In the biggest desert in the world, there was a candle; cream-colored, forever lit, and unmelting. It stood on a copper plate that was placed in between two, red sand dunes. Every night, Jawaad watched the flame through the flaps of their tent, that small bead of light reflecting in his bleary eyes. It was only by watching the steady burn of the candle that he could get to sleep. One night, he and Aminah – his little sister – had bickered before bed, and as punishment their mother had them turn away from each other on the narrow, embroidered mattress which they shared. Jawaad had no choice but to give his back to the candle, and as a result did not sleep soundly all night. In fact, he kept discreetly peering over his shoulder to make sure it had not been snuffed out, as if his constant watch was what had kept it burning all this time.
His grandfather, who always slept with his eyes open on a mattress at the mouth of the tent, noticed Jawaad’s unrest. “It won’t go out, ibni,” he said, voice strong like timber. “It does not go out.”
Jawaad, who was startled that his grandfather was awake (and slightly afraid that he would tell his mother he had been looking over his shoulder) asked for the very first time, “Why not?”
Jawaad waited a few moments for his grandfather to reply, but the old man simply stared off, unblinking, and began to snore.
Although his grandfather was right and the candle was still lit when Jawaad woke the next morning, he was struggling to believe that the flame could never be extinguished. All fire went out – it was what fire did – and so Jawaad’s fear never truly subsided. He gazed into the candle all through the night, and checked on it periodically throughout the day. Its presence gave him peace of mind; it allowed him to enjoy his meals, to focus on games, to laugh – it allowed him, essentially, to be a child, secure and unbothered.
That security shattered the day of the storm. Clouds accumulated above their tent all morning, dark and looming. Jawaad was so overcome with worry that he could not eat or play or even talk. He wrung his hands like laundry and hovered so close to his mother that he could smell the oud in her perfume. No one noticed his uneasiness. His mother cooked and washed. His grandfather sat confidently in his throne at the mouth of the tent, watching the landscape and feeding prayer beads through his calloused fingers. Aminah, having given up on trying to convince her brother to entertain her, played silently with her invisible friends. And all the while, a single, irrefutable fact repeated ceaselessly in Jawaad’s head: it will not survive the rain.
Thunder erupted throughout the swooping dunes, shaking the first raindrops from the clouds. They fell silently at first, leaving dark spots on the sand, but as the rain grew harder and louder, Jawaad’s panic climbed higher. It occurred to him suddenly that he would not be able to bear life without the candle, and was certain that the sight of the smoking wick would kill him. Feeling close to death, he began to sob and hugged his mother hard. She held him, both confused and concerned, and whispered God’s names into his hair.
“Jawaad,” it was his grandfather’s voice, “Jawaad, leave your mother.” Jawaad felt his grandfather’s seismic hands pry him away from the warmth of his mother’s breast and drag him outside the tent. “Ibni, open your eyes,” he said, firmly. Jawaad sobbed and pleaded, eyes shut tight. His grandfather shook him violently, “Open your eyes!”
The fear invoked by his grandfather’s voice forced Jawaad to obey. What he saw before him made his breath catch in his throat, for reflected in his big, wet eyes was the warm light of the still burning candle.
Tearful, Jawaad looked up at his grandfather, “But how?”
His grandfather released him and crouched down to meet his gaze. With every syllable, he prodded the place on Jawaad’s chest where his heart lay, “It. Does. Not. Go. Out.” And then, pushing off his great knees, he stood and strode back through the flaps of the tent.
Jawaad sat there on the ground for a long while, massaging his chest. Thunder and lightning crashed above his head, rain soaked him through, the sand turned to mud beneath him, until at last, with a final glance over his shoulder, he stood and walked back to the tent, leaving the candle standing in its copper plate: cream-colored, forever lit, and unmelting.