The Lamplighters

There lived once in a small seaside town two brothers who were both employed by the town to go around each day in the evening and light the lamps so that the streets would not go dark at night. And each morning before sunrise, the brothers would go around to put out the lamps they had lit the night before, only to return again at dusk the same day. The brothers had lived each day like this for many years, ever since the time when they were old enough to work.

The brothers had a competitive relationship that went beyond the standard typical for healthy siblings. Each one loathed the other, and the extent of their distaste for each other was so severe that the two had chosen to live on exact opposite ends of the town. Each day each brother would fulfill his duties as a lamplighter starting with the streets closest to where he lived and working inward toward the central town square. The first one to reach the town square would light the lamps there.

At the center of the plaza on a slightly elevated platform was a grand lamp, which stood taller and, when lit, shone brighter than any other lamp in the town. Each brother competed against the other each day to light his half of the town first, before his brother, so that he could be the one to light the tallest lamp. The brothers were very nearly equal in terms of the speed and skill with which they each did their work so that, on each day, by the time night had fallen, one brother was just as likely as the other to be the one to reach and light the grand lamp first. When one brother lit the grand lamp, he believed fully that he was truly superior to his brother, and in in his heart he savored the thought that his brother suffered in his failure.

One day at dusk, just as the darkness of true night was about to fall, each brother had managed to finish lighting the final lamp in his half of the town at the exact same time, so that when the two came to the grand lamp in the central plaza, they each reached it at the same time and stopped to stand before each other, the grand lamp between them.

"Ah, you are too late again this time, big brother," said the younger brother.

"Too late? But little brother, I lit my penultimate lamp and arrived here long before you shuffled over!" said the older.

"It seems your age has caught up to you and induced senility, old man," the younger brother replied. "By the time you arrived here, I grew nearly as old as you in waiting!"

The older brother said, "Ah, to again be as young and fanciful as you, craning your neck to admire your elders and playing pretend at being a grown man. Step aside, brother, and let me, who can, reach the wick!" He then stepped forward and reached his lighting pole up to the lamp.

The younger brother retorted, "Careful, big brother, not to pull a muscle, or dislocate your hip. You must take care to avoid any extraneous physical effort, so that you do not unduly tax your body, frail as it is in your old age!" Then the younger brother shoved his brother aside with his body and raised his own lighting pole.

The two brothers continued to squabble in this way, but their each push and shove was given just a bit more force behind it than the one that it responded to, until the squabble had devolved into a scuffle. Each tugged at his brother's clothes and hair, and smacked the other with his lighting pole, and bit and scratched and slapped his brother, until dusk passed and darkness arrived. The brothers had to grope and grasp blindly in the dark for each other in order to continue the fight, for the grand lamp in the central plaza stood, for the first time since the brothers had began lighting the lamps each day, unlit.

Later that night, a townsperson who was accustomed to passing through the plaza lit as well as if it were day found that this night, to her surprise, she could not see, for the town's tallest and brightest shining lamp was not lit. Unable to see where she walked, she stumbled briefly on something. In the dark she lost her nerve and rushed on, not stopping for a second to ponder what had tripped her. She doubled her speed and exited the black square, moving back into the light and safety of the town's thoroughly lit side streets.

The next morning, when the townspeople came into the central square, they gathered around the grand lamp. For there they saw the still bodies of the two lamplighters, lying still with their heads cracked open and flowing red on the cobblestone. Perhaps the brothers, each unable to see in the unlit square as they quarreled into the evening, stumbled on the elevated platform on which the lamp was erected. Or perhaps one of the brothers, in the gloom, pushed the other off balance and was dragged down with him. Or perhaps what happened was some combination of these two possibilities. Or perhaps it was something else altogether. The truth of what transpired between the two brothers would not be known, shrouded as it was in the darkness of the night.