Flash Fiction: Candles And Hollow Men

This story is surreal. It’s strange. It’s downright weird.

It’s a symbolic tale of a man’s fight to remain whole.

It’s called:

Candles And Hollow Men

By the light of a double flame I saw my death, half-obscured by the shadows of an empty cabin at night. They made no sounds, and didn’t make any attempts to move; yet they flickered in and out of sight, their shapes and outlines blurred.

Their appearance was sudden: as soon as I lit the candle I could feel them, their breaths on the back of my neck even though they were on the other side of the room. The coordination on everything bordered on perfect, like a play rehearsed beyond sanity. The match touched the candlewick, and the fireplace sprang to life; and breath pooled on my nape. All at once, all perfect in precision, all timed to a second between.

It was almost like they were waiting for me.

I came to this cabin for peace, for quiet. A chance to ponder, a chance to be away from my family, from the demands of bills and the screams of my offspring. Not for terror, not for unrest.

And yet here I was, faced with the unfairness of pre-slaughter, not even given a nice startling death. No, I had to wait for them, cowering in fear, uncertain of my fate, and the methods of my execution.

There was no indicator of how they would kill me, because despite their looks, they held no weapons. No method of evisceration, no gun loaded for my temple. Instead, they simply menaced with their looks, struck fear with deformities alone. Made me stare at the holes in their face, and their skin, and their bodies, and their clothes. They were hollow men. Forcing me to look, and hold my gaze on the inner rings of flesh, on the curvatures of an edge of a heart, beating with little regard for what was right for mankind.

I hated them, and I feared them, and perhaps most of all: I resented them.

At some point, I know not when, I sat on the floor, and looked up at them. It seemed appropriate for me to be below them, for them to strike down and not up. Physically, I was taller, taller than any of them; I dwarfed them all. But I felt that reality should reflect what was true. Or at least what I accepted to be true.

Because I was small, and the hollow men were infinitely larger.

It was a dichotomy on that ground, the flames of a fireplace, and the chills of hollow breath. One hitting me from the front, the other warming from the back. The temptation was to simply turn, and look at the warmth and the blaze and the light of the fire, because it was safe, and easy, but absolutely wrong. I think it’s the thought of every dying man, that he wants to behold his murderer, or in my case, murderers.

Because if I really only got one life, if death is a true end, and religion fails me, then I’d like to face it bravely.

But they didn’t grant me that wish, they stand on the edge of the light, beyond its glow just barely, like the candle held them at bay, like it made a line that they dare not cross. In fact, upon further observation that seemed to be exactly the case.

This sparked the first idea of salvation, and perhaps even a moniker of actual hope. I sprang from my subservient position and wrapped my hand around the candle’s red wax and yanked upwards.

It resisted me in every regard, as it seemed to have no center, no hardened core that held it up. It seemed that the hollow men feared only a hollow candle. My grasping upset the flame, and that was when my idea proved true. In perfect sequence, not un-similar to a Nazi’s goose step, the five of them walked forward, coming to the edge of the waning candle’s aura. I pulled my hand away, its wax already hardening around my skin, forming a shell with my fingers inside.

They took no further advance, hanging at the edge of my now smaller sanctuary, close enough that I could see them proper. A gift that I would wish on no man, not even a hollow one.

Afterimages, shells of a proper sight, they are gray, and five in number. Dressed equally, but not the same. Wearing a shabby mockery of a hospital scrub; of a banker’s suit; of a businesswoman’s dress, of a lawyer’s apparel; of a waitress’ smock. They are dirty, covered in ash and dried mud. Pockmarked with holes, each the size of my fist, that stretch through them to the other side, revealing the darkness beyond, and granting me glimpses of still pulsing organs.

The holes have no patterns and no regard for aesthetic taste. They make a woman without a mouth, and a man without sex. No blood squirts out, no organs find gravity, they may as well not have holes at all, and yet they do.

They do not even seem to care that I am there, and as the hours fly by they never grant me a look. I cannot dare to touch them, and so I do not try to fight past. Each motion I make seems to upset the candle, and I grow to become a statue on the floor, with my back sore from burns, and my hands permanently shaking.

Finally, I can take it no more. I will not give in to the hollow candle that signals the hollow men. I am not hollow. I can make a decision. I stand to look at the tiny flame of the candle, as it flickers and squirms in the air. My very breath upsets it, and nearly extinguishes it before I’m ready. I hold my mouth in my hands, and I wait for my heart to slow. The breath that ends me must not be one of fear, but instead determination.

I sucked in a breath and it pulls the flame tight to my lips. I hold it in till my lungs scream, and my diaphragm spasms, and my eyes twitch.

The flame sputters out along with the fireplace, and I turn to watch the march of five murderers. I’d like to think that in that moment I remained composed, that I held some level of integrity in the face of that hollow end, when I felt their hollow eyes on my hollow chest and their hollow hands rip through my hollow bones and pull out my hollow heart.

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