By Alexis Betia, Illustrated by: Lady Santelices
December 15, 2015
Like most stories, this one begins with a child.
And goodness, was Alonzo a terribly precocious one. Having grown up the youngest of four brothers, the closest born more than five years before him, he had grown up at their pace. At the young age of five years and nine months we had decided that there was more to the world than his teachers or parents were letting on. He mostly played by himself, choosing to wander the thickets of trees that surrounded his home and the little barrio he lived in to playing with the other children his age.
None of them liked to explore, Alonzo reasoned. They were content with afternoons of patintero and watching the big kids play basketball in the street, while Alonzo preferred to fill up his days looking for buried treasure. By the age of seven years and eleven months, you would find him staring out the classroom window daydreaming up a storm, or with his head bowed low over his desk, creating treasure maps of the barrio.
There were great things out there, and Alonzo believed that with all his little heart. Great things that could change the world—all he had to do was find them.
The sun hung drowsily on the horizon the December afternoon that Alonzo decided to forego his homework and take a familiar trail towards foothills he had been planning to explore. He put on his jacket to fend off the chilly evening air and filled his explorer’s backpack with the most important things: a small jug of water, some of his nanay’s empanada, his favorite comic book and a handful of waterproof matches. Content with his preparation, Alonzo left the little house his family lived in, promising his mother that he would be home well before dinnertime.
Alonzo proudly knew every trail around his barrio like the back of his hand, which made him even more surprised to find an old man sitting on a half-buried boulder just at the foot of the hills. The old man had burnished brown skin just like Alonzo’s, except his face had the wrinkles of a man who had laughed and cried his fair share in this lifetime. His white hair was kept in a neat bun at the top of his head while a salt and pepper beard covered most of his face. The old man wore a threadbare camisa de chino, khaki pants, worn out sandals, and carried nothing except a small bag made of katcha and rope.
Alonzo would have been scared to encounter the stranger (for the barrio Alonzo lived in was a small one, and everyone knew everyone else), but the old man looked at him with such mischief and warmth in his eyes that Alonzo found himself more curious than he was threatened.
“Kamusta, tatang,” Alonzo greeted, continuing down the path.
The old man smiled, his eyes almost disappearing with the size of it. “Hello, hijo. What are you doing out in the forest so close to sundown?”
Alonzo glanced at the sky, and true enough it would only be a short time before the sun would take its final dip down the horizon to give way to the stars.
“I am an explorer, tatang. And besides, I can see very well in the dark.” Alonzo said, puffing his chest out with pride and trying to stand taller than he was.
The old man laughed heartily. “Of that I am sure, hijo. But these old eyes have difficulty seeing in the dark sometimes. Perhaps you could help an old man?” He shrugged the strap of his bag off his shoulder and opened it, taking out what seemed to be the bag’s only contents: a candle about as wide as Alonzo’s skinny forearm, its wick burnt black with the cream-colored wax pooling at the edges.
“I know that you can see clearly in the dark, but you wouldn’t happen to have a match on you, would you?”
Alonzo closed the distance between him and the man, eagerly reaching into his backpack to retrieve his matches. He offered them, but the old man waved them off.
“These hands have seen a lot of work, hijo. Would you mind striking one?”
The old man held the candle out to Alonzo, who took it into his hands, surprised at how heavy it weighed, and struck the first match against the rock to spark it. As Alonzo lit the wick, he could see his mother in the flame, bustling around their small kitchen, preparing dinner and humming Alonzo’s favorite lullaby to herself as she worked. Alonzo’s father came into the kitchen and embraced her from behind, kissing her on the cheek before proceeding to set the table.
Alonzo gasped, blowing out the flame with the force of his surprise.
“Tatang, I saw something in the flame of your candle! I saw nanay and tatay preparing dinner at home!”
The old man merely smiled at him. “Yes, hijo. But you blew out the flame. Try again.”
Alonzo relented, and struck the second match to light the wick once more. This time, as he stared into the fire, he saw his older brother, who had gone away to Manila to work, walking through streets brightly lit with Christmas lights. His brother was well-dressed, looked healthy and was smiling. As he passed a group of children caroling on the street, he stopped to give them money and pat one of them on the head before heading into a store whose window display showcased delicious chocolates, candies and every dessert Alonzo could imagine.
The little boy gasped once more, blowing out the flame a second time.
“Tatang!” he demanded. “What is going on? Is this magic? Why can I see my loved ones in the flame of your candle?”
The old man smiled his smile of mischief and kindness. “Christmastime is wonderful, isn’t it, hijo? The air is full of song and laughter, and everywhere you look people celebrate goodwill and cherish togetherness. If the things that you love are what you see in the flame, then that is what Christmas is to you.”
The old man stood up from his position on the boulder and put a hand on Alonzo’s shoulder, beckoning the little boy to lean forward as if to share a secret. “Keep the light of Christmas alive, hijo. Now, why don’t you try one more time?”
Alonzo regarded the old man carefully. Surely, there must be some trick involved? Maybe the kids at school were playing a prank on him? But…what if? What if this old man and his candle were the very thing he had been searching for?
Resolute, Alonzo took his last match and struck it one last time. In the flame he saw all manner of wonderful things, from entire families in far off places warming themselves by their fires, great spreads of food and beautiful music and breathtaking sights. The most overwhelming thing, more than the splendor of the images before him, was the all-encompassing feeling of love that Alonzo felt throughout every inch of him. He felt like a supernova, so warm and full of possibility that everything he touched would turn to gold.
Alonzo hadn’t realized that he had been staring at the flame for so long that the night had gotten deeper around him, and when he finally pulled his gaze from the candle, the old man had gone. Shielding the flame against the wind with his tiny hand, he ran home and spent the rest of the night hiding the flame from his family, watching it and feeling the warmth burn in his fingertips.
When he woke the next morning, Alonzo found that while the wax had barely melted, the flame had gotten smaller. He ran to the kitchen and grabbed more matches, but no matter how many he struck to relight the flame, it simply stayed the same. If anything, the flame had gotten even smaller. Somehow, Alonzo knew in his bones that he could not let this light go out, for without the old man he would never be able to light it again. His mother knocked on the door, asking if she could come in. Alonzo, still not wanting to share the power of the flame, told her not to and stayed in bed for the rest of the day, pretending to be sick.
After dinner that night, Alonzo decided that he would sneak out and return to the hills where he had found the old man. He didn’t know what he would do if the flame went out completely, and he wanted to keep its light.
Alonzo waited almost the entire night by the rock, watching the moon rise and eventually begin to set. Dejected, he took the candle, now barely glowing, and started down the trail back home.
Alonzo almost jumped out of his skin in surprise. In front of him stood a little girl, barefoot with her hair a tangle, looking more scared than Alonzo felt.
“Sorry, kuya, but I was out playing hide and seek with my cousins and now everyone’s gone and it’s very dark and I haven’t seen anyone else on this path and I’m just visiting from another town and don’t know my way and I really want to go home,” she blurted out, looking as if she were about to burst out crying. “I…I just think that if it weren’t so dark I’d be able to find my way home.”
Alonzo hesitated, thinking about the candle and the mission it looked like he was failing. After a few seconds of staring at the shivering little girl in front of him, he took off his jacket, offered it to her, and took her hand.
“Come on, I’ll take you back to my house. My parents will help you find out where you’re staying.”
The little girl embraced him with such force and relief that Alonzo almost dropped the candle in his hand.
“Thank you, kuya! Thank you!” she wept.
The two headed down the dark path. Again, Alonzo could see very well in the dark, but the little girl clutched his hand painfully as they set down the trail unfamiliar to her. Alonzo, though he knew the flame was dying, handed her the candle.
“Here, hold it. It will help light your way.”
The little girl took it and smiled in thanks, and for a second Alonzo swore that the flame had gotten bigger by an entire inch.
The two eventually found their way home, and before Alonzo’s father set out to take the little girl home to the aunt she was staying with in their town, she returned the candle to him. It burned brightly in both their hands before she said her final thank you and goodbye.
In that moment, Alonzo realized that the only way to keep his little candle’s light burning was to share it with other people. And at the rate the wax was melting, if he shared enough, he was sure the candle would last longer than his lifetime.