A spiral fills the large room, outlined in pine boughs and illuminated by golden wax candles set into the hollowed cores of ruby red apples. Parents sit on one side, some nervous and uncomfortable because they have invaded their children’s wondrous world, others joyful because they have awakened their own. The children sit, whispering and shifting in their button-down shirts and dresses, unclouded faces eager and bright. The candles cast flickering shadows. A rowdy boy lets out a peal of laughter, then shrinks into his shoulders as the serious girl next to him shushes loudly. A small girl bends down to unsnag her tights from the wooden benches they all sit on. Legato murmuring drifts from the parents’ side like cellos in a symphony: subtle, mature, and refined. At the teacher’s signal, the first girl stands.
She solemnly walks to the entrance of the spiral, all eyes trained on her small form. In daylight her dress would have been garish even among the brightest flowers, but in candlelight it matures to darker hues: pinks to burgundy and blues to midnight black; bright green matches the pine on the ground, and even the yellow daisies soften to appear like stars in the night sky. Her hair is braided in a long plait down her back, and a butterfly perches on the end as if about to take flight. She bends down carefully, picks up the first unlit apple in the spiral, and settles it in her hands. Slowly, reverently, she begins to walk.
She walks slowly, her shoes squeaking slightly. Her mother shifts uncomfortably, aware of the significance of her daughter’s performance on her own reputation. A gasp escapes from an anxious couple as the girl’s dress floats dangerously close to a flame. The next child in line begins to appreciate the comforts of the group as he contemplates his imminent journey: his neighbor’s arm against his, the warm spot on the hard bench he’s made for himself, a breeze under his feet as the row of children swing their legs like badly timed clocks. Within the spiral, the first girl has reached the center, where the tallest candle glows.
With the proud confidence young children carry when completing a simple task, she bends down and, with bated breath, holds her apple’s candle to the large flame. In a burst of light and breath of sound, her candle alights. Anna – her name inconsequential until now – stands still, aware of herself and her power. She imagines throwing her apple into the air, lighting the whole place on fire, but resists. She begins to tingle as her illuminated candle warms the apple in her hands, and almost believes, impossibly, that she can feel the juice of the apple bubbling, boiling within its waxy skin. The skin on her face warms over the small flame. She breathes deeply, the heady scent of honey and warm apples infiltrating her lungs, her blood, and her mind so that she sees nothing but the apple and flame; feels nothing but the apple and heat, smells nothing but the apple and wax; hears nothing at all. A second passes in reverent stillness.
Anna turns and starts to walk out of the spiral. A drop of wax spills over the top of the candle like a lonely tear, slowing until it settles where candle meets apple, as if to bind them. Reaching the entrance to the spiral, she sets her apple down where she picked it up so long ago, and returns to her seat.
One by one, the rest of the children enter the spiral, pick up an apple, light the candle, and place it down again. The room grows warmer as more and more candles are lit, and the smell of warm apples grows stronger. A father reflects that this must be what it feels like to be a blackbird baked in a pie, but he dares not share his thoughts. As the last child steps out of the spiral and walks to his seat, the room remains still and silent. The spiral is bright now with so many more candles; the yellow flames burn into the retinas of eyes, so that even when they blink everyone sees the spiral of lights.
With a quiet, collective exhale, the room seems to acknowledge that it is over, and children and parents stand, begin to seek each other out, and walk out the doors, stopping to accept a whole apple from the teacher as they leave, to be cut open at home to see the star in the center. Anna is the last to leave. The magic of the Advent spiral leaves her as she steps outside, and she walks quietly to her car with her mother, the apple held loosely in her small fingers.
Inside the room, the teacher sighs as the door closes. The room is colder now, and grows darker as she blows out each candle, making her way to the center of the spiral. She stands there alone, the room dark except for the single flame, light reflecting slightly off the glossy skin of the apples. The flame glows brightly, having illuminated the room by itself and through its children; having stood at the center of things, almost as if it is the center of all things.
In a wave of melancholy, the teacher closes her eyes, and when she opens them again a single tear spills, like a drop of candle wax, down her cheek and onto her chin. It hangs for a moment, trembling, until it falls onto the wick of the candle. In a sputter and burst of smoke, the last candle fades. The room is left in utter darkness, save for the twinkling of stars through a small window nobody has noticed until now.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.