The amber glow from the windows along the road bounced off the dew-coated cobblestone streets. The Lamplighter straightened his back, wincing as his bones cracked. He rubbed the nape of his neck, feeling the crooked spine beneath his skin. Shaking his head, he trudged along towards the avenue lined with streetlights. His knobby fingers tightened around his lighting stick as his eyes turned up to gaze with wonder at the ornate metal post. The curve of the glass lantern atop the black iron glistened yellow, catching the light like the wet stone below.
The Lamplighter's lips curved, the joy of his task lighting his eyes as the oil in the lantern caught and burned steadily. His cheeks flushed as he pulled the wick-tipped rod down and moved to the next lamp, lighting each in turn. He patted the flat top of his mariner's cap, sending droplets of water flying.
This was his task. Every night, he lit as many lamps as he could manage. He never could illuminate them all. By the end of the shift, many of the wide streets would still be shrouded in darkness, for there were too many posts, and too few hours in the night.
The cold air that wafted through at what one would call “night” stiffened his body, rendering him tired and slow.
You see, this town was odd. There was no day. There was only night. One seemingly endless night. One could only tell the time by the massive clock tower in the center of town, ringing out each hour.
Back when the Lamplighter was a young man there was sunlight. He would dash through the narrow streets with his arms outstretched, absorbing the warmth and happiness the bright star gave as he laughed.
But he hadn't seen the sun in a long time.
The only thing that kept his spirit up was the lamps. When the six o'clock bell chimed from the tower, he set to work lighting as many as he could. When he looked at the burning fires behind the glass, he remembered the sun. He could nearly feel its warmth again.
He breathed in, longing for the golden haze of the morning. His insides were empty without it—his bones ached for it. He sniffed slightly. All he smelled was damp earth and the smoke from the streetlamps. The slightest trace of baked goods tickled his nostrils.
The Lamplighter glanced down the path and saw the baker slip out from her many windowed shop, a sack full of warm treats in her hand. She smiled and waved, her face drawn. She always looked tired, the Lamplighter thought. A shame for such a young woman. He tapped his fingers against his stick as he continued on his way.
He worked along the fronts of the busiest shops. His thin lips drew into a tight line for a moment. Perhaps he would ask the shopkeepers to light their own storefronts. Not that it had changed anything last time he made the request, he thought with a rueful smile.
A fat raindrop landed on his long nose to interrupt his musings. Blinking, he shook it off. His mop of ever-thinning white hair clung to the back of his neck, and he noted how clammy and slick his skin felt. He tugged his leather gloves up over his wrists and back under his sleeves.
When the clock rang out six in the morning, the Lamplighter sighed. He was done with his night's work.
There was no need to extinguish the lamps, for they would be needed at all times. They also would put themselves out in a matter of hours. If they didn't go out on accord of using all their oil, a cold breeze would surely smother the flames. The constant mists over the town were carried in the wind. Whoever had designed the iron and glass lamp casings had entirely forgotten the doors to keep the elements out. It was a remarkably large oversight, rendering them beautiful, but mostly useless.
The Lamplighter's smile faded as he hobbled home. Rain drizzled onto his coat, then rolled off the thick gray fabric. He exhaled slowly, thankful for the thick outerwear. He shivered at the mere thought of doing his job without it.
He passed by the carpenter's shop, where he saw the old fellow teaching his young apprentice how to carve. The boy was working diligently on a rather attractive cane, which the Lamplighter eyed with no small envy.
Soon he was climbing the five stairs of his stoop. His hand flapped about for the railing momentarily before he actually glanced aside, finding that the railing had broken and fallen to the ground and into a state of uselessness. He peered at it for a moment, somewhat amused at how similar he felt to the once beautifully wrought metal bars, which were now a crumpled mess, then heaved himself up the few steps to open the door to his neat home. It was as black as the sky outside within, and the first task he set to was lighting the hearth.
He propped his rod in the corner, took off his hat and jacket and hung them on the pegs jutting from the wall, then slid his tall boots off.. He could only hope they would be dry by his next shift. Eyeing the water clinging to the thick leather, he thought it dubious.
Next he set to making a small supper. He never failed to find humor in that, as he ate the last meal of his day, most were eating their first. He tried to recall living on the same schedule that the rest of the world kept. He frowned and sipped at a cup of stale coffee he had made before he started work. He smacked his lips for a moment, his frown twisting as the bitterness clawed his tongue. He reached for the sugar bowl.
The Lamplighter looked out his window at the shapes a few feet below, scurrying about their morning business. Children going to school, laughing and prancing while Mothers passing to purchase their groceries. Men hauling imported goods to the shops, hoping to beat the droves of mothers there.
After he finished his supper he sat at his small desk and dipped a pen in ink. He opened a cracked leather book and began writing down the events of the day. His letters were neat and level, the words carefully spaced. They were much the same as every other entry, but at the end he added a short note.
“A sleeping world is only as good as those who are awake within it. I fear I'm not much good.”
And with that he rose and headed to bed, the creases and valleys in his face deeper than usual.
♦ ♦ ♦
The next day started for the Lamplighter at five in the evening. Soon he would be back on the streets working, but he didn't mind. It was all he ever seemed to do, and one of the few things he enjoyed. Unfortunately he would find little joy in it this night.
He strolled the uneven streets, setting the lamps ablaze. He sighed, a smile on his lips. He glanced down the road, taking count of the posts left on this avenue, when he stopped short. A dark figure stood observing him from the end of the street.
Taking a ragged breath, he forced his hands to be even. Rarely did the sight of another soul on the streets trouble him so deeply. And this time, it only did because he knew somehow that they were there for him.
The shape stayed still, waiting. The Lamplighter worked his way towards them, pacing to each post and lighting them tensely in turn. He watched the stranger from the corner of his eye.
Soon the Lamplighter was a matter of feet away from the suspicious figure. He cast a quick glance up at their face, but it was too deep in shadow to see much. A strong Roman nose showed their profile, turned to stare down the path the Lamplighter had come from. They inhaled slowly.
“You have a chance.”
The Lamplighter turned to stare, his mouth twisted into the beginnings of a question. Clearing their throat, the stranger spoke louder. “You have a chance. To change things before you leave.”
“Afore I leave? Pray tell where you think I might be going?” The Lamplighter responded, his voice taut.
“Please now. We both know...'tisn't much of a secret. At least, not from me.”
The Lamplighter's fingers tightened around his rod. “And who,” he began in a shaking voice, “Are you?”
A deep laugh came from the silhouetted figure. It wasn't unpleasant—nor was it unnerving.
“You see me as a stranger, so that is who I am. The Stranger.” They turned to him with a smooth twist. “But we have met before.”
The Lamplighter swallowed hard. His mouth was dry.
“Pardon me fer not recalling,” He mumbled. “Memory's not what it used t'be.”
A white smile shone from The Stranger. “I believe you do, but we'll not dwell on that. For now, I must tell you what you shall do.” The Stranger strode to the iron fence alongside the street, whirled about to face The Lamplighter, then sat upon the top rail.
“Come here, good man.” The glowing white smile appeared again as he extended an arm to him in beckoning. The Lamplighter walked towards him hesitantly. The contrast of the white teeth against the black figure was almost more than he could bear. He had craned his head a bit in hopes of catching sight of The Stranger's eyes in the darkness, thinking that it would let him feel more human, but it was almost as though there were none to find. The Lamplighter took two more jerking steps towards the railing, then came to a halt. He couldn't will himself to take another.
“Now, I haven't much time, but here is what you're to do. You must light every streetlamp in this city—all in one night.” The Stranger's voice was crisp and even, making his point without dally.
“One night?” The Lamplighter said pointedly. “If you 'aven't noticed, it's always night here, sir.”
The Stranger waved an arm as he shook his head. “No, no. Night. You know, after the evening chimes. Between the evening chimes and the dawn chimes. Night.”
The little color left drained from the old man's face. He had hoped he was misunderstanding, somehow. “Light every lamp in one shift? Sir, you must not know how long it takes. I 'aven't ever lit them all in one shift. Aye, I believe it to be nigh impossible.”
The Stranger chuckled. “Not impossible. At least, you'd better hope it's not, because you have to do it to see the sun again. Alone.”
The Lamplighter stepped back, his words catching in his throat. He turned to look at the lanterns on this street alone that were unlit. He his eyes wandered from there to the lamps he had already set ablaze only to find that some had already gone out.
Turning back to The Stranger with protest on his lips, the Lamplighter froze when he found that he was gone.
Why should I believe him? The Lamplighter thought, shaking his head. But deep inside of him he knew that there was at least some truth to what The Stranger said. And if there was a way to see the sun, just one last time...
The Lamplighter clenched his gnarled hands around his lighting stick. He knew that he must do it. And do it soon.
♦ ♦ ♦
It would have been beyond impossible to attempt a feat such as what The Stranger proposed, especially the very night they met. The Lamplighter decided to wait at least until the next night, possibly the night after that, even. But as he walked home in the usual night drizzle he couldn't help but heave a sigh. Now the only pleasure he had in this world had become fraught with worry and an ultimatum. Exactly the things that drove him out of other jobs and hobbies in the past.
As he hobbled into his small home once again, he glanced at the shelf above his bed. He shook his head once again.
The Lamplighter prepared a modest meal, nearly identical to the previous night's nourishment. This time he had no stale coffee to accompany it, however.
As he nibbled at the food he stole another look at the shelf, his heart rising a bit, then falling hard.
After dinner he walked to his bed and pulled a cracked picture frame down from the shelf. His eyes clouded with memory as he held it tenderly.
He spent a few minutes gazing at it, then set it back in its place. He lightly dusted the top of the frame off, then ambled off to write in his journal and scrub the dishes up. Darling smiled after him from the drawing behind the chipped and shattered glass and wood. The Lamplighter returned a soft smile towards the picture as he pulled a cloth from a drawer, soap in his other hand. He then paused, setting the cleaning supplies aside for a moment as he went to swipe a hand across the top of the frame. There wasn’t a trace of dirt on it, but he found himself wiping it off regardless. He shook his head for a moment as he chuckled at himself. Ah, what Darling would think of him now that he was merely an old man with nothing but a job to do. The reflection of her face caught and sparkled in his wet eyes for a moment before he swiped at them. No use shedding tears now, he thought. There’s much to be done. More than he felt he could, but done it must be nonetheless.
The Lamplighter's mind, after having drifted away for a short while, was plagued with thoughts of the task still ahead of him. Would he do it tomorrow? The day after? The sooner the better, he figured. He cast a last smile at Darling's portrait, a hue of sadness in his eyes. At least he would see her soon. With that thought he got under the covers and exhaled, passing quickly into sleep.