It takes a long time to understand why she left.
She’d arrived one day with a burst of rain, a glint of sunlight on wilting ice. She’d come with mud and wind and trampled dogwood petals pressed into the cracks of the sidewalk, with quickened breath and light, with the smell of cheap wax candles burning well past midnight… And then one day, just as quickly, she was gone again.
I lit more candles. I filled my room with light. I sang her praises into the heart of each flame. Night after night, I worked her name with my lips until it was worn and clumsy, just a collection of syllables. Exalted one, fiery arrow, queen of my people, poet, goddess. I pressed her name into the bright fires of prayer I kept in her honor, and still she would not speak.
Why did it bother me? Why did they annoy me so much, those who flaunt their closeness with their deities? Those who say that they are called, that they’ve been given some sacred duty to perform. They stride with such confidence into every bright day, their eyes and armor glistening with the borrowed glory of their service to the gods. Gods that are bright, always so bright, burning with all that purpose and power — and all I had were my little candles, the anemic flame, the dark slumped wick.
Why don’t you answer? I asked. Why can’t I hear you? Why don’t you give me a mission, a purpose, some great deed to do in your name, for your greater glory?
In the warmth of the lengthening days, she only laughed.
Remember how it was? Remember the mornings — before all this noise and light, before all this fire and glory — the sensual squish of mud beneath your feet, the pressure of rain plastering your silk pink soul to the earth like so many trampled petals already torn and turning to rot. Remember the sweet, dark taste of dusk. Remember the way it felt to pour yourself into the rich soft soil, to give yourself to the breeze. To bend yourself to the work — and how the work grew up around you, like a rising ecstasy.
She has gone now, withdrawn. I hear her only in the long quiet of her leaving. In her silence, she seems to say, I have no need of you. In her absence, she speaks: What could you possibly offer me?
The only demand is the work itself, for which there is no other reward.
Why does it bother me when they light candles to their gods, enunciating the holy names loudly and precisely before every act? Do I envy them the close counsel they claim to enjoy? A god to guide their every move. An offering to trade for their every desire. I think it might be nice to want this kind of greatness — to want so desperately for there to be some other reason for all this striving, some great gracious power to justify it all. (And yet, I feel embarrassed for them — what little gods they must have, to be so glorified by these mediocre deeds…)
In the coolness of the night, she only laughs.
What could I possibly offer her? All my candles have burned down. I have invoked every holy name I know, and they have all fallen back into silence. It is a terrible, malicious gift, this freedom. To know my choices are all my own. To accept that this, the work itself — though it might never be — must be enough.
And in the darkness she seems to say, This, too, is my gift: the dark absence of glory, the soft skin of night that gives way before you, withdrawing forever into longing. The slumped wick blackened and bent double, always obscured, giving itself over to the steady, burning work that is never done.
I had to go, she seems to say. How else were you to learn what light is yours?