They bought the blue lantern on a chilly street in Cairo during Ramadan, a few days after they were married. Abby was surprised that in January it was cold enough to wear a coat in the evening. During the holiday, white lights were strung between the crumbling buildings and across streets, and bright-colored lanterns hung outside shop windows. At night, the glowing lanterns imparted a festive atmosphere to an austere month of prayer and fasting. Groups of children swung lanterns, parading through the streets each night after the fast was broken, singing “Ramadan is here!” It reminded Abby of how far she was from the Christmas lights and carolers of her hometown.
Marwan asked her to choose a lantern for them from one of the display tables set up along the street. He wanted to bring something from Egypt back to America with them, something whose memories they could share and that weren’t his alone. Most of the lanterns were made of cheap plastic, others were too large or gaudy, and many were broken, but she didn’t want to disappoint him. Marwan picked up the blue lantern and said, “Not this one, the glass will break on the plane.” But it was the most beautiful lantern. It was rather small, about the size of her hand, and the glass was a clear, flawless blue. The exact blue, Abby thought, when day becomes night.
They brought it home to the bedroom of their apartment, which contained two wardrobes and a horsehair mattress covered with itchy blankets and one long, hard pillow that they shared. Marwan found an old lump of candle and pushed it through the open door of the lantern. He opened the green shutters of the tall window beside their bed so they could set the lantern on the ledge and watch it burn. Marwan lit the candle and fastened the latch of the little glass door and Abby switched off the bare ceiling bulb.
Like magic, only their bed and the high ceiling above it were illuminated; the pale blue light cast an underwater shimmer while the rest of the room vanished in darkness. The light, their bed — they appeared to spin like a cold, pure star in the black sky.
Before the sun came up, they lit their cigarets from the lantern’s flame. These were their last cigarets before daylight denied them the pleasures of smoking, eating, drinking, and love.
“Look,” he whispered. “It’s finished.” They lay together smoking Cleopatra cigarets, tapping their ashes into a saucer that was poised on the coarse blankets as they watched the last, guttering light of the lantern. They couldn’t take their eyes off it. Marwan smiled and Abby was enveloped by a sudden, breathtaking sadness, something like grief. The sputtering light went out in a blink and Marwan sat up and clapped. The room was black again.
Abby raised the cigarette to her mouth. All she could see were two orange embers flaring up in the dark, and she waited for the vague shapes that would gradually form beyond the swirling smoke.
Heckscher, a native of Princeton, lives in town with her son and daughter.