every soul is vulnerable to those who are bold enough to entrap and harness it for their own purposes; this occurs just as the soul emerges from its corpse. For only a moment, it is as helpless as a newborn baby emerging from its mother.”
“Take this candle and place it at the bedside of one who is at death’s door,” Smirk said as she pushed it toward me. “The dying individual must be of good moral character, and the candle must be lit just before the moment of death. Do not light the candle too soon, lest it melt completely and lose its flame. At the instant at which the soul departs its body, the candle will flare suddenly with a bright blue light. Thus will you know that you have succeeded.”
“Succeeded?” I asked.
“In capturing the soul and imprisoning it within the flame,” Malice answered. “Once trapped, the soul becomes unable to ascend toward its destination, and the energy it expends in vain is yours to harness until the candle is willfully snuffed and the soul set free.” A shudder took me, for in that moment, I fully believed they possessed the power to bring about such an abomination. But how was I ever to bring myself to interdict the baptized and consecrated soul of a fellow Christian and withhold from it the beatific vision? All this merely to escape a financial calamity of my own making?
Smirk saw this incertitude take hold and said, “Once the flame has captured the soul, no harm will come to it, and the candle will burn indefinitely without further consumption of its substance. When your affairs have been set to rights, snuff the candle to release the soul so it may continue its journey. Resist the temptation to keep the soul beyond a restoration to what you once had. Contain your greed and seek nothing more.” Still uncertain, yet unwilling to display any further lack of resolve, I accepted the candle and would later choose whether or not to employ it.
“What of my payment to you?” I asked.
“You are in no position to pay us now,” Malice answered. “We will name a price once you are restored.” With that, our meeting concluded, and I remounted my steed to return home.
Weeks passed with no interruption of the downward spiral of my fortunes, weeks during which I came to chastise myself for foolishly believing that the sisters could provide me with a solution. Yet, a debate continued to rage within me as to whether I would execute their plan if the opportunity presented itself, but time was running out. I had received a writ of lien and eviction concerning my warehouse and all its contents. My creditors intended to sell everything at a time of severely depressed market prices and would not obtain sufficient funds to satisfy their claims against me. They would subsequently investigate my personal holdings and assets to make themselves whole.
Heretofore, the thought of actually creating the precise opportunity to entrap a departing soul had not occurred to me, but spurred by the writ of eviction, I devised an ingenious plan to find an elderly and righteous citizen near his or her natural death. And my church would be the vehicle for executing this plan. Showered with praise from Patience, I volunteered to become one of those who visited the sick and dying. The church itself would supply me with the information and the pretext I needed to enter the homes of the most vulnerable, and if this plan failed and I was eventually forced to rely upon the charity of the church to mitigate the effects of my impending ruin, there would likely be a reservoir of good will upon which to draw. So occupied was I in lauding myself for this clever solution, I scarcely considered its predatory and heinous nature.
Within days, my sights were narrowed to an excellent prospect. The Widow Huxford, age sixty-seven, was in a pitiful state of physical ruin. Blind and ravaged by lockjaw and dropsy, she would welcome her imminent death as a merciful event. Her daughter, Anne Crofton, was exhausted from caring for her mother and a family of her own, and she accepted with alacrity and gratitude my offer as a fellow church member to spend two nights a week with her infirm parent.
My vigil began on a Sunday night at the Widow Huxford’s two story freshly painted home on Canal Street where I was warmly greeted by Anne. Many hurricane lamps illuminated the first floor of the home, and the absence of the unpleasant odor associated with the cheaper varieties of whale oil further attested to the widow’s affluence. Upstairs in her room, she lay in bed, propped upright with three pillows, her dropsy and shortness of breath having progressed. Both her eyes were a milky opaque, and gangrenous bedsores on her backside produced a truly wretched odor. Anne informed me that the bedsores had worsened rapidly when her mother’s failing respirations no longer permitted her to assume a recumbent position on her side, but she did not apologize for her mother’s condition and tended to her with great affection. My task seemed simple. I could hasten the widow’s suffocation merely by removing the pillows which kept her upright and thus be assured that her death would transpire while I was present with the candle afire.
Having determined to carry out my plan on returning three nights later, I arrived promptly at nine o’clock, assured Anne that I would not stray from her mother’s bedside, and bade her goodnight from the front door as she descended the stoop to return to her own dwelling. Inside, I climbed the sturdy but creaking staircase and entered the widow’s bedroom, finding her immobile with eyelids closed. Had she already died? Was I too late? I strode to her bedside and placed my palm against her forehead, finding her feverish and damp. After observing her intently for several additional moments, I detected the gentlest undulation of the nightgown that covered her chest, yet the movement lacked the regular cadence of normal respiration. I had witnessed this pattern previously at the death of my own mother, in which progressively deeper and more rapid respirations were followed by a brief period during which respiration ceased entirely. This was repeated every forty to sixty seconds, always leaving an observer wondering if the last breath had been taken.
I removed the unholy candle from my valise and placed it on the nightstand next to an oil lamp, then procured a long match to transfer the flame from the oil lamp to the candle. When the match flamed brightly, I withdrew it from the lamp and moved it to the opening of the glass in which the candle lay. But with the flaming match only an inch away from the candle wick, my arm froze in hesitation.
As my determination wavered, the widow entered an episode of apnea more prolonged than its predecessors. My own breathing also ceased as I wondered if she had taken her last breath before the brown candle was lit, yet she began again, and when I glanced back at the candle, it was aflame! This could only have occurred by means of a force beckoning from within the candle rather than by my own volition.
The candle burned with a shuddering glow, throwing prancing silhouettes about the room. I thought of extinguishing the oil lamp, but decided that it best not contain a full measure of oil on the morrow, and thus my vigil continued. Carriages passed in the street below, and I watched as a nearly full moon was first shrouded and then unveiled by the passage of clouds. And still she breathed. I checked the candle and found to my alarm that less than a third of its brown substance remained. Was this frail old woman defying me?
Thus far, I had done nothing that could be construed as harmful, but with the candle continuing to shrink seemingly quicker than before, I snatched her pillows away and left her completely supine. Now I had truly crossed a bridge and burnt it behind me. The minutes passed, and still she breathed.
She was defying me, somehow mindful of my impending ruin and waiting for the candle to extinguish itself before drawing her final breath. Another glance at the candle revealed mere moments remaining!
Panic ignited a fury within me, a fury at her willful defiance. Grasping a pillow with both hands, I slammed it over her slack face and dropped a knee upon her small bony chest to make respiration twice impossible. Another glimpse of the candle revealed that it still burned. Increasing the pressure of my knee against her chest suddenly caused her breastbone to snap, and a moment later, the candle flared as Smirk and Malice had promised. Her soul was trapped, and it was mine.
Despair! All is lost, all has been taken, even my beautiful Patience. Everyone thinks ill of her, certain that she callously chose to abandon me as we plummeted toward financial ruin. In truth, financial ruin was not the cause of her flight to her parents. I discovered this the moment I returned home on the morning after the Widow Huxford’s demise. Hearing me enter our home, Patience rushed from the kitchen to greet me, but the moment our eyes met, all joy left her and she halted several feet away. She stared at me as if I were a stranger. Or an intruder. All that she could utter was “Oh….”
“Patience, what is it? What is wrong?” I asked as I approached her with extended arms to embrace her. She took several steps back, covered her mouth with her hand, and regarded me in uneasy silence and confusion. Had the stain of murder descended upon me? A stain that was all too apparent to her? She turned her back on me and quickly ascended the staircase, whereupon I rushed to the large mirror in our foyer to search for what had repulsed her. Exhaustion from a lack of sleep, something which normally evoked her solicitous nature, was evident, but an unmistakable darkness had also crept into my countenance, and I liked it not. Not at all.
My entreaties to her were as futile as those directed to my creditors; she simply was no longer mine to cherish. I soon found myself possessing little more than my personal items, a small sum of money that I had disclosed to no one, and the mysterious candle that continued to burn day after day after day. Those who observed my protective and covetous manner regarding the candle thought me deranged, and I did little to discourage this attitude since it caused them to leave me in peace.
Left to my own devices and living alone in a cheaply furnished, poorly-lit room for rent, I examined the events of the preceding weeks, focusing primarily on my encounter with the two witches. How else to regard them? The candle was no less enchanted than a goose which lays golden eggs, but it had brought me nothing but ruin. Had it not flared brightly at the very moment of the widow Huxford’s death, as promised by Smirk and Malice? And do I not flinch when a twig snaps underfoot, scolding me with the echo of the widow’s breastbone as it cracked?
Presently, I came upon a frightful conjecture, that the candle was no talisman or channel of good fortune, but rather a cursed object or a weapon, and that I was nothing more than the sisters’ means of procurement. They had made an unmitigated fool of me! They knew full well the candle’s ruinous effect and that I must return to them seeking explanation and redress, the evil instrument in my possession.
How had I have become sufficiently gullible to believe that a scheme requiring the death of a God-fearing and righteous woman, a member of my own congregation, could bring me anything but despair? My murderous rage, at an imagined defiance on the widow’s part, had arisen from nothing more than her innocent grasping at the last tendrils of God-given life. What to do? What to do, indeed!
If the sisters’ plan was to obtain this wretched candle, I might yet thwart them. By extinguishing the candle, the widow’s soul could be freed, and this cursed object need never fall into their hands. Their possession and use of it would only bring misery to others. Thus might I redeem myself and vow to live righteously until the end of my days. But the appeal of this plan began to fade when I considered that I may have blundered in some way while capturing the widow’s soul. But how?
Whipsawed by this conundrum, I paced my small dark room in search of a resolute plan. If I extinguished the candle before seeking the sisters’ counsel, I would surely spend the rest of my life wondering if I had discarded an opportunity for great wealth, perhaps even regaining the love and admiration of my dear Patience. This propelled me to a decision. I would return to Smirk and Malice with the candle, but carry a weapon of my own.
With a borrowed steed, I retraced my previous journey westward, this time stopping around midday at the same small establishment where I had supped four weeks prior. Emerging from the inn after a satisfying meal, I was tempted by light rain and distant thunder to remain there, perhaps overnight, but ultimately chose to continue my journey to conserve what little money remained. Before long, I regretted this decision, a storm soaking and chilling me, its thunder pummeling my ears and terrifying my steed. The road became enveloped in mud, slowing my progress and causing my trek to seem interminable, yet I knew there was no risk that the ensorcelled candle would be extinguished.
Upon finally arriving at the sisters’ cabin, I thumped the front door impatiently with my entire forearm and demanded entrance. The door abruptly swung inward, and Malice beckoned me to enter. Smirk took my coat and hung it on a hook attached to the inside surface of the door. Had they expected me on so wretched a day?
“Please be—” Malice began, but halted as I extracted the candle and its glass enclosure from a leather sack and lay it upon their table. Both women took a step back from it, then stared at me.
“What have you done?” Smirk demanded.
“I have followed your every instruction and entrapped a soul, the soul of a righteous woman, a member of my own congregation, but disaster and despair have become my daily lot,” I answered in an accusatory tone. “Everything has been taken from me, and my wife has fled to her parents.”
Wordlessly, both sisters slowly approached the candle for a closer inspection, I believing they wished to determine precisely how little of the brown substance remained. But I was mistaken; this was not their intention.
“How do you perceive the flame?” Smirk asked, turning to me with eyes blazing.
“As you can plainly see, it is bright crimson,” I replied. “And it flared at the instant the emerging soul of an old woman was entrapped.”
In a slow threatening tone, Malice uttered “You … must take that candle away from here at once and never return. It poses a grievous threat. You killed her, didn’t you?”
“I had to! The candle was near to extinguishing, yet on she lingered.”
“Simple instructions were you given,” Malice continued, penetrating me with that eerie stare. “You were to be in attendance at the moment of death, not cause it. Worse, the soul entrapped in the flame is no more virtuous than your own. Its destiny is eternal punishment.”
“How is that possible? Everyone knew her to be a saintly and pious woman,” I pleaded.
“She most likely murdered her husband, no saint himself I’d wager,” Smirk answered. “T’is such a simple thing to poison a man’s porridge.”
“But what threat does the candle pose?” I continued in a voice that both demanded and pleaded.
“If the candle is willfully extinguished, the widow’s soul, inexorably pulled to the pit, will drag with it a soul like itself, one to delight the demons, one with which to bargain with them,” Smirk said. I was about to ask whose soul will it choose? when the answer lept upon me. I would be its victim, for I had murdered the Widow Huxford. These two witches were no paragons of virtue, but I gathered that neither had committed that most heinous of crimes. Yet they wanted me gone quickly and with the flame at my side.
“But what am I to do?” I pleaded unabashedly, my pride now smothered in desperation.
“You must search for another,” Malice answered. “One whose crimes are darker than your own. Only in his company may you smother the flame, for the widow’s soul would reward the demons with one more hideous than your own.”
With this admonition, I took my leave, never to see either of them again. I knew I must rid myself of this accursed candle. Only then might my fortunes be restored and the redemption of my soul sought.
Months have passed, and I have been unable to rebuild my life. The ill fortune of the red-flamed candle thwarts me at every turn. There is nothing for it but to live in penury and continue my quest for someone more deserving of damnation than I. Surely such an individual can be found among a population of eighty thousand, for is there anything more certain than the reprobate nature of man?
Charity from my congregation and an occasional stint of manual labor enable me to keep body and soul together, and each night I renew my search for a monster in the City of Brotherly Love. The crimson flame is now enclosed within a brass lantern. Its metal handle creaks in a regular cadence as it sways by my side. Some of the regulars on the streets and in the alleys continue to jeer me. “Diogenes, if you haven’t found an honest man by now, give up!” Others, more perceptive, remain silent and avoid me.
My inability to assess character, evidenced by my foolhardy selection of the Widow Huxford months ago, has meant that I must witness a crime so heartless that the widow will be compelled to drag someone other than myself into the pit. Only then will I extinguish the flame. I believe my quest to be right-minded, for surely it is no sin to ensnare the damned.
About the Author
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. His major hobby, other than writing, is the design and construction of radio controlled airplanes. His piloting skills need a lot of work. His writing in 2016 has been accepted by Crimson Streets, Mystery Weekly, Disturbed Digest, Flash Fiction Press, Heater, and Litmag (University of Missouri).
About the Narrator
Cheyenne Wright is a freelance illustrator and concept artist. He is the color artist on the three-time Hugo Award winning steampunk graphic novel series Girl Genius, and co-creator of many other fine works; Including 50 Fathoms and the Ennie award winning Deadlands Noir for the Savage Worlds RPG. He has also produced graphics for Star Trek Online, the Champions MMO, and t-shirt designs for T.V.’s Alton Brown. He lives in Seattle with his wife, their daughter, and an ever growing stack of unpainted miniatures. In his spare time he is teaching himself animation, and narrates short stories for a variety of audio anthologies where he is known as Podcasting’s Mr. Buttery ManVoice ™