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 perpendicularly—though none know the word— whispering and shifting in their dress shirts and dresses, unclouded faces eager and bright. The candles cast flickering shadows over all. 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 printed 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 with the girl in tow. 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 squeak slightly with each step, and a bench creaks as her mother shifts uncomfortably, suddenly 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, and from the children there is absolute silence, save for a boy with a cold who sniffs unabashedly. The next child in line begins to appreciate the comforts of the group as he contemplates his imminent exposure: his neighbor’s arm against his as they subconsciously move together; 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, their feet inches from the floor. 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 and she stands. Anna—her name has been inconsequential until now—stands still, powerfully aware of herself and her power. She imagines throwing her apple into the air, lighting the whole place on fire and escaping to live in the night, but resists. Even she knows fantasies can only go so far. 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 begins to tighten and burn over the small flame, but she relishes the feeling: this is the closest she has ever been to an open flame. Anna sways slightly. She has been holding her breath without realizing, and now 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.
Anne 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 apple, and place it down again. The room grows warmer as more and more candles are lit, and the smell of warm apples grows stronger. An uncomfortable 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. As she takes her apple, she nearly cries to feel how cold it is: just as no candle lights and warms this apple, the last of 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 touched so many children’s imaginations and fantasies; 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 where 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 and dies. The room is left in utter darkness, save for the twinkling of stars through a small window nobody has noticed until now.