Today is your fourteenth birthday, and your godfather is coming to visit. You know because your mother is wearing a dress, a frilly lime-colored affair that certain magazine editors would refer to as a “confection,” and attempting to bake a pie. The tiny counter overflows with paper sacks of flower and plastic sacks of sugar and plates stacked high with slices of golden delicious, all interspersed with photocopies of a neighbor’s cookbook. Your mother is not much of a baker, but then again, your godfather is not much of a diner—in fact, you have never seen him eat.
His pale gray car pulls into your driveway an hour after you wake up. In your ignorance of motor vehicles, you want to call it sleek, and it is, compared to the rusting scarlet pickup your mother relies on for her infrequent trips to town for groceries and postage. But in fact, your godfather’s car is almost absurdly ornamented, glimmering with silver around the wheels and the bluish windows. When your godfather parks in front of your low porch, he waits a moment for the clouds of pink dust to settle before he steps out, lean and trim as a cat in his long black coat, wielding, rather than leaning on, a long ivory cane.
Your mother wipes her hands on a towel, then forgets to put it down before she goes to open the door. You don’t know why your godfather makes her so nervous. Despite his fine clothes and elegant car, despite the ivory cane and the pocket watch that you suspect to be made of platinum, your godfather never seems to notice, much less care, what people around him are wearing or doing. It’s not that he’s inconsiderate; on the rare occasions he’s taken you and your mother out for dinner, he gets held up for nearly fifteen minutes as he insists on holding the door for everyone, old and young, male and female, who enters the restaurant behind him. He doesn’t seem to realize there are differences between people.
Your mother, though, is flustered over how to greet him. A handshake would seem appropriate, but your godfather has never, to your knowledge, touched another human being besides yourself. So your mother smiles awkwardly and prettily, and your godfather folds his hands over the head of his cane and bows smoothly from the waist, and when he straightens his slender body, he is looking at you.
“Well, my dear, come along then.” His voice is always gentle, but at the same time, there is always an undercurrent of sarcasm. It is not apparent in “my dear,” but it bubbles up in his cheerful archaisms: “come along” being a frequent favorite.
Your mother smacks a sugary kiss on your cheek and seems to want to hand you something, a bag lunch perhaps, which would be ridiculous; while your godfather’s appetite is meager to the point of non-existence, he has never been in the least bit stingy about feeding you. The leather interior of his pale gray chariot has known the rich, greasy scents of innumerable drive-thrus and hot dog stands. But you can see that your mother is nervous, so you give her a wide grateful smile, as though she has handed you the moon.
Then your godfather’s hand is on your shoulder, steering you gently across the porch, and you catch the smell of poppies on the breeze, though you don’t know yet what they mean.
Your mother has a photograph from your baptism in a ceramic frame above the fireplace. Your godfather is standing on the steps outside the church, his ivory cane tucked under one arm so that he can cradle you to his chest. One of your tiny hands is poking out of the white blanket to tug at his black silk tie. As always, your godfather looks perfectly composed. You often wonder what he felt when your mother dropped you in his arms and swiftly snapped this picture, before he could object.
True to your expectations, your godfather stops less than half an hour into your drive to buy you breakfast. He chooses a pancake house you have never heard of, with a long white porch and red checkered tablecloths, and the scents of strawberry and maple syrup dueling in the warm air. You let the waitress hand you a pair of menus, though you know he will only ask for a cup of coffee, and you will let him pick your meal for you.
And as always, his taste is excellent, if a bit (you hear your mother struggling to pronounce the word) plebian. The waitress brings stack after stack of saucer-sized pancakes, some with blueberries or sugary peach slices and whipped cream, some with rich white butter, some with the house’s thin and faintly bitter maple syrup, which comes served in tiny glass jars. You wash it down with glass after glass of peach iced tea. Your godfather says that at fourteen, you are old enough to drink coffee if you’d like, but you take a sip from his cup and find it pungent and acrid. Besides, your iced tea is served with paper-wrapped straws that the waitress draws like stilettos from her deep apron pockets, and your godfather teaches you to blow the wrappers all the way across the sunlit porch.
After breakfast, your godfather begins to drive in earnest, turning down gravelly and densely-shaded roads too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other. As always, he lets you sit in the front seat, but he is adamant about making you buckle your seatbelt. You are nearing the age when you would like to argue about this, but your godfather smiles his very thin-lipped smile. “My dear, you have decades and decades of full, useful life ahead of you. Let’s keep it that way, please.”
At any moment, you expect him to pull off the road and drag you with reckless cheerfulness into the undergrowth, pursuing the momentary glimmer of a flower or root or strip of bark with powerful healing properties, which he will make you recite again and again before he lets you tuck the specimen into the proper compartment of your book bag.
He gave you that bag for your twelfth birthday. Made of fragrant black leather, with your initials monogrammed in silver on the clasp, at this point, it has more in common with a doctor’s medicine case than a schoolchild’s backpack.
“Trust me, my dear, I’m saving you thousands on medical school,” your godfather likes to say, patting your hand, and the undercurrent of sarcasm surges to the surface. When you enter high school next fall, your ability to mimic that fine and glimmering edge in your own voice will make you exceedingly popular with the gender of your choice.
You’ll never get to medical school. Your godfather is right about one thing; you won’t need it. Your ability to pull a patient back from the brink of dissolution will make your living-room herbalist’s business famous across the region—almost as much as your ability to see when a patient will inevitably pass that brink. Then, you will demonstrate a preternatural ability to comfort the dying.
But that is all years and years in the future. Now, you are fourteen, squirming in the leather seat of your godfather’s car, wondering when he’s going to stop and teach you something fascinating. He doesn’t stop. The miles vanish beneath your sleek tires, and still you have no hint of your destination.
On your thirteenth birthday, you asked your mother how she had come to pick this man for your godfather. Until quite recently, you hadn’t understood that there was any choice involved; you thought that godfathers came to children as naturally as mothers and milk teeth and pet kittens. Even now, you aren’t so certain you understand the working principles of godparents, since your mother’s answer was cryptic in the extreme.
“When you were born, soon as they let me out of the hospital, I sat down on a bench where two sidewalks crossed and I said to myself, ‘My child’s got no father. Least I can do is get us a godfather to look after us.’ So I sat on that bench and told myself that the first man who walked by was going to be my baby’s godfather.
“But the first man to walk by was a big white-haired fellow in a pure white suit, and I said to myself, ‘That man there is the Lord, and I can’t take the Lord for my baby’s godfather, because he’s the one who made me poor in the first place.’ So I let the Lord walk on by, and told myself that the second man who passed my bench would be my baby’s godfather.
“But the second man to walk by was dark and slick and he leered at me, , and I said to myself, ‘That man is the Devil, and my baby’s life is going to be hard enough without the Devil for a godfather.’ So I let him slip on by.
“The third man to pass my bench was striding crisp and clear, like someone important was up ahead waiting for him, but still he paused and tipped his hat to me, and said ‘Good morning, ma’am’ like I was a lady as grand as the important Somebody he had waiting up ahead. I said to myself, ‘Here’s a man who doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, and he’s got manners besides.’ And I asked him if he would be my baby’s godfather, and he said yes.”
You smiled and listened politely, but you tried to imagine your godfather wearing a hat and could not. He has the finest, darkest hair imaginable, and it lays so smoothly over his head that you can see his skull in profile. But when your mother was finished with her story, you sensed that it was the closest thing you’d ever get to an answer, and you took it for what it was.
Your godfather stops his car at the base of an yew tree that looks no different from any other in the woods. But he gets out and very carefully, almost respectfully, walks in a wide circle around its thick gray trunk. You hop out after him, sinking to your ankles in reddish-brown leaves. He beckons you closer and indicates something on the tree trunk with the tip of his cane. “Do you see that, my dear?”
You do; his cane hovers over a knot in the bark that looks uncannily like a human skull. “That is the sign we will follow into the forest. If you see one, tell me. It means we must change our course.”
You have never before looked for signs on your jaunts in the forest, and this sign is singularly sinister. As you follow your godfather north, in the direction the yew-skull is facing, you find yourself shivering despite the morning’s warmth.
“Don’t be frightened, my dear,” your godfather says. He slips out of his black coat and drapes it over your shoulders. It is pleasantly soft and smells of poppies. Underneath the long coat, your godfather is wearing a full black suit with a lace handkerchief tucked in the pocket.
You walk for hours. Your book bag begins to drag at your feet, yanking a dull ache into your shoulder socket, until your godfather wordlessly lifts it for you. You change directions twice, once east and once north again, according to the knobby skull-like protrusions in the bark of a birch and a blackthorn tree. Dead and dying leaves mound up beneath your feet, whispering roughly in the damp air. From the west, there comes the occasional roll of thunder.
Suddenly, your godfather stops. Amid the orange and brown and grayish leaves at his feet, there is a black opening, large and redolent with the stench of limestone. Your godfather tucks your book bag into the protective roots of a nearby yew, then tucks his cane under his arm and slips wordlessly through the hole in the ground.
You stand for a moment in shock, staring at the empty hole. Above your head, the birds’ chittering is silenced by a heavy rumble of thunder.
In another fourteen years, give or take, you will fall in love with one of your patients. This is a bad thing to do, your mother would warn you, but by that time your mother will be long gone. Your godfather will come instead, slipping into your office in the deep night. He will warn you that your patient does not have long to live, not nearly as long as you do; for the sake of your own happiness, you must swallow your love and your desire and save them for someone with whom you can share your whole life. It is excellent advice. Of course, you will not heed it.
It is the fear of being alone in the storm-wracked woods that sends you, finally, into the cave with your godfather. You clutch his coat tightly around you and slide down through the leaf mold, the damp clammy stone. Just inside the cave mouth, your godfather is waiting to help you to your feet. His sharp face glows in a pale golden light.
All around you, cemented to ledges and the cave walls with their own yellow wax, are thousands and thousands of lighted candles. As far as you can see into the cavern, before it rounds a corner hundreds of feet to your left, the place is full of rippling blue flames. Some candles are tall and smooth, others squat and pebbled with drips of wax, and some are merely charred wicks sticking out of waxy puddles. As you watch, one of the puddles near your right shoulder flickers and goes out.
“What are they?” you ask, letting one of the cool flames dance around your fingertip.
Your godfather stands in the center of the cavern, as far as possible from the candles, his hands folded on the head of his cane. Still, he doesn’t stop you from touching the fire. “These are lives,” he says. “Some are very long, eighty or ninety or a hundred years, like the one beneath your fingers—that one, incidentally, is yours. And some are very short, like this one, which belongs to a great-grandmother in Germany.” He points to one of the squat pebbly stubs. “Most begin long and end in puddles, but some are not very tall to begin with. Some are extinguished before their time, by accident or malice or sacrifice.”
Beneath your fingertips, the flame of your life leaps up, and you feel it like a jolt in your heart. You quickly draw your hand back. “Why did you take me here?” you ask.
He smiles his very thin-lipped smile, but for once, he does not look happy. “I want you to understand this, my dear. I have taught you everything I know about preserving life, and that is much; you will go far with it. But you must understand that each life also has a time designated for it to end, a time when its candle is burnt down to the stone, and there is nothing you can do to save it when it reaches its appointed hour.”
“But how will I know—?”
“I will show you,” your godfather says. “When your patients come to you, have them lay down upon a bed. If I appear to you standing at their head, their time has not yet come, and you may do everything in your power to save them. But if I am standing at their feet, the sickness is meant to be their last, and you must do what you can to comfort them. As for how I know this…” He shrugs. It is an answer you should have guessed by now. His silhouette, cast upon the cave wall by the guttering candles, is a skull.
“Why show me now?” you ask.
He looks even sadder than before, his heavy lids drooping over his bright eyes. “Because someday soon, you will ask me to make an exception.” He goes to the wall behind you and gently, ever so gently touches a puddle of wax. It ripples; the flame bends, but does not yet gutter out. “This candle is your mother’s. She will die before you turn fifteen.”
When the patient you love is dying, you will follow the skull signs to this cave in the forest. You will do everything in your power to mend your beloved’s candle, to lengthen the wick and harden the wax. If you knew how, you would try to sacrifice the flame of another, a complete stranger, to kindle your beloved’s; but that is something even your godfather could not do without the stranger’s consent.
Finally, desperately, you will do the one thing your godfather has taught you to do. You will lick the tips of your fingers and pinch the fire from your own candle, so that you and your beloved may die at the same moment. It is a shame you will not be able to see your godfather’s face when he finds your body on the floor of the candle-lit cave; his expression will be so sad, so tender. You are the only living child he has ever held in his arms, and that was the happiest moment in his long existence. He is really very fond of you, and while it will sadden him that you sacrificed so much for love, it must not be thought that it would disappoint him.
Your mother is waiting for you on the porch, carving at a block of wood with your grandfather’s old pen knife. She has changed out of that lime-colored dress and abandoned her attempt at baking pies, and you will be eating raw apple slices for days but you don’t care. You fling your arms around her and breathe in her clean denim scent, and stand patiently still as she kisses you resoundingly on the forehead.
Your godfather stands back in the driveway. He has done enough for one day, showing you that he cannot be cheated; he wants to comfort you, but knows better than to try. By tradition—and yours is nothing if not a traditional community—the godparents care for a child when its natural parents are dead, and he knows that you and he will have time enough together, time for walks in the woods and preparing medicines and eating greasy home-made foods.
Though really, he thinks, as you bid your mother farewell in your heart, no time together is ever enough.