The Little Blue Flame
Translated by Patricia Worth
“Yes, beautiful child,” said the fairy, “with the little blue flame I have put on your forehead, you will be able to triumph over all darkness, and after many mighty struggles you will at last enter the miraculous Garden of Joy and Dreams through its diamond door which opens onto the other side of the shadows. There you will live eternally happy, forgetting the sadness of the dark world and breathing a subtle air made from the soul of roses and the bright breath of stars; and angelic lilies by the thousands will be the censors of your glory. Go then amid the perils, go without fear and without doubt; no human or devilish power will be able to stop you from reaching your goal if you keep the little blue flame always burning. But if it were to go out – beware, lest it go out! – you would be suddenly cloaked in a deep dark night, and, groping your way along, bumping into invisible walls, rolling down unseen precipices, you would never again find the road to the incomparable Garden.”
The child thanked the good fairy for the gift she gave him and for the advice she offered. He set out on a flowery path in the morning sunlight. The blue flame he had on his forehead was brighter than the day.
It was not long before he met with quagmires in which it would have been very easy to break his neck. Beneath his feet stones were rolling, and as if by an echo of the tremor, blocks of marble were shifting and tumbling, to the right, to the left, over his head: more than twenty times he was almost crushed beneath these heavy rock falls. And he certainly would have been, if the blue flame had not grown and surrounded him, when needed, with an armour hard as diamonds against which the blocks shattered, leaving not even a graze; then, once the danger had passed, the flame was no more than a small gold and blue light in the child’s hair. As he was going through a clearing in a great forest, a pack of wolves rushed upon him, fur bristling, blood and fire in their eyes! He thought he was finished; he could already feel the frightful, devouring teeth in his flesh! But fear was his only suffering, for the blue flame leant forward and dazzled the eyes of the wolves that fled into the bushes howling with terror. Another day, as he was wading through the bulrushes in a swamp, a large number of reptiles came out of the grass and muck, and entwined about him to suffocate him. But the small light became a snake like them, a snake resembling a long lightning flash, and all the creeping creatures contorted – like vine twigs on embers – and died in the burning bulrushes. The child who was going to the Garden of Joy and Dreams escaped many more perils. He saw that the fairy had not lied, that nothing could cause him harm as long as the little blue flame was alight. And it did not only protect him against wickedness and curses; it gave him joy amid the most bitter suffering. Its light made sad landscapes golden and put living flowers in dead bushes; there was no evening so sombre that the little flame could not brighten it with a scattering of stars. At the same time, the child felt its warmth on his forehead like a lovely caress; he could feel his thoughts blooming like a flower opening in a sunbeam. And his whole soul was aflame, purified, in raptures, over this divine little pyre.
One night, the four winds from the four corners of the sky began to blow all at once! It was such a terrible storm on the land and on the sea that birds’ nests flew away with the roofs of ruined houses, and the biggest ships, their sails ripped and masts broken, whirled in the air like tops spun by a child. No oak tree could withstand the furious force of the blustery wind. In the driving storm, enormous cracking could be heard coming from forests knocked flat to the ground quicker than feet could crush grass; the mountains collapsed and torrents of pines and rocks rolled away; and the night was black, for the tempest had extinguished all the stars. You can imagine how the child was afraid for the little blue flame! Surely, puny as it was, it could not resist the hounding winds. Sheltering in the crevice of a mountain which had not yet caved in, he cupped his hands over the flame and tried to protect it as much as possible from the mad wind gusts; but the gales blew twice as hard into the hollow of the rock. He was knocked over and fell onto the stones, unconscious, his forehead bleeding. When he came out of his swoon the next day, he began to weep. How could he hope the lovely light had not died during this terrifying night when the stars themselves had ceased to shine? But he saw through his tears a quivery reflection of brightness on a block of fallen marble. Oh, how wondrous! On his forehead he still had the little blue flame!
A few weeks later, on a warm June morning – still walking towards the Garden of Joy and Dreams – he crossed a vast plain where there was not one house, not one tree. He was surprised to glimpse in the distance, near the line of the horizon, something long, dark and smooth with patches of white here and there, moving slowly with a deep swelling murmur like a living rampart standing out against the sky. It was not long before he realised that the thing approaching was an enormous mass of water! A deluge, the likes of which he had never seen before, was invading the plain unresisted; and the whole earth would, in an instant, be nothing more than an immense sea. The child trembled in fear, not for himself but for the little flame. Though it had been victorious over the wind, it would be defeated by the flood. He began to run as fast as he could. In vain. The massive flow followed him, followed him, gained speed, reached him and carried him away. For many hours – now floating, now covered by the watery weight – he was a drowning boy rolling in the water as it flowed along; and when the deluge reached a scorching desert whose sands drank it up, when he was lying on the flowers of an oasis, he sobbed, despondent because he had not perished. For, this time, it was over, he was sure he would no longer have the gentle light on his forehead. It must have been extinguished for ever in the coldness of the water. But with a cry of joy he saw, in a puddle in a sand furrow, a trembling gold and blue reflection. It lived still, the little blue flame!
From then on he knew the happiness of certain and untroubled hope. Having cast off all doubts, he walked proudly in the conquest of his dream. Since the unfading light had triumphed over the storm and the waves, he was sure to enter the miraculous Garden whose diamond door opens onto the other side of the shadows.
After passing through all the towns and all the solitary places, after defying darkness denser than pitch and fires more furious than a sunset, he stopped in awe, for at last he could see it, luminous and diaphanous, the diamantine door. He had arrived! He would enter into the august paradise of Joy and Dreams. And there he would live eternally happy, forgetting the sadness of the dark world, breathing a subtle air made from the soul of roses and the bright breath of stars; and angelic lilies by the thousands would be the censers of his glory.
As he hurried forth, he turned round because of a little chuckle. A young woman was waving to him, half-naked on a bed of flowering grasses, showing him in all her plump whiteness a mouth like a rose, a bit too large, and nipples like two small roses.
“Well, well, beautiful child!” she said. “What a lovely blue flame you have there on your forehead!”
“Yes,” he said, “it is lovely.”
“Do you know what you would do if you were courteous and accommodating, as one must be with ladies?”
“What would I do?” he asked.
“You would let me look more closely at this little light, and as a reward I would give you a kiss on your forehead. There is nothing nicer than the kisses I give.”
The child could see no trouble in doing what the half-naked young woman wanted. What danger was there in letting this beautiful, harmless creature admire the invincible light which had been victorious over violent storms and raging waters? And he felt gently moved by the hope of the kiss.
He leant forward so she could put her mouth on his forehead, so she could look comfortably at the shining gold and blue light.
She came closer, smiling, opening her rosy lips.
Oh, delicious moment! But in the breath of the young woman, during the kiss, the little blue flame went out. Suddenly the traveller was cloaked in a deep dark night. And for many years he has been sorrowing, groping his way along, bumping into invisible walls, rolling down unseen precipices. And never again will he find the road to the incomparable Garden.
This translation © 2022 by Patricia Worth.
All rights reserved.
Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), a French writer of Portuguese descent, was allied with Parnassian poets who advocated restraint and technical perfection in writing, using fantastic tales to criticize bourgeois values. Mendès wrote prolifically, producing among other works a number of original and reworked fairy tales aimed at a Decadent adult readership. "La Petite flamme bleue" appears in his collection Les Oiseaux bleus (1888).
Patricia Worth is an Australian literary translator with a Master of Translation Studies. Her published translations include George Sand's 1842 novel, Spiridion, Jean Lorrain's 1897 collection, Stories to Read by Candlelight, and two small books of New Caledonian stories by Claudine Jacques. Several translated stories have appeared in journals in Australia, New Caledonia, and the U.S., including Bewildering Stories, Danse Macabre, The AALITRA Review, and most recently in Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature.